Beyond Wealth and Fame: 9 Things That Boost Social Status

Release time: 2020-06-05 20:07

Beyond Wealth and Fame: 9 Things That Boost Social Status

Humans' criteria for having high social status transcend being rich and famous.

"I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence. O how I laugh when I think of my vague, indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it—for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment." —Henry David Thoreau to H. G. O. Blake in a correspondence dated December 6, 1856

Humans are social animals. As a highly social species, people around the world have evolved to put a premium on certain factors that elevate or diminish social status. Discussing social status or admitting that one cares about his or her social rank can seem tacky and uncouth. Many of us may aspire to have higher social status, but nobody wants to be labeled an "aspirational social climber" who ruthlessly claws his or her way up the social ladder.

To date, there's been relatively little peer-reviewed research on the universal criteria surrounding social status or the degree that social status criteria vary across cultures. Until now, there's also been surprisingly little research on gender-based differences in social status criteria in different nations.

Recently, a first-of-its-kind study (conducted before the coronavirus pandemic) of 2,751 people from 14 nations identified a laundry list of universally valued traits and characteristics that can heighten (or diminish) someone's social status as well as "sex differences and similarities" relating to these criteria.

This paper (Buss, Durkee, Shackelford, et al., 2020) by a team of evolutionary psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin was published online on May 27 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Humans live in a social world in which relative rank matters for nearly everything—your access to resources, your ability to attract mates, and even how long you live," David Buss, who is one of the study's lead authors, said in a June 2 news release. "From an evolutionary perspective, reproductively relevant resources flow to those high in status and trickle slowly, if at all, to those lower on the social totem pole."

For this study, the researchers compared how 2,751 men and women from 14 nations evaluated 240 social status factors. Then, they distilled these factors down to a handful of universal social status criteria. The wide range of cross-cultural human status criteria they evaluated included "acts, characteristics, and events" that appeared to help or hinder someone's social status in the eyes of others.

Nine Factors (Beyond Wealth and Fame) That Can Boost Social Status

  1. Being honest

  2. Bravery

  3. Good sense of humor

  4. Hard-working

  5. Having a wide range of knowledge

  6. Intelligence

  7. Kindness

  8. Leadership skills

  9. Making sacrifices for others

In terms of falling down the social ladder, the researchers also identified certain factors that decrease someone's social status. Across cultures, being known as a thief, spreading sexually transmitted diseases, or being mean and nasty, are all factors that can lower someone's social status and lead to being ostracized from his or her peer group and social network.

"From the Gypsies in Romania to the native islanders of Guam, people displaying intelligence, bravery, and leadership rise in rank in the eyes of their peers, but possessing qualities that inflict costs on others will cause your status to plummet, whether you live in Russia or Eritrea," UT Austin psychology graduate student Patrick Durkee, who co-led this study, said in the news release.

"Although this study was conducted prior to the current pandemic, it's interesting that being a disease vector is universally detrimental to a person's status," Buss noted. "Socially transmitted diseases are evolutionarily ancient challenges to human survival, so humans have psychological adaptations to avoid them. Lowering a person's social status is an evolutionarily ancient method of social distancing from disease vectors."

How Do Sex Differences Influence Social Status Criteria Across Cultures?

Even in the most sexually egalitarian cultures, the Buss Lab researchers identified some universal double standards and sex differences relating to the degree that women and men's social status is affected by certain behaviors. 

Although being seen as sexually promiscuous can decrease the social status of both men and women, a woman's social status tends to take a bigger hit if she gains a reputation for promiscuity. Whereas a sexually promiscuous woman is often "slut-shamed" for having multiple partners, a sexually promiscuous man is often glorified as a "Casanova" if he plays the field.

As a side note: Dolly Parton—who arguably has higher social status than just about anyone—famously uses her self-deprecating wit, honesty, and smart sense of humor to turn some of these sex-based double standards upside down. In numerous interviews, she's unapologetically proclaimed: "The town tramp inspired my trashy look." In a 2003 cover story for Rolling Stone, Parton said:

"It would scare most people to death to look this cheap or whore-y, but to me, I'm comfortable. I patterned my look after the town tramp. I thought she was the prettiest thing in the world. People would say, 'Oh, she's just trash,' and I'd think, 'That's what I want to be when I grow up.'"

In another "sex differences" aspect of their study, Buss and colleagues found that being in a long-term relationship boosted social status for both men and women. However, having a long-term mate had a more positive impact on women's social status than men's. Across cultures, fidelity appeared to boost the social rank of men and women to an equal degree.

In closing, this study (2020) from UT Austin, "Human status criteria: sex differences and similarities across 14 nations," is significant because it provides the first systematic documentation of potentially universal and sex-differentiated social status criteria.

Lastly, for anyone with a proclivity for witchcraft, there is a final insight: Practicing witchcraft is likely to severely damage someone's social status in Zimbabwe and Eritrea, but appears to have virtually no impact on social status in Estonia, Russia, or the United States.


Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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