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Wearing an invisible crown

How much does a person’s perception of an audience’s reaction come from believing that they have achieved high status and is worthy of ...

11 April 2012

How much does a person’s perception of an audience’s reaction come from believing that they have achieved high status and is worthy of praise? Niro Sivanathan examines how high status, once granted, colours the judgement that people make of the way they are perceived by others.


Wearinganinvisiblecrown

When the media talks about celebrities and world famous sports stars, another word inevitably creeps into the copy.  That word is entourage.  No superstar worth their salt travels alone.  They come accompanied by their entourage, celebrity courtiers.  Entire floors of hotels are hired to room them. Extra length stretch limos are required to carry entourages.


The question is why these people who have achieved so much need to have entourages. Some of the people surrounding famous and important people are necessary for their work; for example, a politician or performer may legitimately need a bodyguard and a PR person. But often, it seems as though many of people included in an entourage are there mostly to offer reassurance, proclaim how well the person looks or how much their audiences appreciate them.

Why anyone would want or need an entourage led me to an insightful study by Niro Sivanathan, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, and Nathan C. Pettit of New York University’s Stern School of Business, “The Eyes and Ears of Status: How Status Colours Perceptual Judgment” (published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin).


Status and perception


Since status is a reflection of the prestige, respect and admiration someone enjoys in the eyes of others, Sivanathan and Pettit believe that the psychological experience of high status provides people with a favourable lens for viewing their social landscape. Indeed, they suggest that a state of high status creates a set of beliefs and expectations that favourably colour people’s judgements of the outside world.

To confirm this judgement, they conducted four experiments aimed at determining how the status state of participants influenced their judgements of cues to status in their environment. Each of the experiments involved panels of university students. The participants in each experiment were seated at separate computer terminals and primed to think of themselves as having low or high status. They were then asked to write a short paragraph about their activities on a given day and were told they would see the reactions of an audience to what they wrote.

In the first two experiments, participants who were led to believe they had high status reported hearing applause (Experiment 1) and seeing facial expressions (Experiment 2) in reaction to their performance as louder and more favourable. A third experiment revealed that expectations of how others will respond — expectations stemming from one’s current status state — did account for this effect. Finally, in a fourth experiment, differences in judgements between participants experiencing high versus low status were observed only when the target of the evaluation was the self.

The authors note that high status offers a person many benefits, including deference, respect and privilege in social settings. Particularly in business, they point out, people perceived as having high status benefit from the unsolicited help of others, an array of options as interaction partners and disproportionate credit for successful collaborative efforts. “Moreover, those with high status are willingly granted influence over group decisions, praised for their performance, and voluntarily offered opportunities to express their opinions and perspectives.”

They also note that since receiving positive and supportive reactions from others seems to promote both mental and physical health, the link between “subjective status perceptions and psychological and physiological well-being may be, at least partially, accounted for by the favourable lens through which those who experience high status interpret their everyday lives.”


Seeing and believing


The authors conclude that the benefits of status seem to lie partially in the mind, “which favourably directs the sights and sounds of our day-to-day lives.” Indeed, their research seems to confirm that, as American journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe wrote and the authors of this article quote, “Not ‘Seeing is Believing’, you ninny, but ‘Believing is Seeing’.”


This takes us back to the issue of the entourage. Is the ‘job’ of members of an entourage primarily to provide praise and assurance of status so that the person with the entourage will expect a favourable reaction from an audience, thus allowing an expectation of success that enhances the actual performance? Perhaps. Professors Sivanathan and Pettit suggest, at the end of their study, that there are many questions that need to be answered as a result of the conclusions from this research. For example, they note, perhaps people with a sense of high status can lower the volume of mocking and booing that they hear when such disapproval is aimed at them. They also offer five other, equally compelling, questions.

In terms of this study, the old adage comes to mind: Always act like you’re wearing an invisible crown. Though many have surely used this unattributed quotation to bolster the self-esteem of friends or family, it turns out that the efficacy of the advice is at least somewhat true. “The benefits of status, it seems, partially lie in our minds,” Professors Sivanathan and Pettit say, “which favourably directs the sights and sounds of our day-to-day lives.”

The article referred to can be accessed at http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/01/03/0146167211431166.

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