Want the aura of a tough competitor? Don’t act too modestly
“The cane serves to announce that the wearer’s hands are employed other than in useful effort, and therefore has utility as proof of leisure.” —Thorstein Veblen of working class theory (1899)
In 1899, during the second phase of the industrial revolution, Thorstein Veblen introduced the concept of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure” in his book, The Leisure Class Theory.
Today, the term “Veblen goods” is used to describe expensive luxury items or status symbols of wealth. But, over a century ago, when factory workers had very little free time, carrying a cheap cane was a subtle way of letting onlookers know you had plenty of free time and weren’t doing not part of the working class. In this context, walking sticks were “Veblen goods”.
In the 1890s, canes were a status symbol that meant you were wealthy enough to spend free time hiking in nature, away from assembly line workers and industrial smog. Fast forward to the 2020s, and you’ll find plenty of so-called “influencers” on Instagram or TikTok using different wealth signaling strategies to trick viewers into thinking they’re high society.
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Do people who report their status seem less cooperative?
A recently published research paper from the University of Michigan (Srna, Barasch, & Small, 2022) explores the value of modesty versus the social benefits of status signaling. These results were published April 21 in the peer-reviewed journal Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
For this multi-pronged study, researchers at the Ross School of Business began by asking 395 online study participants to rate different social media profiles. At one end of the spectrum were neutral posts (e.g., “I saw the cutest puppy today! #goldenretriever) by people who didn’t overtly display conspicuous consumption and projected down-to-earth modesty. -earth.
At the other end of the social media spectrum were aspirational profiles of people who wanted to signal high social status with posts displaying Veblen products or discussing exotic vacations (e.g., “On the way to Madrid! #firstclass# luxury”).
Modesty makes people seem like cooperative team players
Predictably, study participants rated people with modest social media profiles who didn’t try to report their status as more likely to be “cooperative, selfless, and giving.” On the other hand, people with ostentatious status-reporting social media profiles were more likely to be viewed as self-interested, narcissistic, and “less likely to care about others.”
In another experiment involving a different cohort of 1,345 people, study participants were told that recruiters were looking for someone new to join an online team based on a staged photo they would take in the research lab. Next, researchers gave study participants the choice of wearing luxury branded clothing (eg, Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton) with prominent logos or non-luxury branded clothing (eg, Old Navy , Skechers, Uniqlo) without statutory logos for the photo.
Half of study participants were told that recruiters wanted someone “extremely cooperative” to join their collaborative team; the other half received no clues about what recruiters were looking for in a candidate. Unsurprisingly, people who thought it would be wise to project “cooperative team player” vibes in their profile picture were significantly less likely to wear status-signalling Veblen products.
However, the researchers were surprised to find that in general, most people chose non-luxurious clothing for their profile pictures, whether or not they were told that scouts were explicitly looking for a cooperative team player.
“This experiment shows that people are aware of when the value of luxury logos shifts from positive to negative. Not only are people strategic about when to signal their status, but they are also strategic about modesty,” said said co-author Shalena Srna in a press release. .
Status signaling makes people less cooperative but like better competitors
In another somewhat surprising twist, the researchers also found that status signaling had its benefits in some cases. Although people who tried to flag their wealth or status in their social media profiles got low “team player” ratings, they scored much higher as “competitive” go-getters.
When participants were asked to choose someone who seemed to give their team an edge over the competition based on a social media profile, they were more likely to select someone who reported a status rather than a person who signaled modesty.
“Posting about your luxury purchases and expensive vacations on Instagram or TikTok can help you persuade others, intimidate your competitors and succeed in the dating market – at least for men – but it could also signal to friends potential or future employers that you are unlikely to think about the needs of others,” Srna noted. “It becomes a tricky balancing act for people who want to impress others while demonstrating that they can be a ‘team player’.”
A New Englander’s take on frugal ‘modesty’ versus ‘bourgeois’ status signaling
There’s a fine line between obnoxious, over-the-top status signage and trying too hard to project serious “aw-shucks” modesty. If you want to look like a cooperative team player who is also capable of having the eye of the tiger, the latest research (2022) suggests that you need to lightly impress people while appearing humble and modest. Finding that sweet spot is really tricky. Even when people try to appear modest, they can report their status.
For example, my grandparents were New Englanders born at the turn of the 20th century who frowned on any garish or flashy display of wealth or materialism. In their Massachusetts neighbors, it was considered cheesy to drive fancy cars or wear anything more luxurious than the clothes worn by Brooks Brothers and LL Bean shoes. But again, this aesthetic also means a sort of “old money” snobbery that casts anything “candle” or “new rich” in a negative light.
In this sense, consciously avoiding Veblen products because you think they are tasteless and flashy conveys its own set of status-related values. The Bottom Line: Attempting to project modesty simply by avoiding luxury brands and not buying Veblen products isn’t a surefire way to show humility.
In a perfect world, none of us would have to worry about the status or lack of status we project on social media. But unfortunately, pretty much everything you post on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc., is a signifier. (See “Semiotics: What It Means and What It Means to You.”)
Let’s go back to Veblen’s observation in the 1890s that centuries ago carrying a cane was a subtle way of projecting one’s status. One would assume that if you want to be seen as someone who is a cooperative team player and also has the ability to be a tough competitor, don’t take selfies wearing tons of logo-covered Veblen products. Instead, find the modern equivalent of a status signal cane that lets onlookers know you have a competitive streak but are modest enough to take one for the team.