Imagine this. You’ve just moved to a new city and you’re all alone. To make friends you decide to head to a local bar and strike up a few conversations. Before leaving the house you, have a final decision to make: should you wear your expensive Tag or just your run of the mill Swatch?
This was a scenario given to participants in a recent study led by Stephen M. Garcia, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. The purpose was to discover whether people use high-end consumer goods as a way to impress potential new friends. The researchers found that the answer to this question is yes—we try to impress people by signaling our worth through fancy things—but also, sadly, that this a counter-productive strategy, only alienating us from potential friends.
"People in their efforts to make friends mistakenly think that high-status markers instead of neutral ones will help them attract close friends,” the researchers report in Social Psychology and Personality Science. “However, in the eyes of would-be friends, such high-status markers make a potential friend look less attractive.” In other words, while most people would choose to wear the Tag in an attempt to impress, they would be much better off going with the Swatch. This unfortunate social phenomenon is what the researchers have coined, “the status signal paradox.”
Listen to additional thoughts from Oscar Schwartz on "the status signal paradox" and points missed in the study on The Outline World Dispatch.
The idea that “signals” mediate social interactions is a concept that was first put forward by evolutionary biologists to explain how competing animals display dominance or submissiveness in social contexts, and has since been enthusiastically co-opted by other fields, notably economics and evolutionary psychology. Recent discourse on signal theory presents it as a method of explaining the entirety of human behavior, and reduces social interactions to formulae that can be used to our advantage. But this new research provides a more nuanced perspective on the phenomenon of signaling: No matter how much effort we put into projecting a desired self-image through well-calculated behaviors, our signals will often be misinterpreted, or even backfire.
Along with the watch scenario, the researchers conducted another five experiments. In each, they separated participants into two groups: “Presenters”, those who were trying to make friends; and “Evaluators”, those who were deciding whether they wanted to make a new friend. In one experiment, participants were asked if arriving to a wedding in a luxury car would make it easier to make new friends. Majority of Presenters said yes, while Evaluators reported that they would find this off-putting. In another experiment, participants had to choose an outfit to wear to a hypothetical picnic: 76% Presenters elected to wear a t-shirt that said, ‘Saks Fifth Avenue’, while 60% of the Evaluators reported that they’d be much more inclined to speak to someone wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Walmart’.
The results of this study show that while signaling definitely plays an important role in our social lives, it is an ambiguous, even paradoxical phenomenon that sometimes raises more questions about human behavior than it answers. “Do presenters not even consider how would-be friends would feel about the comparison, do they try to take the other’s perspective but fail to fully empathize with them,” the researchers ask at the end of the paper, “or do they understand the other’s viewpoint but still choose to signal high status?”
Highlighting how difficult it is to understand how signaling works stands in contrast to the way many people define “signal theory” in popular culture. Earlier this year, the economist Robin Hanson and the writer Kevin Simler published a book called The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life in which they argue that signals are “fitness displays”— or demonstrations of human prowess — used to woo mates, attract allies, or intimidate rivals. According to Hanson, these fitness displays underpin “over ninety per cent” or what we do, and therefore, understanding them offers the most robust and complete way of analyzing the social world.
This unapologetically reductionist theory of human behavior lends itself to dangerous ways of thinking. Neil Strauss’ pickup artist bible The Game, for instance, tries to reduce our complex and diverse behaviors into simple signal formulae, which he believes can be gamed for individual advantage. So-called “pick-up artists” latch onto these ideas, taking comfort in the notion that intimate relationships can be “mastered” through formal techniques.
But what the findings of this recent study highlight is that our signals have to be interpreted by other people, and it is in the gap between signaling and interpretation that our messy social lives begin. As the “status signal paradox” shows, signaling is a phenomenon shrouded in ambiguity, often working in ways that are illogical, even counter-productive. “At a societal level, we may be wasting billions of dollars on expensive status symbols that ultimately keep others from wanting to associate with us,” researcher Kimberlee Weaver said in a statement. “And to the extent that close friendships are important to well-being, we may be inadvertently hurting ourselves.”