Rice University researcher looks into what creates social well being
How nice! You're early. It's just you and your mat, alone for a moment at the office's weekly Zoom yoga session. Breathing in, you silently applaud yourself for investing in your well-being.
Then a guy from upper management pops onto the screen for a bit of his own inner peace. He's not even looking your way, but suddenly you're comparing yourself to a fit, well-groomed, manicured corporate star. You wonder if you're a victim of a gender wage gap. You muse whether your social standing is undermined by race, age or your choice of partner.
Humans can't help comparing social status. What goes into the social pecking order, however, is surprisingly complex. What we call social class is actually a web of subtle signals telegraphing traits including wealth, education and occupational prestige.
But the effects of social class are concrete. Membership in a high social class alters our influence over other people, our professional and personal opportunities, even our health. Social class even affects the private, internal gauge of how we're doing – what researchers call subjective well-being, or SWB. And what you, in Zoom yoga, might call your level of chill.
But why exactly is external class ranking so potent?
For years, research and common sense suggested that external social class largely determines our subjective well-being. But the exact dynamic has never been fully analyzed. So in a recent paper, Rice Business Professor Siyu Yu and colleague Steven Blader, of NYU Stern, looked closely at how the status/well-being link functions – and why, in certain cases, it's irrelevant.
According to their findings, simply belonging to a higher social class actually has a weaker, less consistent effect on inner well-being than do two specific components of class: status and power.
To analyze the way status and power affect the impact of social class, Yu and Blader designed a set of four studies. In one, they used archival data from two employee surveys, Midlife In The United States and Midlife In Japan, to measure employee status and power and how these variables affected each individual's social class and sense of subjective well-being.
In the three others, the team analyzed the interplay of social class, power and status in various walks of life. To do this, they looked at employee data sets of 325 and 370 people respectively, drawn from Amazon's Mechanical Turk (a crowdsourced marketplace favored by researchers which performs tasks virtually). In one study, the researchers ranked each participant's self-perceived social class by asking them to state their own level of status and power. In another, they asked 250 participants questions about their individual psychological needs and how they might be addressed by status or by power. In the third, they isolated the precise ways that status and power affect subjective well-being.
Status, the researchers found, greatly boosted the effect of social class on subjective well-being. Power, they found, had separate and significant effects of its own on SBW. Of the two separate factors, status had the stronger impact. The researchers theorized that this is because power, energizing as it may be, also tends to stunt feelings of social support and relatedness, which is crucial to a sense of well-being. High status, on the other hand, is by definition a reflection of relationships, which we're hard-wired to crave. As Yu and her cowriter put it, status is "voluntarily and continuously conferred based on one's personal characteristics and behaviors and, thus, others' … highly personalized assessment of our value."
Both status and power, the evidence suggested, boost inner well-being because they fulfill key psychological needs: our desire to belong, for example, or our wish to have a say in situations affecting us.
Partly because of the study's methodology limitations, however, the researchers cautioned there's more to understand. Most pressing: in the U.S. sample, between 83%-95% of participants were white. Would the researchers' current findings hold true across a broader racial spectrum? How about with groups that have spent decades overcoming outside assaults on their sense of self?
What the team's research does show definitively is the multi-faceted nature of social class – something that otherwise might seem to be monolithic. It sheds light on the various facets that make up social rank. And it spotlights the need for research on the separate effects of power, of status, and how each element fulfills psychological needs. Isolating the effects of these factors, Yu and his colleague argued, show why researchers need to consider power and status distinctly when studying issues like income, education and occupation.
Back to Zoom yoga. Breathe out. Then do your best to just look away from your high-ranking colleague in the neighboring zoom box. You're not imagining the unease you felt when he sailed into the room. Yet who knows? Your high-flying superior worker may not actually feel as respected or empowered as you'd think when he rolls up his mat and goes back to his desktop. You, meanwhile, are equipped with new analytical insights that could help establish your next goals. Do you aspire to more power? More external esteem? Or maybe you already possess some other key to inner equilibrium – some element in apart from either status and power – that research has yet to uncover.
This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Siyu Yu, an assistant professor of management – organizational behavior at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.