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Rice University researcher looks into what creates social well being

Research and common sense suggest that membership in a high social class improves one's sense of well being. Photo by fauxels from Pexels

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.

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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.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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