Ed. Note: This is a post from the archives; it was originally blogged at IonPsych on 2/10/2011.
You can see the original post here.
Imagine a woman who wanders into your local coffee shop with this bag thrown over her shoulder. What would you think of her? Well, you might think a lot of things — but more specifically, what would you think about her level of status or power relative to others?
How about a man who walks in wearing this belt? The brand is pretty prominently displayed; even if you don’t know much about the name, you can tell it’s probably expensive. He clearly wants you to know what brand it is. How powerful do you think he is?
If you’re like most others – or if you’re drawing the obvious conclusions that these hypothetical people are aiming for you to draw – you probably think they’re pretty powerful. But you probably aren’t right.For people hoping to convince others that they have elite levels of power and status by brandishing items plastered with obvious brand logos, the jig is up: Powerful people are actually less likely to purchase goods and services with obvious labels in an effort to seem superior. When forced to choose between service and status, powerful people strongly prefer high-quality products over high-status labels, while powerless people would rather go with a shoddy product if it’s the option that comes with an impressive brand logo (Rucker & Galinsky, 2009).
Prestige and brand visibility have a funny relationship. Low-status items – say, the local Wal-Mart brands – typically lack visible labels. Middle-tier items – those that are expensive enough to be impressive but not the priciest options out there, like our two examples above – are often splashed in obvious brand markers. But at the highest price point, things take a turn. In fact, when you look at some of the most expensive brands, logo visibility looks much more like Wal-Mart than Gucci.
Essentially, people can spend $1000 on a pair of shoes from a designer like Christian Louboutin and have nothing to show for it other than a pair of black heels that’s virtually indistinguishable from a $25 Payless pair. This doesn’t seem to make any sense. Yet clearly these designers have found a market, and it’s obviously a wealthy (and powerful) one. What gives?
The answer lies in what it really means to be powerful, and what it means to care about people knowing it. When fashion students were asked to examine sets of seemingly-identical items and determine which ones were more expensive, they were able to pick up on subtle, almost unnoticeable differences and correctly use them to distinguish which items were ‘higher-end.’ Regular students, on the other hand, could only tell the difference between price points when the logos were clearly marked. So if you want Average Joe to know how much money you spent, it makes much more sense to display the brand name as visibly as possible than it does to choose a nondescript item. However, when the two groups of students were later asked to judge same-brand, same-price, same-quality items that differed only based on whether or not they were marked with visible logos, the fashion students preferred the unmarked items far more than the regular students did (Berger & Ward, 2010).
What does this really say about power? Well, it may be the case that feeling powerful doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t care about status. On the contrary, it seems as if powerful people might care very much about status — it just means something different to them than it does to other people. Rather than impressing Average Joe with big labels and logos, powerful people care more about impressing… well, other powerful people. And to impress other powerful people, you need to prove that you know your stuff. That means relying on the subtle, and forgoing the obvious.
For fashionistas, this may mean choosing the $1000 Christian Louboutin shoes, even if they don’t look different than the $25 Payless pair to 99% of people. The 1% that matter to Miss Powerful Fashionista would know that these are expensive ‘Louboutins’ because of one subtle giveaway – their signature red soles.
Fashion isn’t the only relevant arena here. No, there are certainly many domains where powerful people exhibit this pattern of relying on subtle cues to impress their own kind, while powerless people rely more on ensuring that they impress the Average Joes. I’m sure that you can think of plenty of different examples. How about the tenured, well-established professor who doesn’t feel the need to boast about his Harvard degree to his undergraduate students, yet makes sure that his colleagues know about the quality of his publication record? He understands what it means to forgo “obvious labels” to focus on the credentials that would impress other powerful people. Now compare him to the graduate student TA who feels the need to begin every undergraduate lecture by reminding his students that his degree is from “HARRRRRVARD.” He probably doesn’t seem quite so powerful now, does he?
The beauty in true prestige seems to be the fact that only other prestigious people recognize it. This might be sad for the people who want to impress both the Average Joes and the powerful elite – it seems like you have to focus on one group or the other. Here’s a bright side, though: think back to the woman and the man from the beginning of this post. You know, the ones with the Gucci bag and the Dolce & Gabbana belt. Before reading this post, you may have assumed that they had elite levels of power based on these possessions, and that may have impacted how you felt about your own status. But now you know — there’s a good chance they’re not as powerful as they want you to think.
Rucker, D., & Galinsky, A. (2009). Conspicuous consumption versus utilitarian ideals: How different levels of power shape consumer behavior Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (3), 549-555 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.01.005
Berger, J., & Ward, M. (2010). Subtle Signals of Inconspicuous Consumption Journal of Consumer Research, 37 (4), 555-569 DOI: 10.1086/655445