Perverse Status Signifiers

by Will on September 21, 2010

Status is a funny thing. Like the value of money, it requires a society-wide suspension of disbelief: it has value only because we believe, against good evidence, that it has some intrinsic value, and we believe this because we observe that others believe it and seem likely to continue believing it. It has some kind of loose correlation with respect, but is not equivalent to it. There are many high-status people, who can get appearances on television, and op-ed space at the Washington Post, for whom I and many others have zero or negative respect.

The car I drive is not very nice. It is an older car, and it has taken some abuse over the years. It does not have a working radio. It never had a tape player. Its air conditioning requires the expensive old kind of freon. Moreover, I am less than attentive to its cleanliness. It is a notably dirty vehicle. The exterior is dirty to the point that I try not to touch it. The interior, meanwhile, is filled with bags of things that need getting rid of, old clothes and the like. Most people would see it and assume it was somebody’s home.

Many other people have cars made in the last decade, and keep them looking shiny and pristine. In many social circles, it would be considered an embarrassment to show up at work or a social event with a car like mine. My very willingness to be seen in such a car signifies my lack of status.

And yet, I’m rather sure my car is less likely than theirs to be stolen. Mine looks like something owned by a poor person, so the thief would have no reason to believe that it ran well or would have valuable components. Other people’s clean cars, however, appear likely to be worth something and to run well, so they are appealing targets to the car thief. So the status-signaling actually costs something to the buyer of status. My observation is that status-signaling virtually always has a cost that seems out of proportion to its benefits. The fact that people will make sacrifices in order to feel like they’re better than other people, says a lot about people.

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