Blogs | December 20, 2017

Why “status signalling” can land you in debt

People on lower incomes spend a higher percentage of it on status goods


From the deer with the biggest antlers, to the peacock with the fanciest plumage – there’s a lot of status signalling going on in the animal kingdom.

Humans do it too – but with designer handbags, luxury watches and SUVs, rather than bony outgrowths and feathers. They buy expensive things to signal wealth and gain social status.

But while it may feel good to have nice things, and show other people you’re doing well for yourself, this so-called “conspicuous consumption” can land people in debt.

Illusion of wealth
Studies from around the world have found that people on lower incomes tend to spend a higher percentage of their pay on status goods. They splash out to suggest they’re more wealthy than they are.

And that means there’s less left to save for the future, or for a safety net if something unexpected crops up, experts warn.

Personality can be a factor in status signalling too. The more outgoing a low-income person is, the greater their desire for prestige, say academics from University College London. They analysed data from bank accounts and found that extroverts spent more on upmarket items like foreign air travel, golf and electronics, and spent less at discount stores and pawnbrokers.

Spending for self-esteem
Low self-esteem also plays a part. Experiments by London Business School’s Niro Sivanathan and Nathan Pettit of Cornell University show that bruising a person’s ego can make him or her want to buy status goods to “nurse their psychological wounds”.

Soo Kim, also of Cornell, and David Gal of the University of Illinois describe it as “compensatory consumption” – where people buy things that symbolically compensate for what they’re lacking in. The pair showed that this behaviour could be reduced by encouraging self-acceptance. 

Similarly, an experiment by the World Bank found that the desire for status goods dissipated when a person’s self-esteem was given a boost. When people were told to recall an accomplishment that made them feel proud they were less likely to take up the offer of a platinum credit card afterwards.

A university education helps too: those who have been to college are 13% less likely to spend on goods that suggest wealth than those on the same income with a high school education only. Researchers say those with a professional title or degree certificate – a recognisable ability – have less need to signal their status via goods.

Backlash against bling
But while oligarchs and the mega-rich are still buying yachts and Bentleys, and those with average incomes are shelling out for handbags and watches, the affluent “aspirational class” are changing tack when it comes to signalling their status, says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of The Sum of Small Things

With mass-production methods and outsourcing to cheaper countries, there is now a “deluge of accessible luxury”, so the rich have “taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position”, she writes.

For the wealthy now it’s all about spending discreetly, or “inconspicuous consumption”: buying services, eating organic, and investing in education, health and cultural activities. While conspicuous consumption is about showing off, inconspicuous consumption is mainly about getting ahead and improving the quality of life for them and their children. 

Investing in “cultural capital” means they know the right things to say to help them climb the social ladder, which then opens doors for their sons and daughters. “In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility,” says Currid-Halkett.

In a similar vein, a paper by the Adam Smith Institute in 2016 argues that in the previous two to three years status signalling has shifted its focus to “authenticity”, where knowledge and environmentalism are key. It’s known as “virtue signalling”.

Meanwhile, working all the hours under the sun may be another way to elevate your status, a 2016 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests. The overworked are perceived to possess desirable characteristics, like competence and ambition, that are scarce and in demand in the job market, the authors write.

So by all means work hard and live well in the quest for status – but if you find yourself wanting to splurge when the chips are down, try other ways of boosting your self-esteem instead.

eZonomics team
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