Status and Emotions

There's some very interesting research being done over at Stanford about the interplay of status, emotions, and blame. Dr. Larissa Tiedens designed some experiments that were beautiful in their simplicity and jaw-dropping in their implications.

Experiment One: Responsibility for Outcome

In the first experiment, students filled out resume forms. Pairs of students were then matched by race and gender into teams, with one assigned a subordinate role and one a superior role based on their resumes. The pair of students was placed into an office environment (with separate offices for the subordinate and superior, furnished to reflect their different status) and given forty minutes to work on a task with no clear right or wrong answer. They were motivated to do well on the problem, as they'd been told that the team that did best would win a significant cash prize.

After forty minutes were up, a researcher would take a quick look over the team's results and give a brief, preliminary evaluation of whether they had done well or poorly. A different researcher then interviewed the two individually about how they felt, and found big differences depending upon who was asked and whether they had done well ("Success") or poorly ("Failure"). The students reported that they felt as follows:

Superior Subordinate
Outcome Success Proud Grateful
Failure Angry and frustrated Guilty and ashamed

The researchers also asked who was more responsible. In the success experience, most of the people -- subordinate and superiors -- felt that the superior was more responsible for the outcome. In the failure experience, most of the people felt that the subordinate was more responsible for the outcome.

The kicker is that who was supordinate and who was superior was selected randomly, as was whether the students were told that they had succeeded or failed.

This tells me that there is something very deeply ingrained in either our culture or our genes that tells us that high-status people do good things and low-status people do bad things.

Experiment Two: Monica

As it happened, the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking right as they were doing this research. They took different excerpts from Clinton's deposition and showed it to two sets of students. One set saw Clinton looking angry and frustrated; the other saw him looking guilty and ashamed.

They then were asked if Clinton should resign or not. The majority of the ones who saw him looking angry and frustrated thought he should stay in office; the ones who saw him looking guilty and ashamed thought he should resign.

This tells me that angry people appear high-status, and high-status people do good things. Guilty people appear low-status, and low-status people do bad things.

Experiment Three: Interview

They then taped a job interview and showed the interview to two groups of Stanford MBA students. The tapes differed in only one line: the interviewee (who was an actor) was asked how he felt about a failure condition. In one tape, he said that he felt guilty and ashamed. In the other, he said that he felt angry and frustrated.

The students were then asked a number of questions. The one that really stuck in my mind was what starting salary the interviewee should get. The students who saw "angry and frustrated" said something like $60K, if I recall correctly (after two years). The "guilty and frustrated" group, by contrast, thought he should have a starting salary of $15K. One line of difference in the tape, $15K difference in salary!

This tells me that looking angry can be financially rewarding. (I did not want to hear that.)


Many things made much more sense to me after hearing Tiedens speak on this.

Domestic violence

I'd always wondered why people (usually but not always wives) who get beaten up by their significant others (usually but not always husbands) put up with it. Now it makes sense. If Joe beats Jane up, then Joe, being the victor, ends up in the high-status position. Having had a fight is a failure condition. How does Joe feel? Angry and frustrated. How does Jane feel? Guilty and ashamed. Who do they both feel was more responsible for the outcome? Jane. If Jane feels responsible, guilty, and ashamed, she isn't likely to tell anybody or to seek help.

Women's socialization

Women are socialized to "be nice", to not make waves, to not be aggressive, to not display anger -- to be low status, in other words. Ooops.

Race relations

It's easy to see how a vicious cycle can set in regarding race relations. If a group is perceived as low-status, then people will think they do bad things and hence deserve mistreatment -- which then leads to lower status, lather, rinse, repeat.

Apparently the lot of the Jewish Germans suffered from exactly such a spiral. Little by little, the Nazis decreased the status of the Jews by badmouthing them, restricting what jobs they could have, making them wear special clothes, restricting where they could live, where they could go, etc. By the time that the Nazis started herding them onto trains, they were very low status -- which would make German Christians think that they deserved it. I've also heard that genocides in Yugoslavia and Rawanda were preceded by significant amounts of derisive propaganda about the minority group.

Black/Latino/Gay/Girl Pride

When I was a (white, middle-class) kid in the 1960s, I didn't understand the fuss about "Black Pride". The thought of being proud that I was white seemed completely foreign to me, as I didn't have anything to do with it!

Now I understand that being proud is a high-status emotion, and feeling high-status is key to not feeling overly responsible for one's own misfortunes. Being proud is a prerequisite to being angry about the failure conditions of your life, and being angry is a great spur to action.

Jesus' message

One of Jesus' main messages -- perhaps the main message -- was to be good to people of lower status. He was kind to lepers, prostitutes, and beggars. He was kind to a Roman centurion (the occupying enemy!) who asked Jesus to heal his slave. ("Slave" might have meant "gay lover", but that's a completely different subject.)

Jesus certainly seemed to understand that low-status people were blamed for more than they deserved and not given credit they were due. The parable of the good Samaritan was meaningful precisely because at the time, Samaritans were the lowest of the low. They hated Samaritans! Yet this good Samaritan saved the life of the wounded man when a priest and a Levite (both much higher status) passed the poor guy by. (Perhaps the priest and the Levite both thought that since the victim had clearly been on the losing side of a failure experience, that he was low-status and therefore must have deserved it.)

God watching out

I had always been puzzled when reading accounts of people who just missed calamity or who survived calamity and praised God for watching out for them. Never, however, I have I ever seen anyone who had been in a calamity blame God for sending them into the path of danger. You never hear, "If I hadn't made all those green lights, I would have missed the train and thus not have been in the crash and lost my leg. God must have it in for me."

In this context, it makes sense: God is pretty much the highest-status being there is, so God must only do good things. Satan, while powerful, is pretty low-ranking, so much do all the bad things. (Either that or they are afraid of getting God angry at them!)

Ducky Sherwood