It’s often said that if you try and please everyone you’ll drive yourself crazy. That sentiment is definitely true, but it’s also human nature to desire acceptance, popularity, and respect. So, how can one achieve high esteem and social status in the eyes of others?
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have identified some traits, behaviors, and characteristics that transcend borders and nationalities when it comes to gaining the respect and admiration of others. Similarly, they’ve also identified some habits and actions that are sure to harm one’s social standing, no matter where they may live.
Whether it’s particularly fair or not, we still very much live in a society that prioritizes social status. It’s why people put on expensive clothes or drive flashy cars; they’re trying to portray an image of success and importance. Long before Ferraris or Rolexes, though, mankind has always placed certain traits on a pedestal.
A total of 2,751 people from 14 different countries took part in this study. Each person was asked what qualities they value in other people. This research also revealed that while some behaviors are celebrated among men, the very same actions are frowned upon when taken by women.
“Humans live in a social world in which relative rank matters for nearly everything — your access to resources, your ability to attract mates, and even how long you live,” says UT Austin evolutionary psychologist David Buss, one of the study’s lead authors, in a university release. “From an evolutionary perspective, reproductively relevant resources flow to those high in status and trickle slowly, if at all, to those lower on the social totem pole.”
So, what deeds or traits improve a person’s social standing across cultures and borders? The most frequent answers from participants included a strong work ethic, honesty, kindness, intelligence, making sacrifices for others, being knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics, and a good sense of humor.
“From the Gypsies in Romania to the native islanders of Guam, people displaying intelligence, bravery and leadership rise in rank in the eyes of their peers,” explains UT Austin psychology graduate student & study leader Patrick Durkee. “But possessing qualities that inflict costs on others will cause your status to plummet, whether you live in Russia or Eritrea.”
Conversely, thievery, being dirty or unclean, being mean or nasty, contracting an STD, and bringing shame to one’s family are all traits that will quickly cause one’s social status to decrease considerably. In the majority of instances, just one of these characteristics is probably going to lead to that person being abandoned by their social group.
Many of these aversions were probably established thousands of years ago as humans struggled to survive on a daily basis, the study’s authors say. At that time, allowing a thief or diseased individual to stay with a larger group could lead to disaster for everyone.
“Although this study was conducted prior to the current pandemic, it’s interesting that being a disease vector is universally detrimental to a person’s status,” Buss comments. “Socially transmitted diseases are evolutionarily ancient challenges to human survival, so humans have psychological adaptations to avoid them. Lowering a person’s social status is an evolutionarily ancient method of social distancing from disease vectors.”
As mentioned earlier, there were quite a few differences when it came to traits among men and women. For instance, it’s much more beneficial on a social level for men to be brave, physically strong, and willing to risk their safety to protect others than it is for women. On the other hand, women’s social status is more linked to attractiveness and domestic skills than men.
What about sexual behavior? Women see their social status plummet in the event of promiscuity, and while men see decreased social status due to sexual promiscuity as well, the relationship isn’t nearly as pronounced as it is for women. This held true even among the most progressive countries when it comes to gender equality. Also, finding, keeping, and staying faithful to a long-term mate increases the social status of both men and women.
There were also several other smaller, more nuanced, differences across cultures. For example, practicing witchcraft is a big social no-no in Zimbabwe, but it’s fine in Russia or the United States. Feel free to dust off those crystal balls. A sense of humor also goes a lot farther in Poland than it does in Japan or China.
There you have it. If you want to climb the social ladder in life all you need to do is be honest, hard-working, and kind. What a novel concept!
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
John Anderer is a frequent contributor for Ladders News.