Long gone are the days when a life of material excess and endless leisure time signified prestige. According to a study by researchers at the universities of Columbia and Harvard, Americans increasingly perceive busy and overworked people as having high status.
“We examined how signaling busyness at work impacts perceptions of status in the eyes of others,” write authors Silvia Bellezza of Columbia University and Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan of Harvard.
“We found that the more we believe that people have the opportunity for social affirmation based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.”
High-status Americans a generation ago might have boasted about their lives of leisure, but today they’re more likely to engage in “humblebrag”, telling those around them how they “have no life” or desperately need a vacation.
To explore this phenomenon, the authors conducted a series of studies, drawing participants mostly from Italy and the US. While busyness at work is associated with high status among Americans, the effect is reversed for Italians, who still view a leisurely life as representative of high status.
Further, the authors found that the use of products and services showcasing one’s busyness can also convey status. For instance, the online shopping and delivery grocery brand Peapod signals status just as much as expensive brands, such as Whole Foods, by virtue of its associations with timesaving and a busy lifestyle.
“We uncovered an alternative type of conspicuous consumption that operated by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals,” the authors conclude. “People’s social-mobility beliefs are psychologically driven by the perception that busy individuals possess desirable characteristics, leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.”
While research on conspicuous consumption has typically analyzed how people spend money on products that signal status, this article investigates conspicuous consumption in relation to time. The authors argue that a busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol. A series of studies shows that the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure time are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (e.g., competence and ambition) and is scarce and in demand in the job market. This research uncovers an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals. Furthermore, the authors examine cultural values (perceived social mobility) and differences among cultures (North America vs. Europe) to demonstrate moderators and boundary conditions of the positive associations derived from signals of busyness.
Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia, Anat Keinan