It is Monday morning. You are exhausted from the weekend, slept through two snooze sessions on your alarm, and are now running late for work, when your boss warned you that you had better not be late again. You stop at the corner coffee shop, and survey the choices in front of you. Small? Medium? Or über venti mega latte? You choose the last, and start to feel slightly more in control of your day.

If you have done this, you are not alone. According to new research by Derek Rucker, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, Adam Galinsky, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, and David Dubois, an assistant professor at HEC Paris, not only is this tendency to buy bigger things greater when we feel powerless, but greater status can also be found in ordinary objects.

“When I feel powerless, I want to restore that sense of power, and one way to do that is through acquisition of status-related objects, by buying specific stuff,” Rucker says.

Status and Size
Generally, when we think of products that convey status, we think flat-screen TVs, expensive jewelry, snazzy cars. Things that are expensive, unique, or hard to get are often associated with higher status. “But we started along this conversation of, could status or the need for it, or the representation of it, even arise from otherwise mundane goods?” Rucker says.

Their paper reported on several different experiments. One of these included a group of 183 undergraduates. Given a choice of a piece of pizza, a smoothie, or a coffee, what could they assume about the status of a person who chose the largest item? On average, the students judged an individual as having higher status in a scenario when that individual chose the largest product in the group. This suggests that even things that are pretty mundane can show higher status. However, this only holds when you have an assortment of items from which to choose.

“Even with mundane objects, we might choose bigger objects over smaller ones,” Rucker says. “And of course you can see the implications that could have, such as how much food you consume, how much you spend, and so on.”

In another experiment, the researchers gave away free bagel pieces of varying sizes. In one scenario, there was a banner over the table that read, “We all feel powerless in the morning. Treat yourself to free bagels!” In a second scenario, the banner read, “We all feel powerful in the morning. Treat yourself to free bagels!” The third read, “It’s morning. Treat yourself to free bagels!” After controlling for whether or not the bagel eaters had eaten breakfast, they found that people who felt powerless tended to take the larger bagel pieces over the small ones.

In general, larger items are associated with higher status. However, another experiment reported in the paper shows that this relationship can be turned on its head. In this case, the researchers divided 104 students into groups and offered them hors d’oeuvres in four different sizes. One group was told that the largest hors d’oeuvres were served at elite events such as a presidential reception, while the other group was told that the smallest were served. In both groups, the students who had indicated a higher need for status generally chose the White House–sized hors d’oeuvres.

“There are clearly contexts where you would say that smaller is more valuable. So smaller cell phones, smaller laptop computers seem to be more valuable, because we prefer portability,” Rucker says. But “bigger is better” does seem to be the default state, at least according to what they have found in their research, he adds. Yet this relationship between size and status does seem to affect consumers only when they feel powerless. “That’s when you’re most prone to act on this situation,” he points out. “Put differently, I would say that most people have this association that bigger has greater status associated with it, but whether or not that would affect my behavior depends on how I’m feeling at the moment.”

The Upside
Knowing that most people are susceptible to this kind of behavior can be a bit scary, if companies decide to use this knowledge to their advantage. But it could have positive implications too, Galinsky says. 

“Advertising wants to take advantage to sell more of their products, and you also have public health officials wanting to control people’s indulgences,” he remarks. “If we want to change your habits, we can also change the association that people have for status. In the 1940s, it was a status symbol to smoke cigarettes. It’s no longer a status symbol. You can change people’s behavior by changing whether this behavior is seen as having a high or low status.”

“There are psychological reasons that consumers trade up to bigger size that we might actually work to fix, from a policy perspective,” Rucker says. “And that could either be by suggesting making the hierarchy less clear, or even dissolving it.”

This research fills in some gaps about how status is interpreted by consumers, Rucker says. “It’s not just about luxury brands, that’s not the only means of how we seek out status in our environments. Before our paper you could ask, well, what is a status object? And you would say that it’s something scarce or hard to acquire.” But the research suggests that even everyday objects like coffee or a smoothie can show status, when the largest is chosen out of a variety of sizes.

“So you can imagine the impact we can have if we can reverse the association consumers have or how they behave in these scenarios,” Rucker says. “We can actually do some good in this regard.”


Related reading on Kellogg Insight

What’s in a Frame Anyway? Sharing the good and the bad leads to more persuasive messaging

Desire to Acquire: Powerlessness and compensatory consumption

Losing Touch: Power diminishes perception and perspective