Status Pivoting

When, why, and how do consumers cope with a status threat by choosing to “pivot” and display success and achievements in alternative domains? We asked Dafna Goor, Anat Keinan, and Nailya Ordabayeva who studied this question in a recent Journal of Consumer Research article. Here is what they had to say:

In today’s interconnected world, we are frequently exposed to our peers’ successes and affluent lifestyles. We no longer need to wait for a reunion or a conference to learn how our classmates and peers are doing since Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter constantly bombard us with status updates and reminders about their accomplishments. It seems that social comparisons are more accessible than ever and are a common source of stress. How can people cope with social comparisons and thrive in such a status-obsessed society?

Others have shown that to cope with status threats, we may buy status-enhancing products, such as executive pens and luxury clothing, that signal success and affluence in the same domain (e.g., financial, professional) as our peers’ accomplishments. However, our new research finds that this is not the only way to cope with threatening social comparisons. In fact, more often than not, people cope with status threats by signaling success in alternative domains where they fare more favorably than their successful peers. That is, rather than try to beat successful peers at their own game, people prefer to “pivot” and display their accomplishments in areas where successful friends are lagging.

This status pivoting phenomenon happens in many life domains. For example, runners can display bumper stickers on their cars to demonstrate that they have completed a marathon. We found that Boston Marathon runners were more likely to tout their athletic prowess when thinking of their more affluent peers who are not particularly althetic. Our survey of car bumper stickers at a luxurious golf club in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, showed that owners of inexpensive cars were more likely to display bumper stickers that showcased their accomplishments in alternative domains such as physical fitness (e.g., running a marathon), social and family life, values and spiritual life, and collectible experiences. In contrast, owners of expensive cars were more likely to display bumper stickers related to golf, an affluent sport that is symbolic of high financial status.

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Consumers like to pivot and display status in alternative domains because status threats motivate them to think about trade-offs. That is, when comparing to more successful peers, people like to think of how success in one life domain comes at the cost of failure in another domain. This is particularly appealing when consumers compare themselves to a peer and do not believe they can attain similar success in the same area, because status pivoting helps alleviate the sting of social comparisons. Signaling status in the domain of the threat (e.g., buying an expensive designer outfit to keep up with an affluent peer) is less effective because it reminds us about our inadequacy, and we keep thinking about that. In contrast, the stress that working parents experience from being compared to successful colleagues at work is alleviated when they could display products showcasing their accomplishments as parents. However, this stress persisted when consumers instead displayed products showcasing their professional accomplishments.

Our ability to move between life domains to display different strengths depending on the situation (e.g., depending on whom we are being compared to) reflects the complex and multidimensional lives that we lead and the different hats that we wear everyday. It also highlights the immense influence that our peers and our environment have on our everyday choices. Thankfully, this complexity can have certain benefits: it can protect us from the stress of upward comparisons and promote a healthier, less one-dimensional view of ourselves by helping us draw esteem from multiple domains and places.

To access the full paper:

Journal of Consumer Research, ucaa057,