The way individuals perceive and construct ranks is within human nature. Ranking systems pervade social life, and especially the organizational field. We can take a recent example from the university website: the post reveals that “University of Groningen is proud to be among the global elite with a classification in the top 100 of the Shanghai ARWU, the Times Higher Education (THE) and the QS World University ranking lists, the most influential ranking lists in the academic world.” How is this rank knowledge affecting our perception of the university status and prestige? In organizations rankings are kept under continuous attention and they change constantly. How do these rank changes influence social judgments of the employees? Ascending in a hierarchy is being viewed differently than descending to an equivalent rank? Pettit, Sivanathan and Gladstone (2013) have answers to these pervasive questions. In their recent paper “Rising starts and sinking ships: Consequences of status momentum” they examined how intertemporal changes in rank influence status judgments. In five studies spanning multiple contexts, they reveal that a neglected but pervasive contextual feature of social hierarchy is whether the current rank has been preceded by a rank-based change. This information affects current perception of an actor’s status and the future expectation that this individual holds.
The first study they presented suggested that the changes in status perception occur because lower and higher comparison points have been made for each situation, such that individuals ascending in rank were seen as higher in status than those compared with another actor of lower rank, and actors descending in rank were seen as lower in status than those implicitly compared with an actor of higher rank. The second study brings us back to the example provided in the first paragraph. The authors designed an experiment in which they asked participants to imagine themselves as being consultants helping University X to set its tuition for the upcoming year. The experimental outcomes revealed that universities that had recently ascended the hierarchy would be seen as higher status than those that had descended to arrive at the same rank. Moreover they also found that tuition fee recommendations from the participants will be higher for ascending universities than descending ones. The third study focuses on the consumer decision making field, highlighting the fact that status influences both purchasing decisions and pricing strategies. They revealed that the amount of money that people would be willing to pay was higher for a product that ascended the hierarchy than for one that has descended it, even if the two products arrived at the same final rank. The forth study looks at how social status has the power to influence people’s behavior. The researchers revealed that actors who had ascended the hierarchy had more influence than those who descended it (despite holding the same rank), and also that status judgments explained the effect that rank change had on the acceptance of other’s influence. The fifth study focuses on comparisons between status perceptions of the self and of others. Status judgments are susceptible to people’s enduring motivation to protect the integrity of the self. Thus, the authors found that participants gave a status boost to themselves and to others for an ascent in hierarchy, while for an descent in hierarchy, self-status evaluations were more lenient.
Pettit et. al. (2013) reveal innovative insights into how changes in social ranks influence people’s expectations about the future and thus guide their current status perceptions. These new research insights concerning social hierarchy have a direct application in the constant changing organizational field. The authors also underline the relevance and applicability of the studies´ outcomes: ”Knowledge of how status judgments are formed in a dynamic world offers insights into a range of important phenomena (e.g., consumption, promotion or demotion, and college application and decisions ”.
Pettit, N. C., Sivanathan, N., Gladstone, E., Carson Marr, J. (2013). Rising starts and sinking ships: Consequences of status momentum. Psychological Science, 24.