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Fisher study finds social status relates to trustworthiness

Those with a higher social status are more trustworthy, a new survey from the Fisher College of Business reveals. People of a higher status were more likely to be trusted on a first encounter than those of lower status.

The study was conducted by Robert Lount, assistant professor of management and human resources at OSU, and Nathan Pettit of New York University’s Stern School of Business. The two met while Lount was a visiting instructor at Cornell University, where Pettit was a graduate student. The results of the study matched the original hypothesis, Lount said.

“The notion that high status affects trust and people’s perceptions of the other person was studied under different manipulations,” Lount said. “The theory is that people of higher status think that other people have more goodwill toward them.”

Rachel Mallonee, a third-year in biomedical engineering, said that if you have a higher status you are used to people being nice to you.

“If people look up to you and are nice, you are more likely to trust them,” Mallonee said. “The people who are higher up trust other people more because they have less to lose. They will probably maintain their status even if someone screws them over.”

This is not true for individuals who consider themselves low status.

“Low status people do not think other people have their best interest,” Lount said.

Molly Czako, a first-year in exploration, doesn’t think the study is totally accurate.

“I don’t think it’s always true. I worked at a shoe store, and my boss had a lot more to worry about than me,” Czako said. “What if she relied on me or trust me to do something I couldn’t? If I messed up, she would be the one to get in trouble.”

This discovery affects the workplace, where bosses with their higher status tend to have more trust toward their employees, who typically have lower status. After people have interacted past the initial meeting, the trust levels will change as they get to know each other.

“Social status is a contributing factor in a person’s decision to trust one another. Most of the time the decision to trust is made in a millisecond and a person’s social status helps shape the first impression. This is often an unconscious act, something that people are not aware of,” Lount said.

Jin Oh, a fourth-year in political science, thinks the original level of trust is mutual.

“It’s not too much of a status thing, but if the status gap is really big, there will be less trust,” Oh said.

There were three different factors that studies manipulated the status and roles of the participants conducted to test the hypothesis.

The first study consisted of undergraduate students from multiple universities.

The students were assigned to a team of two people. One person was assigned the lower-status role of assistant and the other was assigned the higher-status role of manager. Other pairs were both given the role of associate, putting them at an equal status.

The teams were asked to evaluate their own expectations of the other member. The questions were trust related. The survey results showed that the teams of equal status fell in the middle of trust and not trust. The results also showed that the team member with lower status was less likely to trust their partner of higher status than vice versa.

The second study asked participants to write about a memory where they felt like they had low status or high status.

“Just writing about feeling a low or high status temporarily made the students feel that way,” Lount said.

The next part of the study asked the students to play a money game.

The first player was given a sum of $10; they would choose an amount to send to the second partner. The amount would be tripled and the second partner could choose how much money to send back.

The results showed that the students conditioned to think they had the higher status sent more money than the ones that didn’t. The results showed 42 percent of the high-status participants sent their full $10, compared to only 12 percent of the low-status participants.

“The students that gave all of their money away left themselves completely vulnerable to their partner, showing trust,” Lount said.

The average amount that a low status person gave away was $4.12. The average amount that a high status person gave away was $6.25, Lount said.

Lount said he thinks his study is just the beginning of the study of social status.

“Any one study doesn’t change everything. This study focused on initial encounters, it is the beginning of future work for social studies. Future work is needed in order to affect organizations.” Lount said.

The results of the study have been published in the online journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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