Rol-echhh! Status Symbols Repel New Friendships, Study Finds

WASHINGTON — That new bling may be damaging your image more than propping it up.

For many people, sporting a Rolex watch, wearing a Gucci shirt, toting a Louis Vuitton bag, and driving an Italian sports car are among the ultimate demonstrations of success and class. Status symbols in the form of designer brands have attracted the rich and famous for years, partly for their promises of quality, but perhaps mostly for their reputation. Yet for all the allure of high-priced fashion, a new study found that status symbols can actually turn stomachs more than they turn heads.

The research, conducted by an international team of behavioral and cultural scientists, showed that designer items have a negative impact on new, platonic relationships, causing recent acquaintances to be uninterested in forming a friendship.

“Often times we think that status symbols – whether a luxury car like a BMW, a brand name purse like Prada, or an expensive watch like Rolex – will make us look more socially attractive to others,” explains study co-author Stephen Garcia of the University of Michigan in a statement. “However, our research suggests that these status signals actually make us look less socially attractive, not more.”

The team conducted a series of six studies in which participants either presented themselves as potential friends, or evaluated whether individuals could become their friend. Those presenting themselves usually chose status symbols to wear, but when asked, those looking for friends said they preferred new people who had low or neutral status symbol wear.

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Another study asked participants which of two shirts they would wear at a picnic to meet new friends. Both shirts were plain white tees, one had “Saks Fifth Avenue” written in plain lettering across it, while  the other simply had “Walmart” written on it. Though neither shirt was a luxury item, three-quarters of the participants chose the “Saks Fifth Avenue” shirt to wear. But when roles were switched and individuals were asked if they’d rather picnic with someone else wearing either of the shirts, 64% of the group preferred a person wearing the “Walmart” shirt.

“At a societal level, we may be wasting billions of dollars on expensive status symbols that ultimately keep others from wanting to associate with us,” says co-author Kimberlee Weaver Livnat of the University of Haifa in Israel. “And to the extent that close friendships are important to well-being, we may be inadvertently hurting ourselves.”

The authors say that the results were consistent across all income levels of participants, but note that what was considered luxurious to each depended on his or her socioeconomic status.

The full study was published Aug. 3, 2018 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.