Blue Line


March 24, 2015  By Dorothy Cotton

I seem to spend a lot of time helping to select and hire people for various jobs in the police world; new officer candidates and people looking for promotions or special assignments, for example. Other times it is in the psychology world – psychologists looking for new jobs or first jobs. In my personal life, I helped select a new music director/conductor for an orchestra I play in.

All these selection processes typically begin with the question, “Why do you want this job?” Very often, the answer begins with lies. No one ever says “I am desperate for money and would take anything at this point,” “I like the idea of never being able to get fired and having a good benefits package” or “I think I am hot shit and like the status that comes with the job.” In fact, we would likely hold such answers against a person — even though we all know they’re true.

The desire for money and financial stability are pretty obvious and we take them for granted. Everyone needs basic security to provide for their needs — housing, food, fancy electronic devices — and so they can raise children also able to afford fancy electronic devices. (I sometimes wonder whether Maslow would have included “fancy electronic devices” somewhere between safety needs and self-actualization if he had developed his hierarchy of needs in the 21st century, but that’s another story.) It almost goes without saying that people want jobs — any job — because they will earn money.

What about status? Is the drive to attain status a good or bad thing? Is it inherent in all or are only some of us “status-driven?”

There has been some dispute about this in the psychological literature. Some people see status as an offshoot of other motives like power and financial success. Other researchers have noted that some of the things that go along with status actually make us less happy in the longer run and would argue that the desire for it is actually an indication of psychological maladjustment. If status leads to unhappiness then it would not be a basic human drive because fundamental drives are, by their very nature, adaptive. (That’s why we have them.)

So is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? Cameron Anderson and his colleagues at UCLA Business School <1> looked at the evidence. Cutting to the chase, their conclusion was that the desire for status is indeed fundamental. They suggest that there are three essential components to status:

• First, it involves respect and admiration; people afforded high status are usually held in high esteem by others;

• Second, it involves voluntary deference; people afford high status to others by deferring to them and complying with their wishes and demands without threat or coercion;

• Third, status is conferred upon someone when doing so is perceived to have instrumental social value – in other words, if it serves some purpose of mine, I will confer status on you.

Status is generally conferred as part of a social exchange. People confer it on another with the goal of receiving assistance of some kind or getting help to attain their own goals. If I’m concerned that I will do a poor job giving a speech, I will seek out a person whom I believe to be a good speaker and request their guidance. By doing so I am conferring some higher status on that person — otherwise, why would I ask them?

The individual must possess two characteristics in order for me to confer status on them: they must appear to be competent (e.g. actually are good at whatever it is I am asking them about) and they must be willing to help me. If I think they will roll their eyes and walk away from me, I am not likely to ask for help — and unlikely to see them as holding any desirable status. Both characteristics are important because status is essentially a social exchange.

You can’t “get” status. People have to give it to you. You might have a position or job that appears like it should come with status — prime minister, physician, police officer, minister – but status is about perception. If people don’t feel like you are there for them and able to help, you don’t get it. This likely explains why politicians are often held in much higher esteem before they are elected than after. When you promise stuff, people think you can help. When you don’t deliver… not so much.

Needless to say this is a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.

Status is related to power — a key issue in policing. Power can be defined as the ability to influence others through control of resources or the capacity to punish them. Power grants you the ability to force your will on others and compel acquiescence – but power and status are not the same. People defer to others with perceived status because they WANT to; they defer to people with power because they HAVE to.

The aforementioned article goes on to talk about the relationship between status and belongingness, group norms and social hierarchies, dominance, socioeconomic status and other factors. The authors conclude that status is a fundamental drive, different from all these other motivations – and that seeking status might just be a good thing. Some studies have suggested that people who seek higher status will work harder at attaining skills and becoming competent; they try to help others and be more generous. They may also be more competitive — which can be a good or a bad thing.

Seems to me that in policing, status can be far more useful than power in many cases (although needless to say, both have their places!). It is hard to argue against people becoming more skilled and helpful. It is also hard to argue against anything that will make people want to comply and thus reduce the necessity to exercise power.

Mind you, I have noticed that sometimes people get lost in their quest for status and end up in the “exercise of power” camp. Too bad. As noted, both are useful — but it’s worth remembering that they are not the same!


<1> Cameron Anderson, John Angus D. Hildreth & Laura Howland (2015). Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. http://dx/doi/org/10.1037/a0038781

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