Boosting Your Status: When and Why Trying Matters

Nathan Warren, Caleb Warren

Why do people scoff at trying to be cool but think less of those who become wealthy without trying?

People kill for status, sometimes literally. The desire for high-status sneakers has inspired robbery and murder since the introduction of Air Jordans in the 1980s. In India, where status historically depended more on family than footwear, parents have killed daughters to prevent them from marrying lower-status men.

While most people don’t kill for status, they do spend a great deal of their time and money trying to gain status by buying products, collecting experiences, curating sophisticated tastes, showing off how easily they can avoid work, or showing how hard they work. 

But those who pursue status should watch out! Putting effort into earning status is a minefield. Sometimes people admire that effort, and other times they admire effortlessness.

What should you do if you want to earn status? 

My colleagues and I conducted studies to figure out when and why trying to earn status and admiration works, and when it backfires. We found that effort can increase or decrease status depending on how that effort fits into people’s beliefs about the different types of status a person can attain and how to get it. 

For example, in the United States people can gain status for coolness and wealth. But Americans have different beliefs about how people should become cool or wealthy.

Cool people gain status by being independent and creative. They break norms; they don’t follow or replicate them. Society benefits because of their independence and creativity. In contrast, wealthy people gain status by working hard and growing the economy. Society benefits from their productivity.

These different beliefs about how being cool or wealthy increases status mean that trying hard to achieve each type of status has different results. Trying hard to be cool seems wrong because it’s the antithesis of cool people’s presumed independence and creativity. But trying hard to become wealthy seems appropriate because it fits the work ethic required to be productive. 

To test these ideas, we asked 400 people to describe someone who either does cool things or has a lot of money and does so either “effortlessly” or “through a great deal of effort.” To detect how much status people awarded to the person they described, we asked how much they admire, look up to, and want to be like the person. As we predicted, the effortlessly cool person was more admired than the person who tried to be cool, but the effortlessly wealthy person was less admired than the person who tried to be wealthy. 

Three additional studies showed that people award status to people who contribute towards a shared goal. Effortlessly cool people are seen as contributing more than people who try to be cool. In contrast, people who try to be wealthy are seen as contributing more than people who are effortlessly wealthy. 

Context matters

Although these beliefs hold a lot of sway, they aren’t hard and fast rules. We also found that people who try to be cool can earn status if they are trying to be cool to help other people. For example, one study described an influencer who “worked hard to become cool so that he could help struggling entertainers.” Even though the influencer tried to be cool, he was admired because his effort was focused on improving society.

Similarly, people who try to become wealthy aren’t given more status if their efforts disregard the welfare of the group. For example, another study described an influencer who “worked tirelessly to become financially successful, while paying little regard to what is fair and how his success impacts others.” Here, the influencer was not admired, as his effort was not a sign that he would contribute to the group. 

So, if you want to earn admiration and status, you should understand people’s beliefs about the kind of status you’re seeking. For example, if you want to be cool, you should know that people believe independence and creativity are the way to become cool. Next, learn the rules for contributing towards that goal, in this case, for being independent and creative. For example, in some cultures, creativity could mean painting a girl holding a balloon, while in other cultures, creativity could mean shredding that same artwork. If you follow a culture’s unwritten rules for contributing to a goal, you will earn status. 

Unfortunately for the status-seeking majority, there are many beliefs about status, and they can shift over time. Therefore, we recommend looking for people with status, figuring out how they contributed, then replicating it, if you can.

For example, Haaland contributes by being a phenomenal football player, and you too can earn status if you can play like Haaland. If that is not an option, you could also earn status in other ways, such as contributing towards the shared goals of your community or family. Unfortunately, earning status in a small group with local goals and beliefs won’t earn the same respect as the status Haaland earns, because his status comes from the shared ideals of football fans around the globe, but it’s a start! 


Warren, N. B., & Warren, C. (2024). Trying too hard or not hard enough: How effort shapes status. Journal of Consumer Psychology. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1002/jcpy.1400

Bellezza, S. (2023). Distance and alternative signals of status: A unifying framework. Journal of Consumer Research, 50(2), 322-342. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucac049

Goor, D., Keinan, A., & Ordabayeva, N. (2021). Status pivoting. Journal of Consumer Research, 47(6), 978-1002. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucaa057  

Published 20. February 2024

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