“Rich people generally rate status as more important, and poor people rate just having more income as more important.”
In the study, people were offered the choice of living in a society where they had more income than others, or in a society where they had a greater amount of money but were not the society’s wealthiest citizens.
“Males and rich people had a significantly greater tendency to choose the society where they had higher incomes than others. They showed a preference for personal status,” Professor Frijters said.
“Women and poor people, on the other hand, tended to choose a society with high incomes, but were less concerned about their position in it.”
The findings were published recently in the journal Oxford Economic Papers.
Professor Frijters, who conducted the research with PhD student Redzo Mujcic, said that from an evolutionary and social point of view, the finding that poor people cared relatively less about status was in line with expectations.
“People who have experienced poverty are more likely to care about having enough money to meet their minimum needs,” Professor Frijters said. “Those who have not been in poverty will be more focussed on being better off than others.
“The greater tendency for men to be interested in having a higher status fits with a long line of biological research dating back to Darwin. It seems men believe that higher status brings the mating opportunities that come with being top dog.”
The study drew on a sample of 1068 Australian university students of various ages. The researchers described a set of hypothetical societies and asked participants to choose which one they would most want to live in.
The students also were asked about whether they were migrants and whether they compared themselves more with Australians, or with people in their country of origin.
About half the most recent arrivals compared themselves to Australians, but the percentage increased with the length of time they were here. After 10 years, 85 per cent of male migrants were comparing themselves to Australians.
“But female migrants assimilated even faster than men,” Professor Frijters said. “Ninety per cent were comparing themselves to Australians within 10 years.”
Migrants in high-status jobs tended to assimilate faster than others, the research showed.
“The research showed that income rank matters independently of absolute income, with males, migrants and individuals from wealthy families giving greater weight to rank,” Professor Frijters said.
“Rank-sensitive individuals require as much as a 200 per cent increase in income to be compensated for going from the top to the bottom of the income distribution.”
Professor Frijters said a “dynamic choice model” on compensating incomes predicted the average respondent would need a permanent income increase of up to $10,000 (70 per cent) when moving from a society with a mean income of $14,000 (eg Mexico) to a society with a mean income of $46,000 (eg the USA).
Contact: Professor Paul Frijters. School of Economics, UQ Business School. Ph +61 (0)7 3346 3483, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Redzo Mujcic, School of Economics, +61 (0)422 438 355, email@example.com.
An early working paper version of the study is available for download. The published paper is available here