Fairfax, Virginia – The desire for status and approval is one of the most powerful human motives. It induces us to work hard, dress well and engage in conspicuous consumption, such as Instagramming our fancy vacations. But with the rapid advent of COVID-19, most of those options have been whisked away from us.
The plunge in status-seeking behavior is yet another way in which the lockdown is a remarkable and scary social experiment. One possible consequence is that many people won’t work as much, simply because no one is watching very closely and it is harder to get that pat on the shoulder or kind word for extra effort.
Worse yet, for many people social approbation compensates for economic hardships, and that salve is now considerably weaker. Time was, even if you were unemployed, you could still walk down the street and command attention for that one stylish item in your wardrobe, or your cool haircut, or your witty repartee. Now there’s no one on the street to impress.
Americans are learning just how much we rely on our looks, our charisma and our eloquence for our social affect. As Sonia Gupta asked on Twitter: “Extremely attractive people, I have a genuine question for you, no snark: What’s it like to not be getting the regular daily social attention you might be accustomed to, now that you have to stay inside and isolate from others?”
Of course her question applies to more than just “extremely attractive people.” The social affirmation gained from, say, attending regular church meetings is now also much weaker.
The collapse in status relations runs deep. We might spend a lot of time in chats and Zoom meetings, but in that medium status is harder to express. The boss who “dominates the room” just can’t project the same charisma from a small boxed image on your laptop screen. Nor can the others tell that everyone is listening attentively to that person, or that the person is tall or witty or well-dressed. This is another way in which COVID-19 is “the great equalizer.”
In the short run, we can draw upon our status perceptions from the immediate pre-COVID-19 past. The boss is still the boss, and no one has forgotten who Taylor Swift is. As the lockdown continues, however, we may become increasingly confused in this new status-shorn universe, taking phone calls and meetings with previously unknown people.
Even the still-famous may lose some of their luster. LeBron James remains a top NBA star, but he is not out there proving it every week, and so his renown has diminished somewhat — as has that of the NBA.
To some extent this status erosion is liberating. It may cause a lot of people to reexamine perennial questions about “what really matters.” There are other positive effects: fewer peer-related reasons to go out and spend money, for instance (do you really need that new jacket, or to try all the hot new restaurants?). That will help make tighter budgets or even unemployment more bearable. Some socially anxious people may even feel they are better off.
Yet overall this is a dangerous state of affairs. One risk is that we will elevate the status of performers who remain on television frequently. The White House’s COVID-19 press briefings have boosted the profile of President Donald Trump in part because he is appearing in a relative status vacuum, making him seem more leader-like.
If you really are obsessed with continuing the status-seeking game, your best options are probably online. One of the few concrete consolations of this pandemic may be a new wave of creativity on YouTube and social media.
More generally and in the longer run, expect the technology sector and the nerds to rise in status. It is their products and services that are commanding our attention and filling our status vacuums. The “nerdy look” is even less of a social handicap than it used to be. To paraphrase that famous saying: On a Zoom call, nobody knows you’re wearing mismatched socks.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
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