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U of U Students Identify Goods That Indicate Social Status

February 18, 2003 — What possessions or experiences increase a person’s “cool factor?” According to 400 University of Utah students, clothing, vacations, Palm Pilots and laptop computers, furniture, luxury cars and sports utility vehicles (SUVs) all elevate social status.

Undergraduate students from seven different colleges at the U were surveyed to identify an array of goods that college students believe indicate social status. Research confirmed that status commodities usually are either visible by others or are easily talked about in social situations.

The results of the study, conducted by Jessie X. Fan and John R. Burton, University of Utah associate professors in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies, appear in Financial Counseling and Planning (2002), Vol. 13 (1) and will be used as the impetus for more detailed research of status consumption and its possible relationship to financial management problems. This information is especially relevant, considering the fact that Utah was first in the nation in personal bankruptcy filings per household at the end of 2002.

“We wanted to know whether status consumption-also referred to as conspicuous consumption, social display or positional goods-played a role in debt and bankruptcy and the reasons why. We wanted to know if people were going into debt to pay for luxuries or to put food on the table,” notes Fan, whose past research has focused on links between consumer expenditure patterns and debt.

“Status consumption has been around since the beginning of history,” explains Burton, who studies consumer policy and protection issues. “Even in the most primitive of tribes there are ways to show status through possessions. People wear decorations to indicate status. Now we show status by the cars we drive and the houses we own. Cell phones used to be indicative of real high status, but today status is no longer a constant-especially in our society where goods change all the time.”

While the questionnaire took Fan and Burton a year to develop, the survey was conducted over a two-week period in April 2001 among upper- and lower-division students, who were almost equally divided between male and female respondents. The majority were Caucasian, worked part time, lived with their parents and had a family income of more than $40,000.

Survey participants indicated if they had a “little extra money,” defined as between $1 and $999, and wanted to convey status through general commodities, they would buy clothing, take a small vacation or invest in a Palm Pilot-in that order. If they had between $1,000 and $9,999 and wanted to convey status, they would purchase lap top computers, take a moderate vacation and purchase furniture. If they had “a lot of extra money,” more than $10,000, they would buy new, larger homes and luxury cars or SUVs. Students also ranked other items they considered as status conveying, which included cell phones, fine dining, hot tubs/Jacuzzis, large screen HD TVs, boats and luxury vacations.

Car-related commodities were also included and ranked according to status in the survey. The top three car-related features students would select if they had “a little extra money” ($1-$999) were a CD player/stereo, sunroof/moonroof and automatic windows and locks. If they had “a lot of extra money,” more than $1,000, they would buy leather interior, four-wheel/all-wheel drive and a sound system for their cars.

Students would buy the following status-enhancing, house-related commodities if they had a little extra, moderate or a lot of extra money: furniture, hardwood flooring and a swimming pool, respectively.

Research showed that more women were likely to consider clothing and a moderate vacation as status symbols while more men than women were likely to consider luxury cars a status symbol.

Fan’s and Burton’s research reinforced the idea that peer groups help form status perceptions. Students’ perception of what constitutes status goods varies by age, gender, race, marital status, working status, family size, living arrangement, income and students’ major. For example, of particular significance was the fact that science and engineering majors were much more likely than fine arts and humanities majors to want to purchase a laptop computer to enhance their status if they had “a moderate amount of money,” defined as between $1,000 and $9,999.

Yet Fan is quick to note that debt is a very complicated issue. “There are some people who are in debt for other reasons-conspicuous consumption may be only one of the factors,” she says.