Even Airports Can Have Inferiority Complexes

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Strongly signaling your inclusion in a group does not always mean you’re a core member of that group — sometimes it means you’re actually on the fringe. If it’s a high-status group, jumping up and down yelling that you’re one of the cool kids might, in fact, signal status anxiety. In a new and highly self-aware paper, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (a real Ivy, they’ll have you know) demonstrated this phenomenon in several contexts, ranging from Ivy undergrads to “international” airports.

Paul Rozin and his colleagues write in Psychological Science that research psychologists are a bit touchy about their status as “real” scientists alongside physicists and chemists. Look at the title of the journal, for instance: Psychological Science. (There’s also Social Psychological and Personality Science, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Clinical Psychological Science …) Researchers in the “hard” sciences seem less worried about whether or not anyone calls what they do science (perhaps because everyone already does).

Rozin and his co-authors call this an “asymmetrical social Mach band.” A Mach band is a visual illusion that highlights the contrast between two shades of color at their boundary. Picture a series of adjacent grey stripes, progressing from white at the top to black at the bottom: 

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Each stripe looks darker at the top, where it meets a lighter stripe, and lighter at the bottom, where it meets a darker one. But each is actually one solid hue. Our visual system highlights borders for us by enhancing the contrast, making the lights especially light and darks especially dark where they meet.

Research psychologists see themselves as part of a superior light-grey band sitting, with other scientists, atop a darker-gray band of non-researchers. But because they lack test tubes and particle accelerators, they fear being lumped in with Dr. Phil, so they try to highlight the distinctions between themselves and the strata underneath. The social Mach band effect is “asymmetrical” because while people at the bottom of a tier try to differentiate themselves from those in the tier below, people at the top of a tier (standout clinical psychologists) don’t try to differentiate themselves from those in the tier above. The brights get brighter but the darks stay the same.

To study this effect more, well, scientifically, the researchers analyzed the “About Us” web pages for universities with “University” in their official school name. They looked at 55 national universities and 151 master’s universities (which have fewer doctoral programs) and counted how many self-mentions included the word university (e.g., “Harvard University” or “the University”) and how many did not (e.g., “Harvard”). National universities used the word university in 46.4 percent of self-references, whereas master’s universities used it 62.2 percent of the time. They just had to remind you that they’re not some run-of-the-mill liberal-arts college, like the dummies over at Amherst or Williams.

Next, the researchers looked at 96 U.S. airports with “International” in the title and coded whether each self-reference on their “About Us” pages included the word international (e.g., “Philadelphia International Airport” or “Philadelphia International”) or did not (e.g., “Philadelphia Airport” or “Philadelphia”). The larger airports used the word 31.4 percent of the time, and the smaller ones used it 68.2 percent of the time. You wanna go to Mexico? We’ve got you covered!

Finally, the researchers looked in the mirror. Based on their finding that people don’t associate the Ivy League as strongly with Penn as they do with Harvard, they asked 53 Penn students and 54 Harvard students to write down seven things they think of when they think about their school, or seven things they think of when they describe it to others. (Half the subjects did each task.)

For each task, more Penn than Harvard students mentioned “Ivy” as one of their items: 27.3 percent versus zero percent for the “think of” task, and 35 percent versus 16.7 percent for the “describe to others” task. And because there was only a marginal difference in how students responded to the “describe” versus “think” prompts, the researchers write that this experiment suggests “that self-construal is of greater importance than social communication” when it comes to the social Mach band effect — in other words, the students’ use of “Ivy” to describe their schools may have been more important as a means of reassuring themselves than of impressing others. (This is a tentative finding, though; Rozin’s co-author Sydney Scott wrote in an email that “More work will need to be done to disentangle the importance of impression management motivations.”)

Looking beyond their data, the authors write:

[W]e believe that the following instances of the asymmetrical social-Mach-band effect are likely to occur: (a) greater display of officer status by lieutenants as opposed to colonels; (b) greater use of doctor titles by osteopaths, dentists, and chiropractors as opposed to medical doctors; (c) greater display of team membership by members of junior-varsity as opposed to varsity teams; (d) greater display of sorority or fraternity membership, or honor-society membership, by new than by continuing members; (e) greater display of wealth by the nouveau riche than by “old money”; and (f) greater display of affiliation with prestigious universities (e.g., jackets) by freshmen than by seniors.

There have been some past findings along these lines: Research by Young Jee Han and colleagues showed that people with new money wear louder luxury logos than those with old money. And in what Silvia Bellezza and colleagues call the “red sneakers effect,” high-status professors can get away with jeans and tennis shoes, while new recruits differentiate themselves from those below by dressing up.

These all seem like variations on “The lady doth protest too much”: I am NOT a regional airport! I am BIG and IMPORTANT! Watch me flyyyyy!