In the United States northeast, there is a joke that there is an easy way to spot someone who went to Harvard or Yale; it will be the person asking which college you attended. You can substitute Mensa or lots of other groups that have status for members but a new psychology paper says what most knew; entrenched members of groups are more relaxed about their status than marginal ones.

It has long been known that people prefer to be in groups that have higher status or cultural value as a way of boosting self-image and projecting an impressive image to others. Despite the fact that separations between groups are often arbitrary, and that there may be as much variation within a group as between groups, membership in particular groups can convey significant personal and social benefits.

Psychologist Paul Rozin wrote the paper after "noticing the behavior of people just promoted to a better position, or just after receiving a degree, or being admitted to a relatively exclusive group." In one study, Rozin and co-authors Sydney E. Scott, Hana Zickgraf, Flora Ahn, and Hong Jiang, all of the University of Pennsylvania, examined how universities promoted themselves in the "About Us" sections of their own websites.

They found that master's universities — which are at the border of the university category, offering some master's-level programs but typically few doctoral-level programs — were more likely to emphasize "university"when referring to themselves. Specifically, master's universities used the word "university"in 62.2% of self-references, whereas national universities — which offer undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees — used the word in only about 46.4% of self-references.

Similarly, the researchers found that small international airports were more likely to emphasize their "international" status than were large airports. The researchers also found evidence of the phenomenon at the individual level in undergraduates' descriptions of their universities.

Culturally, Harvard University is a well-known member of the "Ivy League.". The University of Pennsylvania is also an Ivy League school, so Rozin and co-authors asked undergraduate students at each institution to describe their university. For some students, the directions were phrased in a private context: "Please write down 7 things you think of when you think of your university." For others, they were phrased in a public context: "Please write down 7 things you think of when you describe your university to other people."

The data showed that Penn students were more likely to mention "Ivy League" or "Ivy" in describing their university than were Harvard students.

The researchers believe this phenomenon likely occurs in many other situations. They hypothesize that individuals may emphasize marginal membership in high-status professional groups, including "greater use of doctor titles by osteopaths, dentists, and chiropractors as opposed to medical doctors" and "greater display of officer status by lieutenants as opposed to colonels, and may also highlight marginal membership in high-status socioeconomic group membership, including "greater display of wealth by the nouveau riche than by 'old money.'"

"We believe that effects like those illustrated here are widespread, although it is sometimes difficult to collect the appropriate data," the researchers write.

Published in Psychological Science.
Source: Association for Psychological Science