We tested our predictions by experimentally manipulating social status and hierarchy stability in undergraduate participants (n = 118; 57.3% female; age: M = 19.8) who were recruited for course credit. Participants were told that, on the basis of their responses to prelaboratory questionnaires, they had been assigned to complete an upcoming puzzle-building task as either a “manager” (high status) or “builder” (low status), and that another participant (actually a confederate) would perform the unassigned role. Participants were told specifically that the assignment was based on their “leadership skills and experience” to connect the role assignment to prestige. In reality, roles were randomly assigned. Participants were also told that the manager would be in charge of directing subordinates in the building process and would evaluate the “builder” at the end of the task to determine how to split bonus money.
Next, all participants were asked to complete the The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a 5-min speech about one’s qualification for a job and a 5-min serial subtraction math task in front of a panel of observers. To manipulate hierarchy stability, participants were told that their role (manager/builder) could change based on the speech/math task (unstable hierarchy) or that their performance on the task would not affect their role assignment (stable hierarchy). A 5-min preparation period was completed in the presence of a sex-matched confederate to increase the salience of the manipulations. Panelists and confederates were blind to participants’ assigned conditions. Participants provided informed consent to participate in a group activity and perform a speech task. The University of Oregon’s Institutional Review Board approved all methods.
Hormones were assayed from saliva collected via passive drool ∼10 min after arriving at the laboratory (baseline), as well as 0, 20, and 40 min after the TSST. Participants responded to a prompt asking how “in control” they felt after assignment to status and stability conditions and after the TSST, which was included as a separate item in a broader measure of self-reported affect. Three independent observers rated videos of each participant’s speech for status-relevant behaviors and two items that assessed overall interview performanceAbstract
High social status reduces stress responses in numerous species, but the stress-buffering effect of status may dissipate or even reverse during times of hierarchical instability. In an experimental test of this hypothesis, 118 participants (57.3% female) were randomly assigned to a high- or low-status position in a stable or unstable hierarchy and were then exposed to a social-evaluative stressor (a mock job interview). High status in a stable hierarchy buffered stress responses and improved interview performance, but high status in an unstable hierarchy boosted stress responses and did not lead to better performance. This general pattern of effects was observed across endocrine (cortisol and testosterone), psychological (feeling in control), and behavioral (competence, dominance, and warmth) responses to the stressor. The joint influence of status and hierarchy stability on interview performance was explained by feelings of control and testosterone reactivity. Greater feelings of control predicted enhanced interview performance, whereas increased testosterone reactivity predicted worse performance. These results provide direct causal evidence that high status confers adaptive benefits for stress reduction and performance only when the social hierarchy is stable. When the hierarchy is unstable, high status actually exacerbates stress responses.