Recent research indicates that income inequality increases female sexualisation via status anxiety, which is defined as a feeling of inferiority and worthlessness regarding one’s social standing. Yet, whether this relationship extends to more internalised psychological states such as self-objectification, defined as when individuals derive their self-worth entirely from their external appearance, remains unclear. Using a role-playing paradigm, the current preregistered study examined the mediating role of seven status anxiety domains (i.e., material wealth, job competence, physical attractiveness, nurturance, education, general, and global) on the relationship between income inequality and state self-objectification.The Status Anxiety Hypothesis argues that large income disparities damages health and well-being via psychosocial processes based on perceived status ranking (Wilkinson, 2005; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Given that economically unequal societies are vertically stratified, this hypothesis argues that people should experience global status anxiety regarding their social rank along the hierarchal ladder. Alternatively, the Material Rank Hypothesis argues that income inequality increases status anxiety only in domains pertinent to material wealth (i.e., material wealth and job competence status domains; Walasek & Brown, 2020). When income inequality is high, Blake and Brooks’ (2019) reproductive competition approach instead predicts status anxiety to increase only in domains pertinent in augmenting one’s romantic value. Economic inequality has been shown to intensify men’s competition for status, honour, and mating opportunities, particularly among younger men who are poor (Daly, 2016; Daly & Wilson, 2001). As men’s accumulation of resources can attract more sexual partners (Buss, 1989), and increase women’s fidelity (Geary & Flinn, 2001), men likely seek status in wealth-related domains (i.e., material wealth and job competence).Consistently, status anxiety is found to mediate the effect of income inequality on women’s desire to wear revealing clothing and post “sexy selfies” across 113 countries– with both behaviours manifesting in geographic areas where income inequality is high (Blake et al., 2018). Given that women’s romantic value appears largely contingent on their physical attractiveness (Buss, 2013; Jokela, 2009; Perilloux et al., 2013) and maternal qualities (Becker, 1985; Singh, 2006), these may be status domains particularly important for women.
Research Questions / Hypotheses
The present study aimed to test, experimentally, whether status anxiety mediated the effect of income inequality on state self-objectification. In a preregistered study, income inequality was continuously manipulated to test whether i) income inequality increased status anxiety across all status domains; ii) whether sex moderated the effects of income inequality on different status domains; iii) and whether status anxiety mediated the effects of income inequality on state self-objectification. I hypothesised that i) income inequality increases status anxiety globally; ii) males will experience greater status anxiety in material wealth and job competence domains, whereas women will experience greater status anxiety in physical attractiveness and nurturance domains; and iii) status anxiety will mediate the effects of income inequality on state self-objectification.
A total of 304 REP participants completed the study. As self-objectification is more common among young adults who are single (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Tiggemann & Lunch, 2001), the pre-screening criteria included ages 18 to 45, either in a non-monogamous relationship or unmarried relationship status.
The entire study was delivered via the online survey platform Qualtrics. Participants first completed the trait self-objectification measure before undertaking a role-playing paradigm where they were invited to join a virtual society, “Bimboola”. Participants read about the income distribution in their randomly allocated version of Bimboola, which was presented as five income tiers. These tiers corresponded to quintiles representing the earnings of the poorest to the richest, increasing by 20% (i.e., 0-20%, 20-40%, 40-60%, 60-80% and 80-100%, respectively). Income inequality was manipulated via the ratio of the richest 20% to the poorest 20% (i.e., the 5th quintile to the 1st quintile, or the 80:20 ratio). There were 10 ratios presented in a between-subject design, such that participants only saw one society, depicting one inequality ratio and its five corresponding income tiers. These ratios corresponded to the degree to which the rich earnt more than the poor, e.g., a ratio of 1.6 indicated that the rich earnt 1.6x more than the poor, while a ratio of 51.3 indicated that the rich earnt 51.3x times more than the poor. Although participants were presented with five income tiers, all participants were assigned to the middle-income tier (i.e., Q3) of their randomly allocated society. This was to ensure that only income inequality and not actual income affected the outcome variables. Once participants had been randomly allocated to one society, depicted by one 80:20 ratio, they were informed that in order to start their new life in Bimboola they must select a house, car, phone, and holiday destination according to their middle-income earning. Participants were shown two average houses, then cars, then phones, then holiday destinations for each of the five income tiers (i.e., 1a and 1b for Tier 1, 2a and 2b for Tier 2, etc.) and selected one from each category to start their new life.
Using a series of linear regressions, we examined whether income inequality predicts 6 status anxiety domains (i.e., physical attractiveness, nurturance, job competence, material wealth, education, and general). Results showed that income inequality significantly increased material-wealth status anxiety, which is inconsistent with the Status Anxiety Hypothesis, but partially supports the Material Rank Hypothesis. Using a series of linear regressions, we then examined whether the effect of income inequality on four status anxiety domains (i.e., material wealth, job competence, physical attractiveness, and nurturance) was moderated by sex. Inconsistent with the Reproductive Competition Hypothesis, sex did not moderate the effects of income inequality on status anxiety. Given that income inequality only significantly predicted material-wealth status anxiety, this was the only status domain for which a mediational analysis was run. The mediation model revealed the effect of income inequality on state self-objectification was not significant. Exploratory analyses controlling for sex and trait self-objectification similarly found no significant mediation effects. Nonetheless, all status domains, with exception to nurturance, increased state self-objectification.
The findings of the present study have significant theoretical and preventative implications for objectification theory by highlighting the consequence of status anxiety in understanding self-objectifying tendencies in both men and women. The theoretical implication of the study is to demonstrate how status anxiety in various status domains encourages individuals to reduce their bodies into objects that are considered capable of representing them (i.e., to self-objectify; Bartky, 1990). The tendency to internalise the role of a passive sexual object is a psychological strategy likely adopted to facilitate self-impression management (Ferrer-i-Carbonell, 2005; Festinger, 1954) and heighten motivational and self-regulatory processes (Collins, 1996; Taylor & Lobel, 1989) in order to alleviate status-induced appearance anxiety. However, the results suggest that bids to reduce status anxiety galvanise individuals to prioritise physicality over competency, self-presentation over autonomy, and others over self (Bratanova et al., 2019; Crocker & Park, 2004). By deriving one’s self-worth and happiness entirely from one’s external appearance, this likely triggers a myriad of poor subjective experiences, including body shame, body dissatisfaction, and appearance anxiety (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Consequently, this may heighten men and women’s vulnerability to mental health risks, including various eating disorders (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009; Calogero, 2013; Kilpela et al., 2019; Moradi & Huang, 2008). Communication of results was in the form of an honours thesis and a short conference presentation.