Is Busy the New Alpha?

Imagine you’ve just been introduced into a new social situation. Your brain immediately starts creating a social hierarchy. That’s what we do. We try to identify the power players. The process by which we do this is interesting. The first thing we do is look for obvious cues. In a new job, that would be titles and positions. Then, the process becomes very Bayesian – we form a base understanding of the hierarchy almost immediately and then constantly update it as we gain more knowledge. We watch power struggles and update our hierarchy based on the winners and losers. We start assigning values to the people in this particular social network and; more importantly, start assessing our place in the network and our odds for ascending in the hierarchy.

All of that probably makes sense to you as you read it. There’s nothing really earth shaking or counter intuitive. But what is interesting is that the cues we use to assign standings are context dependent. They can also change over time. What’s more, they can vary from person to person or generation to generation.

In other words, like most things, our understanding of social hierarchy is in the midst of disruption.

An understanding of hierarchy appears to be hardwired into us. A recent study found that humans can determine social standing and the accumulation of power pretty much as soon as they can walk. Toddlers as young as 17 months could identify the alphas in a group. One of the authors of the study, University of Washington psychology professor Jessica Sommerville , said that even the very young can “see that someone who is more dominant gets more stuff.” That certainly squares with our understanding of how the world works. “More stuff” has been how we’ve determined social status for hundreds of years. In sociology, it’s called conspicuous consumption, a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen. And it’s a signaling strategy that evolved in humans over our recorded history. The more stuff we had, and the less we had to do to get that stuff, the more status we had. Just over a hundred years ago, Veblen called this the Leisure Class.

But today that appears to be changing. A recent study seems to indicate that we now associate busyness with status. Here, it’s time – not stuff – that is the scarce commodity. Social status signaling is more apt to involve complaining about how we never go on a vacation than about our “summer on the continent”.

At least, this seems to be true in the U.S. The researchers also ran their study in Italy and there the situation was reversed. Italians still love their lives of leisure. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. In Italy, every employee is entitled to at least 32 paid days off per year.

In our world of marketing – which is acutely aware of social signaling – this could create some interesting shifts in messaging. I think we’re already seeing this. Campaigns aimed at busy people seem to equate scarcity of time with success. The one thing missing in all this social scrambling – whether it be conspicuous consumption or working yourself to death – might be happiness. Last year a study out of the University of British Columbia found a strong link between those who value their time more than money and happiness.

Maybe those Italians are on to something.

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