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Status and people’s tolerance towards an ill-mannered person: A field study

Abstract: Many studies have shown that people are more tolerant to transgressions committed by individuals with a high social status. However, in most of these studies the transgressor did not solicit people and the dependent variable consisted in evaluating the reaction of people who observed the transgression. Therefore, an experiment was carried out, in which the social status of a male-confederate was manipulated by means of changes in his appearance. The experiment took place in a bakery. The confederate explained to the employee that he did not have enough money to buy a “croissant”. Depending on the case, the confederate was either impolite or polite with the employee when formulating his request. Results showed that the impolite request compared to the polite one did not lead to a decrease in compliance in high status conditions whereas a decrease in compliance was observed in mid or in low status conditions.


According to Goodman and Gareis (1993), schemas of social categories often influence the impressions a person has of others. Such schemas about members of these social categories may affect judgments, behavior, expectation and evaluation of a person who belongs to one of these categories. A person’s social status considerably affects the way people behave and interact with him. Research shows that a social status schema can be activated by little information about the target, such as clothing, education level, income, and occupation, and this is sufficient to activate a schema, which in return affects evaluation and behavior of a subject toward the target. This schema of social status also affects helpfulness and reaction to transgression committed by people.

It has been found in numerous studies that people with a high social status have a positive impact on compliance when they solicit help from people of a lower status. In most of these studies, the status was manipulated through the requesting person’s way of dressing or by information about status that was formerly given. Kleinke (1977) showed that people would more readily give a coin to a stranger in the street if the individual was neatly dressed (80 %) rather than to someone whose appearance was slovenly (32 %). These results were more recently confirmed by an experiment conducted by McElroy and Morrow (1994) when the solicitation aimed at raising money for a charitable organization. Status is also linked with the individual’s integrity. Bickman (1971) has demonstrated that subjects would more readily give back the money they had found in a telephone booth to a high status individual if this person argued that the money was his/hers, rather than if it was an individual of equal status. These studies highlight an effect of the status upon compliance to requests coming from high status individuals. Nevertheless, the same effect was observed when compliance to implicit requests was tested. Solomon and Herman (1977) have found that passers-by were more willing to help a high-status woman than a mid-status woman who had dropped her groceries while loading the trunk of her car.

The impact of status in various situations of transgression is also to be found in literature. Lefkowitz, Blake, and Mouton (1955) have shown that pedestrians were less likely to wait for the signals at a crosswalk when following the example of an offender who obviously seemed to have a high social status (known because he is wearing a suit, a tie and a hat) than when following that of a low-status person (wearing dirty, heavy cotton trousers, a faded tee-shirt). Such results were recently confirmed by Guéguen and Pichot (2001), who have also observed that people tend to inhibit follow-my-leader attitudes in front of a low-status model compared to a neutral-status one. When transgressions are assessed by people, it seems that, again, more tolerance is associated with high-status transgressors. Hams (1974) has found that high-status confederates, compared to low-status ones, elicited less aggressive behaviors and nonverbal reactions when they went in front of subjects already stepping in queues of at least 12-persons at various stores, banks, and restaurants.

Many investigations underscored that we are more tolerant to infringements or offences committed by high status individuals. Gray and Ashmore (1976) found out that people are more tolerant to high status criminals than to neutral status ones. Skolnick and Shaw (1994) have also pointed out that when subjects were instructed to recommend sanctions after reading transcripts of a case describing a crime, low status offenders were judged more harshly than high status ones. The same effect was observed when sentences were pronounced by real juries or judges (Stewart, 1980; 1985).


Because previous studies have shown that people are more tolerant of transgressions coming from high status persons and that those transgressions tend to inhibit behavior in the subject exposed to them, the hypothesis was that people would be more tolerant to a high status requesting person if he/she asked for help in an impolite manner. Another hypothesis was that people would be more tolerant if the same request was made by a mid-status requesting person rather than by a low status person.


Subject: One-hundred and twenty women working in 120 bakeries where the experiment took place. All of these women sold bread and pastries to customers. In all these bakeries, the employee was alone during the experiment.

Procedure: The experiment took place when no other customer was present in the bakery. Then, a 25 year-old male confederate entered the bakery. According to the scenario, the confederate was elegantly dressed (suit and tie), conventionally (clean jeans and tee shirt, common standard shoes) or very slovenly (worn, dirty and torn trousers, not very clean tee shirt, dirty hair). These ways of dressing enabled the confederate to embody, respectively, an individual of high, intermediate or low status. An evaluation of the relevance of these attributions was made among a group of 45 persons (15 for each appearance) chosen at random in the street. They were asked to look at the confederate and to evaluate his social status, using a scale of 9 steps ranging from 1 (low status) to 9 (high status). The analysis shows a difference depending upon the represented appearance: 2.68 (SD = 1.24) for the aspect designed to represent a low social status, 4.47 (SD = 2.87) for the level of intermediate appearance and 7.04 (SD = 2.66) for the appearance supposed to reflect a higher status. The statistical analysis showed an overall difference between the 3 groups (F(2/42) = 12.83, p <.001). In the three experimental conditions, the confederate asked the employee for a "croissant". Then, after the employee had shoved the "croissant" into a paper-bag, she announced to the confederate the amount of his purchase. Then, the confederate began to count his money in his billfold. In polite conditions, after 10 seconds, the confederate, with a disappointed look, said to the employee: "I am really embarrassed, Madam, but 1 am short 0.5 F. Would you please do me a favor?" In impolite condition the confederate said to the employee "Shit, I’m short 0.5 F. Hey! You gonna give it to me now!" Again, an evaluation of the difference between the two forms of request was made among 30 persons (15 for each form) chosen at random in the street. They were asked to evaluate the politeness of the request using a scale of 9 steps ranging from 1 (impolite) to 9 (polite). The results show a large difference between the two forms: a mean of 2.23 (SD = 0.63) for the impolite form and a mean of 7.08 (SD) = 1.49) for the polite form. The difference between the two means was statistically significant (t(28) = 11.61, p <.001). The missing sum of 0.5 F was chosen because it is a small amount. In the absolute, it represents only 11,1 % of the total amount of the "croissant". After formulating his request, the confederate looked at the employee straight in the eyes. Then, he waited for her reaction. Whether the employee approved his request or not, the confederate proceeded to debrief her. Results The percentage of compliance to the confederate's demand was the only dependent variable of our experiment. The percentages obtained in the different conditions are presented in table 1 below. Table 1: Percentage of compliance to the confederate's request according to the condition status and the type of request Confederate Status Type of request High Neutral Low Total Polite 95.0 95.0 90.0 93.3 Impolite 75.0 40.0 20.0 45.0 Total 85.0 67.5 55.0 69.2 There were 20 subjects in each group Data were analyzed with a log-linear analysis technique. A significant effect of status is to be observed (X² (2, N = 120) = 8.52, p <.02). As we can see, a high status requesting person leads to increase compliance to the request compared to a neutral status. However, the general difference between these two groups is marginally significant (X² (1, N = 80) = 3.38, p <.08) whereas it was clearly significant with the low-status group (X² (1, N = 80) = 8.57, p <.005). Furthermore, the difference between the two percentages of compliance between neutral-status requesting person and low-status one is not significant (X² (1, N = 80) = 1.32, ns). A major effect of the request can also be observed. A polite request involves a higher percentage of compliance than an impolite request (X² (1, N = 120) = 36.51, p <.001). The log-linear analysis reveals an interaction effect between the type of request and the status of the requesting person (X² (4, N = 120) = 12.17, p <.02). A complementary analysis shows that status has no effect when the request is polite (X² (2, N = 60) = 0.54, ns) whereas differences between statuses occur when the requesting person is impolite (X² (2, N = 60) = 12.53, p <.002). In the latter, we found that the high status of a requesting person leads to increase more compliance to the request than with a neutral-status one (X² (1, N = 60) = 5.01, p <.03) or a low-status one (X² (1, N = 60) = 12.13, p <.001). Nevertheless, despite the difference in the percentages of compliance between a neutral-status requesting person and a low-status one, no statistical effect was found (X² (1, N = 60) = 1.90, ns). Comparisons between each condition of request reveal that no difference can be found between polite versus impolite request in high-status condition (X² (1, N = 60) = 3.12, ns) whereas a significant effect was observed between the two types of request both in neutral-status condition (X² (1, N = 60) = 13.79, p <.001) and in low-status condition (X² (1, N = 60) = 19.80, p <.001). Discussion Our results, congruent with the first hypothesis, confirm that people complied with a high-status request even when the requesting person was clearly impolite with the person solicited. Against all odds, a low status, compared to a neutral status, did not lead to a decrease in compliance concerning the request in both conditions of solicitation. Therefore, with regard to previous studies, it was found out that transgressions committed by a high-status person tend to inhibit an appropriate reaction (Hams, 1974). In our experiment, the employees in impolite conditions managed to refuse the request from the neutral or the low-status confederate when he acted as a really impolite person whereas they assented to it when it was a high-status solicitor. As we can see, status is not the only element that could explain the compliance of the subjects because no discrepancy between the different statuses was found in polite request conditions. It is clearly the interaction between high status and impolite behavior of the confederate that can explain our results. The natural response of the subject in a situation when someone is impolite with him seems to have been inhibited in high-status conditions. Conceivably, in this experiment, the appearance of the high-status confederate has operated as a figure of authority that, in return, has led the subject to comply with the request. In a couple of experiments, Bushman (1984, 1988) found out that passers-by in a street complied with a confederate's request, which was particularly unusual (to give a dime to someone else who had no money to park his/her car), when the confederate was dressed with a non-official uniform. We may thus infer that in our experiment, the employees have expressed an automatic compliance response towards the high-status confederate because they are used to such a behavior in their everyday lives. Politeness theory could explain the effect observed. First, this theory could explain the main effect of the request observed in our experiment. A polite form of solicitation leads people to abide by the request whereas an impolite form leads to refuse this request more favorably. Such results are congruent with previous studies that show that the subject complied more favorably in response to a polite confederate than to an impolite one (Goldman, Pulcher & Mendez, 1983; Obuchi, Chiba & Fukushima, 1996). What was surprising in this experiment was the interaction effect between status and the two different forms of request. The impolite request leads to decreased helpfulness when the requesting person's status is low whereas it has no effect when his status is high. Such a result could be explained by the effect of threat. According to Brown and Levinson (1987), politeness refers to phrasing one's remark so as to minimize face threat. Because a polite request is perceived as less threatening for the subject, this led to a decrease in his/her reactance and then increased compliance to the request. Such effect could explain the main effect of the two forms of request and could explain why the low status confederate was helped when his request was polite. When he addressed an impolite request to the subject, this led to increased reactance and then decreased compliance to the request. Politeness theory could also explain the interaction effect between the type of request and the status of the requesting person. A recent work of Cohen, Vandello, Puente and Rantilla (1999) showed that politeness sometimes works in that it decreases aggressive behaviors. The same is true with the work done by Obuchi, Chiba and Fukushima (1996) who found that an impolite confederate enhanced interpersonal conflicts in a dyad whereas a polite confederate appeased hostile reactions and increased compliance to the confederate's solicitation. Perhaps in our experiment, the polite behavior of the low status confederate had inhibited aggressive behavior of the subject toward such group member. When the low status confederate was impolite, then a hostile reaction toward him became appropriate. When the high status confederate was impolite, such hostile behavior consisting in refusing to help was not produced because of the traditional effect of symbolic authority of the high status people. Nevertheless, we should be careful with any generalization of these results and about the hypothesis used to explain them. Further research is needed in order to test the authority-figure hypothesis. In this perspective, it would be interesting to conduct an experiment in which an impolite request would be addressed to people of different status. Reactions controlling the effect of gender are also necessary. Cultural factors have also some importance. It's well known that norms of politeness and efficiency of politeness on social interaction are dependent upon culture (Cohen et al., 1999). So further experiments including politeness and other social factors need to be conducted to test the effect of such norms on social interaction and reactions towards people. Methodological limitations exist that do not allow generalization of the findings. In this experiment, the confederate was a man whereas the subject was a woman. In France, because of their gender, men have a dominant status whereas women have an inferior status. Perhaps, the effect of the appearance of our confederate was obtained because he was a man. In other words, the effect was obtained because his social status was high and because he had the dominant gender-status. Similarly, the effect was obtained because the confederate and the subject had the same race. In this experiment both of them were white. White is the skin color of dominant people in France. But what would have happened if the confederate had been black and the subject had been white? Then, perhaps, the level of difference between the statuses could be more tenuous and, then, appearance would not affect the subject's behavior to the impolite request of the high status confederate. So, again, further experiments, manipulating the gender and the race of the confederate are necessary in order to evaluate the effect of the social status alone. Despite these limitations, our experiment shows that mundane social signals such as clothes or hairstyle have some effect in social interaction among people unfamiliar to one another. This experiment confirms the role of subtle signals in people's perception. Green and Giles (1973) have found that a smartly dressed male presented as a market researcher who conducted a survey had more success when wearing a tie than when the tie was not present. Again, our experiment shows that people's appearance had a considerable impact on people's behavior and interaction. Works Cited Bickman, L. (1971), The effect of social status on the honesty of others. The Journal of Social Psychology, 85, 87-92. Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Bushman, B. 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Biasing influence of defendants’ characteristics on simulated sentencing. Psychological Reports, 38, 727-738. Green, P. & Giles, H. (1973). Reactions to a stranger as a function of dress style: The tie. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 37, 676. Harris, M. (1974). Mediators between frustration and aggression in a field experiment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 561-571. Kleinke, C. (1977). Effects of dress on compliance to requests in a field setting. The Journal of Social Psychology, 101, 223-224. Lefkowitz, R., Blake, R., & Mouton, J. (1955). Status factors in pedestrian violation of traffic signals. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 704-706. McElroy, J., & Morrow, P. (1994). Personal space, personal appearance, and personal selling. Psychological Reports, 74, 425-426. Obuchi, K., Chiba, S., & Fukushima, O. (1996). Mitigation of interpersonal conflicts: Politeness and time pressure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1035-1042. Skolnick, P. & Shaw, J. (1994). Is Defendant Status a Liability or a Shield?: Crime Severity and Professional Relatedness. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 1827-1836. Solomon, H., & Herman, L. (1977). Status symbols and prosocial behavior: The effect of the victim’s car on helping. The Journal of Psychology, 97, 271-273. Stewart, J. (1980). Defendant’s attractiveness as a factor in the outcome of criminal trials: An observational study. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 348-361. Stewart, J. (1985). Appearance and punishment: The attraction-leniency effect in the courtroom. The Journal of Social Psychology, 125, 373-378. Authors: Nicolas Guéguen is currently Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Bretagne-Sud in France. His research focuses on compliance without pressure techniques, nonverbal influence and computer-mediated communication.

Alexandre Pascual is a Doctor in Social Psychology. His research interests include compliance without pressure techniques and commitment theory.

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