Status Stress: Explaining Defensiveness to the Resolution of Social Inequality in Members of Dominant Groups

  • Daan ScheepersEmail author
  • Naomi Ellemers


This chapter examines an important barrier to achieving more equality in society: the resilience of dominant group members to social change initiatives. We build on relevant theory and research to examine structural and psychological factors that contribute to the emergence of “status stress,” that is, the threat among those high in status due to shifting inter-group status relations. We describe psychophysiological research revealing that as long as status differences are stable, members of lower status (disadvantaged or subordinate) groups show cardiovascular responses indicative of threat (high vascular resistance, low cardiac performance, high blood pressure). However, when status differences become unstable, this cardiovascular threat response emerges among members of higher status (privileged, dominant) groups. Importantly, these responses occur autonomously, implying both that they are relatively uncontrollable and that they may not show up in self-reports. Nevertheless, research shows that the emergence of status stress has a clear and predictable impact on behavior. We discuss the implications of these insights for interventions that seek to overcome defensiveness against social change among members of dominant groups.


Status Power Stability Legitimacy Inter-group relations Social identity Psychophysiology Stress 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leiden University – Institute of Psychology, Social and Organizational Psychology SectionLeidenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Social, Health, and Organizational PsychologyUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands

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