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.
- Inter-group relations
- Social identity
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout
Purchases are for personal use onlyLearn about institutional subscriptions
Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2010). Social psychophysiology and embodiment. In D. Gilbert, S. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., pp. 194–227). New York: Wiley.
Blascovich, J., & Tomaka, J. (1996). The biopsychosocial model of arousal regulation. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 28, pp. 1–51). New York: Academic Press.
Cihangir, S., Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2014). Men as allies against sexism: The positive effects of a suggestion of sexism by male (vs. female) sources. SAGE Open, 4, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244014539168
Clark, R., Anderson, N. B., Clark, V. R., & Williams, D. R. (1999). Racism as a stressor for African Americans: A biopsychosocial model. American Psychologist, 54, 805–816.
Cooley, E., Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L., Brown, C. S., & Polikoff, J. (2017). Black groups accentuate hypodescent by activating threats to the racial hierarchy. Social Psychology and Personality Science, 9, 411–418.
De Wit, F. R. C., Scheepers, D., & Jehn, K. A. (2012). Cardiovascular reactivity and resistance to opposing viewpoints during intragroup conflict. Psychophysiology, 49, 1691–1699. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01456.x
Derks, B., Scheepers, D., Van Laar, C., & Ellemers, N. (2011). The threat vs. challenge of car parking for women: How self- and group affirmation affect cardiovascular responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 178–183.
Derks, B., Van Laar, C., & Ellemers, N. (2007). The beneficial effects of social identity protection on the performance motivation of members of devalued groups. Social Issues and Policy Review, 1, 217–256.
Dion, K. L. (1986). Responses to perceived discrimination and relative deprivation. In J. M. Olson, C. P. Herman, & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), Relative deprivation and social comparison (159–179). The Ontario symposium (Vol. 4). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
DiTomaso, N. (2013). The American non-dilemma: Racial inequality without racism. New York: Russell Sage.
Dover, T. L., Major, B., & Kaiser, C. R. (2016). Members of high-status groups are threatened by organizational diversity messages. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 62, 58–67.
Drury, B. J., & Kaiser, C. R. (2014). Allies against sexism: The role of men in confronting sexism. Journal of Social Issues, 70, 637–652.
Ellemers, N. (1993). The influence of socio-structural variables on identity enhancement strategies. European Review of Social Psychology, 4, 27–57.
Ellemers, N. (2017). Morality and the regulation of social behavior: Groups as moral anchors. Milton Park, UK: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
Ellemers, N., & Bos, A. (1998). Individual and group level responses to threat experienced by Dutch shopkeepers in East Amsterdam. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28, 1987–2005.
Ellemers, N., Derks, B., Van Nunspeet, F., Scheepers, D., & Van der Toorn, J. (2017). World of difference: A moral perspective on social inequality/Wereld van verschil: Sociale ongelijkheid vanuit een moreel perspectief. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press.
Ellemers, N., Scheepers, D., & Popa, A. (2010). Something to gain or something to lose? Affirmative action and regulatory focus emotions. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 13, 201–213.
Ellemers, N., & Van Laar, C. (2010). Individual mobility: The opportunities and challenges members of devalued groups encounter when trying to avoid group-based discrimination. In J. F. Dovidio, M. Hewstone, P. Glick, & V. Esses (Eds.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (pp. 561–576). London: Sage.
Faniko, K., Ellemers, N., Derks, B., & Lorenzi-Cioldi, F. (2017). Nothing changes, really: Why women who break through the glass ceiling end up reinforcing it. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 638–651.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.
Folger, R. (1987). Reformulating the preconditions of resentment: A referent cognitions model. In J. C. Masters & W. P. Smith (Eds.), Social comparison, social justice, and relative deprivation (pp. 183–215). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Magee, J. C. (2003). From power to action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 453–466.
Guimond, S., & Dubé-Simard, L. (1983). Relative deprivation theory and the Quebec nationalist movement: The cognition-emotion distinction and the personal-group deprivation issue. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 526–535.
Haidt, J. D. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Random House.
Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847–853.
Ho, K. Z. (2009). Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Jetten, J., Mols, F., Healy, N., & Spears, R. (2017). “Fear of falling”: Economic instability enhances collective angst among societies’ wealthy. Journal of Social Issues, 73, 61–79.
Jones, R. P., Cox, D., & Lienesch, R. (2017). Beyond economics: Fears of cultural displacement pushed the white working class to Trump. Washington, D.C.: PRRI.
Jordan, J., Sivanathan, N., & Galinsky, A. D. (2011). Something to lose and nothing to gain: The role of stress in the interactive effect of power and stability on risk taking. Administrative Science Quarterly, 56, 530–558.
Jost, J. T., Banaji, M. R., & Nosek, B. A. (2004). A decade of system justification theory: Accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo. Political Psychology, 25, 881–919.
Jost, J. T., & Van der Toorn, J. (2012). System justification theory. In P. A. M. van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 313–343). London: Sage.
Knight, E. L., & Mehta, P. H. (2017). Hierarchy stability moderates the effect of status on stress and performance in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114, 78–83.
Lamont, M. (2000). The dignity of working men: Morality and the boundaries of race, class, and immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L. (1987). Social comparison and outcome evaluation in group contexts. In J. C. Masters & W. P. Smith (Eds.), Social comparison, social justice, and relative deprivation; theoretical, empirical, and policy perspectives (pp. 105–127). Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Maass, A., Cadinu, M., Guarnieri, G., & Grasselli, A. (2003). Sexual harassment under social identity threat: The computer harassment paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 853–870.
Major, B., Blodorn, A., & Major Blascovich, G. (2018). The threat of increasing diversity: Why many White Americans support Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21, 931–940.
Martin, J. (1981). Relative deprivation: A theory of distributive injustice for an era of shrinking resources. Research in Organizational Behavior, 3, 53–107.
Mutz, D. C. (2018). Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2026 presidential vote. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(19), E4330–E4339. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1718155115
Outten, H. R., Lee, T., Costa-Lopes, R., Schmitt, M. T., & Vala, J. (2018). Majority group members’ negative reactions to future demographic shifts depend on the perceived legitimacy of their status: Findings from the United States and Portugal. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00079
Riek, B. M., Mania, E. W., & Gaertner, S. L. (2006). Intergroup threat and outgroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 336–353.
Rink, F., & Ellemers, N. (2014). The pernicious effects of unstable work group membership: How work group changes undermine unique task contributions and newcomer acceptance. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 4, 1–18.
Sapolsky, R. M. (1992). Cortisol concentrations and the social significance of rank instability among wild baboons. Psychoneuroendocrinology, l7, 701–709.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Social status and health in humans and other animals. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 393–418.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2005). The influence of social hierarchy on primate health. Science, 308, 648–653.
Scheepers, D. (2009). Turning social identity threat into challenge: Status stability and cardiovascular reactivity during intergroup competition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 228–233.
Scheepers, D. (2017). Inter-group status differences as challenge and threat: The role of legitimacy. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 20, 75–90.
Scheepers, D., & Ellemers, N. (2005). When the pressure is up: The assessment of threats to social identity in low and high-status groups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 192–200.
Scheepers, D., Ellemers, N., & Sintemaartensdijk, N. (2009). Suffering from the possibility of status loss: Physiological indicators of social identity threat in high status groups. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 1075–1092.
Scheepers, D., Röell, C., & Ellemers, N. (2015). Unstable power threatens the powerful and challenges the powerless: Evidence from cardiovascular markers of motivation. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 720. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00720
Scheepers, D., Saguy, T., Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (2014). A shared dual identity promotes a cardiovascular challenge response during inter-ethnic interactions. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 17, 324–341.
Scheepers, D., Spears, R., Doosje, B., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2006). Diversity in in-group bias: Structural factors, situational features, and social functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 944–960.
Seery, M. D. (2013). The biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat: Using the heart to measure the mind. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 637–653.
Smith, H. J., Pettigrew, T. F., Pippin, G. M., & Bialosiewicz, S. (2012). Relative deprivation: A theoretical and meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16, 203–232.
Ståhl, T., Vermunt, R., & Ellemers, N. (2008). Reactions to outgroup authorities’ decisions: The role of expected bias, procedural fairness and outcome favorability. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 11, 281–299.
Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information, 13, 65–93.
Tajfel, H. (1978). Social categorization, social identity and social comparison. In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 61–76). London: Academic Press.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Van der Lee, R., Ellemers, N., & Scheepers, D. (2016). Mastering moral misery: Emotional and coping responses to intragroup morality (vs. competence) evaluations. Cognition and Emotion, 30, 51–65.
Van der Toorn, J., Ellemers, N., & Doosje, B. (2015). The threat of moral transgression: The impact of group membership and moral opportunity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 609–622.
Walker, I., & Pettigrew, T. F. (1984). Relative deprivation theory: An overview and conceptual critique. British Journal of Social Psychology, 23, 301–310.
Wilkins, C. L., Hirsch, A. A., Kaiser, C. R., & Inkles, M. P. (2017). The threat of racial progress and the self-protective nature of perceiving anti-White bias. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations., 20, 801.
Wilkins, C. L., & Kaiser, C. R. (2014). Racial progress as threat to the status hierarchy: Implications for perceptions of anti-White bias. Psychological Science, 25, 439–446.
Williams, J. C. (2017). White working class: Overcoming class cluelessness in America. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Yzerbyt, V. Y., & Cambon, L. (2017). The dynamics of compensation: When ingroup favoritism paves the way for outgroup praise. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 587–600.
Editors and Affiliations
© 2019 Springer Nature Switzerland AG
About this chapter
Cite this chapter
Scheepers, D., Ellemers, N. (2019). Status Stress: Explaining Defensiveness to the Resolution of Social Inequality in Members of Dominant Groups. In: Jetten, J., Peters, K. (eds) The Social Psychology of Inequality. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-28856-3_17
Publisher Name: Springer, Cham
Print ISBN: 978-3-030-28855-6
Online ISBN: 978-3-030-28856-3