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Betty C
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Betty C   My Press Releases

THE POWER OF THE HOODIE-WEARING C.E.O

Published on 12/24/2013
For additional information  Click Here

If you’re a billionaire in Silicon Valley, you can wear what you want on your feet. Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, has made numerous public appearances in a hoodie and Adidas slide-on sandals. Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, is not shy about his Vibram FiveFingers barefoot-style athletic shoes. And Steve Jobs, the late C.E.O. of Apple, was rarely seen without gray New Balance running sneakers. “I have a number of super-successful Silicon Valley clients who dress in ripped denim, Vans shoes and T-shirts,” the consultant Tom Searcy has written. “It’s a status symbol to dress like you’re homeless to attend board meetings.”

While people generally adhere to group norms for fear of disapproval or reprimand, anecdotal evidence and the occasional study suggest that high-status folk feel free to break rules—byeating with their mouths open, violating traffic laws, and expressing unpopular opinions. But how is nonconformity interpreted by others? Do we see it as a sign of status? New research, to bepublished next near in The Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that we do. The authors call the phenomenon the “red sneakers effect,” after one of them taught a class at Harvard Business School in her red Converse.

Silvia Bellezza, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, and Francesca Gino and Anat Keinan, two professors there, first studied the link between accomplishment and informality. They found that scholars who dressed down at an academic conference, eschewing blazers for T-shirts, had stronger research records, even controlling for age and gender. Then, they explored why and when this sartorial tactic for announcing status—if that’s what it is—succeeds.

Bellezza went to Milan and asked some clerks at luxury boutiques (Armani, Valentino, etc.) to imagine a woman entering the store wearing either gym clothes or a fur coat. Others were to imagine a woman in flip-flops and a Swatch, or in high heels and a Rolex. Clerks then judged her likely financial and celebrity status. Of the hypothetical shoppers, the casually attired were judged wealthier and more important. One clerk said, “Wealthy people sometimes dress very badly to demonstrate superiority,” and that “if you dare enter these boutiques so underdressed, you are definitely going to buy something.” But when Bellezza ran the same questions by local pedestrians, they assumed a done-up client to be wealthier. Picking up on status cues, the researchers determined, seems to require familiarity with the environment in which those cues are used.

Next, the researchers asked students at American universities to imagine a professor who is clean-shaven and wears a tie, or one who is bearded and wears T-shirts. Students were slightly more inclined to judge the dapper professor as a better teacher and researcher. But some students were given another piece of information: that the professor works at a top-tier school, where the dress code is presumably more formal. For them, the slouchy scholar earned more points. Deviance can signal status, but only when there are clear norms from which to deviate.

What if you stand out not for informality but for originality? In another experiment, a hypothetical man wearing a red bow tie at a black-tie party hosted by his golf club was viewed as higher in status—and better at golf—than a peer who stuck with the black-tie dress code. But if subjects were told the man broke the dress code unintentionally, he gained no benefit. When it’s not clear that a person is breaking a norm deliberately, he might be seen merely as missing the memo, or not having the wherewithal to follow it.

The next study looked for clues about why we see nonconformity as a sign of status. Subjects evaluated a hypothetical M.I.T. student presenting a business plan in a competition. He used the M.I.T. PowerPoint template others were using, or he used his own. As predicted, participants saw the one who abandoned the standard template as having a better business idea, and as being more respected by his friends. They also rated him as more autonomous—someone who “can afford to do what he wants.” Further, people perceived the nonconformist as having high status and competence, because he seemed to act autonomously.

The red-sneaker effect fits in with a wider body of research on the idea that certain observable traits or behaviors signal hidden qualities by virtue of their “costliness.” For instance, a peacock’s colorful tail feathers make it easy prey for predators, but they tell a peahen that he’s fit enough to sustain the risk. The more one has of the trait to be touted (fitness, say), the less costly the signal (feathers), making the display of the signal a reliable proxy for the trait. This is how conspicuous consumption works: jewelry is costly, unless you’re rich and won’t miss the cash. Similarly, deliberate nonconformity shows that you can handle some ridicule because you’ve got social capital to burn.

The economist Nick Feltovich and his colleagues have done work demonstrating that this kind of behavior—known as costly signalling—can also lead high-status people to avoid being ostentatious. Imagine three groups of people: those with low, medium, and high amounts of a desirable trait, like wealth. Someone without much income would have to make big sacrifices to buy a BMW. If you’ve got a bit more money—you’re a medium—it’s easier for you to signal wealth, and you might buy status symbols so that no one mistakes you for a poor person. A really wealthy person, on the other hand—a high—can distinguish himself from the mediums by choosing not to send costly signals of wealth. If he has enough secondary signals of status—a prime address, a high-profile list of friends—he’ll feel secure in not being mistaken for poor. (Understatement can also work when signalling talent, popularity, or intellect. Thus, Harvard graduates say only that they went to school “in Boston.”)

Other recent research demonstrates that when people violate norms, it makes them seem powerful. In one experiment reported in 2011, by Gerben Van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam, along with colleagues, subjects imagined a scene in a city-hall waiting room. Someone stands up and either goes to the bathroom or grabs coffee from a worker’s desk. The coffee-taker was rated as more decisive and in control and as having more authority and influence. In another experiment, a bookkeeper who said it’s O.K. to bend the rules was seen as having more power than one who said it wasn’t. And in another, subjects rated a fellow subject as more powerful when he arrived late to the experiment and put his feet up on the table.

The researchers raise several questions about their findings, such as whether people in other countries and cultures would make the same inferences as their counterparts in the U.S. and Italy. Or whether there’s a sweet spot for nonconformity: too much, and maybe you’re a jerk or a weirdo. Or whether the attractiveness of the nonconformist matters. Or how one can signal that one is flouting a convention intentionally. But, for now, the conclusion seems to be that, in the right situation, breaking the rules a little can be a great way to show off—assuming you can back it up.

Gino, one of the co-authors of the Harvard research, recently received tenure at Harvard Business School; she avoids the school’s PowerPoint templates and loves her red Converse. I asked Bellezza if she ever uses nonconformity as a signal. “I’m still a doctoral student,” she said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t dare teach a class in red sneakers myself. Maybe one day, but not now.”

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