By Melanie Padgett Powers
Photo by Gary Landsman

How busy are you these days? The answer to that question says a lot about your social status, according to new research from McDonough School of Business Assistant Professor of Marketing Neeru Paharia.

“Long hours of work and lack of leisure time have now become a powerful status symbol,” wrote Paharia and her co-authors in their report, “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The busier people say they are or appear to be — whether or not they really are — the more important others perceive them to be, according to the study. In American culture particularly, complaining about being busy, or humblebragging, has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon, Paharia and her colleagues found.

“There are a lot of things to complain about — having a cold, having a stomachache, but people strategically complain about being busy,” she said. Even celebrities humblebrag about their hectic lifestyles, as the researchers discovered when they examined 1,100 celebrity tweets. About 12 percent of the tweets were related to complaints about hard work and lack of time. “It’s unclear how busy they really are, but they’re definitely talking about it,” Paharia said.

Not only do we confer a higher status on busy people, but we also see them as in demand, competent, and ambitious, their research shows. Over time, the U.S. system has allowed for “the commoditization of labor,” in which people — not just goods and services — are susceptible to the law of supply and demand. Think of a real estate agent with whom you have trouble getting an appointment. You start to see that person as more valuable.

“Somebody who’s busy is seen as being a scarce resource,” Paharia said. “You’re in demand, and therefore you become scarce.”

In an online study of 307 participants, Paharia and her colleagues showed people fictional Facebook posts from a hypothetical friend about being busy or not being busy. Participants attributed longer work hours, a higher salary, and a higher social status to the person declaring their busyness.

However, in another study comparing Americans with Italians, Italians were more likely to perceive a higher status of a person who does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle compared with someone who works long hours and has a full calendar.

“Americans believe that they live in a mobile society where individual effort can move people up and down the status ladder,” the study found. That’s because Americans tend to believe in an “earned status” system, meaning people have the ability to move up the social status ladder, unlike countries that believe status is inherited from one’s family.

Part of the research also examined busyness-signaling products by comparing people who shop at Whole Foods with those who use Peapod, a grocery delivery service. Peapod users were seen as busier and having as much status as Whole Food shoppers, even though the brand Peapod is thought of as significantly less expensive than Whole Foods. Participants assumed Peapod shoppers were busier at work and had less time to shop.

“Rather than flattering consumers’ purchase ability and financial wealth, brands can flatter consumers’ busyness and lack of valuable time to waste,” the researchers found.

In future studies, Paharia wants to explore how social media makes it easier to signal status through busyness. She also wants to study how people feel about themselves when they feel busy. “They might choose to feel busy because it will make them feel more important. That’s maybe not a great strategy for life,” she said.