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Subjective Social Status and Health: Environmental Antecedents and Molecular Mechanisms


Social status, one’s relative rank in a social hierarchy, is a ubiquitous part of human social life. A large focus of the literature has been on subjective social status (SSS), more specifically, which is one’s psychological perception of his position within the social hierarchy. It is also one factor that accounts for variation in health. While there is abundant evidence for an association between SSS and health, there are several important gaps in this literature. First, the antecedents of SSS remain largely unknown. What developmental and contextual factors (Chapter II) and observable cues (Chapter III) predict whether an individual will experience high or low SSS? Second, there is limited research regarding how social hierarchies unfold over time in a population of young adults. How does SSS in young adults change in a new social group and affect physical and mental health (Chapter IV)? Beyond needing to clarify the antecedents and stability of SSS, the molecular mechanisms explaining the relationship between SSS and health remain unclear (Chapter V). Chapters II, III, and IV tested aims in a sample of 94 undergraduate college freshmen living in residence halls. Results of Chapter II indicated that how individuals appraised potentially negative social situations predicted SSS, whereas early life stress did not. Chapter III results suggested that other-rated attractiveness, and dominance to a lesser extent, positively predicted SSS rated by an individual and by outside observers. Together, Chapters II and III highlight contextual and observable cues that predict SSS. The findings of Chapter IV identified that SSS was stable or increased for the majority of freshmen throughout the academic year, but SSS did not reliably predict physical or mental self-rated health; this is perhaps due to the nature of the social group targeted. Chapter V, a study conducted in a population of 47 young, healthy women, revealed that lower SSS individuals have heightened pro-inflammatory gene expression. Thus, those lower in SSS likely perceive diminishing social resources and a threatening social world, which manifests as heightened inflammatory processes, and has potential downstream consequences for inflammatory-related illness.

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