ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2022, Vol. 54 ›› Issue (9): 1106-1121.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2022.01106

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Can you perceive my efforts? The impact of social status on consumers' preferences for complexity

CHEN Zengxiang1, HE Yun2, LI Xiao2, WANG Lin1   

  1. 1School of Business & Finance, Sun Yat-sen University, Zhuhai 519082, China
    2School of Business, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou 510275, China
  • Published:2022-09-25 Online:2022-07-21


Aesthetic is the first medium of a product in the era of “appearance economy.” Previous studies have explored the effects of aesthetic elements on consumer behavior, including color, packaging transparency, size, logo shape, and so on. Unlike existing studies, this research discusses the overall dimension of design, that is, the degree of complexity of the design. Specifically, we propose that people’s subjective social status affects their preference for complexity in design. Meanwhile, people with low social status are more likely to prefer a complex packaging design than those with high social status.

We conducted five experiments to test the hypotheses. Experiment 1 used 2 (social status: low vs. high) × 2 (product design: simple vs. complex) between-subjects design with 198 adults (female = 128) participating in the experiment. The results showed that people with relatively low social status have higher evaluations of complex packaging designs (M simple= 4.24, SD= 0.17, M complex= 4.94, SD= 0.16), F(1, 190) = 8.76, p= 0.003. At the same time, the level of complexity did not influence how people with high social status evaluate products (M simple= 4.59, SD= 0.16, M complex= 4.70, SD= 0.17), F(1, 190) = 0.19, p= 0.66, see Figure 1.

Using a more rigorous method to manipulate the social status, experiment 2 employed a one-factor two-level (social status: low vs. high) between-subjects design with 134 adults (female = 97). After manipulating social statuses, participants reported their preferences between complex and simple packaging designs. The higher the preference value is, the more people prefer complex designs. The result confirmed that people with low social status preferred products with complex designs (M high= 4.02, SD= 2.31, M low= 4.92, SD= 2.19), F(1, 132) = 5.16, p = 0.025, η2 = 0.038.

Similar to experiment 2, experiment 3 (211 participants, female = 151) also used a one-way design (social status: low vs. high vs. control) but added a control group as the baseline group for comparison. The results confirmed that a low social status could drive preference for complexity. Furthermore, the results showed that people with low social status (M low= 6.00, SD= 2.20) preferred complex packing design more than those in control (M control= 5.22, SD= 2.28; t(196) = 2.034, p= 0.043) and high social status groups (M high= 4.86, SD= 2.34; t(196) = 2.86, p= 0.005; see Figure 2). At the same time, no significant difference was observed in the preference between the high social status and control groups, t(196) = 0.897, p= 0.371. Experiment 3 also found that consumers’ perceived effort mediated the above effect. Specifically, in the comparison between the control group and the low social status group, the mediating effect of consumer perceived effort was positive and significant (β = 0.31, 95% CI = [0.004, 0.66]); in the comparison between the control group and the high social status group, the mediating effect of consumer perceived effort was not significant (β = 0.06, 95% CI = [-0.41, 0.28]); in the comparison between low social status group and high social status group, consumer perceived effort also played a mediating role (β = -0.37, 95% CI = [-0.73, -0.03]). These results showed that low social status individuals (vs. individuals in high social status vs. individuals in the control group) perceived that complex packing products entailed more effort from producers. Hence, they preferred such products.

Experiment 4 was a pre-registration experiment (200 participants, female = 151). The experimental design and procedure were the same as in experiment 2. The results also showed that people with low social status preferred complex packaging designs (M low= 4.70, SD= 1.86, M high= 3.33, SD= 1.89; F(1, 198) = 26.84, p < 0.001, η2= 0.12) and believed these products had a higher value (M low= 4.71, SD= 1.62, M high= 3.86, SD= 1.60; F(1, 198) = 13.88, p < 0.001, η2= 0.07). Compared with high social status individuals, low social status individuals perceived that producers spent more effort on a product if it had a complex packaging design (M low= 4.80, SD= 1.50, M high= 3.74, SD= 1.61), F(1, 198) = 23.13, p < 0.001, η2= 0.11. Thus, these consumers perceived higher product value, as well as higher preference toward the product (sequential mediation: model 6; β = -0.47, 95% CI = [-0.74, -0.25]).

Experiment 5 tested the mediation effect by moderators. We proposed that the impact of social status only existed in consumers who believed in the value of effort. Experiment 5 used a 2 (social status: low vs. high) × 2 (product design: simple vs. complex) × 2 (belief in effort value: low vs. high) between-subjects design (346 participants, female = 208). The ANOVA revealed a three-way interaction (β = -0.73, t = -1.99, p = 0.048). Furthermore, the Johnson-Neyman analysis found that the preference for complex design among low social status individuals only existed among those who believed in the value of effort (β = -0.46, t = -1.97, p = 0.05). The results of this interaction again suggested that the preference of low social status individuals for complexity stems from their perception of the producer’s effort in making these products.

This study has the following theoretical contributions. First, it brings the perspective of subjective social status to the study of consumer aesthetics. Second, it provides a new mechanism for the role of social status, i.e., social status affects people’s behavior by influencing their perceived importance of effort. Previous explanations of the behavior of low social status individuals have tended to be from a compensatory psychological perspective. In contrast, the current research takes the perspective of effort to demonstrate that low social status individuals value effort, which influences their behavior. Third, this research also contributes to the study of consumer effort, as this study finds that simply changing the level of complexity of packaging design can change people’s perceptions of producer effort.

Key words: aesthetic preference, perceived social status, consumer effort, product design