Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How Social Networks Can Keep The Poor Down And The Rich Up

When exposed to the threat of job loss, individuals face appropriate uncertainty and fear. It’s what happens next that is most interesting, however. Ideally, one would reach out to as many friends and acquaintances as possible to source possible job opportunities. However, many people do the exact opposite. Instead of widening their networks when their jobs are at risk, they shrink them. What leads people to activate their networks in such different ways? Their own self-perception. In a study we ran using Qualtrics, we found that individuals who view themselves as having high socio-economic status widened their networks in times of threat, reporting them to be larger and more diverse than when not exposed to a job-related threat. Those who viewed themselves as low-status, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction. When they faced the threat of job loss, they remembered their networks as smaller and less diverse, compared to when exposed to no threat. Such contrasting reactions to the threat of job loss have the potential to produce a self-perpetuating cycle, contributing to long-term job displacement among low-status individuals and to wealth disparity in general. Strong vs. Weak Ties Research has long suggested that when people are searching for jobs, the most useful social connections are "weak ties"—in other words, people they know but with whom they don’t regularly associate on either a personal or professional level. These connections are impactful because they tend to expand one’s network by exposing them to people and opportunities that would not otherwise present themselves. Our research found that individuals who view themselves as high status are much more likely to turn to weak ties to help them find new job opportunities.

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