Public Influence and Status Anxiety

People are affected by public influence and status anxiety, wanting to be accepted and respected by everyone they meet

They are acutely conscious of their social status: their emotional well-being depends upon their sense of how others see them: they want to be able to hold their heads up high and not feel that others pity or despise them.  That emotional need makes them vulnerable – a trait that can be exploited by those who wish to influence them, who might be chance acquaintances or even people they haven’t met.

Insecurity and status anxiety arouse powerful emotions, as described in Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents: “downward social mobility was a constant fear” (p. 167).  People whose jobs are threatened, for example, are likely to believe a politician who offers to solve all their problems.  They are also easily lured into believing conspiracy theories – which provide them with someone to blame, as described later (

Some people are mocked for allegedly trying to acquire status by ‘virtue signalling’.  The Daily Wire, for example, reported that a Tesla Owner Concerned His Virtue-Signaling Car Has Become A Vice Because Elon Musk Supports Free Speech and “he admits he mostly bought it so he could be “seen” supporting the correct causes”.  The Daily Wire sees him as posturing, but it can equally be argued that showing one’s concern for the environment is a positive thing to do if it encourages one’s friends to do the same.

Imitation can lead to new fashions and behavioural norms, as with the hippy phenomenon in the 1960s.  As described in a BBC article, Did the Hippies have nothing to say?, the movement was influential: “While the hippies have been largely understood as a cultural movement, often infantilised and satirised, they were also highly political”.  They were a powerful anti-establishment influence.

As an example of public influence and status anxiety across an entire society, John Stuart Mill described the pressure to conform in Victorian England as oppressive, in his book On Liberty:

“there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”.  (Chapter 1, p. 6)

With improved communications, people can exert global influence on each other – for example by blogs and through social media such as Twitter.  Group identities can be forged and strengthened by using the Internet – as countless organisations solicit people to join them, to contribute money etc.

The pressure of public opinion can also be counter-productive: driving those who do not conform to the edges of society and making their behaviour less acceptable to other people.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4323.htm.