Researchers Gavid Kilduff and Adam Galinsky were interested in priming, how exposure to something can change how we respond to events that follow, like seeing people as 'warm' after holding a warm drink, or physically slowing after reading about elderly people (an effect now under some scrutiny). As priming operates via mental states, which fluctuate day-to-day, if not minute-to-minute, we normally expect their effects to be similarly short-term. However, Kilduff and Galinsky proposed that effects that boost status during a group's formation could get locked-in for the lifetime of the group. If I'm struck by Sheila as having top-dog potential, I'll ask her perspective more often and put more faith in her opinions, and these prophecies become self-fulfilling.
The research focused on mental states that involve an 'approach orientation', where the individual is drawn to exploring and meeting people, problems, or environments, as opposed to a conservative 'avoidance orientation'. Approach orientation is associated with confidence, activity, and goal-oriented behaviour, the sorts of things that are habitual to extraverts and trait-dominant people, people who tend to take higher status roles. In some senses it is a 'state' version of the extraversion trait. Could it give the same status benefits?
The first study established this was possible - at least in the short-term - by priming their 57 student participants by asking them to write a few paragraphs on either their commute to work (No priming), their current duties and obligations (Avoidance), or their ambitions and aspirations (Approach). Then one student from each condition met as a trio for a twenty minute session in which they tackled an open-ended task (ranking the importance of items to a new business). The participants gave higher anonymous status ratings to team members who had been primed with the approach orientation task. The group also agreed (through ratings) that these Approach individuals showed more proactive behaviour during the meeting, which appeared to mediate and explain the status bonus.
The second study replicated and extended the first using a different element of approach orientation: where the previous study had focused on 'promotion focus', this one primed the state of feeling powerful, by asking this group to write on a situation where they had power over others, versus being disempowered or the same neutral condition as before. Again, ratings following the group decision task showed that individuals in the power condition were awarded higher status and engaged in more proactive behaviours, behaviours now measured by blind coders observing video of the interaction. Two days later, the group was reassembled for another decision task with no further mindset manipulations. Those who had initially been in the Power condition continued to get a status advantage. These participants had provided personality data, and analysis suggested this Time 2 benefit to status was greatest for those lower in extraversion.
The final study replicated this two-stage approach by priming happiness, unhappiness or neutral thoughts in the writing exercise. As well as rating status, participants at the second meeting were asked to secretly apportion points between themselves and their two team members, points that contributed to chances of winning a financial prize. Participants originally assigned to the Happiness condition received more points at this second stage, in addition to higher status ratings. This use of an additional, novel metric goes some way to heading off a potential criticism of the research design, which is that Time 2 status ratings may be anchored by the Time 1 ratings. All these effects were stable even when controlling for Extraversion, Trait Dominance and Trait Positive Affect, more durable individual features that affect status.
This research suggests a kind of butterfly effect, where small differences in initial mindset can echo through a group's interactions and shape their status relationships in a way that remains, even days later. A short-term change of mindset is relatively easy - the manipulation in this experiment is trivially easy to do yourself - especially compared to trying to alter personality states, never mind demographics. The suggestive finding that mindset could matter more for those less extraverted, who take status less naturally, makes this finding empowering.
Driskell, J. E., & Mullen, B. (1990). Status, expectations, and behavior: A meta-analytic review and test of the theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, 541–553.