To rest on one’s laurels: Effectiveness and sustainability of status orders.

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Abstract: Individuals recognized and celebrated by their peers are generally more motivated to be productive and cooperative, turning social status into a critical organizational feature to incentivize individual behavior and build successful collective enterprises. A significant limitation of the studies on this topic is that they fail to show whether status attainment can produce sustainable performance and cooperation that can persist while status increases. As individuals climb the status ladder, a high social standing may create opportunities for distraction and complacency, rendering status hierarchies ineffective in producing long-term cooperation. To tackle this puzzle, I compare the cooperative behavior of high-status individuals with similar others who are not high status (i.e., their counterfactuals). I collect the data from a large Q&A online community comprising 130 million contributions and 235 million status changes from 16 million users. The findings uncover the benefits of status for collective efforts by showing that high status motivates cooperation among the most celebrated. Nonetheless, this positive effect declines over time, revealing that status orders cannot secure collective outcomes effectively in the long run. More generally, this investigation helps us understand the broader structural consequences of social rewards for cooperative behavior.