Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 37: Prestige Leadership

Emory S. Bogardus

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SOCIAL leadership and prestige are inseparable, for prestige is a rating of superiority, which gives leadership its chance. Prestige is a person's evaluation by his associates. As stated by Leopold, prestige is "a favorable impression, of one person in the eyes of another."[1]

The superiority assigned a person by others rarely coincides with his true worth. It is a relative matter, in which a leader is compared by persons with their own individual standards. Hence a leader's prestige depends on the standards of the persons who are judging him. It varies according to the latter's knowledge, prejudices, attitudes.

Since one's prestige rarely corresponds to his real worth it is in part a delusion. The term, prestige, comes from the Latin and means delusion. It once connoted a reputation obtained by juggling and conjuring, casting out demons, and prophesying. It deluded by appealing to personal fancy, or by arousing the feelings and passions.

Prestige, in the sense that it is commonly used today, is a psychological estimate, but it is rarely based on "a scientific personal analysis of a person's worth ;" it is a "complex product of half-intellectual, half-emotional attitude, of each member of the group toward the leader as seen by other members."[2] The vast majority of people, not being psychologically trained, are largely unscientific in rating their leaders.

"The subject of prestige is not the actual personality but the picture of this individual drawn by public opinion."[3] The less scientifically trained the masses are, the more easily they may be duped by false leaders who innocently or deliberately take advantage of them. By displaying "symptoms of wealth" one may acquire for the time being the prestige of the wealthy.

In judging pictures in an art gallery the ordinary person asks first who is the painter and then judges accordingly. If a picture is by "Rembrandt," it is a masterpiece ; if by Maes, it goes into the discard. In art

( 429) as in drama, even the critic says with Bernard Shaw : "How can I tell if it is a good play until I know who wrote it ?"[4]


There are about five main sources of a person's prestige. 1. There is the prestige arising from a person's present position, rank, office, insignia. If a stranger is introduced as "Mayor," "Governor," or "Colonel," he is at once given a rating that the given rank ordinarily carries with it. He receives the homage that is due the institution whose representative he is at the moment. It is not easy for the average spectator to separate the office and the institution from the worth of the person holding that office. Since an official's actual personal worth is usually either greater or less than the rating of the office, and often greatly so, the prestige that he acquires is rarely accurate. Insignia give prestige. The clergyman's coat is a symbol which generates prestige. Both the bishop and the hobo must dress the part.[5]

2. Past good fortune is another source of prestige. The inheritance of wealth gives prestige in any country where money is rated high. Money is power, economic power, social power; it can buy the best of residences, the most attractive luxuries, and even has influence in the church, in courts, in politics. Inherited status also gives prestige. The son of a millionaire, of a sovereign, a national pugilist, a motion picture actor, is worshiped because he carries the name of a public favorite.

3. Present good fortune creates prestige. The finding of a million dollar "gusher" at once elevates the owner in social esteem. Persons who have made a "lucky" move and thereby have jumped into prominence gain prestige. Many an ordinary man elevated to office in order to break a deadlock between far abler candidates, has thereby adventitiously acquired prestige.

4. Past success creates prestige for the current hour. He who did something well five, or ten years ago is expected to perform well today. Since he has done well, therefore, he will do well now—such is the logic of prestige. Such prestige acts as stimulant or chloroform, according to the social attitudes and situation of the person who acquires prestige. If young and ambitious, he will likely be stimulated. If he has achieved repeated success, has become surfeited with public honors, or if he is failing in health, he will be inclined to rely on his prestige to carry him

( 430) through present emergencies. How often an orator will speak without preparation, depending on his prestige to carry the unprepared speech "across."

5. The best basis for prestige is current achievement. He who by his own efforts does things well today, who is climbing by honest labor, will be given, barring accident of circumstances, a full measure of justly earned prestige.

Achievement will win prestige, even though its first exhibitions be laughed at. The following incident illustrates how conduct first pronounced "crazy"may be changed by "results" into leadership prestige.

In Suchedniow . . . a farmer read in the Gazeta Swiateczna how from a morass a good meadow, and how from useless, good and fertile land can be made. Confident in the wise advice, he began at once to dig pits through his wet meadows and marshes. His neighbors laughed at him (saying), that he was establishing a cemetery upon his land and digging graves for his whole family. When finally he began to carry dust from the road paved with chalk-stones and scattered it upon the wet meadows, they shook their heads saying that he was crazy. But later they saw the result of this work. They were convinced that a piece of meadow from which formerly a small heap of poor hay mixed with moss had been gathered began to give this careful farmer an enormous wagon of hay, half clover. Then they themselves started to dig pits in their meadows and from morning until night they carry dust from the roads. And, therefore, where up to the present were morasses and marshes there are now meadows that can be mowed twice.[6]

Prestige is unsocial. Any person who stands out from his fellows, whether helpfully or harmfully is accorded prestige among some persons. Wealth irrespective of the use that is made of it has prestige. The man who makes money is rated higher by public opinion than he who helps to make character. Deviltry prestige often scintillates above goodness prestige.

Prestige is attached to persons in the most whimsical and fantastic ways with regard to their moral or social worth. The difficulty is not with prestige as such but with the lack of discrimination shown by those who bestow it; hence, the need to rationalize people's assumptions of superiority in others.


Prestige is often the tragedy of greatness. It may give a person a false estimate of his worth. If his prestige is larger than his real

( 440) worth, he learns to rate himself according to it and thus gets an exaggerated opinion of himself. If his prestige is smaller than his real worth, he may become disheartened, or he may be stimulated to overcome the disadvantage, and to win back a lost prestige or to build to larger proportions.

Prestige may hinder the growth of sympathy by making a man egotistical and self-centered. With eyes upon him, he acquires an attitude of considering himself a social center; he fails to seek the viewpoints of others, to "feel with" others.

Prestige promotes pride and vanity. Thus, the very success which produces an enlarging personal usefulness creates a prestige which may bring about a leader's downfall. In achieving, a person is endangered by the magnifying glass of prestige.

Prestige is often sought by all manner of false means. Almost everything except real worth and achievement is played up by many persons as a means of acquiring prestige. Many leaders give themselves considerable personal advertising, which, however, quickly reaches a point of saturation. Preachers, especially evangelists, are prone to fall in this way, particularly in their public prayers. Note this sentence from a prayer heard over the radio:

"O Lord, take care of the 3,760 persons converted in our tabernacle during the past year."

A leader's prestige is based in part on his attitudes. If he acts in evident good faith, moral prestige at least, will be accorded him. He will be rated as trustworthy and reliable; his ability-prestige, however, may be of a different sort. The problem becomes acute when a leader's ability is superior but is accompanied by a low moral rating. If a leader's work removes him almost entirely from associative life as in the case of the laboratory worker, his moral prestige is of secondary importance. On the other hand, if a person's work requires that he appear daily before large numbers of people and if his dishonesty or immorality is regularly flaunted, then his moral prestige becomes more important than his ability-prestige. People easily learn to copy what they frequently see, especially if it appears in connection with skill or art. The motion picture star's personal life is usually heralded far and wide and hence her morality level is naÔvely copied by the multitudes who are captivated by the film spectacles she produces. In daily public life a person of ability but low morals will set currents of low human values in motion, and thus over-balance all the gains to progress that his ability may achieve.

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Persons are continually estimating each other's worth, but always on the basis of the social values which they hold. Prestige, thus, goes continually back to social values. If prize-fighting is a social value, then the ability of one man to knock another man down for ten seconds will be rated high and that man be given prestige. If the Christian gospel of sacrificial service and love be held truly valuable then prize-fighting will be rated low and a champion will be accorded the prestige of a jungle beast. To study prestige scientifically it is necessary, hence, to consider the social values of a people.

The main weakness of prestige is its tendency to rely on appearances. He who can "appear well" is thereby accorded prestige. Culture in the narrow sense of "manners" is still rated high; the question is not always raised whether fine manners and courtesy are supported by social and personal worth. A man in a soldier's uniform is rated higher than the same person in overalls. Hence, socially shrewd persons may easily hoodwink the public and secure for themselves false recognition.

In order to regain lost prestige it is often necessary to remain out of public sight for a time and then to appear in a new field of activity. A man in politics who has suffered a serious defeat must usually patiently bide his time and later build up a new prestige.


Institutions, like persons, possess prestige. In intellectual fields, philosophy and mathematics have had a long standing prestige, while only a century ago subjects such as geology and biology had no particular recognition, and a few decades ago sociology had no prestige. Gradations in prestige, often based on many adventitious factors, exist today among academic subjects. Likewise, social institutions have relative prestiges, which have been built up through a long process of time. Private property becomes recognized in a national constitution, and its prestige multiplies. An entire social class gets a false estimate of its status and another group may blindly or otherwise accept this false estimate even to its own detriment. Slaves usually have been forced to accept the rating that the slave-holding class gives itself. Permanent gradations thus become falsely established and fake values perpetuated. Length of existence in itself sometimes gives prestige; again, novelty is the main key to prestige. Institutional prestige, like personal prestige, is the result of personal estimates or evaluations, and these in turn interact with the prevailing social values.

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1. Prestige is a rating of superiority.

2. Prestige is generally greater or less than a person's actual ability and worth.

3. The inaccuracy of prestige is due to ignorance by one person of another person's ability, or to unscientific methods of making the evaluation.

4. The sources of prestige are found in present rank, past good fortune, present good fortune, past achievement, and present achievement.

5. Prestige is morally neutral.

6. Prestige sometimes gives a person a false estimate of himself.

7. Prestige when sought as a goal or used to seek anti-social goals becomes immoral.

8. A person's intentions, attitudes, wishes, are elusive but vitally related to prestige.

9. Institutions acquire prestige as well as persons.


1. What is prestige?

2. How may a leader occupy several prestige levels at any given time?

3. Without a leader changing in any way, why may his prestige change?

4. Why was prestige first thought of as a delusion?

5. What is the most important source of prestige?

6. Explain : Prestige is unsocial.

7. Why is prestige so often unscientific?

8. In what sense is prestige the tragedy of greatness?

9. How are a person's attitudes related to his prestige?

10. How is prestige related to social values?

11. In what way may a favorable prestige be harmful?


1. What is the relation of a person's prestige to his real worth?

2. To what extent can prestige be successfully "manufactured"?

3. How may one keep prestige from making him unduly proud?

4. How may one whose prestige is far less than his real worth overcome this handicap?

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5. What is an institution's chief source of prestige in an old country? In a new country?

6. Does progress in social stability "lessen the hero-values of a leader, and exalt his directive capacity"?

7. Should a general go to the front when technically he can direct the fighting better from the distant headquarters?

8. Explain : High-heeled slippers are designed "for stationary advertising."

9. Under what conditions does immoral conduct give prestige?

10. How much attention should a person give to his prestige?

11. What is the relation of prestige to reputation?


Carlyle, Thomas, Heroes and Hero Worship (Houghton Mifflin, 1922), Lect. I.

Fiske, John, "Sociology and Hero-Worship," Atlantic Mon., XLVII: 75-84.

Leopold, Lewis, Prestige (Unwin, 1913).

Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Badger, 1920), Part II, Ch. II.


  1. Prestige (Unwin, 1913), p. 25.
  2. Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Badger, 1920), IV :207.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Arbitrator, V : 3.
  5. E. E. Slosson and June E. Downey, Plots and Personality (Century, 1923), p. 71.
  6. Thomas and Znaniecki, the Polish Peasant, IV: 201-2.

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