Status Differences in the Cognitive Activation of Social Networks

Organization Science, Forthcoming

34 Pages Posted: 23 Sep 2010

Date Written: September 22, 2010


We develop a dynamic cognitive model of network activation and show that people at different status levels spontaneously activate, or call to mind, different subsections of their networks when faced with job threat. Using a multi-method approach (General Social Survey data and a laboratory experiment), we find that, under conditions of job threat, people with low status exhibit a winnowing response (i.e., activating smaller and tighter subsections of their networks), whereas people with high status exhibit a widening response (i.e., activating larger and less dense subsections of their networks). We integrate traditional network theories with cognitive psychology, suggesting that cognitively activating social networks is a pre-condition to mobilizing them. One implication is that narrowing the network in response to threat might reduce low-status group members’ access to new information, harming their chances of finding subsequent employment and exacerbating social inequality.

Keywords: Networks, Cognition, Status, Job Search

Suggested Citation

Smith, Edward Bishop and Menon, Tanya and Thompson, Leigh, Status Differences in the Cognitive Activation of Social Networks (September 22, 2010). Organization Science, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Tanya Menon

University of Chicago - Booth School of Business ( email )

5807 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Leigh Thompson

Northwestern University - Kellogg School of Management ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Donald P. Jacobs Center
Evanston, IL 60208
United States
847-467-3505 (Phone)
847-491-8896 (Fax)


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