Key study: Subjective social status and stress (Steen et al. 2020)

Travis DixonUncategorized

Status is one major factor linked with stress and health. We look at a basic study that shows this correlation.

The following is adapted from our latest book for IB Health Psychology about Stress.

Social status is correlated with numerous physical and mental health problems, including stress. Socioeconomic status (SES) is the most commonly studied and it’s a type of social status measured by income, education, and employment. However, when studying stress and teenagers subjective social status might be more relevant. This was investigated in the following study by Steen et al. (2020).

Socioeconomic status (SES) is positively correlated with better health outcomes, including lower rates of developing heart disease and stress-related disorders like PTSD and depression. Similar findings have been found in studies on teenagers and “innumerable studies have found higher objective socio-economic status (SES) to be associated with better health/well-being among younger children and adults.”¹

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Low status is a risk factor for high stress and other mental and physical health problems. Steen et al.’s study shows how status is linked with perceived stress.

Some other studies, however, have found no correlation between SES and health in teenagers or the results are inconsistent. Maybe this is because when researchers measure a teenager’s socioeconomic status, they use the parents income, occupation, and education. These may not be as important for teenagers as they are for adults. Working part-time in the kitchen at McDonalds does not carry social status for a man in his 40s, but maybe for you or a friend it means having your own money to spend and so it can carry status. Imagine a young social media celebrity with broke, uneducated, and unemployed parents – the traditional measures of SES might not be as relevant as other factors. This is why researchers often study subjective social status (SSS) instead. This is a self-report of your own relative social status. It’s defined as “…a person’s sense of place within a hierarchy, which may or may not reflect objective status.”²

Social status and Stress (Steen et al. 2020)

This study investigated the link between subjective social status and stress in teenagers. The aim of the study was to see if SSS is linked with perceived stress in school in Danish adolescent students and was the first study that examined a link between SSS and perceived stress in adolescents.


  • Ps were Over 8,000 Danish 9th graders (15-16 years old).
  • The researchers measured the students’ SSS in general society and SSS in school. Based on their results, they were grouped into different groups (N.B.: a participant could be in the low SSS-society group and also in the high SSS-school group).
  • The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) was used to assess stress levels


  • The scores showed an average stress score of 14.7/40 on the PSS (low to moderate stress levels).
  • Girls were more stressed than boys (16.3 compared to 12.6), which is a common finding in stress studies.
  • Overall, low SSS (3% of all participants) was associated with higher perceived stress compared to medium and high SSS (97% of participants).
  • For SSS-school, low SSS girls were more stressed than high SSS girls (they scored 5.16 points higher on the PSS).
  • The difference was similar in boys (5.04 points difference).
  • Girls with low SSS in society were also more stressed (4.33 points higher on the PSS scale than those in the high SSS group).
  • While this study shows status is linked with stress, can we trust the self-reported data?

    The same applied for boys but this difference was smaller (2.41 points higher).

Conclusions and Applications:

This suggests that status linked with stress and that school status is more strongly related to stress than societal status. The overall conclusion from the study is that lower SSS is associated with higher rates of perceived stress.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • This data was self-reported. Are there reasons why the 3% might have rated themselves as lower status and higher stressed? Can we trust this self-reported data?
  • To what extent do you think these findings would apply to other age groups or nationalities?
  • 16/40 is still low stress levels on the PSS. Does this study explain a health “problem,” or just minor differences in stress levels?


  • ¹Adler, N. E., Stewart, J., et al. (2007). The MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status.  In Psychosocial Research Notebook.  Retrieved January 11, 2013, from
  • ²Sweeting, H., & Hunt, K. (2014). Adolescent socio-economic and school-based social status, health and well-being. Social science & medicine121, 39-47.
  • Steen, P. B., Poulsen, P. H., Andersen, J. H., & Biering, K. (2020). Subjective social status is an important determinant of perceived stress among adolescents: a cross-sectional study. BMC public health20, 1-9.