Status differences in the cognitive activation of social networks

Edward Bishop Smith*, Tanya Menon, Leigh Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

158 Scopus citations


We develop a dynamic cognitive model of network activation and show that people at different status levels spon-taneously activate, or call to mind, different subsections of their networks when faced with job threat. Using a multimethod 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 constrained subsections of their networks). We integrate traditional network theories with cognitive psychology, suggesting that cognitively activating social networks is a precondition 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-82
Number of pages16
JournalOrganization Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Experimental designs
  • Labor markets
  • Laboratory research
  • Organization and management theory
  • Organizational behavior
  • Psychological processes
  • Social networks
  • Status.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Strategy and Management
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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