ST Scroll Back: Owning iPhone a top indicator that you’re rich, says US study

Researchers in a US study had a 69 per cent chance of correctly inferring that an iPhone owner had a high income.
Researchers in a US study had a 69 per cent chance of correctly inferring that an iPhone owner had a high income.PHOTO: REUTERS

Status symbols among the wealthy: Raising chickens, having many kids, and working very hard.

iPhones don’t have the big-haired, bank-breaking presence of a Hermes Birkin bag.

They’re not cheap (iPhones can cost over $1,000), but they don’t each cost anything from $16,000 to $270,000. Owning a Birkin loudly labels ladies and quite a few men as members of the mega-rich.

Yet, the iPhone - ubiquitous with likely more than 1.2 billion units sold as of 2017 and since it was launched - is the strongest brand indicator of whether someone comes from a rich household, according to a 2018 United States study. 

69 per cent
Chance of researchers correctly inferring that an iPhone owner had a high income. They defined it as being in the top quartile of income for households of that type - like single adult or couple with dependents, for example. This is from a paper by University of Chicago economists attempting to infer demographics based on people’s consumer behaviour or media consumption.

Sample size of the data used by the researchers. The data included bi-annual questionnaires as well as information like household income from a face-to-face interview.

“Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high-income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016.” - University of Chicago economists Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica.

Here’s a tasty twist: It may sound strange to richer Singaporeans, but using Kikkoman soy sauce is the fifth strongest brand indicator of wealth.

And here are other status symbols to cluck over: Raising chickens, and having many children - at least in certain elite neighbourhoods. 

Read on to find out why these point to people being wildly rich.


There are certain goods which consumers prefer more of as their prices rise. When their prices fall, demand decreases too.

Veblen goods, such as very expensive wines, watches or cars, are named after American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. He observed the desire for luxury living and coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” in his paper, The Theory Of The Leisure Class, published in 1899.

Forbes posed the question in 2012, “The limit to Apple's value: Are they a Veblen good?

The magazine said: “While what they sell is indeed wonderfully engineered and made, better integration of hardware and software than anyone else manages, there is still something else to Apple. That aura that surrounds the company and its products. It is at least partially this that enables the company to charge premium prices for its products. 

“Simply because charging premium prices means they are seen as premium products and thus those with them are either wealthy enough to afford them or have the good taste to recognise their value or… well, they’re Veblen goods, which tells the world how cool we are by our ownership of them.”


Apple CEO Tim Cook told Time that he begins his day at 3.45am. PHOTO: AFP

The newer status symbol, according to The Guardian, is not how much you spend - it’s how hard you work.

The newspaper wrote: “...the acquisition of insanely expensive commodities isn’t the only way that modern elites project power. More recently, another form of status display has emerged. In the new Gilded Age, identifying oneself as a member of the ruling class doesn’t just require conspicuous consumption. It requires conspicuous production.

“...Nowhere is the cult of conspicuous production more visible than among America’s CEOs. Today’s top executives are devoted work-worshippers, nearly to the point of perversity. Apple CEO Tim Cook told Time that he begins his day at 3.45am. (Then) General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt told Fortune that he has worked 100-hour work weeks for 24 years.”

According to a 2017 study from Professor Silvia Bellezza of Columbia Business School, Americans increasingly perceive busy and overworked people as having high status.

“In the past, living a leisurely life and not working was the most powerful way to signal one’s status. (But today,) people’s social-mobility beliefs are psychologically driven by the perception that busy individuals possess desirable characteristics.” - Professor Silvia Bellezza, lead author, along with co-authors Neeru Pahari and Anat Keinan of Harvard University, of a study on the subject. 


Manhattan’s Upper East Side is one of the biggest enclaves of wealth in the world. PHOTO: NYTIMES

While the elites are busy overworking, they are also getting busy and having lots of children.

The ultimate status symbol among the millionaires and billionaires of New York City’s Upper East Side is having a lot of children.

According to a Business Insider report, author Wednesday Martin, who wrote 2015 memoir Primates Of Park Avenue, said: “Five (kids) was no longer crazy or religious - it just meant you were rich.”

US$540,500 (S$737,400)
Average cost of raising a child in Manhattan, according to a 2015 report.

US$40,000 a year
What some of the city’s top preschools charge in tuition, and tuition for private grade school can be even higher. Business Insider said big families can expect to spend millions of dollars for education alone.

“At elite income levels, it is possible to raise quite a few children and still devote significant resources to each one.” - New York University research associate Steven Martin, who worked on a 2008 study by the Chicago-based Council On Contemporary Families. It cited a “significant” increase in families with three and four children among the “super-rich” top 2 per cent of households in America, with an income of US$400,000 or more.


A chicken being held by a daughter of tech-industry power couple Matt Van Horn and his wife, Lauren. They keep heritage-breed chickens, which can cost more than US$350 each. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Feeling broody yet? 

Now, keeping a falcon, which can cost as much US$250,000 each, is an unmistakable sign of wealth. It’s like the Birkin of birds.

But, according to The Washington Post, the Silicon Valley elite’s latest status symbol is actually more like the humble canvas bag of birds: The chicken.


“In the Bay Area - where the nation’s preeminent local food movement overlaps with the nation’s tech elite - egg-laying chickens are now a trendy, eco-conscious humblebrag on par with driving a Tesla,” reported the newspaper.

The chickens and their homes aren’t anywhere near being cheap though.

More than US$350
Amount Silicon Valley residents might spend on one heritage-breed chicken. Such rare, non-industrial birds have genetic lines that can be traced back generations. They are selected for desirable personality traits (such as being affectionate - the lap chickens that are gentle enough for a child to cuddle) and beauty.

Amount paid by Silicon Valley residents to build chicken coops using pricey redwood that matches their human homes. Coops are outfitted with solar panels, automated doors and lighting - as well as video cameras that allow owners to check on their birds remotely.

Nothing like the over-the-top pampering of chickens to show off massive nest eggs.