“All else being equal, we prefer to think that we’re buying a product because it’s something we want for ourselves, not because we’re trying to manage our image or manipulate the impressions of our friends. We want to be cool, but we’d rather be seen as naturally, effortlessly cool, rather than someone who’s trying too hard.”
This quote comes from Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in their book The Elephant in the Brain. The authors describe some of the processes taking place in our brain when we make purchases that we don’t like to acknowledge. We prefer to hide some of these less than flattering motives when we buy something and we create a surface level reason for our purchase that sounds reasonable to ourselves and others. We create stories in our heads and that we share with others about how we have not done anything for ourselves recently, about how we have been saving for a purchase and want to make sure we get our money’s worth, and about how we really deserve this thing because we have been working so hard.
A big reason for why we may purchase something, however, is that we want to impress someone else. We want to make others think something specific about who we are, even if that isn’t exactly true. We want to be impressive, we want to be seen as cool, and we want to impress others, but we can’t always do so directly. It is hard to impress other people with direct shows of how awesome we are, and in many ways (in the United States at least) we have norms which frown upon direct bragging or obvious show-off behaviors. Subtle signaling through purchases, through physique, and through charity help us show-off in socially acceptable ways.
What is really interesting about the quote above is how much we try to make our signaling appear effortless. With being socially cool and desirable, a big piece is making it appear natural. Trying too hard counteracts the signaling we are doing with our purchases because it violates the norms against making obvious efforts to show off. We don’t impress people when they know we are trying to impress them as well as we impress people when it just happens to be a by product of our natural behavior. To that end, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will impress people and how to do that thing in a way that will appear to others as if it were natural and easy. We want to be cool, but we can’t be seen trying to be cool.
Something that is very common to science fiction movies involving future civilizations is a common wardrobe shared by most of the characters. Future cities, alien civilizations, and advanced people in the minds of our science fiction writers seem to give up on a world of distinct fashion in favor of some type of sleek outerwear that has minimal variation from one person to another. Everyone is in the same sleek silver jump suit. Everyone just wears the same indistinguishable plain clothing. The future is not fashionable, its practical and efficient.
I find future clothing interesting because it seems to be saying something different than what we say with our clothing choices today. In a movie, the unimportant background characters all wear the same clothes because they are not supposed to be the standout focus of the film (also a set designer and costume manager would go crazy coming up with 500 different costumes for different people). A lot of our future societies are also either utopian or dystopian, and a sense of individuality is either erased by a tyrant or given up by the society in favor of the collective. Clothes become a way to say, “I’m one of us,” rather than a way to say, “I’m me.”
In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson talk about the hidden messages that our clothes send to other people. They write, “Today there’s a stigma to wearing uniforms, in part because it suppresses our individuality. But the very concept of individuality is just signaling by another name. The main reason we like wearing unique clothes is to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. In this way, […] the most basic message sent by our clothing choices [is] – I’m my own person in charge of my own outfit.”
We choose clothes that say something about us. They signal the groups we belong to, how much we adhere to social norms, and what kind of person we think of ourselves as. We are not just trying to look good, we are trying to give people extra information about ourselves so that they know a little bit about who we are without having to interact with us directly. In movies they tell us who are background characters we can forget about, and in science fiction they tell us that society has congealed together in an efficient and unified manner. Today, however, they tell the world how special and unique we want to be.
Recently I have written about the way we use wealth and money to purchase things that signal something about us. The ideas for my posts have been from The Elephant in the Brain where Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which we intentionally deceive ourselves and others in order to gain something, demonstrate a quality about ourselves, or provide some type of message to others without needing to be overt about our actions. There are lots of things about our identity, our values, and our survival that work much better under the surface rather than explicitly addressed.
Our wealth and money can be signals for our identity, personal character traits, and group status, plus they can be used to purchase other things that further signal these things about who we are. What is interesting is how much we are not aware of these signals, and the extent to which we fail to recognize or acknowledge the drive these signaling mechanisms have in our purchasing decisions.
Simler and Hanson write, “as consumers, we’re aware of many of these signals. We know how to judge people by their purchases, and we’re mostly aware of the impressions our own purchases make on others. But we’re significantly less aware of the extent to which our purchasing decisions are driven by these signaling motives.” We go out of our way to make certain impressions on other people, to show that we are part of a certain group, that we truly belong in a particular space, and that we are competent enough to know what we are doing. We put a lot of effort into demonstrating something about ourselves, even if we don’t think we are.
Sometimes we are expected to make these signals, and sometimes we make them so that we can fit in with a particular group or identity that we want to adopt. Doctors might purchase fancy cars even if they have high levels of student debt and can’t really afford the car. Runners might buy particular sunglasses to look cool at the group runs, and many religious people might spend a lot on fancy religious jewelry to show off wealth and faith at the same time. The things we buy, or don’t buy, reflect something about ourselves, the groups we belong to, and our values. With some purchases we try to be as visible as possible – like buying a fancy thing at a charity auction, and with some purchases we try our hardest to hide the evidence of our transaction – like say paying off a porn actress to stay silent about an affair. The thing we purchase may be an approved way to flaunt our wealth and social value (like a Tesla), but it could also signal a moral deficiency or a selfish behavior. We don’t always acknowledge it directly, but many of our purchasing decisions have these qualities, and it is probably best to be aware of this signaling behaviors when we are making purchases.
I’m not big into materialism and I notice a lot of problems in trying to purchase ever greater and more expensive things. I’m one of those people who would probably repeat the trite line of “I’d rather buy an experience than a thing” or “I want to use my money to purchase memories and things that will stick with me rather than things that wear out.” What I need to remind myself, however, is that purchasing experiences over material objects does not remove me from the human drive to use our purchases to show off.
In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about making experience purchases. Part of why we make these purchases is to enjoy a new experience, see something new, and get away to make new memories as we claim, but part is about something else. “Buying experiences also allows us to demonstrate qualities that we can’t signal as easily with material goods, such as having a sense of adventure or being open to new experiences,” the authors write.
Our experience purchases never happen in a vacuum. We come back from Hawaii with a great tan. We post pictures of the waterfall at the top of our hike on social media. We tell our friends and coworkers about the great meals and the amazing show that we went to. Our experiences don’t stay in the place we visited (sorry Vegas!), and in some ways, that is the point. Part of why we go on vacations, sign up for running events, take fishing trips, or visit the big city is so that we can have new stories to tell when we get back. This is part of the appeal and part of the value of our journeys.
This makes sense to me when I think about how we evolved. Even for those of our ancestors who were more predisposed to be home bodies taking care of the local tribal and group needs, a journey away could provide new insights and stories for others. Possibly a warning of traveling away, possibly of news of something new that might be on its way, and possibly just stories about something different. These tales and stories could help build group cohesion as a whole, and could help the story teller rise in terms of social status in the group to pass on their genes.
In the world today we should remember this. When we take a trip, we should consider our desire for sharing every detail, and we should consider whether we are sharing for others or for our own gain. We might still brag a bit about where we went, but we should do so with a conscious understanding of what we are doing, rather than denying our (potentially) true motives.
Conspicuous consumption is probably one of the most damaging aspects of American society. It involves using our purchases to serve as a way to show off a particular aspect of who we are want to be. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “the idea that we use purchases to flaunt our wealth is known as conspicuous consumption. It’s an accusation that we buy things not so much for purely personal enjoyment as for showing off or keeping up with the Joneses.”
Throughout the book Hanson and Simler look at human behaviors and consider them alongside the stated reasons, beliefs, and excuses that people have for those behaviors. There are many things in life that we do without acknowledging ulterior motives. We have motivations that lie beneath the surface and drive our thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We do not examine and acknowledge these motivations, but they are real, and they are there.
Conspicuous consumption is the use of our wealth and ability to make purchases in a way that is ostensibly about one thing, but very likely are about something else that we would like to keep hidden from others. When we buy a fancy new sports car, we will tell others about incredible new technology, about how hard we have worked and how we deserve to treat ourselves, or about the incredible performance of the car. What we likely won’t tell people is that we felt that we deserved more attention and wanted to show off that could afford a new sports car. What we won’t acknowledge, even to ourselves, is how much our behavior is driven by others and by a desire to fit in, be praised, and make sure everyone is aware of our beliefs about our personal value.
Each of those things (showing how much we fit in, telling people how valuable we are, and receiving praise) are aspects of social life that we can’t just go around and obtain directly. Instead, we have to signal those things through behaviors and activities that we can spin as more sociable and more acceptable behaviors. Money and wealth gives us a chance to show off and to signal our competence or connectedness to the outside world. It gives us a way to brag without having to outright brag. We can be more humble in the ways that we show off by being indirect.
However conspicuous consumption can drive us to ignore climate change and the externalities of our actions. It can create stress as we strive to make purchases that put us in perilous financial situations – the opposite of what the purchase is supposed to signal. And it is ultimately all about gaining more status at the expense of others who cannot keep up. We spend a lot of time and energy attempting to show off our wealth so that we can be rewarded not by the thing we purchase, but with praise and respect of others that we may not really deserve. We should acknowledge these pressures and chose when we are going to be conspicuous with our wealth, and when we will exit the signaling contest avoid showing off.
The last few days I have been writing about communication and asking what our communication is really all about if it is not just about facts and conveying information. When just talking to someone or communicating anything we seem to be including a lot of information that we are not even aware of. One of the things we are showing off in conversation is that we are someone who should be kept around, because we have useful insights and thoughts into the world around us.
In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at this point directly. They write, “Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.”
In his episode of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast
, Hanson describes it as showing off your backpack of skills and abilities. We want to show off that we know interesting facts so that people keep us around to hear more interesting facts in the future. We want to show how well connected we are with other allies so that people want to stick by us to get potential benefits from those insider connections. We also want to demonstrate that we are able to find out useful knowledge that might help someone else in the future. We might have just shared a simple or interesting fact about our experiences or something we learned, but it can demonstrate a lot more about us than we recognize.
Over time, we likely won’t remember where we heard information first. We likely won’t remember exactly who told us what, but we will remember who we have had good conversations with in the past, and people will remember that we had a lot of helpful things to say about a given topic. What we say in this moment doesn’t matter, as long as we develop a pattern of being helpful and insightful.
All of this is happening in our conversations without us realizing how much it is taking place. Conversation is natural, and we don’t want to seem like we are only engaging in conversation to get something useful from someone else, otherwise we won’t truly build any allies and friendships. The brain works better for us when it is not aware of its own motivations in this instance.
“If exchanging Information were the be-all and end-all of conversation, then we would expect people to be greedy listeners and stingy speakers. Instead, we typically find ourselves with the opposite attitude: eager to speak at ever opportunity.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write this in the book The Elephant in the Brain as they attempt to understand exactly what is going on with human communication. The obvious answer for why we communicate and dedicate so much of our brains to language, speaking, decoding sounds, and interpreting meaning from the sounds produced by human vocal cords is because our early ancestors gained an advantage when they could use language to communicate important messages. Saying, you go left and I go right is a lot better than grunting with hand gestures if you are trying to sneak up on a buffalo.
When we talk we convey a lot of direct messages. We can tell someone how much we love and care about them. We can explain to someone how their computer works and what they need to do to get their internet back. Directly talking to someone allows us to give them a recipe and enables us to learn about current world events. The strait forward answer for why we evolved language is because there is a lot of data out there in the world, and we needed a way to transmit the information we have gained from one head to another.
Simler and Hanson, however, believe that language and communication are doing something less obvious for us. One reason they believe more is going on than simply conveying messages is that we don’t hold people in debt for our communication. We don’t share an interesting or meaningful fact, and then expect the other person to communicate something meaningful to us. We may obtain information at a great cost – years of school, spending our time at the city counsel meeting, staying up late with influential people at a bar to get any tidbits they may drop – but we give that information away without demanding reciprocal payment.
A second piece of evidence against communication simply conveying messages has to do with how eager we are to talk. If we really were just communicating information, then we would be the most amazing listeners ever. After all, the whole reason someone was talking was to give us important information. We wouldn’t waste conversation space with meaningless talk about the weather, which we all experienced in the morning and could look outside to see. We would’t eagerly tell someone about what we saw on TV or about the funny thing our dog did. We would instead make sure we communicated valuable information and we would only do so reluctantly, particularly if someone else had given us valuable information which we had eagerly consumed.
The way we communicate doesn’t follow these expectations, and seems to be about something beyond just conveying information. Communication is about more than the message and more than what we have learned and can share about the world. Tomorrow’s post will dig further into this idea.
In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson investigate human communication and ask why we are so quick to speak, communicate, and share information we have acquired, even if we acquired that information at great personal costs. Humans communicate a lot, and we generally like to be the one talking and expressing something about ourselves and our experiences. The problem however, is that it would make more sense for us to do all the listening, and only talk when absolutely necessary or when we were getting a reward.
If I spend a lot of time reading a book and learning something interesting and useful, I should desire a reward for the cost of learning the information I know. Before I write a blog post about interesting information, pontificate at the water cooler, or tell my family something I find fascinating, I should ask to be compensated. Instead, what we usually see, is that we can’t wait to tell people about the interesting thing we have learned. We expend a lot of effort in learning new information, and then we give that information away as quick as we can to anyone.
We also don’t do a great job listening. Rather than spending a lot of time absorbing what the other is saying, we prepare ourselves for what we are going to say next, missing the entire thing that is actually being said as we mentally prepare for our turn to talk. From an economic standpoint, this does not make sense.
“We aren’t lazy, greedy listeners. Instead we’re both intensely curious and happy to share the fruits of our curiosity with others.” Write Simler and Hanson, “In order to explain why we speak, then, we have to find some benefit large enough to offset the cost of acquiring information and devaluing it by sharing. If speakers are giving away little informational ‘gifts’ in every conversation, what are they getting in return?”
I’ll explore this idea a little more in coming posts, but the authors argue that conversation is not really (at least not solely or even primarily) about conveying information. We do a lot of group and alliance signaling in our conversation. We show how creative and insightful we are. We demonstrate to others that we are willing to go learn new and useful information that can benefit the whole group and we show how altruistic we are by sharing this information which we acquired at a great cost. These are important but often unrecognized or unacknowledged parts of our communication. When we speak and when we share information, we are doing much more than just telling people what is inside our head.