The Signaling Motives Behind Purchasing Decisions

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.

Competitive Altruism

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler write about the Arabian babbler, a bird that lives in hierarchical social groups. The small birds are easy prey when isolated on their own, but as a social group they can live in bushes where they are able to take turns on guard duty, protect each other, and forage for food within a given territory. What is interesting about the birds, in the context of Simler and Hanson’s work, is that male birds compete for the opportunity to be altruistic within the group.

 

The dominant male birds will compete to be the top lookout bird, forgoing their own food for the chance to protect the group. They will feed other birds before themselves (sometimes forcefully) and fight to be the toughest group protector. The birds are not just socially altruistic, they are competitively and forcefully altruistic. Hanson and Simler write, “Similar jockeying takes place for the “privilege” of performing other altruistic behaviors,” to highlight the birds competitive nature.

 

The authors place this type of behavior within the context of evolution. The more dominant males show their physical prowess and mental acuity by their altruism rather than just by fighting and pecking lower males to death. Nevertheless, their altruism is equally about setting themselves up to pass on their genes as it is about protecting the group and doing what is best for everyone else. This type of behavior is relatively easy to connect back to humans. We pose everything we do as being good for the whole, but often we take actions to better our chances of impressing a mate or to pad our LinkedIn profile.

 

We even go out of our way to compete to be altruistic at times. In small groups where we want to impress someone to further our career, we will compete to take on the most challenging jobs, to write the best report, or to do the least glamorous job so that we can be praised for doing the dirty but necessary work. Our altruism is not always about altruism, sometimes it is much more selfish than we want to let on. As Hanson and Simler close the anecdote about the birds, “babblers compete to help others in a way that ultimately increases their own chances of survival and reproduction. What looks like altruism is actually, at a deeper level, competitive self-interest.”

Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.

 

In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 

 

Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.

 

Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.

Mob Danger

I remember taking a psychology class in college and learning about the ways that human psychology changes when we are in large crowds. We are less likely to call the police when we see a crime being committed if we are around lots of other people in a public place. We become more extreme in our actions and behaviors than we would be on our own. In a sense, we give up our conscious reasoning and begin to act more like fish swimming in a school, reacting to everyone around us and not maintaining our individuality.

 

In his book Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes about crowds, generally encouraging the man he was writing to stay away from them. The reason why Seneca encourages avoiding crowds is because they seem to create a pull toward vice in a way that being on ones own does not. Especially, Seneca says, we should avoid the games – as in gladiator battles where he describes the inhumane way that men and women at the event encouraged the slaughter of other human beings.

 

I think Seneca is correct in saying that being in large crowds encourages bad behaviors and can push us to act in ways that we otherwise would find abhorrent. But, I don’t think it is necessary for us to withdraw from crowds entirely. I think we should still participate in crowds and allow ourselves to be engaged with our culture, but we should approach crowds with a mindset that keeps us aware of what is taking place around us and how we are acting. Effectively, I think we should approach crowds with the mind of a journalist.

 

I work a lot of sporting events assisting the media department at the University of Nevada. I am deeply upset by how quickly men and women at sporting events will turn to insults profanity when they are upset by something that happened in a game. I feel almost as though I was the one insulted when I hear disgusting comments hurled at opposing teams and referees. Because I engage with reporters at the game and because I sit in a place where I cannot cheer, I have learned to look at the behaviors around me and to observe the event without feeling compelled to allow myself to be overcome with emotion and behave in a way that would embarrass my grandparents if they were sitting next to me.

 

Additionally, I am not religious but I do attend church services from time to time with my wife. I find that observing the service and bringing the mind of a journalist with me is helpful in that it allows me to learn, to try to connect dots between religion and what I try to develop as scientific empirical beliefs, and to observe how human connection can flourish in a religious context. Instead of brooding and rolling my eyes in the face of something I do not believe, I find that I can be more thoughtful and considerate if I am aware of my emotions and reactions and focus on being an observer rather than a direct participant. Both in the world of sports and in the world of religion, I find that I can be around crowds better when I approach the crowd with deep self-awareness and do my best to be cognizant of what is happening around me, the emotional reactions that are stirred up, and how other people are behaving relative to the baseline that I think is reasonable to maintain. I am cautious around crowds, but I don’t have to avoid them as Seneca encouraged, because there is a lot to learn about ourselves from large groups of people.

Aware of Your Feelings of Superiority

In my life I want to remain open to the world around me, try new things, and stretch myself in areas where I recognize I don’t have much experience. In order to successfully live an open and exploratory life, I will have to accept that I am not as great as my ego wants me to believe I am, and I will have to accept that I don’t already know everything I need to know about how to live a good life. If I begin approaching the world as though I already have it figured out and as if my way of life is superior to the way that other people live, then instead of branching out, I will likely turn inward, away from a changing world.

 

“No group ever decided to pull inward and cut off contact with the outside world because they believed their own group was inferior,” Colin Wright wrote in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. It is hard to avoid judging other people, and even easier to judge other groups rather than just other individuals. “Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together,” Robin Hanson stated in an interview with Tyler Cowen for his podcast Conversations with Tyler.

 

Allowing ourselves to see ourselves and our groups as morally superior to others limits our world and puts us in a place where we are less likely to connect with people who are not like us. I see this a lot with the relationships between runners and people who do cross-fit. It seems almost universal that runners criticize cross-fit athletes. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that what is happening is that runners are trying to express their (moral) athletic superiority over cross-fit athletes as a way to justify why they don’t do cross-fit themselves. To acknowledge that cross-fit is a good workout and accept that a cross-fit athlete is just as athletic, talented, hard-working, or smart as a runner places the runner in a position where they have to defend their sport and their choice to do running when a potentially more well-rounded and fun type of exercise exists.

 

The runners versus cross-fit example is just a small example of how our in-group versus out-group thinking manifests in real life. This type of thinking, of believing that we and our group are superior to other groups can have serious consequences. It can lead to our group becoming more close-minded. It can lead to us individually being less open to people who live differently. It can lead to enclaves and divisions within society that see conflict and threat instead of opportunity and learning. By becoming aware of these feelings of superiority, recognizing how frequently these feelings lack any solid rational basis, and by trying something new, we can prevent ourselves and our groups from becoming isolated. This will give us a chance to learn new things, gain insightful experiences, and it will help us provide more value to the world.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

The Trouble With Group Brainstorming

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds continues to explain the results of experiments on group behavior by explaining ways in which group discussions can lead to individuals dominating group discussions and stifle others.  “When strong-willed people lead group discussions they can pressure others into conforming, can encourage self-censorship, and can create an illusion of unanimity.” This quote very accurately explains many of the groups that I was a part of for school projects in high school and college.  A single individual can drive the group in the direction they see best while shutting out the ideas of others in the group.  This can make the group feel hostile, and can actually reduce creativity.

 

Being in a group with a strong-willed individual can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.  If the group does not lead in the exact direction desired by the strong-willed person, then they will feel betrayed and angry, and the quality of their work and participation will dwindle.  I have been part of groups where one person pushes the group in a certain direction, only to have the rest of the group eventually go in another direction and leave them as an outcast.

 

In terms of creativity, group brainstorming can be one of the least effective ways to come up with creative ideas, and Wiseman’s quote shows why.  Self censorship during brainstorming is the opposite of what is desired, but it is often what occurs when a group of individuals get to gather.  The strong-willed individual may push people to think in ways that are more aligned with their ideas, and not necessarily the most creative.  Those who are more shy may be reluctant to share good ideas in a group because they know that the leaders or their colleagues may not be open to the ideas that they have.  Strong-willed individuals can shut them down with as little as a shake of the head or a brief smirk at the mention of an idea that does not align with their thoughts.

Groups & Individuals

In American politics we often complain about the polarization of ideas amongst politicians and their lack of ability to accomplish anything.  Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds examines the behavior of individuals relative to the behavior of groups, and what he presents is an explanation for our government’s fractured state.  In regards to decision making Wiseman writes, “being in a group exaggerates people’s opinions, causing them to make more a extreme decision than they would on their own.”  He explains an experiment by James Stoner in which an individual was asked to consult a mildly successful author about whether or not they should stop writing cheap thrillers and take a risk by writing a larger novel that is outside of the typical genre in which she publishes. Individuals were less likely to recommend that she strive towards the risky novel than groups were.
Wiseman’s conclusion is that the groups we belong to push us further in whatever direction we already lean. In the example from Wiseman’s book, if we tend to be slightly more risky, then in a group we become much more risky.  This explanation of our behavior translates nicely to our political system. I studied political science in college and I remember discussing the impact of party leadership on Congress. What studies had shown is that the longer a politician serves in Congress and the more they become part of party leadership, the less likely they are to vote along the lines of what their constituents actually want.  Part of the explanation for this behavior could be related to Wiseman’s findings of group behavior pushing an individual to more extreme ideas.  The more control party leaders have over the other members of congress, the more they are likely to shape their decisions, and the longer an individual is in Congress, the more likely their decisions will become polarized. I think that Wiseman’s understanding of group decisions versus individual decisions does an excellent job breaking down part of our government’s breakdown.
On a personal scale I think it is important to be aware of the impact that groups will have on us.  Building our ideas in a group, as opposed to individual study and idea formation, may mean that we adopt more extreme ideas on a given topic.  In addition, when trying to brainstorm ideas, Stoner’s research shows us that groups will push us towards decisions and ideas that are more extreme than those we would find on our own.  I think this also translates into the ways we act and think about everyday topics.  Groups may be much more likely to push us towards having more extreme opinions about other people, act in more polarized ways toward others, and make us think in a different way about social issues and occurrences.  If you are building your self awareness, recognizing the impact of groups on your thoughts and opinions is crucial.