The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

Avoid Ascribing Guilt or Menace

I have been engaged with Stoicism for several years now and even though I work on recognizing my thoughts and reactions to the world around me, I am still frequently surprised by how quickly I can assume bad intent in another person and view others as terrible people when they do something I don’t like. Driving down the freeway and having someone speed past me, having to walk past a person smoking a cigarette, and even just having someone stand in front of the item I need at the grocery store are a few examples of relatively meaningless situations where I have found myself ascribing negative qualities and traits to other people who inconvenience me. My mind seizes the opportunity to say something bad about this other person and begins to tell me about how I am superior to them. It is only once I have realized that I have started to do this that I can pull my brain back and recognize that I am no better than anyone else and that these people did not do anything with the intent to harm, frustrate, or inconvenience me.

 

Colin Wright has a quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “It’s worth remembering that we cannot know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re far more likely to see a stranger’s actions through our own lens than to attempt to look through theirs. When a stranger does something we perceive to be wrong, we’re likely to imbue that action with malice, whereas they might only see a harmless act. Our biases and prejudices color our perception of the world, and recognizing this, and working it into our math when we’re attempting to discern what’s happening, is on of the better ways to avoid ascribing guilt or menace to situations that are honest mistakes or blatant misinterpretations.”

 

For the most part, we live our own lives within a world filled with lots of gray. I don’t mean that the world is literally the color gray, unless maybe you live in a city like Seattle, but rather we operate within a set of rules and constantly bend them when it is convenient for us to do so. Our deviations from rules might be harmless, we might know that no one will notice so we won’t get caught, or we might tell ourselves we are breaking this rule just a little bit this one time so its no big deal. We like rules with flexibility where we can get away if we do the wrong thing if it doesn’t feel too bad and we dislike rules where there is no room for discretion (thanks to Robin Hanson for this). We see ourselves and the negative things we do in a more positive light (most of us) while viewing strangers and people who annoy us (like our younger siblings or neighbors) in a more negative light.

 

Constantly telling ourselves that we are good but that everyone else is bad is not just an inaccurate way to approach the world, but it is also bad for our health and bad for society. We know that we bend the rules all the time and rationalize our behaviors and decisions. We know that we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and how our decisions benefit us with little thought for others. We should keep this in mind and not be so quick to ascribe poor qualities to other people and we should recognize that they are thinking about themselves and not thinking about directly offending or inconveniencing us. Spending all our time being upset about others, channeling outrage to make ourselves feel superior, and looking for everyone else’s flaws is going to spike our stress responses and cause health problems. Letting this urge go will help us live more healthy lives, and will also help us connect with these people who frustrate us. By getting out of our own heads, we can connect with others in ways that might actually get them to also be more thoughtful and to behave better, or at least annoy and inconvenience us a little less.