Conspicuous Consuption

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 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 true sometimes, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our purchase. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these excuses that sometimes are true or that partially describe our decisions to justify actions that signal something other than the stated reason for our action.

 

In the case of buying luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth, which 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. Our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes along in a small political tribe.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we have trouble addressing major 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 make them from. 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. In the book, the authors make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives that we would like to keep under the covers. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher, and for 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.

Blind Desires

I think we need to do a lot more coaching with young people, starting early in high school, to discuss careers, ambitions, goals, and what the world is going to expect from young people once they leave high school or college and begin to enter the work force. In the United States, once we complete our education (and sometimes before our education is complete) we enter the job market and a world where we compete for jobs and compete for status. Our world becomes centered around a career that takes up 40 hours of our attention and focus each week. When we are not at work we retreat to our homes where we try to show the world what we have and how special we are. The goal for many of us become increasing what we have to show our high status. We want to go upward, to earn more, to be more, and to have more.

 

But why do we share this desire? Who sat down with all of us to tell us that what we must do is push ourselves in our career and become wealthy to define ourselves as successful? Who told us to all want more and more things? Why do we all desire more expensive cars, bigger homes, and a more impressive title? I would suggest that these are generally blind desires that we organize our life around without deep thought as to where these desires came from.

 

We should sit down with young people to talk about pitfalls of following this traditional path. We should talk to young people about research which seems to indicate that social interaction can be as important for happiness as ever expanding wealth. We should talk about the importance of not just building up our own career, but of building systems and communities that can bring people together, rather than just building up ourselves to show off.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago.” I don’t think everyone needs to abandon capitalism, stop working, and give up all desires, but I think we should be more considerate when we think about career decisions and the work we spend our time with. If we decide that we need a big house, an expensive car, and X number of material goods to be happy, then we will make career and work decisions that trade off our time, flexibility, possibly our health, and our relationships with others so that we can have these things. We should turn inward to make sure we are not pursuing blind desires and we should re-focus ourselves and our lives in a way that will help us find more satisfaction without needing to constantly one-up ourselves and others.

Sharing Knowledge

The informational age that we live in today is interesting. We feel (at least I feel) a great urge to share the knowledge we gain from reading, interacting with smart people, and by simply being present in the world. Personally, I have also almost always felt that I was supposed to have some type of an opinion about any given topic. The world, it seemed, always wanted me to say one thing or another and have thoughts about one thing, even if I didn’t know much about it.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca briefly touches on this same point. He often started many of his letters in a build-up to the advice that he was passing along. One of those sections opening one of his letters read, “Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, in their book The Elephant in the Brain, explain why Seneca felt this way 2,000 years ago and why I feel this way today. They explain that communication is not really about sharing valuable information. If it was, we would only want to share our valuable information if someone else shared their valuable information first. In a sense, our society would be kick-ass at listening, and Ted Talks probably wouldn’t be a thing. What is really happening in our social worlds is that we evolved to show off. We want to show people how much useful information we have, what unique insights our experiences have given us about the world, and what new knowledge we have. Possessing new, unique, and helpful information 50,000 years ago meant that we could help ourselves and others survive. Sharing that information freely showed an abundance of knowledge and resources on our part, and made us a useful ally which helped us thrive in social groups.

 

We probably should not turn against this urge to share useful knowledge. Books, insightful anecdotes, and Ted Talks seem to have worked out pretty good for humans in terms of sharing and passing along useful information. We should recognize, however, that often the desire to share our knowledge is not as altruistic as Seneca might have you think. Our urge is a bit self-serving, so before we post on Facebook about how obviously correct our political views are relative to others, we should recognize the evolutionary forces driving us to have an opinion and encouraging us to blast those ideas out into the world in an attempt to show off. Ultimately, if you are going to share your thoughts, try to spend some time developing them so that they provide real value to the person who may encounter them.

Lets Consider Our Standards for Life

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.”

 

On an initial quick read, this quote seems to be saying, live better than the masses but don’t act like you are better than everyone else. That’s good advice that has been said so many times that it is basically useless. We already all believe that we are morally superior to other people and we are especially likely, according to Robin Hanson in an interview he gave on Conversations with Tyler, to say that our group or tribe is morally  superior to others. If you give the quote a second thought however, you see that there is a deeper meaning within the idea being conveyed.

 

The first thing we should consider is what it would look like to maintain a high standard of life. In his same letter, Seneca advises that a high standard of life does not mean that one wears the nicest possible toga or that one has silver dishes laced with pure gold. A high standard of life is not about maintaining exorbitant material possessions. Advertising in the United States would make you think differently. A high standard of life is advertised to us as driving the finest sports car, demanding the best possible wrist watch, and having exquisitely crafted faucets. Seneca would argue that these things don’t create a high standard of living, but just show off our wealth. I would agree.

 

A high standard of life, Seneca suggests and I would argue, is a well ordered life in which we can live comfortably but don’t embrace the mindset that it is our possessions that define our success and value. A high standard for life means that we cultivate habits which help us be more kind and considerate. We pursue activities and possessions that help us be more effective, less impulsive, and allow us to better use our resources and intelligence.

 

Maintaining this version of a high standard of life can have the same pitfalls we may associate with the Real Housewives of LA if we don’t give thought to the second part of Seneca’s advice. Maintaining high living standards can lead us to selfishness and self-serving decisions if we don’t think about other people and how we operate as a society. Seneca’s advice is about becoming a model for other people and helping become a force that improves lives by encouraging and inspiring others. This idea was echoed in Peter Singer’s book about effective altruism, The Most Good You Can Do. Effective altruists want to direct their efforts, donations, and resources in the direction where they can have the greatest possible positive impact on the world to help the most people possible. One of the ways to do that is to inspire others to also strive to do the most good they can do. No one would follow an effective altruist who gave away all their money and lived a miserable life. But someone would follow an effective altruist who gave a substantial amount of their money to an effective and meaningful charity and still lived an enjoyable and happy life.

 

Our high standard of living in the end should be one that drives us toward continual improvement. A life that makes us more considerate, more thoughtful, less judgmental, and less impulsive. It should encourage others to live in a way that helps them be happier and healthier, rather than living in a way that suggests that having expensive things and showing off is what life is all about.

Why Do You Do What You Do?

A book that is on my reading list for the future is called Start With Why by Simon Sinek, you can find a great Ted Talk from him with the same title to get the idea of the book. People, businesses, and groups all need to figure out why they do what they do if they want to truly build something that lasts. Jumping into something, doing some type of work, and having goals doesn’t really matter too much if you don’t have a good understanding of why you are doing something in the first place. If you have not figured out the motivation piece, the basic core element of the why, then it will be hard to sustain motivation and hard to make sure you are always moving in the right direction.

 

Without truly understanding the why, we give a certain amount of our decision making over to our ego. The “why” behind the actions of the ego is almost always about showing off. The ego wants to impress other people, have more things than others, and feel like it is on top of the world. But chasing the goals and dreams of the ego can put us in dangerous places that don’t align with the life we want to live. In my own life, ego has pushed me to plenty of running injuries, drove me to switch my major in a haze of confusion multiple times during my undergraduate degree, and has urged me to generally try to take on more than I can handle. If I could have put my ego aside, I would have run a little slower and avoided a painful ankle injury, I could have been more comfortable with my undergraduate studies and better embraced my time as a student, and I would even today be better at engaging with things that I find interesting and important even if they are nerdy and won’t bring me lots of friends and attention.

 

In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday encourages us to think deeply about why we do what we do and if we are letting our ego run the show. He writes, “So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people.”  Being able to answer Holiday’s question takes honest self-awareness and reflection. We have to acknowledge the motivations behind our actions, and we have to accept that very often our motivations are not as high minded as we would like everyone to believe. This is also the core idea of the book The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. We often act more out of self-interest than we want to admit, and while we can’t turn that off completely, we can at least better understand it and shape the decisions we make in a better direction.

 

Be aware of your motivation and try to pull back on activities and things that you do simply because you want to earn more money to buy a bigger, newer, more shiny, more impressive thing. Acknowledge the ego’s desire to have something that other people don’t have, to impress other people, and to be praised and ask yourself if the sacrifices of time, attention, and health are worth it to obtain other people’s affection. Be aware of the negative externalities to yourself and others that stem from your actions, decisions, and behaviors and ask if yourself if those costs are truly worth what you seek. Over time try to shift your behaviors so that instead of purely serving your ego, they also fulfill a deeper part of who you are and produce more positive externalities than negative externalities. Accept  that you won’t completely turn off your self-interest, but do things that you believe will make a positive impact on the world, and then try to find the glory in doing those things well, even if the world doesn’t pat you on the back for them.

Advice Monster

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michale Bungay Stanier suggests that we all have an advice monster living inside us.  The advice monster knows what is best for everyone. It knows how to solve the worlds problems. It is a genius and has no faults. It knows other people so well that it doesn’t need to listen to their problems or thoughts because it already has everything figured out for them ahead of time. In fact, the advice monster knows other people better than other people know themselves and it understands social problems and infrastructure problems and monetary problems better than experts and academics who spend their whole lives and all their time working through and thinking about such problems.

 

The short and more accurate description of the advice monster is this, the advice monster is a jerk. It lives inside us and wants to pop out and shout at every moment. And this idea of the advice monster is backed by science. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain why humans evolved to have advice monsters living inside of us. Speaking takes energy, and sharing advice and insights from what we learn overtime gives away our hard earned knowledge basically for free. We should have evolved to be stingy speakers and eager listeners, hungry to take in valuable information about where there is good food, about what dangers lie ahead, and about who to follow on Instagram. But instead, we evolved to speak and shout knowledge about for everyone to hear.  When someone else is talking rather than listening we spend all our time thinking about what we should say next, rather than listening for any helpful info they can give us.

 

The evolutionary explanation from Simler and Hanson is that we are simply showing off when we speak and we evolved to do this. We evolved to show off our mental  toolbox. The things we have learned, the observations we have made, the dots we have connected, and the insights we take from what we see and learn are valuable, and we want to display that to the group we belong to so that others will see us as valuable allies. We have an advice monster because we are political social animals, and to survive as part of the tribe we needed to show our value, and what better way to be valuable than to have novel information about building tools, about where food can be found, and to be able to tell stories that help improve group unity.

 

Unfortunately today, the advice monster is ruining lives and destroying relationships. Coaches today cannot simply let their evolved advice monster run the show, or the people they coach will never grow. Bungay Stanier offers a quick haiku to describe the way we should be coaching once we cut out our advice monster:

 

“Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.”

 

Expanding on the idea of the advice monster, he writes, “We’ve all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode. That’s no surprise, of course. When you take the premium that your organization places on answers and certainty, then blend in the increased sense of overwhelm and uncertainty and anxiety that many of us feel as our jobs and lives become more complex, and then realize that our brains are wired to have a strong preference for clarity and certainty, it’s no wonder that we like to give advice. Even if it’s the wrong advice–and it often is–giving it feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.”

 

Listening doesn’t feel good because it doesn’t engage our evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, it is the way to actually solve other people’s problems. We never truly understand them and their problems as well as we think we do, and certainly not as well as they do. The key is to ask questions and encourage others to find the answers they already know exist. This pushes the advice monster aside and helps us actually be useful for the person we are supposed to be helping.