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.

On Forms of Status – Dominance

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about our hardwired desires to increase our status. No matter who we are, where we are, or what we are doing, we are subconsciously aware of our status and we are pretty much always trying to increase our status one way or another. The authors describe two type of status, and how our attempts to increase our status change depending on the form of status we seek. They write,

 

“Status comes in two distinct varieties: dominance and prestige. Dominance is the kind of status we get from being able to intimidate others – think Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. Dominance is won by force, through aggression and punishment. In the presence of a dominant person, our behavior is governed by avoidance instincts: fear, submission, and appeasement.”

 

Tomorrow I will continue their quote and write about prestige, but for now, I’ll share a few thoughts that I have on dominance. Dominance as a strategy for obtaining strategy to me feels more primitive, and while it may be the kind of status we often seek in sports, courts, and boardrooms, it is not the kind of status that usually seems to be the most effective. In a politicized world where many weaker individuals can gang up on the stronger more dominant individual, this path can be a dangerous route to take. In other parts of the book Simler and Hanson seem to argue that our brains evolved to be more successful in seeking status in other ways.

 

People who seek greater status through dominance alienate a lot of people. They may be impressive in their abilities to bulldoze through their competition and they may achieve great success, but in the social and political species that we are, having friends and allies is important. Dominance does not encourage greater cooperation among talented individuals, but instead seems to force away those who are less dominant. It is not hard to see how this could lead to a small number of dominant sycophants sticking together to ward off attackers, and it is also easy to see how this strategy could backfire and fail to produce long-term status.

 

Ultimately, seeking status and seeking dominance seems to be a “careful what you wish for” type of approach. When your status is based in your dominance of other people, you can never be successful or attain a sense of success on your own. Our status is always tied to others by nature of being relative, but the dominance approach leaves you vulnerable to every slight. Achieving great status in this way is likely to leave you in a point where your status is high in only select groups, and despised in others.

The Price of Friendship

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggests that our self-interest drives a lot more of our behavior than we would like to admit. No matter what we are doing or what we are up to, part of our brain is active in looking at how we can maximize the world in our own interest. It isn’t always pretty, but it is constantly happening and if we are not aware of it or choose not to believe that we are driven by self-interest, we will continually be frustrated by the world and confused by our actions and the actions of others.

 

Friendship is one of the areas where Hanson and Simler find our self-interest acting in a way we would rather not think about. When we learn new things, build up skills, and gain new social connections, we make ourselves a better potential friend for other people. The more friends and allies we have, the more likely we will gain some sort of social assistance that will eventually help us in a self-interested way. This part of us likely originated when we lived in small political tribes with only a handful of potential mates. In order for our ancestors to be selected, they had to show they had something valuable to offer the tribe, and they had to be in high enough regard socially to be an acceptable mate. Simler and Hanson ask what happens if we look at friendships through a zero-sum lens, as our minds tend to do, where we rank everyone we interact with and apply some type of value to each person’s time and friendship. They write,

 

“Everyone, with an eye toward raising their price [Blog Author’s Note: meaning the value of their friendship], strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate–by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.
Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.”

 

The author’s suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along.

Deception is Expected

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler consider it normal and expected that humans are deceptive creatures. We evolved, according to the authors, to be deceptive so that we could get a little bit more for ourselves and have a slightly better chance of reproducing and keeping our genes in the mix. We don’t boldly take things and openly cheat to get what we want (most of the time), but instead we do our best to be a team player, with some marginal cheating and stealing under the table. As they put it,

 

“Deception is simply part of human nature–a fact that makes perfect sense in light of the competitive (selfish) logic of evolution. Deception allows us to reap certain benefits without paying the full costs. And yes, all societies have norms against lying, but that just means we have to work a little harder not to get caught. Instead of telling bald-faced lies, maybe we spin or cherry-pick the truth.”

 

This leaves us in an interesting position as we think about how we should act at an individual level and how societies should organize themselves at a larger level. We want to have norms in place that deter cheating and lying to help protect people’s property, to prevent fraud, and to create a system where people can meaningfully engage with one another and trust their institutions. But at the same time, we recognize that there is going to be a substantial amount of deception and a natural urge to be deceptive in order to obtain a little more benefit with a little less cost. Individuals will behave this way, and so will the families, social groups, communities, states, and nations that individuals create.

 

A solution that I would explore would be to accept Simler and Hanson’s views openly, and then begin looking closely at externalities. Externalities (usually discussed in the negative sense) are the additional things that stem from the original action. Deceptive behavior can have negative externalities, such as wastes of money when we buy sports cars to show off rather than using our money for more productive and charitable uses. At the same time, deceptive behavior can have positive externalities, such as the benefits of charity when we donate large amounts of money, again to show off.

 

If we accept this is happening, then in our own lives and in our societies we can try to add additional costs (such as taxes) on deceptive behaviors with negative externalities, and we can do more to encourage deceptive behaviors that produce largely positive externalities. We don’t have to abandon our human nature, but we can collectively decide to shape the consequences we might face for being deceptive in certain situations. This can help bring our behaviors and actions in line with the outcomes we want, but it does require that we accept what is taking place inside our brains and accept that we are not always as wonderful as we would like to appear.

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.

Staying Humble Out of the Spotlight

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Seneca wrote in one of his letters captured in the book Letters From a Stoic. This quote was at the heart of yesterday’s post, but it is only one part of a larger post that I want to write about. Yesterday I discussed the way that we can have a big impact on a small group of people. I wrote about our desires to speak to the masses and how we change our conversations and communication styles when we try to write for infinite audiences as opposed to writing for a committed few. Today’s post is more about reflection and avoiding the spotlight to remain humble and honest with oneself.

 

Seneca continues, “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.”

 

Our society rewards those who can do rare and challenging work. If you have a unique ability to produce a painting that appeals to everyone and captures the moment, then you may be rewarded by selling your art at a high price. If you can out-run everyone else on the planet, you may be rewarded with some cash, a shiny medal, and a new shoe deal. And if you can write clearly and express your thoughts and ideas so well that everyone can understand them and learn from them, then you may be able to sell your words and ideas in a mass publication. We are all about rewarding hard work that most people cannot do. This is not a bad thing, but just part of how we evolved.

 

What can be a bad thing, however, is taking the fact that we can do something difficult and socially rewarded and then holding ourselves above others. Notoriety, skill, and wealth do not mean we are actually different from those who sleep in the streets. We are all human, and we should strive to find a commonality between us and others such that we find the same value in ourselves as we do in those that we might naturally want to scorn and look down upon. The best qualities are those that help us do great work for our own satisfaction and to align ourselves with values that expand human creativity, dignity, respect, and well being for all. Seeking attention and glory is dangerous because it creates a world that is entirely about us, often at the detriment of another.

 

We can strive for great work and if we receive wealth, attention, and applause we can enjoy and appreciate it, but we should not seek these things out for their own sake. They should be byproducts of our great work, and we should always be somewhat distrustful of them. Looking inward, we can appreciate our success without the need for applause from the outside.

Seneca on Being Content With What We Have

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” wrote Seneca in Letters to a Stoic. A big challenge in the United States today, and across the globe in our social media connected world, is being content with what we have. There is always a temptation to do and have more. We want to have the most exotic vacation photos on Facebook, we want to have the best decorations during the holidays, and we feel like we need to get a new car when the neighbor gets a new car. The things we possess and the memories we have become stale quickly and the remedy that we turn to first is purchasing more and going further.

 

Seneca continues, “What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”

 

A key theme of stoicism is that we cannot rely on standards and measures set by other people to determine our own value or whether we are successful. We cannot compare ourselves to other people who have had different opportunities and challenges in their own lives. The best we can hope for is good luck and to do the best with what we have. These ideas become very freeing and have become very popular following the great recession where many hard working individuals ran into an economic downturn and faced obstacles that were beyond their control. Defining success by things that can be measured from the outside always leaves you in a place where your own success is beyond your control.

 

Seneca would describe the state of needing other people’s approval and needing certain possessions to impress people as being in a state of true poverty. If you can only feel wealthy and successful because you have more than someone else, then you will never be able to enjoy the richness of life. Self-awareness and a deep focus on the world around us helps us to see great wonders in even the mundane and banal aspects of life. Having material and financial success is great and can make for a more exciting life, but you will never be able to enjoy that life if you cannot find your own value in who you are as a person separate from the adulation and praise of others. If you can only define success for yourself as somehow being more than another person, you will always live in poverty and fail to truly enjoy the moment you have and place you are at right now.

Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.
Training Daily

Training Daily

Life is hard and each day can be its own struggle and battle, but learning measured approaches to life can give us the tools and training that we need to face those challenges successfully. We all hope to have success, to have an easy life with plenty of opportunities, but we know we will face failures, frustration, confusion, and stagnation. If we can build a solid routine, we can face these obstacles nobly and act accordingly to move forward.

 

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes about the daily effort to prepare ourselves for the challenges life will present us with. Holiday writes, “My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean for ever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.”

 

Anyone who has ever gone to the  gym knows you don’t leave looking like an Avenger after just one workout. It is continual effort that slowly gets us where we need to be. Accordingly, for us to build our mental fortitude and prepare for failures and successes, we must build our self-awareness, focus on disarming our ego, and concentrate on growth, learning, and improvement daily. If we do not, the skills that will help us climb from our low point will grow dusty and be buried in the daily grit of life. Each day doesn’t need to be a grueling exercise, but we do need to continually dust off our skills for approaching life.