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.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

A Harmful Sentiment

I am fascinated with tribalism. We all have a part of us that looks around at the world and recognizes who is like us, who is different from us, what people are part of our family, and how people in our group behave. Everyone in our in-group stands above the people in our out-groups. Those “others” seem to take on any negative qualities that we want to assign to them. People who are less wealthy than the people in our tribe are less intelligent or lazy, and that is why they are not as well off. People who are doing better than our tribe financially are greedy or privileged elites and don’t really understand what it is like to be a true American. Our tribe, however, is full of hard working, smart, and all around good people.

 

We all seem to share these tribal tendencies, and they can be harmful when we start to pull into our own group and ascribe negative qualities to all the other groups out there. Colin Wright addresses our tribal behaviors in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be by looking at “America First” from a tribal perspective. Wright describes the benefits of a globalized community and population. Using the insights, developments, and tools created around the world to raise the standard of living for everyone, and not just to use discoveries in one part of the world to improve that part of the world. He writes, “People in the US should be taken care of, certainly, but to paint our relationships in those terms [America First] implies that we have to be utterly selfish and introverted in our dealings with others, when in fact, being more open and generous will bear much greater fruit. That sharing our strengths and celebrating the strengths of others is somehow detrimental to our well-being is an ignorant idea easily sold to a mistrustful populace.”

 

Wright argues that America First trumps up some of the worst aspects of our tribal nature. It highlights who is in our tribe and who is outside of our tribe and focuses solely on increasing the status of those in our tribe. The sentiment abandons the idea that improving the lives of everyone will improve our own lives, and seeks only to expand the economy, fortunes, and standards of living within our own tribe. This may work and we may have great prosperity for the few who are part of our tribe, but putting ourselves ahead of others so openly and blatantly while also denigrating those outside our tribe may create extreme mistrust and anger. Stability, fairness, and long-term well-being may be sacrificed in our selfish quest to primarily enrich ourselves.

Recognition is Empty

At some point in human history, we were living in small tribes of maybe 50 to 250 people and we were evolving ever more complex brains because our small political groups put pressure on our ancestors to be socially skilled in order to pass on their genes. In a small social tribe, actions and motivations mattered. There was a pressure to do good and impressive things and to appear to be doing those things for noble rather than vain reasons, but it was also not enough to just do good, you had to be noticed by your tribe. You had to make sure your status improved, that people saw you doing positive and noteworthy things so that you could progress up the social hierarchy of the tribe and be permitted to pass your genes along. The traits that flowed from these evolutionary social group pressures are still with us, but the need to seen doing physically and socially impressive things in order to pass our genes to the next generation (and potentially even just to survive on a daily basis with the help of some friends/allies) is mostly gone. This leaves us in an awkward place where our brains still want to impress people and climb up a social ladder (remember that our ancestors social ladder was only about 50 to 250 people tall) in a world where we can connect with millions of people and where competition for security, shelter, food, and a partner just isn’t as life threateningly dramatic as it was one hundred thousands years ago.

 

Pushing back against some of these natural feeling and evolutionary favored behaviors can actually lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. This is at the center of the idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy. Holiday encourages us to avoid acting in the interest of our ego, which is to say he encourages us not to act out of our own self-interest with the intent to be seen and with the intent to deliberately rise up the social hierarchy. We can certainly do that and we will have lots of opportunities in our live to chose that path, but Holiday argues that to live a more fulfilling and complete life today, we should look to do great work as opposed to simply being impressive to other people. Regarding a fulfilling life Holiday writes, “It’s about the doing, not the recognition.”

 

This quote has stayed with me and helped me think about why I do some of the things I do and how I chose to do those things. I could go work out in the gym and make sure I take up as much space as possible and exercise as extravagantly as possible so that everyone sees how physically impressive I am. Or, I could find a spot that doesn’t interfere with other people and doesn’t necessarily put me in the center of attention and I could focus on making sure I really do the exercises that matter to keep me fit, healthy, and injury free. I might get stronger with both strategies, but the first strategy is really about my ego and about being seen, where the second approach is actually about health and physical development. I believe much of life is like this.

 

We can make excuses for doing the flashy things that help us rise through the social ladder and we can lie to ourselves and others about our motives for doing those things (our brains literally evolved in small groups to do this). However, with several billion people on the planet, we hit a point where this strategy is counter productive if we actually want to be fulfilled and content with our lives and actions. We no longer live in the small tribes we evolved for, and we have more options to make an impact for the people in our lives and societies in which we live. We no longer need to set out to make sure we are seen and recognized for doing great work to build allies for survival. We will likely receive all the recognition we need from the people who matter most in our lives if we set out to do good without setting out to build a reputation. Part of us may still want that recognition and be happy when we receive it obliquely (maybe even more happy to receive it this way) which is fine. The point is that we can be more content and fulfilled when we take this oblique path to success and recognition and build habits and work that are about doing and not about being applauded.

What Racial Indifference and Blindness Create

It has become common and popular today to say that you don’t see race and that your actions and behaviors are colorblind. Our politicians, celebrities, friends, and neighbors will all say they are colorblind, trying to convey the idea that they do not act like a racist and that they love all people, regardless of race or skin color.

 

In her book, The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that colorblindness and our focus on outward racism is actually what has allowed racial attitudes and racially disparate outcomes to survive in the United States. The type of racism we have to be aware of is not an outward racism perpetuated by individuals, but rather an invisible racism built into our structures, ideologies, and communities. We claim to be colorblind and we tell ourselves and others that we are fair to all races because we have diverse friends, but at the same time we often support policies that impact the lives of black and brown people unequally relative to white people. The New Jim Crow demonstrates the ways in which our colorblind society has not done a good job of preventing racism from influencing our criminal justice system and goes further to show that racism is a consistent factor in the policies and politics that we support.

 

What colorblindness creates is racial indifference. It creates an atmosphere where we assume that if we are not explicitly mean and don’t act in deliberately malicious ways towards others, then those others will be fine and will succeed. Colorblindness does not really mean that we are not racist, but that the concerns, values, and lives of people of color do not matter to us. We cannot see the suffering, the disparate impacts, and the inequalities of society because we are indifferent to the lives of minorities. This is what we are truly saying by calling ourselves colorblind, even if we don’t recognize it.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.” Humans evolved in relatively small groups, working, hunting, and growing together, but our world today demands that we work as a single global people. Our minds did not evolve to truly understand and connect with billions or even just millions of people across the globe, and along the way we have developed stories to tell us who we associate with. These made up stories of race, nation, and sports give us a sense of community and help us understand who is part of our tribe. The problem, however, is that these stories are fictions and operating based on our tribal instincts hurts the lives of real people. When we cannot move beyond our tribal nature, we create inequities that create social tension and conflict. In the United States we have chosen to ignore our tribal attitudes and have chosen to believe that indifference to other groups is the same thing as supportive inclusion. Unfortunately, this allows racial biases to operate in the background as we favor our tribe over others and push others down in invisible ways. As Alexander writes in the book, “Racial indifference and blindness—far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems.”

Truth and Change

Holding on to a belief so tightly that you will not allow yourself to see the world from different view points can be a dangerous thing.  Marcus Aurelius recognized how damaging it can be to stand firm in our convictions without allowing our decisions and beliefs to be based on reason over our desires to be right.  In his book Meditations the Roman emperor wrote, “if any many is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured.  But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” What Aurelius is showing is that he is open to viewpoints and ideas that are different from his own, and that he is willing to change his beliefs if there is sufficient evidence to do so.

 

The challenge we face today is how our identity is fundamentally tied to the views and beliefs that we hold. I imagine this is not a new phenomenon in human experience, but in our culture today we often tie our political, spiritual, and social views to our identity, making our opinions more salient and rigid.  When we develop a belief today, we build our lives around it and use that belief to express who we are.  The tribes we belong to and who we see as viable partners (in everything from marriage, to business, to sports) becomes in one way determined by who is like us, and who has beliefs and viewpoints that most closely match our own.  We understand that it is a negative for society if we organize our tribes based on our racial identity and in many ways we strive for diversity to eliminate the importance of our racial identity, but for things that are less visible, we often times cheer for those who are unchanging, and we denigrate those whose identity seems to change.

 

I believe the increasing salience of identity based on behavior and belief is dangerous for our society. When we lock ourselves in, and define ourselves based on our interests, views, beliefs, and inclinations, we limit our possibilities and we limit not just our own progress, but often times the progress of the societies to which we belong.

 

It is hard to recognize at first, but our society does not want us to live in the gray and seek truth. What our society wants, now that we are not able to define who we are and who is part of our group based on race, is that we wear our unwavering identity on our sleeves so that others know how to think about us, and so that we know how to think about ourselves relative to others.  Two of the most clear examples from our culture of identity becoming arbitrarily tied to beliefs and preferences in a way that serves to define us and prevent our beliefs from changing are in the worlds of politics and sports.  In both cases switching teams can be catastrophic and lead to criticism from not just the group to which you originally belonged, but also from the group to which you joined.  In politics we expect our politicians to have firm beliefs that do not change over time, and if we see a candidate switch sides or switch beliefs we call them a flip-flopper and suggest that they will do anything to get the vote.  In sports, fans who change the teams they root for are often called band-wagon fans, and rather than following the teams who perform the best and rooting for the teams who win the most, we are encouraged to pick one team to root for with loyal support regardless of whether or not they are competitive, well managed, or even entertaining.

 

In both of these areas we are better off as individuals and as a society if we allow ourselves to change and to not be defined by specific ideas.  Like Aurelius, seeking truth in politics, and understanding that we may be unconsciously seeking only information that aligns with our previously held belief, can help us overcome ignorance and logical fallacies.  In sports, we can be free to express ourselves in a more dynamic way, and we may have a lower blood pressure while watching games.  There is no reason that any field needs to be tied so strongly to our identity that we are unwilling to change or interact with others who do not see the world as we do.  Becoming dynamic in our identity is a challenge that means we must abandon our belief in dichotomies, since the majority of the world cannot be approached from a black and white perspective. If we do not allow our identities to shift and change with reason, then we will never live in the gray, which is where life truly takes place. We will never allow ourselves or our society to expand and progress in a way that accepts and welcomes everyone uniformly.

Evolution and Groups

Looking at how evolution may have contributed to senses and actions of altruism, Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, quotes Frans de Waal, a social scientist, “Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside.” Singer uses this quote to show that we tend to be very generous to those who we perceive as having a level of sameness with ourselves while we separate ourselves from those who do not seem to be like us.  In our small group where we actually live and interact with others who are like us, we can be generous and see the payoff from going out of our way to help those around us.  Singer explains that this does not happen as easily with people outside our group and he quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson who have studied altruism, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.”

 

The perspective that Singer is building helps us understand the base of the movement he has coined as Effective Altruism, a notion where individuals make an effort to do the most good they can do throughout their lifetime by focusing on ways they can impact and improve the world by aiding those who are the most impoverished or those who face the most suffering on a day to day basis.  Those who travel to other countries building wells, administering healthcare, and those who advocate for education and social improvement for groups in the developing world can be effective altruists under Singer’s definition, but the group he focuses on that can have the greatest impact is the group of individuals who shape their life so that the fruits of their labor, the money they earn, can be directed back towards themselves in a small amount so that the bulk of their financial wellbeing, or at least a significant chunk, can be applied toward making the world a better place. Those who volunteer with charities to travel and provide humanitarian aid are using supplies that were purchased through donation, finding connections that were established through financial assistance, and sometimes only investing their time and effort because the monetary needs of a program were met through donation.  Singer believes that effective altruists change their life in an attempt to reduce their needs  so that the financial benefits of their work can be applied toward charities that have the  greatest impact on the planet. They may still make the trips and spend  the time and effort on the ground, but they see that their skills and abilities give them a chance to earn money in the richest countries that can then be re-directed toward the poorest of the poor in other countries, where their money goes further to assist and save lives.

 

Singer’s quotes from de Waal, Sober, and Wilson show how the altruistic impulses of effective altruists may have developed in our ancestors before being passed along to us. We value the act of aiding others because it helps our group or tribe progress. Our small group will be greatly hindered if one person is falling behind, but if those who are successful can help pull that individual along and provide for them so that they can begin to make returns for the group, then everyone rises together.  Effective altruists are able to see this benefit, but they have managed to expand their idea of the group to which they identify to the whole world. They are part of a global group of humans, not just a national, regional, or local group. They defy the ideas of Sober and Wilson by showing that there does not need to be another group against which we should be competing. For Singer, the effective altruists have capitalized on an evolutionary trait, and pragmatically applied it to areas of our life where it can benefit the world the most.