Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Human Nature Trumps Culture (shocker!)

The claim?
In the words of Half sigma
"Humans are biologically programmed to be status whores."


1) Stanford, California A study shows that people like wine that is perceived as more expensive despite a lower quality.

2) Bangkok, Thailand. Stickman blogs about the Thai obsession with status, often noting that people will take a trip to an expensive beach AND NOT EVEN ENJOY IT just so that they can take pictures and say they were there. Anyone remember the Japanese tourists that pile up in the buses, take pictures of famous monuments, and leave quickly? Solely for the purpose of telling others they were there.

3) Kabul, Afghanistan. A recent nytimes article details the absurd amount of money people are willing to pay for a wedding just to gain face and prestige.

Hamid, a midlevel bureaucrat in the Afghan government who supports his six-member family on a salary of $7,200 per year, said his bill was going to top $12,000. And by Afghan standards, that would be considered normal, or even a bargain....

Even the poor do not scrimp. A laborer, for instance, making about the average per capita income of $350 per year, may well spend more than $2,000 for his wedding, Afghans say.


Dinner included sumptuous amounts of beef, rice, vegetables and bread — much more than even the enormous crowd could possibly eat — served on big platters atop the hall’s banquet tables.

Disturbing? Or evidence that maybe there were some things that were good about Afghanistan under the Taliban (shudder).

4) Status signal in America is highly tied to the audience one is trying to impress, detailed in this new article on Slate. Good to know the Saletan brouhaha didn't totally turn them off to sensitive questions.
This makes sense. A black person in the ghetto isn't trying to get in the pants of a middle class white girl, so they don't signal to them. They instead are trying to holler at the sista down the block.

I think this pretty much sums it up:
"the term conspicuous consumption is now broadly applied to individuals and households with expendable incomes whose consumption patterns are prompted by the utility of goods to show their status rather than any intrinsic utility of such goods."

Seems totally stupid, no? But guess what. It all has it's roots in evolutionary psychology. In fact, Dawkins recently changed his mind about it, as he details in this essay

Zahavi's evolutionary theory of prestige was anticipated in the human sphere by the economist Thorstein Veblen. Anthropologists had drawn attention to 'Potlatch' ceremonies, whereby rival chieftains compete by means of conspicuous displays of ruinous generosity. You demonstrate your wealth and power by ostentatious donation or waste, culminating, in extreme cases, by setting fire to everything you possess. Veblen developed the idea in his concept of Conspicuous Consumption. Individuals consume goods not because they want them but in order to demonstrate status. Zahavi's version is evolutionary, and therefore assumed to be not consciously thought-out by its animal practitioners. But it comes to the same thing.

Zahavi originally proposed his Handicap Principle in the context of sexual advertisement by male animals to females. The long tail of a cock pheasant is a handicap. It endangers the male's own survival. Other theories of sexual selection reasoned - plausibly enough - that the long tail is favoured in spite of its being a handicap. Zahavi's maddeningly contrary suggestion was that females prefer long tailed males, not in spite of the handicap but precisely because of it. To use Zahavi's own preferred style of anthropomorphic whimsy, the male pheasant is saying to the female, "Look what a fine pheasant I must be, for I have survived in spite of lugging this incapacitating burden around behind me." For Zahavi, the handicap has to be a genuine one, authentically costly. A fake burden - the equivalent of the padded shoulder as counterfeit of physical strength - would be rumbled by the females. In Darwinian terms, natural selection would favor females who scorn padded males and choose instead males who demonstrate genuine physical strength in a costly, and therefore, unfakeable way. For Zahavi, cost is paramount. The male has to pay a genuine cost, or females would be selected to favor a rival male who does so.

Depressing? I think so. All the more evidence that our lives are ultimately an attempt to posture for social status in order to gain reproductive fitness. Will posthumanism save us from this stupid endeavor? I hope so. If Buddha wants to know the roots of human suffering, just point to the status chasing and ego glorifying pursuits that take up a majority of our time.

The next time you buy or ask for a diamond, ask yourself whether the diamond is actually worth something, or maybe the money spend on a blood diamond is better spend investing in a microfinance fund than stupid crap to show your friends.


Anonymous said...

yes, and even a devout philanthropist like melinda gates gets a big old rock to the tune of $42 million:

Fortune Magazine, Melinda Gates

Law Student Hot Mama said...

When I got married, I really wanted to elope in Las Vegas. I wanted an Elvis wedding - not just the regular Elvis, either - fat Elvis. I wanted fat Elvis, with chest hair and leisure suit ready, to marry us. I didn't understand the big wedding thing.

My parents had other ideas . . . they spent THOUSANDS of dollars and invited people to the wedding that I didn't even know so they could show off! I still don't get it to this day.

Since I lost the Elvis battle, I plan on doing a vow renewal in Vegas - with Elvis. Though I've also heard there's a Star Trek themed one, too - which has a sort of nice geekery quality to it. Something is interesting about having a Klingon do your ceremony .. . in Klingon, of course.

roissy said...

isn't the microfinance fund also a form of status jockeying?

the problem with post-humanism is that if our primitive ancestors had followed that philosophy, humanity never would have progressed!

the only way to reach the emerald city is by swimming through the blood seas of the untold billions of betas who have given their lives to the grinding gears of the biomechanical machine.

bottom line: it's ugly, it's tragic, it's pitiable, it's necessary.

Johnson said...

Melinda Gates? Gross. Well at least that's still a tiny fraction of their wealth and the bulk goes to better causes.

Something is interesting about having a Klingon do your ceremony .. . in Klingon, of course.

Uh, I guess that's a way to avoid the status show that your parents planned, but the status competition among hardcore Star Trek fans (those who could find a mate) would be to see who can out Star-Trek the other.

isn't the microfinance fund also a form of status jockeying?

I think the altruistic instinct in humans evolved for two reasons (you probably know this):
one- to help out those who shared your genes and
two- to demonstrate fitness to females.

Even if a microfinance fund is status jockeying, I think it does more good for the world than a diamond that fuels civil wars. Either way, it would be harder to brag about it than just showing a rock on your hand.

the problem with post-humanism is that if our primitive ancestors had followed that philosophy, humanity never would have progressed!

I've always argued that posthumanism is the most human thing that humans could possibly do. It's a human tendency to use abstract thinking to improve one's conditions. And now we're just doing what we've always done, it's just that instead of using our minds to survive against nature, we're using it to CHANGE nature, even change our own nature.

Status crap may be necessary, possibly, but if people are aware of why they are doing what they're doing, then hopefully they won't be such mindless drones to be brainwashed by Madison Ave.

But I suppose that's the equivalent of telling guys not to be attracted to .7 h/w ratios and women not to be attracted to socially dominant men.

Michael said...

This is the most interesting blog I have seen in a while. Are you interested in meeting some other Transhumanists in NYC? In professional efforts to bring about a desirable posthuman future? If so, please write to michaelaruna at yahoo dot com
and we can try to arrange a meeting. There are lots of very useful things that can be done, and we have funding to do them if we can find good people to work with us.