Luxury Beliefs are Status Symbols
The struggle for distinction
Here is the transcript of a talk I recently delivered at Nudgestock, the world’s biggest behavioral science festival.
Let’s start with a question: What do top hats and “defund the police” have in common?
Before we explore it, I’ll very briefly tell you about my unusual background.
Currently, I’m a doctoral candidate in psychology at Cambridge and a faculty fellow at the University of Austin. And before this, I studied psychology at Yale as an undergraduate.
But before entering these universities, my life was a lot different.
I was born into poverty and grew up in foster homes in Los Angeles and all around California. I fled as soon as I could at age 17, enlisting in the military right after high school.
I then attended Yale on the GI Bill. That was a very different environment for me.
At Yale, there are more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.
Throughout my experiences traveling along the class ladder, I made a discovery:
Luxury beliefs have, to a large extent, replaced luxury goods.
Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.
In 1899, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen published a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class.
Drawing on observations about social class in the late nineteenth century, Veblen’s key idea is that because we can’t be certain about the financial status of other people, a good way to size up their means is to see whether they can afford expensive goods and leisurely activities.
This explains why status symbols are so difficult to obtain and costly to purchase.
In Veblen’s day, people exhibited their status with delicate and restrictive clothing like tuxedos, top hats, and evening gowns, or by partaking in time-consuming activities like golf or beagling.
These goods and leisurely activities could only be purchased or performed by people who did not work as manual laborers and could spend their time and money learning something with no practical utility.
Veblen even goes so far as to say, “The chief use of servants is the evidence they afford of the master’s ability to pay.” For Veblen, butlers are status symbols, too.
In short, his idea was about how economic capital was often converted into cultural capital.
These findings were later echoed by the renowned French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.
In his body of work, Bourdieu described how “distance from necessity” characterized the affluent classes. In fact, Bourdieu coined the term “cultural capital.”
Once our basic physical and material needs are met, people can then spend more time cultivating what Bourdieu called the “dispositions of mind and body” in the form of intricate and expensive tastes and habits that the upper classes use to obtain distinction.
Corresponding with these sociological observations, the biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed that animals evolve certain displays, traits, and behaviors because they are so physically costly.
Many people are familiar with the example of the peacock’s tail. Only a healthy bird is capable of growing such plumage while managing to evade predators.
A lesser known example is the behavior of the African gazelle.
When these animals spot a predator, the healthy adult gazelles often engage in what is called “stotting.” They repeatedly jump as high as they can, springing vertically into the air with all four feet raised.
The signal this sends to predators is essentially: “I’m so fit that I can afford to expend valuable energy to show you how strong and robust I am compared with the other gazelles.” The predators then direct their attention to less lively and energetic targets.
So for humans, top hats and designer handbags are costly signals of economic capacities; for gazelles, stotting is a costly signal of physical capacities.
Veblen, Bourdieu and Zahavi all claimed that humans—or animals—flaunt certain symbols, communicate in specific ways, and adopt costly means of expressing themselves, in order to obtain distinction from the masses.
Animals do this physically.
And affluent humans often do it economically and culturally, with their status symbols.
A difference, though, is that human signals often trickle to the rest of society, which weakens the power of the signal. Once a signal is adopted by the masses, the affluent abandon it.
There are historical examples of this.
For example, in the middle ages, spices were expensive and only the elites could afford them. It was a hard-to-fake signal of one’s social rank and economic resources.
But as Europeans colonized India and the Americas, the cost of spices dropped, and the masses were now able to obtain them.
As a result of widespread use, spices were no longer a status symbol.
Elites decided they were vulgar, and during the reign of France’s Louis XIV, court chefs banned sugar and spice from all meals except for desserts.
Here’s another example.
In the U.S., dueling was practiced primarily by the elite for many years.
One key reason why it fell out of fashion in the early nineteenth century is because this ritual of dueling was gradually adopted by the lower classes.
In response, the upper classes abandoned it because it was no longer prestigious. And then it was outlawed in the late nineteenth century.
The yearning for distinction is the key motive here.
And in order to convert economic capital into cultural capital, it must be publicly visible.
But distinction encompasses not only clothing or food or rituals. It also extends to ideas and beliefs and causes.
In his book WASPS: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy, the author Michael Knox Beran examined the lives and habits of upper-class Americans from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
He writes that “WASPS” had mixed feelings about their fellow citizens.
These upper-crust Americans viewed ordinary Americans as “sunk in moronic darkness” and that “It is a question whether a high WASP ever supported a fashionable cause without some secret knowledge that the cause was abhorred by the vulgarians.”
This still goes on today.
In the past, people displayed their membership in the upper class with their material accoutrements.
But today, because material goods have become a noisier signal of one’s social position and economic resources, the affluent have decoupled social status from goods, and re-attached it to beliefs.
The upper class craves distinction.
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim understood this when he wrote, “The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”
And this is backed by recent research.
A 2020 study titled “The possession of high status strengthens the status motive” led by Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley found that relative to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals have a greater desire for wealth and status.
In other words, high-status people desire wealth and status more than anyone else.
By now you probably know the answer to the question I asked at the beginning: what do top hats have in common with defunding the police.
Well, who was the most likely to support the fashionable defund the police cause in 2020 and 2021?
A survey from YouGov found that Americans in the highest income category were by far the most supportive of defunding the police.
They can afford to hold this position, because they already live in safe, often gated communities. And they can afford to hire private security.
In the same way that a vulnerable gazelle can’t afford to engage in stotting because it would put them in increased danger, a vulnerable poor person in a crime-ridden neighborhood can’t afford to support defunding the police.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year, the poorest Americans are seven times more likely to be victims of robbery, seven times more likely to be victims of aggravated assault, and twenty times more likely to be victims of sexual assault.
Expressing a luxury belief is a manifestation of cultural capital, a signal of one’s fortunate economic circumstances.
There are other examples of luxury beliefs as well, such as the downplaying of individual agency in shaping life outcomes.
A 2019 study led by Joseph Daniels at Marquette University was published in the journal of Applied Economics Letters.
They found that individuals with higher income or a higher social status were the most likely to say that success results from luck and connections rather than hard work, while low-income individuals were more likely to say success comes from hard work and individual effort.
Well, which belief is more likely to be true?
Plenty of research indicates that compared with an external locus of control, an internal locus of control is associated with better academic, economic, health, and relationship outcomes. Believing you are responsible for your life’s direction rather than external forces appears to be beneficial.
Here’s the late Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura. His vast body of research showed that belief in personal agency, or what he described as “self-efficacy,” has powerful positive effects on life outcomes.
Undermining self-efficacy will have little effect on the rich and educated, but will have pronounced effects for the less fortunate.
It’s also generally instructive to see what affluent people tell their kids. And what seems to happen is that affluent people often broadcast how they owe their success to luck. But then they tell their own children about the importance of hard work and individual effort.
Now let’s discuss strange vocabulary.
When I was growing up in foster homes, or making minimum wage as a dishwasher, or serving in the military, I never heard words like “cultural appropriation” or “gendered” or “heteronormative.”
Working class people could not tell you what these terms mean. But if you visit an elite university, you’ll find plenty of affluent people who will eagerly explain them to you.
When people express unusual beliefs that are at odds with conventional opinion, like defunding the police or downplaying hard work, or using peculiar vocabulary, often what they are really saying is, “I was educated at a top university” or “I have the means and time to acquire these esoteric ideas.”
Only the affluent can learn these things because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.
To this extent, Pierre Bourdieu in The Forms of Capital wrote, “The best measure of cultural capital is undoubtedly the amount of time devoted to acquiring it.”
The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate evidence of the believer’s social class and education.
Members of the luxury belief class promote these ideas because it advances their social standing and because they know that the adoption of these policies or beliefs will cost them less than others.
Advocating for defunding the police or promoting the belief we are not responsible for our actions are good ways of advertising membership of the elite.
Why are affluent people more susceptible to luxury beliefs? They can afford it. And they care the most about status.
In short, luxury beliefs are the new status symbols.
They are honest indicators of one’s social position, one’s level of wealth, where one was educated, and how much leisure time they have to adopt these fashionable beliefs.
And just as many luxury goods often start with the rich but eventually become available to everyone, so it is with luxury beliefs.
But unlike luxury goods, luxury beliefs can have long term detrimental effects for the poor and working class. However costly these beliefs are for the rich, they often inflict even greater costs on everyone else.
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This was a great in-depth explanation of luxury beliefs—I'm going to keep it bookmarked.
You might be interested to know, however, that luxury goods like top hats did have detrimental effects on the working class. Hat-making was dangerous to the craftsmen because of the use of mercury, but the practice was in demand for fashionable hats since the 17th century well into the 19th.
In the 19th century a color called Scheele's Green (or arsenic green) was a popular pigment. The copper arsenite in the dye probably wouldn't kill you if you were just wearing a bright green gown (or at least kill you *that* quickly). The same couldn't be said for the workers manufacturing the fabric who would come down with terrible illnesses.
Similarly when lace cuffs (which were so long they would cover men's fingers) and collars were highly fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries. Handmade lace is a time-intensive labor requiring highly skilled workers. Considering how expensive lace was in that time period, you would think the young women who were making it would have been well off, but most of the money made from the lace industry went to the merchants.
I think, to your point, it's almost (perhaps completely) impossible to have luxury beliefs or goods that do not come at a cost for someone else. (Although I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.)
The struggle for distinction seems to strongly overlap with (or, is it just the same essence as?) the craving to see oneself as special. And achieving the affirmation of one’s “special-ness” seems to always involve getting others to “recognize” that. While the essence of such drives probably plays an appropriate role in individuation, or, developing an identity, the comments describing the addicting qualities of “the more one gets the more one wants” stimulate reflection. Not intending to challenge the value of what is put forth here, only offering a perspective from which I see similar narcissistic dynamics at work in many contexts of life.