A previous post I did on this topic covered the concept of ‘the status game’. This post is a step deeper, looking at how status can transcend our possessions, and permeate our beliefs, too. Do you think our beliefs confer status? Does this, in turn, inflict an unseen cost on lower social classes? How can we course-correct?
In 1899, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen published a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class. The book arose from three articles that Veblen published in the American Journal of Sociology between 1898 and 1899: (i) “The Beginning of Ownership” (ii) “The Barbarian Status of Women”, and (iii) “The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labour”.
In this book, he posits that because we can’t possibly know the financial status of other people, observing whether people can afford expensive products and leisurely activities, gives us a good indication of their means. Of course, this explains why it is difficult and expensive to purchase anything which might be used as a status-signaling prop e.g. A Rolex.
Back in Veblen’s day, status was displayed using elaborate clothing such as tuxedos, top hats, and ball gowns, or by passing time engaging in activities like golf or beagling. Of course, this was only accessible to people who were not manual labourers, people who could spend their time and money on objectively ‘pointless’ stuff.
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.” In other words… butlers, he thinks, are status symbols as well.
In short, his idea was about how economic capital was often converted into cultural capital.
In 1979, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu echoed these thoughts in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Bourdieu proposed that people with “cultural capital” — education and intellect, style of speech and style of dress, etc. — participate in determining what distinct aesthetic values constitute good taste within their society. In fact, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron coined and defined the term cultural capital in the essay “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” a few years before, in 1977.
Perhaps along similar lines of thought to Maslow, Bourdieu essentially proposed that once our baseline physical and material needs were met, people could spend more time cultivating the “dispositions of mind and body” in the form of distinguishing themselves using conspicuously expensive taste and habits.
Moving to the animal kingdom for further examples… the biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed that animals exhibit particular traits, and behaviours because they are so physically costly. The first example which most people are aware of, is the peacock’s tail; only a healthy peacock is capable of growing large and impressive plumage while still being able to evade predators. A perhaps lesser known example is the behaviour of the gazelle. This study details how healthy gazelles are more likely to ‘stot‘ (bounce around) to signal how fit they are. This essentially says to predators “I am so healthy, I can waste energy to bounce around, and you might as well not bother chasing me because you are better off chasing one of the weaker ones.”
For humans, luxury watches and designer hand bags are costly signals of economic capacity; for gazelles, stotting is a costly signal of physical capacity.
One major difference, is how human signals trickle down and become devalued over time. As a strong signal becomes more widely adopted, it becomes a weaker signal, and the affluent people abandon it. Watch collectors have seen this happen with the mass-adoption of Rolex and other mainstream brands leading affluent collectors to find something more special. This is why we increasingly see rarity being highly coveted – it reduces accessibility and preserves the power of the signal for the affluent.
There are also historical examples of phenomenon. Take spices… The word “spice” derives from the Latin species, or ‘special wares’, and refers to an item of special value. Spices were high value goods because of their relative geographical scarcity. While only the affluent could afford them, they were perfect signals, but as soon as Europeans started colonising distant lands, the cost of spices went down, and the masses were able to afford them too… ergo, spices were no longer a status symbol.
The point is: publicly visible differentiation is the primary goal, when people seek to convert economic capital into cultural capital.
It turns out, this differentiation is not limited to material objects, food or rituals. It also includes our beliefs, ideas and causes we stand for.
Nowadays, material goods have increasingly become less indicative of a person’s social position or their access to economic resources. We have seen this play out in our daily lives due to the low cost of capital, reckless lending, ad the willingness of people to live beyond their means. The boom cycles across the board have only fuelled this phenomenon, from pandemic stim checks, to crypto bubbles and NFT hype cycles… people who technically shouldn’t be able to afford luxury goods, have been able to justify buying them. As a result, the truly affluent people have tended to decouple social status from physical goods, and instead attached social status to beliefs.
Émile Durkheim, another French sociologist, understood this when he wrote, “The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”
This sentiment has been affirmed by more recent research as well. This 2020 study tested whether the possession of high status, compared with the possession of low status, makes individuals desire having high status even more. They found that relative to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals have a greater desire for wealth and status.
There are lots of examples of this playing out… remember the whole ‘defund the police’ campaign? Turns out that Americans in the highest income category were the most supportive of defunding the police. Of course, they would, since they already live in safe and enclosed communities, and can afford to pay for private security. It also happens to be true, that the lowest income people are the ones most negatively impacted by crime, which would rise if the police were defunded.
Same goes for watches, too. When ordinary people complain about ‘spend requirements’ and unfair bundling behaviour by certain watch brands, it is no surprise that the wealthiest collectors who have no trouble meeting these requirements, stand up to defend the brands in question and argue that they see nothing unfair or worth criticising.
The affluent can afford to hold this position, because they aren’t actually affected by the downside which the ordinary folk are exposed to.
There are many other examples of affluent beliefs, such as the role of the individual in shaping their life-outcomes. This 2019 study found that individuals with higher income or a higher social status were most likely to say that success resulted from luck and connections rather than hard work, and low-income individuals were more likely to say success comes from hard work and individual effort.
What do you think is more likely to be the case? The late Professor Albert Bandura has a ton of research which shows one’s belief in personal agency, has powerful positive effects on life outcomes. The point here, is that undermining how much you control you own fate will have little effect on rich and educated people, but will have major effects on the less fortunate!
The best measure of cultural capital is undoubtedly the amount of time devoted to acquiring it.Pierre Bourdieu in The Forms of Capital
Building on the previous post, the extension here is to posit that beliefs also serve to signal the believer’s affluence and social status. When applied to the watch collecting niche, this is best characterised by the beliefs held by affluent (objectively higher social status) people when they know that the adoption of these policies of beliefs will cost them less than it would cost others (of an objectively lower social status).
The thing about these affluent beliefs, is that they are difficult or impossible to fake. If a collector is in favour of promoting a watch allocation system which is based on repeat-spend or historical net spend, it is likely they have the means to benefit from such a system. If a collector is defending a ‘closed ballot’ allocation practice from a watch brand, they are likely signalling they have advantaged access to get allocations – and this is just another form of ‘status’ anyway.
Members of the affluent belief class will promote such ideas because these beliefs solidify their own social standing, and more importantly, because they realise that mass-adoption of these inherently biased beliefs ad policies will have less of a negative impact on themselves, than it would on others.
And as a reminder, per the study mentioned above; affluent people are more susceptible to these beliefs because 1) they can afford it and 2) they actually care the most about status!
Now… just like many luxury goods trickle down over time and become accessible to everyone (consider how many more people are sporting Rolexes today versus 5 years ago) I do wonder how it truly plays out with luxury beliefs. No matter how costly the beliefs might be for the affluent, they are always more costly for everyone else.
I was reading a long post the other day where the author explained how most people think people adopt false beliefs because they’re dumb or ignorant. While this may be true in some cases, the opposite is often true instead…. many delusions are born not in dim minds but in bright ones.
Since our intelligence has evolved to serve as a tool for pursuing our own well-being, social belonging, social status, etc… this requires the adoption and acceptance of what might be socially agreed beliefs, and our brain has come to accept this criteria, as opposed to pursuing objective truth (consider the general hate of Hublot, for example).
Since we are primarily social species, it is optimal for us to convince ourselves of irrational beliefs when holding the beliefs will improve our status or well-being. Dan Kahan calls this behavior “identity-protective cognition”.
You see the problem right? Sure, dumb people might easily be misled by others, but intelligent people are actually more likely to be misled by themselves! They tend to be better at convincing themselves of all the things they want to believe, instead of things that are actually true. This is why intelligent people tend to have stronger biases, since being better at reasoning makes the rationalisation of their beliefs much easier.
So what is the takeaway here? The issue isn’t intelligence or learning, but rather, irrational goals (such as status). For the most part (and I do not exclude myself from this at all), people often begin their thought processes not to seek the objective truth, but rather, to justify (or prove) what they want to believe. The only thing that would motivate people to apply their intelligence into the pursuit of truth, is curiosity. It was curiosity that was found by Kahan’s research to be the strongest countermeasure against bias.
Just remember, when you’re objectively curious, you will likely be wrong more often… and being wrong tends to hurt one’s ego. This will cause a person to defend the ‘wrong’ position, because they prefer to protect their status. Is it worth it? Who knows.