Why do people spend all they earn and then borrow even more? Why do we keep accumulating crap, long after all our genuine needs have been met?
These are questions that have long puzzled The Escape Artist. I think its important to figure this stuff out. Only by understanding the compulsion to spend can we change our ways and accumulate wealth and freedom.
When people consistently do things that are irrational, we need to look for evolutionary drivers of behaviour. It turns out there is an biological rationale for status and this influences many peoples spending decisions.
We have to recognise that at least part of the reason we spend is to indicate something to others. There are a number of different fancy phrases for this – journalists refer to “conspicuous consumption”, economists refer to “signalling” and rappers refer to “fronting and maxing”. The Escape Artist’s favoured description of this behaviour is “showing off”.
It has been brought to the attention of The Escape Artist that on some council estates in the North of England it is traditional to signal to the neighbours that you have bought a new fridge by placing the old one in a prominent position on the “lawn” in front of the house. Behold! I am the possessor of a new Hotpoint and can afford to carelessly discard its predecessor – am I not wealthy indeed! If the old one were taken away and recycled, how would the neighbours then be constantly reminded of your good fortune and status?
This is obviously insane, as well as a tad chavvy. After all, nice Middle Class people would never do anything as vulgar as this. Or would they? Is this really so different from buying an BMW X5 or other SUV on finance to run Jemima to her clarinet lesson? Look upon my elevated chariot throne with envy, fools, for I and my genetic inheritance are now invincible! Mwaaa–ha-haa!
We show off for at least 2 reasons. Firstly, people often want to impress other people they work with/for for economic reasons. Second, people often want to impress the opposite sex for mating purposes. I’m not saying this is right or wrong…it’s just the way it is.
The more of life I see, the more I realise that a disproportionate amount of everyone’s time in any group environment is taken up by showing off. This is particularly acute in schools, offices and other places where needy people are forced to congregate. People feel compelled to create a hierarchy into which they can place themselves.
Now there are obviously many different potential criteria by which we can judge ourselves and others. In his book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton points out that these criteria are fluid over time and in different countries. In societies at war, the skills of soldiers are attributed higher status. If you are a General and the war ends, you’d better be ready for those cocktail party invites to dry up.
At my school, there was one guy who had a very clear view on how status should be measured. Over a fortnight, he systematically went up to every other boy in the year and asked them if they wanted a fight. This was done in a surprisingly matter of fact and unthreatening manner. I can’t remember his name but let’s call him Biffa.
A few no doubt took Biffa up on his kind offer of a fight. Others (me included) were genuinely puzzled by his offer and politely declined. We had no history of conflict so it seemed unnecessary to me. The reason however was clear to Biffa, who had decided that if someone turned down his offer of a fight, that was prima facie evidence that they were not as “hard” as him.
Biffa was keen to establish a position as hardest bloke in the school. For him, life was a ranking and he wanted the number one slot, in the same way that One Direction want to be number one on the Top 40. To be fair to Biffa, his ranking system at least had the merit of being straightforward, evidence based and internally consistent.
At this point, you may be thinking – ah, yes, that’s just kids. That doesn’t apply to sophisticated adults with their own cars and mortgages and everything. If so, you’d be wrong.
In fact, Biffa was demonstrating a universal human tendency – to rank others and ourselves based on questionable value judgements. Biffa’s example is only noteworthy by “virtue” of 2 factors:
1) Choosing a scoring system based on fighting (generally frowned upon these days)
2) How explicit he was about the ranking system
In my mid 30s, after I got promoted, I was sent by my employer (a professional services firm) on a training / brain-washing / development course. You may be familiar with such events. Think conference centres, flipcharts, marker pens and boiled sweets. This was the sort of place where you are thrown together with other inmates of the Prison Camp and forced to undertake “ice-breaker” exercises to ameliorate the awkwardness of a forced and unnatural situation.
Unusually, one of the exercises was very powerful and illuminating – such that I still recall it with clarity nearly 10 years later. We were split into groups of 13 and each of us were assigned a playing card from the suit of hearts. The card was stuck to our foreheads in such a way that everyone else could see what we were – for example, an ace, a jack or a 7 of Hearts. The wearer of the playing card, however, was not told (and could not see) what card they had been allocated.
Once we had been allocated our card, we had to circulate (think cocktail party etiquette) and talk to others in the room. Our instructions were to talk to others in a manner consistent with their status, as indicated by the card.
So if they had a King on their forehead, we were to grovel, hang on their words and laugh at their jokes. If they were a 2, we were to indicate disrespect.
At the end of a few minutes of circulating, having spoken to a selection of the others, we were asked to line up. We had to guess where we “fitted” in the social hierarchy, based only on the information conveyed by how people had treated us and arrange ourselves in order of status.
Now, I’d expected that people were going to guess roughly where they were in the pecking order. What was incredible, however, was that every person ranked themselves relative to others with 100% accuracy. In other words, we ended up with a line of 13 people from 2 of Hearts to Ace (high) in exactly the correct ascending order.
We are all hardwired internally with an incredibly sensitive status detector mechanism. This is because evolution selected for these skills. Over thousands of years, people learned to co-operate. Large and important tasks such as hunting woolly mammoths required such co-operation. This involved dealing with other people, which involves issues of status.
If you failed to spot that Krog the Barbarian had high status and you “dissed” him by suggesting that his way of hunting the mammoth was for girls, he might just club you to death. You then didn’t pass on your genes to future generations. Similarly, back when the whole tribe was hungry, you can see how the guy who was best at hunting might get a lot of cavewoman love action. His genes spread. And that is how we got so attuned to status.
Working in an office is today’s equivalent of woolly mammoth hunting or slash and burn farming. It’s a softer gig for sure, but its how most of us now generate our food and other resources. We are carrying the same genetic baggage as our caveman ancestors but in the very different environment of the modern world.
Now no one has written this shit down anywhere, but an unwritten rule has developed in many parts of the Western world that your ranking is determined by how much you earn and how much stuff you can display. This is clearly mad but, because we are genetically hard-wired to be status conscious and to seek the approval and respect of others, its almost as if we can’t help ourselves.
There are the 3 key takeaways here. First, in the abundance of the modern Western world, I hope you can agree that a ranking system based solely on money is just as arbitrary as Biffa’s Fighting Scale of Hardness.
Second, we can think for ourselves and help each other to mitigate (although never fully overcome) our genetic biases. Self-awareness and honesty is the first step.
Third, if competition and status seeking are inevitable (and I suspect they are) why not compete on different, less toxic, criteria? We could for example compete to be the most reasonable. Its just a thought.