Most people own things they don’t really need. It is worth thinking about why.
Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a Prada handbag, an Armani suit, or a Rolex watch? If you really need to know the time, buy a cheap Timex or just look at your phone and send the money you have saved to Oxfam. Certain consumer behaviors seem irrational, wasteful, even evil. What drives people to possess so much more than they need?
Maybe they have good taste. In her wonderful 2003 book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel argues that our reaction to many consumer items is “immediate, perceptual, and emotional.” We want these things because of the pleasure we get from looking at and interacting with high-quality products—and there is nothing wrong with this. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life,” she writes. “They are part of it.”
Postrel is pushing back against a more cynical theory held by many sociologists, economists, and evolutionary theorists. Building from the insights of Thorstein Veblen, they argue that we buy such things as status symbols. Though we are often unaware of it and might angrily deny it, we are driven to accumulate ostentatious goods to impress others. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives this theory an adaptationist twist, arguing that the hunger for these luxury goods is a modern expression of the evolved desire to signal attractive traits—such as intelligence, ambition, and power—to entice mates: Charles Darwin’s sexual selection meets Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. Signaling is a theory with broad scope—it has been applied to everything from self-mutilating behavior to the fact that the best private schools teach dead languages—but it is most blatant in the consumer world. Advertisements are often pure signaling fantasies. Your neighbors gasp as your car drives by; the attractive stranger in a bar is aroused by your choice of beer; your spouse and children love you because you bought the right brand of frozen pizza. Consistent with this, neuroscience studies reveal that when people look at products they judge to be “cool,” brain areas associated with praise and social approval are activated.
Most people own things that they don’t really need. It is worth thinking about why. If such purchases are motivated by status enhancement, they become positional goods: their value is determined by what other people possess. This inspires a powerful critique of consumerism. Status is a zero-sum game, and just as countries in a literal arms race have to strip away resources from domestic priorities, the figurative arms race that economist Robert H. Frank calls “luxury fever” takes away from individual consumers money that would be better spent on more substantial goods, such as socializing and travel. It is hard for people to opt out. To say that an individual can simply refuse to participate is like saying that countries in a literal arms race can choose to stop buying all those fighter planes and put the money into school lunches and Shakespeare in the Park. Sure they can—if they don’t mind being invaded. If everyone else buys fancy suits for their job interviews, then I risk unemployment by choosing not to.
We would be better off, then, if some Leviathan could force us to disarm, so Miller, Frank, and others argue that the government should step in. A policy aimed at curbing luxury shopping might involve higher marginal tax rates or, as a more targeted intervention, a consumption tax. As it becomes harder to afford a Rolex, people will devote more money to pleasures that really matter. Less waste, more happiness.
Now, only a philistine would deny Postrel’s point that some consumer preferences are aesthetic, even sensual. And only a rube would doubt that some people buy some luxury items to impress colleagues, competitors, spouses, and lovers. Perhaps we can divvy up the consumer world. An appreciation of beauty explains certain accessible and universal consumer pleasures—Postrel begins her book in Kabul after the Taliban fell, describing how the women there reveled in their freedom to possess burkas of different colors and to paint their nails—while signaling theory applies to the more extravagant purchases. A crimson burka? Aesthetics. A $30,000 watch? Signaling. Aristotle Onassis’s choice to upholster the bar stools in his yacht with whale foreskin? Definitely signaling. I don’t think any of this is mistaken. But it is seriously incomplete. There is a further explanation for our love of such goods, which draws upon one of the most interesting ideas in the cognitive sciences: that humans are not primarily sensory creatures. Rather, we respond to what we believe are objects’ deeper properties, including their histories. Sensory properties are relevant and so is signaling, but the pleasure we get from the right sort of history explains much of the lure of luxury items—and of more mundane consumer items as well.
The debate over the psychology and politics of non-utilitarian goods isn’t just about the whims of millionaires, then. Everyone has an appetite for non-utilitarian things; most people own things that they don’t really need. It is worth thinking about why.
• • • Postrel quotes James Twitchell, in Living it Up (2002), talking about a visit to the Beverly Hills Armani store with his college-aged daughter. He describes how customers would stroke the suits and how his daughter, originally skeptical, found herself entranced by the items. Twitchell sees the attraction of such goods as rooted in self-image and personal identity, but for Postrel it is simpler than that: “People pet Armani clothes because the fabrics feel so good. Those clothes attract us as visual, tactile creatures, not because they are ‘rich in meaning’ but because they are rich in pleasure.” Twitchell’s daughter is captivated “not so she can impress anyone else or feel affiliated with prestigious brands. She wants these luxuries because they are aesthetically appealing, because they are, in a word, beautiful.”
The pleasure of these objects does feel immediate and sensual. But Postrel is too quick to dismiss Twitchell’s claim about meaning. The shoppers know, after all, that they are stroking Armani suits. Would they react the same way if reaching into the discount rack at Marshalls offered the same sensory experience?
Probably not. If pleasure is triggered by the physical properties of what we are looking at or touching, then it shouldn’t matter what we think it is. But it does matter. To most, an Armani is worth more than a knockoff, even if the difference is invisible to the senses. Or consider the Rolex. In his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (2009), Miller points out that someone who doesn’t want to pay $30,000 for the Rolex President watch can go online and, for $1,200, buy a knockoff so finely made that only an expert can tell the difference. (He lists what they share: “a waterproof, shock-resistant Swiss ETA 25-jewel movement, a micro-laser-etched crown on the dial, a quad-wrapped 18k gold forged case, a scratchproof sapphire crystal, a 2.5x date magnifying viewer, unique serial and model numbers between the lugs, Luminox hour markers, a black Triplock O-ring seal on the winding crown tube, and a Rolex brand hologram sticker.”) No doubt Rolex loses some sales because people prefer the knockoff, but since the company is still in business, there are apparently enough shoppers who pay a premium of about $29,000 for an authenticity that makes no perceptible difference.
The inadequacy of the sham Rolex is an embarrassment to sensory theories, but it is also troubling for signaling explanations. If the fake Rolexes are indistinguishable from the real ones, they would work just as well if one’s goal is to impress others. A defender of the signaling theory might say that we don’t just want to signal; we want to signal honestly. Or perhaps—though this stretches the signaling theory quite a bit—we like to signal to ourselves, to look at our wrists and know that we are big shots. Or maybe people just don’t believe that a sham Rolex will be as lasting and durable as a real one.
It is clear, though, that we can be influenced by the history of an object even when it has nothing to do with communicating status or with differences in quality. One example of this is the endowment effect—you come to value an object, such as a mug, more if you own it. You also value an object more if you purposefully chose it than if it was just handed to you. And you value it less if you had previously rejected it. You enjoy something to a greater degree if you had to work to get it, a phenomenon that may have serious implications for modern life: the Web has made it far easier to listen to a song or watch a movie or buy a book, and this arguably leads to a corresponding drop in the pleasure of listening, watching, or reading. Laboratory studies show that you like something more if you built it yourself—the “Ikea Effect.” Other studies find that people agree to pay more for a painting, and like it more, if they think it took a long time to paint.
Some of these effects might be the product of living in a consumer society, but this can’t be the whole story. For instance, the conclusion that individuals value an object less if they had previously rejected it does not apply only to market-savvy consumers. As my colleagues and I have found, it also applies to four-year-olds and capuchin monkeys. The same is true for the endowment effect, which exists in children, monkeys, and chimpanzees.
Thus the history of an object matters to the pleasure we get from it. And one intriguing sort of history concerns who has touched the object in the past. Consumers are more likely to buy something that has been touched or tried on by a physically attractive person. Celebrities, in particular, possess the “touch”—one reason why people want objects that have had some contact with them. In a 1996 auction, President John F. Kennedy’s golf clubs sold for $772,500, and a tape measure from the Kennedy household sold for $48,875. There have been eBay auctions for Barack Obama’s half-eaten breakfast and Britney Spears’s chewed-up bubble gum.
Indeed, charities can make money by auctioning off clothes worn by actors. One such charity used to offer a dry cleaning option before sending off the garments but stopped because few buyers took them up on it. People wanted the clothes as they were when the actors wore them, sweat and all. With fellow psychologists George Newman and Gil Diesendruck, I conducted a series of experiments exploring this celebrity-endowment phenomenon. We asked our subjects to name a living famous person they admired. (Answers included Barack Obama and George Clooney.) Then we asked how much they would pay for a specific object, such as a sweater, that was owned and used by this person. When our subjects were told that the object would be thoroughly sterilized before it got to them, they dropped their offers by a third.
Celebrity objects aren’t just a modern obsession. For centuries, Christians have revered objects said to be the bones of saints or fragments of the True Cross. As literary scholar Judith Pascoe has described, after Shakespeare’s death, fans cut down the trees around his house for lumber they claimed was sourced for their high-priced furniture. The trees surrounding Napoleon’s gravesite were also pulled apart and pieces brought home as souvenirs. Napoleon’s penis suffered a similar fate, reportedly removed by the priest who administered last rites.
My favorite contemporary example of this type is a collection gathered by the writer Jonathan Safran Foer. He started it when a friend sent him the top sheet of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stack of unused typewriter paper, which inspired him to contact authors and request the blank pages they were going to write on next. He got pages from Richard Powers, Susan Sontag, Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and others. He even persuaded the director of the Freud Museum in London to hand over the top sheet from a stack of blank paper in Sigmund Freud’s desk. Foer’s unusual hobby illustrates powerfully how the most mundane objects accrue value through their histories.
We respond to what we believe are objects’ deeper properties, including their histories. Then there are more personal cases. Think about your wedding ring or your child’s baby shoes. Such objects serve no practical purpose, they need not be beautiful in any sensory way, and they are useless as signals. Is anyone impressed by the fact that I own the original baby shoes of my two sons? World’s worst positional good!
Children experience the same boost in value in their attachments to teddy bears and security blankets. Psychologist Bruce Hood and I tested this by presenting children with a machine we described as a duplicating device. We then fooled the children into believing that we had made perfect copies of their attachment objects and asked them which they wanted to take home, the original or the duplicate. They tended to want the original.
The importance of history is clearest in cases of objects such as teddy bears and JFK’s golf clubs because these are unique items with special stories behind them. But it applies as well to kinds of items. After all, a brand is a way of explicitly marking an object’s distinctive history. The genius of marketing is crafting the story told about that history. Perhaps the objects are made in a special place or in a special way; they reflect family tradition; their production is a labor of love. They are in short supply; they are the oldest; they are the newest. Sometimes, the relevant aspect of history may be the connection to particular communities: these objects—but not others that might look, feel, and smell just like them—originate from a community to which one wishes to belong.
• • • In my book How Pleasure Works (2010), I argue that this focus on history is universal and that it emerges early in development. It arises because of the importance we give to the deeper nature of things, what they are made of, where they come from. We are not empiricists, obsessed with appearance. Rather, the surfaces of things are significant largely because they reflect an object’s deeper nature. This mode of thought might be a biological adaptation, since what really matters—what is important to think about as you make your way through the world—isn’t what things look like but what they really are. So young children appreciate that a porcupine surgically modified to look like a cactus is nonetheless still a porcupine; that a drawing of cat doesn’t have to look like a cat; that two people might look identical, but one might be kind and the other cruel. Our beliefs about the hidden nature of things influence the most seemingly sensory experiences, such as the taste of food and drink. Protein bars taste worse if they are described as containing “soy protein,” ice cream tastes better when labeled “high fat,” and cola is rated higher when drunk from a cup with a brand logo. Neuroimaging studies reveal that areas of the brain associated with pleasure are more active if you believe that you are drinking expensive wine. Perhaps the most troubling finding was reported in a working paper called “Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food?” The answer is no: if you grind up a product called Canned Turkey & Chicken Formula for Puppies/Active Dogs in a food processor and garnish it with parsley, people cannot reliably distinguish it from pork liver pâté.
The depth of pleasure, and, in particular, the importance we give to history, applies to many domains, including food, artwork, and luxury goods. From this perspective, the lure of such goods is not limited to their utility or beauty or to our beliefs that possessing them will impress people. Part of the lure is that we believe these items have a certain sort of history. The pleasure we get from these objects is genuine and aesthetic, not mostly sensory.
This conclusion has implications for the charge that desiring such goods is disreputable or unreasonable. Miller, for instance, argues that consumer products fail as signaling devices—nobody really thinks I’m smarter because I bought a BMW or more noble because of my Prius—and he points out that there are better, more successful ways, to attract and impress people. But if we buy expensive things for reasons other than their signaling potential, this critique doesn’t apply.
What about the claim that these objects are positional goods, leading to a wasteful arms race? Economist Richard Layard argues that contemporary research—the “new science of happiness”—shows that our happiness is exquisitely sensitive to relative status. If my neighbor owns a fancy car and I want one but don’t have it, this will make her happy and me sad. Layard suggests that my misery will be greater than her happiness, so there is a net loss when she makes her purchase. Layard sees envy as a form of pollution created by her possessions, and proposes that it be regulated for much the same reason that environmental pollution is: to prevent actors from creating net losses at benefit to themselves.
Layard is surely right about the relationship between status and happiness; as H. L. Mencken put it, “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband.” But happiness research is a fast-moving and contentious field, and many of Layard’s assumptions about the corrosive nature of economic disparity have not held up. As Will Wilkinson points out, the available data suggest that citizens of countries with liberal free-market economies are among the most satisfied, which explains why the United States, which exemplifies exactly the sort of amok consumerism that Layard and others worry about, is one of the happiest nations on Earth. Wilkinson argues that we feel this happiness because such societies excel at creating multiple status hierarchies—“Surfer dudes don’t compete with Star Trek geeks for status”—many of which have nothing to do with money.
And then there is the psychological data suggesting that status might not be the whole story. If I buy a watch to impress my friends, one can worry about the cost of envy. But what if I buy it because it gives me pleasure? That one child enjoys a teddy bear doesn’t seem to detract from his playmate’s enjoyment of his own. That no one watches me eat mom’s cooking doesn’t make it taste any less wonderful. Some goods, including luxury goods, are valued for properties that have nothing to do with what other people think, so worries about arms races just don’t apply.
Frank ends his book Falling Behind (2007) by discussing a 200 percent consumption tax on top earners. What would be lost, he wonders. What would these people be unable to buy? He answers by describing a trip he took to New York City, where he looked at top-of-the-line mechanical watches, selling for thousands of dollars. These pose a problem, though, because people like to buy several of them, but they stop working if you don’t use them for a few days. “One could hardly expect men of means to tolerate such a problem for long,” Layard writes.
And sure enough, there is now a ready solution. On display in the Asprey & Garrard showrooms on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, discerning buyers will find a finely tooled calfskin-leather-covered box with a golden clasp, whose doors open to reveal six mechanical wrists that rotate just often enough to keep the mechanical wristwatches they hold running smoothly. The price? Only $5,700.
It is hardly a sacrifice, Frank argues, if people have to give up on such things. But it is an interesting example. This device doesn’t look like a status symbol; presumably a man of means isn’t going to walk around with it, showing it off. It seems more like a whimsical aesthetic object, valuable in part because of our appreciation of the craft and intelligence that went into its creation, and in part just because it is so audacious and superfluous and silly. In fact, one can compare this device to another, much more expensive kind of object that a rich person is likely to possess: anyone who spends almost $6,000 on a watch winder is probably spending many times more than this on art.
Like many luxury goods, art is not valued for its practical utility. And, like many luxury goods, artworks get their meaning and value in light of their histories—who created them, when they were made, and what the artist intended. This is clearest for modern pieces: objects such as a urinal or an unmade bed can be transformed into artwork if created and displayed in the right way. But origins matter even for more traditional art. When The Supper at Emmaus was thought to have been painted by Vermeer, it was priceless; when it was discovered to be the work of forger Han van Meegeren, it became a relatively worthless curiosity. Its appearance didn’t change, just its history, but people no longer wanted to look at it. If you were to discover that your Rolex is an inexpensive duplicate, you would experience the same effect.
• • • Anthropologist Clifford Geertz notes that, during the Cold War, the term “anti-anti-communist” was used to describe those who argued against the obsession with the Soviet threat. This isn’t the same as pro-communism—the logic of the double negative doesn’t hold: you can be against Joseph McCarthy without being in favor of Josef Stalin. I am anti-anti-luxury goods. The arguments against them are based on an incomplete theory of psychology, one that misses the depth of the pleasures they provide. Keep in mind as well that this isn’t just about the purchases of the über-rich. Few people will ever own a Rolex or a Vermeer, but we are all sensitive to the value of history, and most of us possess at least some things that we wouldn’t trade for perfect duplicates. These objects have value beyond their practical utility.
There might be better arguments against the pursuit of such goods. The moralist will complain that they are superficial, that an obsession with consumer products corrodes the soul. The utilitarian will worry that the money spent on these goods could be better spent elsewhere and might not be impressed with the luxury-goods-as-art argument. Indeed, Peter Singer uses donations to art museums as an example of wasteful and self-indulgent charity, suggesting that people should instead give money to help cure trachoma, a preventable disease that slowly leads to blindness in children in developing countries. But the moralist and the utilitarian can’t ignore the pleasure we get from luxury goods. The moralist should recognize that our appreciation of them is psychologically on par with other, more respected, human wants. The utilitarian should acknowledge that they are not pollution; they add to the value of our lives. Even if we ultimately choose to discourage the production and purchase of such goods—and maybe we should—we should acknowledge what would be lost.