Thursday, August 20, 2015

Unequal, but happy

I just came across an article in my queue of potential posts by Steven Quantz and Anette Asp that I had put aside, thinking to check whether this was the same Quantz who I vaguely remember reviewing my Biology of Mind book some time ago. I hunted down the review (in Trends in Neuroscience, May 2000) and sure enough, it is the same guy, then and now at Cal Tech, a professor of philosophy who atempts to relate advances in understanding the neuroscience of the brain to the humanities and social sciences, in fields such as neuroethics, neuroaesthetics, and neuroeconomics.

His piece with Asp in the NY Times Sunday Review deals with the same topic as my July 10 post, "Why don't the poor rise up?", and takes another perspective, described in their recent book "Cool"- How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World.
...inequality is increasingly disorganized. Consumerism has expanded the lifestyles, niches and brands that supply the statuses we seek.

As a result, social status, which was once hierarchical and zero-sum, has become more fragmented, pluralistic and subjective. The relationship between relative income and relative status, which used to be straightforward, has gotten much more complex.

By the 1950s, rapidly rising standards of living across the West, combined with social pressures to conform, all conspired to intensify status competition. The architects of “rebel cool,” like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, responded by rebelling against emulation consumption and the status hierarchy of postwar America. They inverted the dominant social hierarchy, rejecting the values of those at the top and appropriating the values of those who had been marginalized at the bottom.

The pursuit of “the cool,” in our view, fundamentally altered the psychological motivations underlying our consumer choices. In conspicuous consumption, our emulation of higher-ups means we compete directly for status because we want what they have. But rebellious consumption changed the game, by making a product’s worth depend on how it embodied values that rejected a dominant group’s status.

By comparing a PC user to an Orwellian drone while likening a Mac user to a sexy athlete in its iconic “1984” ad, Apple made a fundamental claim about the allure of its products. Today, Apple products are expensive because they’re seen as cool; they’re not cool because they’re expensive (which is still the case for many luxury goods).

Asking people merely to look at products and people they considered “cool” sparks a pattern of brain activation in the medial prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain that is involved in daydreaming, planning and ruminating — similar to what happens when people receive praise. Our brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, in short, tracks our social esteem.

A new generation of ethnographers has discovered an explosion of consumer lifestyles and product diversification in recent decades. From evangelical Christian Harley-Davidson lifestyles organized around musical tastes, from the solidarity of punk rockers to yoga gatherings, from meditation retreats to book clubs, we use products to create and experience community. These communities often represent a consumer micro-culture, a “brand community,” or tribe, with its own values and norms about status.

The proliferation of consumer choice helps explain why today’s Gilded Age hasn’t sparked as much outrage as the last one. Money may not buy happiness in the long run, but consumer choice has gone a long way in keeping most Americans reasonably content, even if they shouldn’t be.

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