How the rebel, the beatnik and the hipster became their own status symbols

Editor’s Note: When cracks began to emerge in Steve Quartz’s anti-consumerist beliefs, the professor of philosophy and neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology turned to what he knew best: neuroscience. By developing a new study that he called “consumer neuroscience,” Quartz began to better understand why we consume. What he found led to a book of surprising conclusions.

Below, Quartz, the co-author of “Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World,” suggests that a change in consumerism in the 1950s played an elemental role in our shift from a hierarchical society to a more pluralistic one — one with different routes to status. Tune in to Thursday’s Making Sen$e segment for more, and check out his latest article here.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

The 1950s high school conjures up images of neatly-dressed students navigating what can only be described as a rigid social hierarchy. Boys wore blazers or letterman sweaters, potent symbols of where they stood in the school’s pecking order. Girls, whose status depended largely on their associations with boys, wore skirts, blouses and pearls, according to the rules laid out in Betty Cornell’s “Teen-Age Popularity Guide.”

As James Coleman recounts in his classic 1961 work, “The Adolescent Society,” athletics was almost the only route to status for high-school boys of that era. Having such a limited route to status, perpetuated by the social organization of schools and the limited numbers of spots available on sports teams, created a status dilemma as schools grew larger and competition for limited status intensified. As sociologist William Bielby chronicles in detail, a response to this status dilemma was for boys to find a new route to status. Thus came to life the teenage rock ‘n’ roll band. Since then, the routes to status in high schools have increasingly diversified, particularly for women, who, unlike their 1950s counterparts, can participate in athletics and school leadership. As sociologist Murray Milner details, today’s high schools have much more complex status relations and are typically more pluralistic than hierarchical.

The evolution of high-school social structure in many ways mirrors larger social changes since the 1950s, particularly a shift from a hierarchical society to a more pluralistic, fragmented one, due in part to growing gender equality and diversity. Consumer researchers have documented an explosion in the number of lifestyles over this period, as a relatively monolithic culture fragmented into more and more diverse ones. This shift from social hierarchy and its limited routes to status, to pluralism and the proliferation of lifestyles is a major reason why nations become happier as they undergo these changes, as documented by Ronal Inglehart of the World Values Survey over the last four decades. Similarly, economic historians, such as Benjamin Friedman, point to economic growth as a powerful progressive force, driving political and social liberalization, including greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, fairness and commitment to democracy.

But what drove these titanic social changes? I suggest that a shift in consumerism and the motives driving it — our status and rebel instincts — played an elemental role.

Most societies throughout history incorporated hierarchical status systems, often thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. Hierarchical societies seem to emerge whenever there are scarce defensible resources for people to inherit. Picture a pyramid with fewer and fewer positions the higher you go. The only way to ascend is to knock someone above you out of their spot. Thorsten Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption is the prototypical example, and many contemporary consumer critiques retain the same basic logic. Because high status rank is so limited in a clearly ordered social hierarchy, only a few people can have it. The overwhelming majority are destined to be frustrated and unhappy.

The fact that most societies have been hierarchical points to the centrality of our status instinct. Humans are not naturally egalitarian. Although existing hunter-gatherer bands are often romantically portrayed as naturally egalitarian, their egalitarian social structure is actively maintained by collectively sanctioning members who try to over-assert their authority. Because of our status instinct, we find being deprived of status emotionally aversive.

Epidemiologist Michael Marmot’s landmark study of British civil servants found that our social standing dramatically affects our health and longevity. Losing status affects every system of the human body. Brain signals in response to status threats flow to glands of the endocrine system, including the pancreas, thyroid, pituitary gland, adrenal glands, ovaries and testes, which in turn release hormones that regulate growth, metabolism, reproduction and responses to stress and injury. This can even lead to cognitive impairment, suppressed immune function, hypertension, elevated levels of stress hormones and decreased fertility. Chronic low status impacts the developing brain’s structure, impairing language, memory, social-emotional processing and cognitive control.

This strong, innate aversion to low status creates what I call a rebel instinct. Like the status instinct, it is etched into our brain’s emotional circuitry. It fuels our anger, frustration and resentment when we sense that other people are trying to dominate us. Combining the results of over 100 studies that included people from virtually all parts of the world, researchers found that members of subordinate groups strongly dislike hierarchy. This suggests why traditional, hierarchical societies ruled by elites are often ruthlessly authoritarian in a bid to limit access to status, as Taliban rule in Afghanistan so starkly revealed. It also indicates why people in more hierarchical societies are not as happy as people in less hierarchical ones.

Consumption began to take an oppositional form, driven by the rebel instinct, as consumers began to rebel against status quo values. Their consumption was no longer fueled by emulation of higher-ups.

Beginning in the 1950s, a shift in the psychological motivations underlying consumption helped unleash the titanic change in the nature of American society and its status system. Consumption began to take an oppositional form, driven by the rebel instinct, as consumers began to rebel against status quo values. Their consumption was no longer fueled by emulation of higher-ups. Rather, the architects of “rebel cool” — such as Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer — appropriated the values of those that had been marginalized at its bottom. The anti-status quo values of rebel cool seamlessly and rapidly aligned with consumption and has since spread globally, as the omnipresent hipster, from Brooklyn to Jakarta, illustrates. As the historian Christopher Gair notes, even among the counterculture of the 1960s, increases in absolute wealth and its discretionary spending made their alternative lifestyles involving music, travel and drug experimentation possible. These economic changes allowed the first generation in history to turn from worrying about an economy that feeds stomachs to one that feeds lifestyles. For consumers, it meant they no longer had to emulate the family next door. They could create new status groups that embodied views that were antithetical to the values of the Joneses. By the 1980s, rebellious imagery made its way into virtually all realms of consumption. Consider, for example, what Advertising Age considers the greatest ad ever made: Apple’s introduction of their Macintosh in 1984, which likened IBM to Big Brother and their customers to Orwellian proles.

These titanic social changes remind me of a process of divergence we see in nature. Darwin witnessed divergence in action when he visited the Galapagos Islands. In particular, he kept encountering birds that looked similar but had all sorts of beak shapes that allowed for different diets. They were various finch species — a dozen in all — and they were unlike others anywhere else in the world. Darwin would go on to theorize that a single species likely came to the islands from the mainland. The islands, Darwin continued, featured new niches containing different types of nuts, that weren’t available to them on the mainland because other species already filled those niches. Rather than compete for the same resources, the species diversified — not purposefully, but through mutation. Darwin would call this process of divergence adaptive radiation.

My suspicion is that the proliferation of lifestyles that consumerism makes possible similarly allowed us to stop competing for the same limited resource: status in a hierarchical society. Emulation consumption drives us to want similar things. Oppositional consumption, in contrast, drives us to want different things because our value pluralism links our consumption patterns to different social norms. Oppositional consumption’s adaptive ingenuity is that it diffuses competition for social status. It does so by supplying increasing dimensions of esteem through the proliferation of lifestyles. Increases in absolute wealth help create the lifestyles, niches and brand communities that supply the status we seek. In short, status diversification expands the status pie and so reduces the intensity of our status comparisons and makes relative comparisons along broad dimensions like socioeconomic status less salient.

The rise of oppositional consumption also reveals another often underappreciated fact about consumption. Consumption is not some asocial, highly individualistic endeavor. It is a highly social enterprise tied to social norms. Conspicuous consumption, for example, only brings esteem when there’s a broad consensus that displays of wealth is a valued social norm. When other social norms govern consumption, such as Yankee thriftiness, conspicuous consumption brings disesteem. Yet consumerism has come to be regarded as inevitably hyper-consumption of frivolous luxuries. It’s worth noting that this image of U.S. hyper-consumption is largely a myth: careful studies of the overwhelming majority of household spending patterns reveal that increases are due to rising costs of essential goods and services, principally housing, education and healthcare. Consumerism prescribes no necessary level of consumption.

Consumerism, at its most basic, is simply arranging economic activity around consumer preferences. Because those preferences are shaped by social norms, changes to them — what brings esteem and what brings disesteem — will alter patterns of consumption. There’s good reason to believe this is occurring for conspicuous consumption, which appears to manifest itself primarily in relatively early stages of economic growth. As social norms change, then, so too does consumption.

These economic changes allowed the first generation in history to turn from worrying about an economy that feeds stomachs to one that feeds lifestyles.

Consider, for example, the rise of fair-trade, sustainable consumption, localtarianism and “conspicuous conservation.” The strong sales of the Toyota Prius is due in part to its being a potent prosocial signal of one’s commitment to consuming less. In drought-stricken California, removing your lawn has quickly become such a potent social signal of one’s commitment to water conservation that consumers used up a $340 million government “cash for grass” program in the first six months of its existence, shocking officials.

Aligning consumption with more norms that produce social benefit clearly remains an incomplete project. Yet, the link between our consumer motivations, norms and social esteem should cast doubt on such claims as those by Pope Francis and anti-consumers that view consumerism as irrevocably immoral. Indeed, it is ironic that most of history’s most influential moral philosophers have built morality on our desire for esteem, including David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant and Voltaire, along with American founders like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Thomas Hobbes put it bluntly when he said, “few except those who love praise do anything to deserve it.” Beyond these moral foundations, psychologists confirm that our desire to be esteemed, respected and accepted by others is among our most basic, universal needs and motivations. Neuroscience has pinpointed the brain regions that expanded during evolution to give rise to this need and along with it our social life. Anthropologists confirm that this is the origin of our moral life among hunter-gatherers. Legal theorists reveal that this desire to be esteemed and to follow social norms is the glue of our social order.

Social norms and non-legal sanctions hold our society together because of their link to status. Without our desire for status, then, morality would have never emerged, complex social life would be impossible and our own society would collapse in short order. Understanding that these same desires underlie our consumption and the complex material culture that we both create and that helps create us, would lead to a deeper understanding of why we consume. Indeed, it would allow us to shape our consumption in ways that help solve, not create, our most pressing social problems.

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