Even Penguins Do It

Bryan Caplan writes:
Rich families are once again having lots of kids


Last week, I mentioned this factoid to Robin Hanson, and he had a strong reaction: "This is the fact that will convince people to have more kids!" Elaboration: The rich have high status, people want status, so whatever the rich do, the masses copy.

I'm totally unconvinced. Many of the favorite things of the rich are unpopular, and the non-rich make little, no, or negative effort to imitate them. Take opera, a classic blue-blood obsession. Most people don't even pretend to like it, much less take an interest in it.


The lesson, I suspect, is that status is usually local status. When they pursue status, most people aren't trying to impress Brad Pitt or the Rockefellers; they're trying to impress the five or six slobs that they see every day. The best way to achieve this, strangely, is to excel in whatever this handful of slobs happens to value.
A few points:

1. As pointed out by commenter Hopefully Anonymous, some people do imitate celebrities.

2. The same commenter suggested that part of the not-imitating-the-rich phenomenon is explained by nonfinancial entry barriers: It's hard to "get" opera, for example. But I'm not buying that: It's harder for the uninitiated to "get" Black Flag or Sonic Youth.

3. In a way, Bryan doesn't go far enough: People often actively seek to distinguish themselves from outgroups. The best example are teenagers, who put quite some effort into not being like grownups. This is a way of showing you belong to the ingroup.

4. This is just one example of the general tendency of humans to be very mindful of who is the ingroup and who is the outgroup and act accordingly.

5. There are some outgroup members whom to imitate is more o.k. than others: Brad Pitt is cool, dad is not.

6. There are some aspects that are more important than others in this respect: Eating the same food as dad is o.k., dressing like him is not.

7. If I had a theory about the determinants of which is which with respect to points 5 and 6, I'd be writing an academic article rather than a blogpost.

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