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THE CONSUMPTION MYSTERY
Reflections of palm trees sway across Gucci's temple-like storefront in the brilliant afternoon sun. The glistening industrial storefront next door bears neither name nor address, evoking Prada's minimalist cool. Inside, a parade of mannequins is arranged with military precision, their averted gaze heightening their aloofness to passersby. One store down, the sun warms $15,000 Fendi bags, the scent of sumptuous leather in the air, and at Bijan, $20,000 silk suits wait patiently for those who have an appointment. Eight-hundred-dollar jeans, carefully torn at the knees and splattered with paint, grace the window display at Dolce & Gabbana. Above them hangs a sign crafted by some marketing consultant reassuring you that $800 for a pair of jeans is money well spent, as these jeans will make you even cooler than you already are. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills may seem an unlikely place to find Caltech scientists doing fieldwork. Sometimes, though, clues to the deepest mysteries about ourselves come from unlikely sources.
There's something odd about the fact that a row of stores is among the most famous tourist attractions in the world. On this typical summer afternoon, most of the people sauntering up and down Rodeo Drive are posing in front of the storefronts for souvenir pictures, panning the street with their video apps, and pressing their noses up to the display windows. Since they aren't actually shopping, the street's attraction must have some largely unacknowledged ritualistic flavor to it. To an anthropologist from another planet, we suspect, the throngs of tourists would be as exotic and mysterious as any congregation of premodern humans chanting and dancing around a campfire some warm, starry night on a far-off savanna.
What brings these people to Rodeo Drive? What is its allure? Their mood offers a clue. Watching them strolling, gawking, and posing: You can't help but notice that they are almost giddy, their heads no doubt filled with fantasies stemming from the modern-day fairy tale Pretty Woman, and the magical transformative power of this place. For adults, this-and not some amusement park an hour south-looks like the happiest place on earth. It is, of course, more than amusement. It is aspirational. We are so intimately familiar with the link between happiness and consumption that it may never occur to us that Rodeo Drive is something like a shopper's Canterbury or a consumerist Mecca, if you'll indulge us in some mixed metaphors. That is, Rodeo Drive's lure lies in something abstract, in its distillation of the very essence of consumerism: the promise that personal happiness can be found by consuming more than one needs. To that alien anthropologist, the people on Rodeo Drive must seem like pilgrims who have traveled countless miles to let the opulence of its offerings and all that goes with the promise of consumerism wash over them like a balm.
We are all consumers.1 And we all, more or less, live by consumerism's creed that our consuming is linked to our happiness (in a recent poll, only 6 percent of Americans said that money can't buy happiness).2 When someone says money can't buy happiness, they typically mean buying "stuff" can't buy happiness. But consumerism is more than just buying stuff. It also makes possible a dizzying array of experiences and lifestyles. Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller Eat, Pray, Love may have gained Oprah's attention as a woman's search for meaning, but Gilbert's yearlong travels-from savoring the cuisine of Italy to taking yoga lessons in India-was an ode of sorts to consumerism and a lifestyle it made possible. In fact, "things" and "experiences" are often so interwoven that we can't really separate them. Two tickets to your favorite baseball team's game are things, but taking your child to the game might be an unforgettable experience. A bicycle is a thing, but it might offer the experiences of an annual bike trip through the wine country with friends. It might even offer a weekly ride with a local club, travel to take part in races, and a whole cycling way of life. Being a cyclist-a lifestyle made possible by consumerism-might soon start to define who you are.
Just think of how your own pattern of consumption conveys who you are to yourself-and to others. For according to consumerism, without your clothes you are more than naked. You are meaningless. This is because in a consumer culture things live a double life, both as material objects and as symbols or signals with meanings, both explicit and unrecognized, that communicate values, identities, aspirations, and even fears. All these add up to our lifestyles, made possible by consumerism. Indeed, according to some social critics, it is through the world of commodities that our social world reproduces the social categories that structure our personal identities and give form to the social order.
If you want to put the deeply symbolic nature of material things to the test, just drive a Hummer to an environmental meeting or a Prius to a NASCAR race and wait for the reaction you get. The green urban-hipster values of the Prius don't play so well to the NASCAR crowd, while the Hummer's embodiment of a middle finger to the environment has made it a target of "ecoterrorists." We are awash in these signals, from the cars we drive and the clothes we wear to the brand of hand soap beside our kitchen sinks (and the kitchen sink itself, for that matter). Many of these signals were shaped by our evolutionary past and speak to our brains as ancient symbols, below the level of our awareness. They motivate and guide our behaviors in ways we rarely acknowledge and sometimes even vehemently deny.
There is little or no avoiding this world of goods, symbols, and signals. Even the self-proclaimed "anti-consumers" among us typically end up being just alternative consumers. Consider, for example, movements like the Simple Living Network, an anti-consumption group (now defunct) that offered to provide resources for learning to do more with less. Without a hint of irony, its website peddled Simple Living bumper stickers, T-shirts, banners, books, posters, flags, buttons, magnets, note cards, and a veritable laundry list of other goods. And the anti-consumerist organization Adbusters is busy supplying its supporters with its own $125 in-house brand of sneakers, which are no longer clothing but-so the marketing proclaims-have been transformed into rebellious anti-corporatist "tools for activists." And you thought a shoe was just a shoe. Even consider the avowedly nonconsumer, off-the-grid Amish. Recent times have seen more and more Amish trading in the horse and plow for high-paying factory jobs and enjoying the fruits of their labor by dining out regularly and even vacationing in Florida. So popular have winter Amish treks to Florida become that an entire Amish vacation community, Pinecraft, has sprung up just outside Sarasota, where vacationing Amish enjoy deep-sea fishing, parasailing, and shuffleboard. An Amish paradise indeed.
Once synonymous with the West, consumerism has spread widely across the world and today coexists with political and religious climates once strictly antithetical to it. A fitting sign of consumerism's increasingly global reach is the fact that the largest shopping mall in the world is the New South China Mall, more than twice the size of the Mall of America, the largest mall in the United States. In fact, all of the world's ten biggest malls are in Asia or the Middle East. What may appear to be worlds away is oddly connected to us by the language of consumption. While you may at first struggle to find common experiences with someone living in Chengdu in Southwest China or in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, the globalization of consumerism provides common touchstones. You would likely be able to share with them the experience of stopping at Starbucks in the mid-afternoon to enjoy a mocha Frappuccino.
Given how central consumerism is to our lives, and given its growing reach, you might suppose we'd all have a good grasp on our reasons for consuming. But when we started asking people in 2003 why they consume, we found that they had a hard time answering. We were using new brain-imaging technologies to peer into their brains as they made consumer decisions, and we supposed their impressions might help us interpret the brain scan results. Soon, however, we discovered that the brain scans were illuminating "the why of buy" in ways that went far beyond the subjects' introspection.3 Brain imaging was opening a window into the unconscious brain, which, we were discovering, drives most of our consumer behavior.
Then something unexpected happened. In the spring of 2004, we were conducting a brain-imaging experiment involving "cool" and "uncool" products. It started out as a somewhat lighthearted look into what we thought was an interesting but not central part of our economic life. We didn't expect "cool" to be a game changer. But as we delved into deciphering the brain-imaging results, we realized that they didn't fit with the popular theories of consumer behavior that economists, psychologists, and sociologists had proposed. Looking inside the brain could finally answer why we consume, but it would require a new understanding that would take us a decade of effort to work out, and that would force us to rethink many of our most basic assumptions.
This new brain-based understanding exposes many of our deepest beliefs about consumerism as myths. Human consumption, it turns out, stems from the very same sources as our moral behavior. Our brain studies have also revealed how a special kind of consumption helped to solve an incredibly basic social problem, which we refer to as the Status Dilemma. That solution was the "rebel cool" that emerged in the 1950s, a new, oppositional style of consumption. Another kind of cool consumption, which we call "DotCool," emerged in the 1990s. As much as we may be biased to disdain consumerism, the emergence of these new kinds of consumption forces us to seriously reconsider consumer behavior in a new light.
In Cool, we present this new understanding of why we consume, how cool consumption emerged as a prime driver of the global economy, and how cool consuming shapes our world. Our view draws on the emerging science of "neuroeconomics" and a view Steve first articulated in the 1990s, "cultural biology."4 Neuroeconomics is a field that is fast uncovering our brain's hidden economic life. Like much work in this field, our work challenges the traditional economic conception of the consumer, known as Homo economicus. This hypothetical character is a bit like Mr. Spock from Star Trek: consuming for him is like figuring out a math game involving rational calculation. He would never buy a new shirt just because a salesperson complimented him when he tried it on. In fact, he makes his economic decisions as though he were the only person in the world. In our experiments involving "cool" products, in contrast, we found that asking people to merely look at cool products sparked a pattern of brain activation similar to what we see when we ask people to do social tasks, such as imagining themselves in a social situation or interacting with others directly. This is a tantalizing clue that part of the economic value of these products lies in the brain's mostly implicit estimate of how they impact our social identity. But deciding if you like a cool product or not is supposed to be a question of economics! After all, you typically hear about "consumers" on the business news, not the celebrity news. If we like cool products because they somehow tap into our social brain, then consumption doesn't fit the traditional, "rational" economic model.5
Cultural biology also places a premium on understanding our social life as the interplay between instincts, rooted in ancient neural structures whose design can be traced back to insects, and our capacity for cultural learning. The human brain develops through a prolonged and rich interaction with the environment over the first two decades of life. Nowhere is this rich interaction more pronounced than in the region of the human brain that expanded most during human evolution, an expansion that made possible our extraordinary sociability and also happens to be activated by cool products, as mentioned previously. That is, the brain region that blends our economic decisions and our social identity both grows the most during development and takes the longest to develop.6 This is not a coincidence. We learn how to associate products with our social identity and then how to use those products to signal what we're all about to other people. This latter ability emerges during adolescence as these brain regions develop-it's one reason why teenagers become so concerned about their social identity and communicate it to others through their burgeoning lifestyle choices.
Because of this complex biological and cultural interplay, cultural biology's view of consumption suggests that trying to understand human nature, including consumption, exclusively through the lens of evolutionary psychology (popularized in such books as Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works) is a mistake. Evolutionary psychology views human nature as the result of hardwired brain circuits that owe little of their function to culture, seeing us as essentially Stone Age creatures out of place in a modern world. On the contrary, cultural biology emphasizes the interplay between a flexible brain and culture, in which culture helps to build the brain and its functions. We suspect this is absolutely crucial if we are ever going to understand how a rapidly changing consumer culture plays a role in reshaping our beliefs and behavior, which have transformed profoundly over the last fifty years, as we will see in chapters 7 and 8.
As important as the social environment's role is in shaping our brain, it's not the whole story. Our brain has been primed for consumption throughout its evolutionary history. In fact, what makes modern consumption such a powerful force in our lives is that it builds on desires and motives that are etched very deep into our brains. In other words, it is part of our nature to consume. As we look into the ancient forces that shaped the modern brain and our consuming nature, we'll discover that like our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, we instinctively seek status. While some consumer critics point to our status impulses, they misdiagnose status as purely a competition for individual distinction that builds fences between people. Viewed in the appropriate evolutionary framework, our status instinct, we'll discover, is rooted in our brain's most basic affiliative impulses, which makes consumption more about building bridges between people. We also share with the chimpanzee a rebel instinct that makes us instinctively resent being subordinated. To our knowledge, no one has explored how this rebel instinct figures in our consumption. We thus examine how modern consumption didn't require the invention of new needs, but instead builds on these two instincts. This is a reason why consumption spreads like wildfire whenever conditions allow. Indeed, it took root quickly even among the hunter-gatherer Tsimané, who live in some of the most remote regions in the world, as soon as discretionary income became available and long before advertisements or other social influences appeared on the scene.7
A major barrier to understanding consumption is the idea that our status concerns are artificial, or worse yet, pathological. To our thinking, this is a historically monumental mistake, one that has resulted in decades of misleading consumerism critiques. Once we recognize the biological reality of consumer motives-the status instinct and the rebel instinct-and understand the critical role they play in our lives, the prescription to deny them becomes about as feasible-and right-minded-as the Victorian demand for chastity. Indeed, once we recognize that these instincts are a legitimate element of being human, we'll see cool consumption in a new light, as a solution to the Status Dilemma.
The view that status seeking is artificial, imposed by an unjust and crass society, remains so pervasive that it's worth examining in more detail. The most famous representative of this idea is Homo sociologicus. Whereas Homo economicus is an asocial creature, Homo sociologicus is created almost entirely by society. Modern human needs, the story goes, are essentially created by society as we take on the roles, and their attendant desires, that society makes available to us. It is a view most often traced to the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his notion of the Noble Savage. According to Rousseau, in a natural state we have few needs, but under the influence of society we develop artificial pride (amour-propre) that drives us to compare ourselves with others and to depend on their good opinion for our well-being (status). Civilization is thus a corrupting force. To Rousseau, material progress thwarts genuine human bonds of friendship and authenticity and replaces them with jealousy and artifice. The legacy of this view was the proliferation of critiques, ranging from Karl Marx's to that of the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, asserting that human needs are created by the system of production to drive the engine of capitalism.8
The basic idea here is that consumerism relies on instilling false needs in us to make us believe that our happiness depends on consuming. According to Alain de Botton, for example, status concerns and social hierarchies are constructed by a consumerist culture. By creating aspirations based on false needs, he believes, society creates a painful "status anxiety" within us.9 This status anxiety is, he claims, entirely artificial. Yet once it has us in its grasp, it creates a desire to consume as a way to alleviate our pain. The result is that the apparent wealth of our society actually impoverishes us, as it creates unlimited expectations that leave us perennially unsatisfied. The lesson is that "Rousseau's naked savages had few possessions. But, unlike their successors in their Taj Mahals, they were at least able to feast on the great wealth that comes from aspiring to very little."10
In essence, then, Homo sociologicus consumes because he has been manipulated to do so by society. He is something of a passive dupe. He doesn't really choose or act in any meaningful way, but rather walks in lockstep with the demands of consumerism. This notion of modern consumption became the dominant explanation among sociologists for the rise of modern media, marketing, and advertising. The trouble began with modern production. As mass production and other forms of industrialization made the sheer numbers of products greater and greater, manufacturers faced a potential crisis of oversupply. To avert this crisis, the argument continues, they needed to create entire classes of consumers for their goods. To do so, they turned to a fledgling marketing and advertising industry, which made two key innovations. The first was the modern advertisement, developed with the help of the leading psychologists of the day, such as John Watson, one of the pioneers of American behaviorist psychology, who became an ad executive at J. Walter Thompson after an affair forced him from academia. The second innovation was new media to communicate those messages-mass media in the form of radio, movies, and ultimately television. As proponents of the "passive dupe" theory point out, the rise of modern advertising occurred during the largest economic expansion in U.S. history, the post-World War II boom. It was during this period that the notion that modern society produces a false consciousness reached its zenith, as it was tempting for many critics to place the blame for mass consumerism solely on mass media as instruments of manipulation.
The most influential exposé of new advertising techniques was Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, which warned that mass media were using mind control techniques to embed false needs in listeners. Packard charged, among other things, that The Howdy Doody Show was subverting parental authority. Although this explanation of postwar America's consumerism remains popular, it's wrong. Postwar American consumerism was the result of one of the most ambitious periods of governmental economic planning in history, in which roles as consumer, citizen, and patriot intermingled.11 Even so, the suspicion that consumerism is the product of media-driven manipulation remains widespread, as in Noam Chomsky's propaganda model of the media and their role in manufacturing consent.12
There's a variant of this view that is also important to highlight. We'll call him Homo barbarus. He is the creation of one of the most influential writers on consumption, the American economist Thorstein Veblen. In a hugely significant book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen likened our consumption to the barbarian's exploits of war. The driving force was neither rational utility maximization nor passive manipulation. It was irrational status competition. Although Veblen regarded his 1899 book as a work of economic analysis, his heavy use of satire, fanciful anthropological musings, and skewering of the rich resonated with the public, making his book a bestseller.
Contributing to the wide interest in his work was the fact that Veblen provided an intuitive explanation for the excesses of the Gilded Age in which he wrote. The previous few decades in the United States had witnessed some of the most rapid economic expansion in the history of the world. In the United States, which leapfrogged Britain as the greatest manufacturing nation in the world during this time, it was also the era of the tycoon, exemplified by John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie. Many of these tycoons, such as Carnegie, embodied both the American dream of "rags to riches" and the ruthlessness of the "new man of business." Veblen was fascinated by both these aspects of the American tycoon, as well as by the extraordinary lengths to which this new class of "businessmen" went to display their wealth. He melded these elements together into an anthropological account of the new businessman that reduced his toiling to the barbarian exploits of war. Veblen suggested that prehistoric human societies had passed from a stage of peaceable savagery to a barbarian warrior stage. Echoing sentiments akin to Rousseau's image of the Noble Savage, Veblen suggested that when humans became predatory, warlike emulation and "invidious comparison" emerged as prime motivators. Like Rousseau'samour-propre, Veblen's "invidious comparison" drives men to compete against one another for prestige, corrupting natural virtues and turning daily life into ceaseless contests of predatory exploits. (We say "men" here because Veblen believed these contests reduced the women of his day to trophies of these predatory exploits-housewives were the modern equivalent of the captive women of war. Although Veblen did not coin the term "trophy wife," the essential elements of the concept are there in his view.) Veblen believed that the main difference between prehistoric barbarians and the businessmen of his day was the type of trophies they displayed, making consumer goods little more than the modern signs of predatory gains. So if we were to apply Veblen's views to our own era, just as a barbarian might raise the severed head of his foe for all to see his might, today we flash a Rolex for all to see.
Fundamental to Veblen's analysis was his moral disapproval of conspicuous consumption as inevitably wasteful, irrational status seeking, which fueled his satirical attack on the leisure class. Wasteful consumption, to him, was any kind of consumption that didn't serve a necessity of life, or did not "serve human life or human well-being on the whole." As for Rousseau, irrational and wasteful consumption depends on drawing a distinction between genuine and false human needs, and also on the implication that consumption is antithetical to satisfying central human needs. From academics to advice columnists, many of those discussing consumption today likewise morally disapprove of it. For such critics, consumer culture is deeply destructive. It seems unsustainable in a world of limited resources. It erodes community. It hurts democracy by turning citizens into consumers. It makes us narcissistic. It causes a spiritually deadening materialism.
The upshot is that many discussions of consumer culture today are deeply tinged with moralism and focus more on condemning it than on understanding it. The result is a void in our understanding of a basic force shaping our world. Consider that the most basic political dynamic of the twentieth century was the competition between capitalism and communism over which system of production could better satisfy the consumer needs of its citizens.13 One of the most iconic moments of the Cold War-the 1959 kitchen debate between vice president Richard Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev-took place in the model kitchen of a prototypical American family home designed to showcase to Soviets the consumer goods available to the average American family. Khrushchev flew into a profanity-laced tirade over Nixon's boast that American technology had produced affordable dishwashers, washing machines, lawn mowers, cosmetics, hi-fi's, TV dinners, cake mixes, supermarkets, and convertibles. Khrushchev dismissed such things as trivial luxuries, but ultimately the inability to satisfy the consumer demands of its citizens was a force behind the Soviet Union's collapse. During the decade following that collapse, the Russian consumer market doubled in size and then doubled again in the five years after that. In China, party officials have pushed aside a puritan communism, with its official egalitarian and restricted consumption, in favor of a pragmatic consumerism that underlies one of the world's fastest-growing economies.14
With the fall of communism, the new clash of civilizations is between consumerist countries and consumerism's foes-Jihad vs. McWorld, as the political theorist Benjamin Barber dubbed it.15 Why, then, does consumerism remain such a mystery? We suspect the reason lies in the fact that historically, the central problem for economies has been production rather than consumption.16 Simply put, when your world is one of scarcity and famine, you don't need to make an argument for the desire to consume. Instead, the problem facing most people for most of history was how to expand production.17 For that reason, the most historically influential political and economic theorists focused on the problems of production.
As solutions to those problems were worked out, through such ways as major advances in production technologies, a strange thing happened to consumption. Whereas theorists saw production as a good thing, and associated it with virtuous traits, they thought consumption was morally suspicious. Consider, for example, the German sociologist Max Weber's classical theory of the emergence of capitalism.18 According to Weber, the rise of capitalism depended on two confluent factors: a work ethic stemming from the Puritan virtues of self-discipline, delayed gratification, and restraint, and a Protestant asceticism that shunned the accumulation of worldly goods. Together, Weber argued, these values created the work-and-save dynamic of modern capitalism. Consumption had long been a morally problematic notion: of the seven deadly sins, five are sins of consumption-pride, envy, gluttony, lust, and greed. Yet it was the stark moral contrast between production and consumption in Weber's theory of capitalism that provided a foundation for contemporary views of consumption as morally problematic.
This contrast is nowhere more striking than in the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell's classic 1976 work, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. According to Bell, capitalism underwent a profound transformation in the early twentieth century as it shifted from what Bell regarded as its rational focus on production to an irrational, anti-intellectual, promiscuous, and hedonistic emphasis on consumption. The driving force of this transformation, according to Bell, was the new bohemians, who flocked to places like Greenwich Village in New York City in search of unconventional lifestyles and sexual liberation. While the new bohemians' rejection of Puritan morality might at first appear threatening to a capitalism based on self-restraint, it was in fact assimilated into a "new capitalism" that was now based on hedonism. According to Bell, however, consumption-based capitalism is inherently unsustainable because hedonistic consumption rewards instant self-gratification, whereas production depends on hard work and delayed gratification. Such 1970s narratives of America's decline also latched onto narcissism as the sickness of their age.19 The social critic Christopher Lasch charged that consumption was just narcissism run amok, a charge that is still echoed today.20 As we'll see, it wasn't the first time cultural critics found a convenient bully pulpit in psychoanalysis to make their jeremiads appear scientific.
The widespread moral disapproval of consumerism got a boost from hugely influential findings dubbed the Easterlin paradox.21 In 1974, the economist Richard Easterlin examined the question of whether economic growth increases happiness, and concluded that it didn't. Richer people were happier than poorer people in the same country. But overall, people in wealthier countries seemed no happier than those in poorer countries. All that seemed to matter was relative income. In fact, economic growth in a country didn't seem to result in any gains in happiness. Money, it seemed, didn't buy happiness. These results suggested that people's happiness only depends on how they fare compared with other people within their country-keeping up with the proverbial Joneses is all that matters. People in rich countries compare themselves to the Joneses in their country, and people in poor countries compare themselves to the Joneses in their country. The problem with economic growth is that increases in absolute wealth don't change your relative standing. Imagine, for example, if overnight we doubled the income of everyone in your country. You'd be right where you were yesterday in terms of keeping up with the Joneses. Even worse, the argument continues, an increase in absolute wealth might just be speeding up the "hedonic treadmill" to make you even less happy if you have to work longer hours to earn that increase in salary. This was a stunning rebuke of developmental economics and its central idea that increasing wealth should be the goal of economic policy. And it fit perfectly with the anti-consumption view that money can't buy happiness.
Our concern with relative income means that what we care about is status-our relative rank in society. Our acute concern with our relative place in society creates the Status Dilemma. That makes status a limited and fixed resource. Increases in everyone's absolute income don't add any more status, because status is all about relative income. The only way to gain status is for someone else to lose some (status is a zero-sum contest). The reason why Veblen's theory remains so influential today lies in the monumental move he made to link our status to our conspicuous consumption. As the Cornell University economist Robert Frank argues, consumption has become a status game, which means our status depends on how much we spend in a consumption arms race against our neighbors.22 Just like two countries locked in a struggle neither one really wants to be in, according to this view we seem stuck in a senseless consumption race.
Virtually all critics of consumerism rely on some variant of the Easterlin paradox. It's the "incriminating evidence" supporting anti-consumption intuitions. In fact, when we began our work on consumer decision making, we assumed it was true and so viewed consumerism with a jaundiced eye. As compelling as the arguments appear-and as much as we may want to believe them-more recent analyses reveal there's no Easterlin paradox.23 Using data from 140 countries, economists concluded that richer countries are significantly happier overall than poorer countries. As countries get richer, their citizens get happier. Absolute income matters after all.24 Countries with the greatest economic growth have the highest levels of happiness. Indeed, global well-being has been rising since the 1960s at a rate that mirrors economic growth.
Then came a study by the psychologist Ed Diener, one of the pioneers in the science of happiness and its measurement.25 Diener and his colleagues showed that the Easterlin paradox relied on a rough way of estimating income that was fraught with perils. Using more accurate measures, the paradox didn't just disappear: it was turned on its head. Rising incomes led to increased scores in life evaluations, as well as reports of more positive feelings and fewer negative feelings.
What's more, Diener's group discovered a critical link between rising income and happiness: material possessions. When more income translated into more purchasing power, people's happiness, financial satisfaction, and optimism increased. And this wasn't a fleeting effect, contradicting the claim of anti-consumerists that consuming results in at best only a brief uptick in happiness. The happiness from rising income was an enduring one.
The pervasive idea that we were happier before consumerism, echoed by such influential anti-consumer writers as Naomi Klein, turns out to be simply untrue.26 So why is it such a compelling narrative? As the historian Arthur Herman chronicled in The Idea of Decline in Western History, the narrative itself isn't new. So-called declinism, especially prognostication of the inevitable decline of capitalism, has been a central theme in social thought for the last 150 years. Declinism-the belief that things were better in the past-has such a hold on us in part because our brains don't remember the past as it really was. We love to reminisce about the good old days, when movies and television were still good, the country was on the right track, and so on. In poll after poll, people think just about everything was better in the past.27 But when researchers actually put it to the test, they discover that we remember things much more positively than we experienced them at the time.28 It's called rosy retrospection and the nostalgic bias, and it's built into our brain.
Such biases have a strong hold on us. For example, when Steven Pinker presented mountains of data demonstrating that the rise of capitalism has led to less-not more-violence, contributing to the long historical decline of human violence, people howled with incredulity.29 The very idea that things could be getting better just couldn't be right. So consider the following. In the 2014 Gates Foundation Annual Letter, Bill Gates opens by noting that "by almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been."30 Poor countries aren't doomed to stay poor. More than a billion people have risen out of extreme poverty. Foreign aid isn't a big waste of money, and saving lives doesn't lead to overpopulation. As the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling demonstrates in four minutes of stunning data animation, the last two hundred years have witnessed a remarkable worldwide shift as country after country has risen out of poor and unhealthy conditions to become healthy and wealthy.31 The spread of women's reproductive rights has brought about a remarkable decline in the birthrate. The declinist narrative about consumerism impedes the very possibility of understanding it. We'll challenge the view that consumerism makes us unhappy and leads inevitably to the Status Dilemma. Indeed, we'll suggest it solves it.
The breakdown of the Easterlin paradox suggests that the needs driving consumption may not be so false after all. Consumption isn't contrary to human nature, as the influential "false needs" and "manipulation" views we traced above claim. Using the insights of neuroeconomics and cultural biology, we'll see that consumption stems from a status instinct. Demolishing the notion that status is a false, fabricated, or unnatural need, an understanding of our evolutionary past reveals why it's among the deepest-rooted human motives. A strong demand for status is built into our nature. But what exactly is status? How do we get status? And how much status is there, and what happens when there's "not enough" to go around? These are fundamental, but neglected, questions.32
The status instinct drives our emulation, jealousy, or envy of "higher-ups" and leads to emulation consumption(this bears some resemblance to the kind Veblen chronicled, though we'll discover major differences when we look at its evolution). But the status instinct and emulation consumption are only part of the story.
In the 1950s, consumption in the United States began to change radically. Cool emerged as an oppositional norm, a rejection of "higher-ups" and their traditional status system, to play a central role as an economic, social, and political force reshaping culture. In particular, cool soon drove a new kind of consumption-oppositional consumption-by invoking the rebel instinct. We refer to this new kind of consumption as rebel cool.
Although we often think of cool as a rebellion against consumption, rebel cool assimilated easily into consumerism to create new routes to status-new lifestyles whose values differed from traditional status. The fact that rebel cool came along to revolutionize consumerism during one of the greatest periods of economic growth and rising living standards in our history is extraordinarily intriguing. Growth in absolute income and a burgeoning consumerism led to an increase in the total amount of status. But we'll suggest that it required rebel cool as an oppositional force to bring down the traditional barriers to new lifestyles, barriers that included racial and gender discrimination and social institutions designed to maintain the status quo. As oppositional cool consumption emerged, its new lifestyles diversified and expanded the routes to status, washing away the old hierarchical society of the 1950s, with its narrow conception of status, and replacing it with an increasingly pluralistic and diverse culture. The deeply entrenched idea that status is a fixed resource, and striving for it a zero-sum contest, turns out to be false. The diversifying, anti-hierarchical forces of cool consumption supply new status. For this reason, we'll suggest that the proliferation of consumer lifestyles over the last fifty years is best seen as a solution to the Status Dilemma.
By the 1990s, the social changes that rebel cool had unleashed were giving way to a new kind of oppositional consumption. We refer to this as DotCool, in part because the norms it came to embrace are those that are valued in today's postindustrial society, variously referred to as a knowledge, information, or learning society. The last three decades have witnessed an explosion of new routes to status (labeled subcultures, lifestyles, consumer microcultures, consumer tribes, or brand communities) in our increasingly fragmented and pluralistic society. DotCool continues to branch out influentially today in the forms of hip consumerism, including ethical consumerism, political consumerism, and green consumerism. Indeed, although it may sound paradoxical at first because of the long moralistic shadow that's been cast over consumerism, responding to the challenges of climate change may depend on tapping into the human instincts that drive consumerism in ways we've seldom ever considered. But to see that-and to see how cool drives our economy and shapes our world-we need to explore the revolutionary science of how our brain creates us, the consumer.
Copyright © 2015 by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp