An Aesthetic Signal

There's a theory out there, presented variously throughout history, but most recently by Robin Hanson, that all or most human behavior is an attempt to achieve "status" through "signaling." So, for example, if get interested in photography, my main objective is to become a good photographer, which people will then perceive and thus award me social status. I only play guitar for the chicks, basically.

Of course, this is a perfectly plausible - perhaps even likely - perhaps even true - explanation of the behavior of some individuals. Because this theory is certainly true for some people and some actions and some situations, folks have a tendency to go all in on it. The problem with the theory is that it is unnecessarily reductive. Just because some of what I do aims at social status doesn't mean all of what I do is. Just because a lot of what I do aims at social status doesn't mean it is the best explanation for human behavior writ large.

There are many specific problems with this view of human behavior, and I couldn't possibly list them all here. But I got to thinking about one particular weakness of the theory over the weekend. That problem is: human social groups play a weaker role in our lives today than at any prior point in human history. Thanks to the highly individualizing social changes instigated by the internet, rampant marketing segmentation, and Western individualism, people are now less likely to engage in close social interaction. There is no big Saturday night party in today's world, as there was for previous generations. Many young people stay home, while many others prefer to spend their time with a small group of close friends, rather than the larger kind of in-group that would dole out social status.

Indeed, to achieve any significant kind of social status in today's world, one practically has to already possess it. No one is interested in artists or musicians who are not already famous, which is why so much of art marketing is designed to convince the public that a new artist is already a star. You probably couldn't mention any rising stars in the athletics world, either, unless you are already deeply invested in that athlete's team. The only businesspeople you could probably mention by name are those who are famous billionaires right at this minute, or those with whom you had the opportunity to work directly. Ethicists, academics, doctors? Forget it. You simply don't know these people by face or by name.

And that's the point: we might all be motivated to pursue social status, but in this day and age, none of us actually gets it. So, it's a poor explanation for human behavior.

What I have noticed that people do is choose, not an in-group, but an aesthetic. I tried to describe this in a recent post. If you consider yourself a "rocker," then you will generally adopt the "rock aesthetic," and likewise if you consider yourself a fitness buff or a bookish person or a scientist.

Many people who choose an aesthetic in this way often express opinions, but only when they are consistent with their chosen aesthetic. For example, you're more likely to hear about the importance of following the heart from someone who has chosen an artistic aesthetic than you are from someone with a rocker aesthetic, even though they both might believe it. You're more likely to hear about the importance of saving for retirement from someone with a "savvy business guy" aesthetic than you are from someone with a "rural farmer" aesthetic, even though they both live accordingly. These opinions are not so much about how people choose to live as they are memes that people express, especially on social media, to curate a chosen aesthetic.

Today, a lot of people are making impassioned statements about abortion. There is a group of people out there who are very invested in this debate, but the vast majority of people you see who express strong opinions on the abortion debate are not so heavily invested in the debate. Instead, they're presenting memes in support of their chosen aesthetic. A very religious person will post a pro-life meme, effectively informing others of their views on religion, not actually abortion. A person heavily invested in presenting themselves as a "liberal" will send out pro-choice memes for the same reason they send out climate change memes or memes about the homeless. It's not about the issues at all, it's about the aesthetic.

Separating the two concepts in their own minds is often quite impossible. Ask the average person if what they're saying is about the issues or about their general vibe, and he will most often say that of course it's about the issue; even if it's not. So, I don't recommend that you out people when they're engaged in aesthetic curation. I also don't recommend that you spend too much time debating the issues with them. After all, they're not interested in the facts. They're interested in what their memes tell others about their aesthetic. In other words, they're interested in presenting their identity, not their thoughts.

It's a lot easier to question someone's thoughts than it is to question their identity. Don't get confused; if someone is sharing their identity with you, it's not an invitation to debate.


  1. "Indeed, to achieve any significant kind of social status in today's world, one practically has to already possess it."
    A fascinating observation!
    "It's not about the issues at all, it's about the aesthetic. "

    Good stuff. My first visit. I'm here because I was reading old Scott Sumner stuff. You quoted him:
    “Forget about debt and focus on NGDP. It’s NGDP instability that creates problems, not debt surges.”
    and said:
    This is the closest I have ever seen of an economist saying “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.”
    And I laughed so hard...

    1. Hi, and thanks for reading! Sometimes I think I am too hard on Scott Sumner, but other times I just can't help myself. I had forgotten about that comment. :) I'm glad it inspired you to click through.