Friday, September 11, 2015

Programmed for Status

Are we genetically programed to keep up with the “Joneses”?  A PBS NewsHour segment points in that direction.

The subject is status and what society calls cool, and how those considerations influence our buying behavior.  Co-author of the book, Cool, Steve Quartz worked with a team using an MRI to track activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that tracks social status or perceived social status.  In 2005, he and his Caltech colleagues “were surprised to find that this chunk of gray matter is activated not only when thinking about our status, but also by looking at status symbols” including consumer products.  Also activated is a more primitive part of the brain called the ventral striatum, a reward sensor that “is involved in literally every form of addiction.”

When we look at a product perceived to be cool or a status symbol, like a fancy car or designer fashion that, we are told, says something about who we are, we crave it in part because we anticipate the amount of social reward we would get from friends and strangers when we drive it or wear it.  This anticipation gives a similar high to winning at gambling or taking drugs.

The argument is that there is valuable information in our cars and our clothing and our choice of computers that helps us evaluate each other.  It “gives us an opportunity to create social networks, to create friendships, to create alliances” and is particularly acute in teenagers, who are particularly brand-conscious and social-conscious.  Consider, though, how much more vulnerable teens and others are to the lure of advertising, and notice how the status-oriented ads are not just directed at teens.

A couple of messages are contained here.  Shouldn’t teens eventually mature and grow out of this phase in their lives?  Are those who evaluate us based on our cars and clothing the kind of friends we want to count on during troubled times?  Are these values of judging by appearance counter to those we learn from our faith and those we are trying to instill in our children?  Perspective is about valuing and appreciating what we have rather than always yearning for more, especially if our motive is to show off for others, to keep up with the Joneses.

There were two ironies to this story.  First it was shown on the eve of September 11, a day when we should pause to reflect on our blessings and find a little perspective. Second, it was followed by a segment on mindful meditation, how the ego is the biggest source of stress and the importance of living in the now instead of dwelling on our expectations of what should be.

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