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The Lure of Luxury

From the sister blog, a response to an article by psychologist Paul Bloom on why people own things they don’t really need:

Paul Bloom argues that humans dig deep, look beyond the surface, and attend to the nonobvious in ways that add to our pleasure and appreciation of the world of objects. I [Susan] wholly agree with that analysis. My objection, however, is that he does not go far enough. There is a dark side to our infatuation by and obsession with the past. Our focus on historical persistence reveals not just appreciation and pleasure, but also bigotry and cruelty. Bloom’s story is incomplete without bringing these cases to light.

All the examples that Bloom discusses involve what we might call positive contagion—an object gains value because of its link to a beloved individual, history, or brand. This positive glow rescues a seemingly offensive behavior: contrary to what we might at first think, spending exorbitant amounts on a watch is not selfish or self-absorbed but rather can be understood as benign and even virtuous. Those who spend on luxuries are not “irrational, wasteful, . . . evil”—rather, they appropriately take pleasure by rationally considering the joy that we all find in a cherished object’s history.

Yet attention to an object’s history does not merely provide joy. History can also be a taint leading to suspicion, segregation, and discrimination. The psychologist Paul Rozin notes that people seem to operate according to a principle of “magical contagion,” where one can be harmed by contact with an object involved with evil or death, leading people to reject wearing Hitler’s sweater, a suit that someone died in, or a house in which a murder was committed. Fair enough. But the troubling point is that this same impulse arises when people come into contact with objects linked to those who are not evil but just different—not part of one’s in-group. In fact, simply thinking about such contact can be disturbing.

Segregation and institutionalized discrimination reflect this impulse to avoid contact across social groups. In parts of India, elaborate behavioral codes ensure that individuals will not come into contact with objects that have been touched by those of a lower caste. Thus, some teashops use a “double-tumbler” system, such that Dalits (“untouchables”) are required to use different cups, plates, or utensils than caste Hindus. Whites-only drinking fountains in the pre–civil rights southern United States can be understood as a means of avoiding negative history—contact with an object that has been touched by members of a marginalized group. In the 1980s, many responded similarly to individuals with AIDS, who were sometimes banned from swimming pools and other public places. Indeed, in one national survey, many respondents reported that they would be less likely to wear a sweater that had been worn once by a person with AIDS, or would feel uncomfortable drinking out of a sterilized glass that had been used a few days earlier by a person with AIDS.

In our own research, Meredith Meyer, Sarah-Jane Leslie, Sarah Stilwell, and I [Susan] found similar negative responses to a homeless person, someone with low IQ, someone with schizophrenia, or someone who has committed a crime. Adults typically report feeling “creeped out” by the idea of receiving an organ transplant or blood transfusion from such individuals for fear they will be contaminated or even become more like the donor. These beliefs hold even when people are assured that the organ or blood is healthy. In this case, a heart’s history is thought to carry with it negative characteristics of a group subject to discrimination.

Attention to object history may indeed be a biological adaptation. It can serve us well and enrich our appreciation of the objects around us, from Rolex watches to discarded baby shoes to a poet’s unused typewriter paper. But it is important that we recognize the terrible costs of this way of thinking.


  1. Shravan says:

    “Adults typically report feeling “creeped out” by the idea of receiving an organ transplant or blood transfusion from such individuals for fear they will be contaminated or even become more like the donor.”

    This is, astonishingly, true. After my father gave me a kidney back in 1985, some people told me I was becoming more and more like him. (I guess they didn’t consider the detail that I was his son.)

  2. Slugger says:

    Uninformed, just plain ignorant, and superstitious responses to things once touched by some shunned group are one thing. However, owning something you don’t need seems quite different to me. I am reasonably comfortable financially, but I will never own a $5000 wristwatch. I would buy a house previously owned by a suicide. The excess spending feels very different than superstition to me.

  3. Alex Gamma says:

    »Attention to object history may indeed be a biological adaptation.«

    Or may not. Who knows?

    Everyone seems to feel entitled these days to add some adaptationist speculation to whatever phenomenon they’re interested in. I wonder what people think such additions achieve. Is it supposed to be obvious that something important would follow if the phenomenon were indeed an evolutionary adaptation? Or is it just a way to make their other arguments sound more scientific? Is it to signal membership in a community of modern, trans-disciplinary thinkers? Or just a trend followed blindly?

    My preferred explanation is that it’s a biological adaptation in the service of signalling social virtue and thus attract more mates.

    • NatashaRostova says:

      >hese beliefs hold even when people are assured that the organ or blood is healthy. In this case, a heart’s history is thought to carry with it negative characteristics of a group subject to discrimination.

      I’m sort of sympathetic to this view though. Back when there were initial results on the dangers of cigarettes, Fisher argued they were probably safe. This example might be contrived, but there is an empirical history of causal-science being wrong. He might have argued it’s safe to receive an organ transplant from a smoker.

      To extend this — we still understand very very little about schizophrenia. And I suspect (although don’t know the literature) that there are no good data sets or instances of schizophrenics donating organs. Causal theories of the brain would predict this wouldn’t be less safe than a non-schizophrenic, but those causal theories are still being developed, and an empirical dataset doesn’t exist.

      Knowing all this, if I could choose between a completely healthy and a schizophrenic organ, all things constant, why wouldn’t I stick with the healthy person where I know they are a natural extension of the causal studies on organ transplants?

      Most people don’t study this stuff though, so they can’t articulate why they wouldn’t want a schizophrenic persons organ within a generally rational framework.

      • I am very sympathetic to this argument. In general the more I get inside many areas of science the more I see an oversold sense of certainty. Medicine in particular seems to have this in part because med-schools teach doctors to be vastly over-confident. Just think about stuff like reduced salt diets or calcium supplementation for bone health… Now that we have a better more nuanced understanding, it’s plausible that reduced salt diets kill more people, and that calcium in the diet within broad ranges (not including say severe starvation) is unrelated to osteoporosis (which is maybe primarily controlled by the balance of osteoclast and osteoblast activity and that might be regulated by who knows what, potentially things like sugar intake or zinc or manganese in the diet, or a multitude of factors that interact with a variety of genetic variations or whatever)

        Assuring me that the organ or blood is healthy is kind of like assuring me that a used car is in great mechanical shape… Maybe, but I don’t see a strong reason to trust my life to you.

  4. Shravan says:

    Nevertheless, there is a narrow band of situations where the irrational belief may not be such a bad thing. For example, Indians will never touch their feet to a book, because a book deserves respect. Even after so many years in the west, I still cringe when people stand on books or kick them away on the floor. It may not be such a bad thing to feel some respect for the contents of a book and extend that respect to the physical object. It alters your interaction with it. I have seen this in Japan as well (I spent five years there).

    • It seems to me pretty natural that in the presence of diseases transmissible by fomites, it’d be selectively advantageous to not touch things that belonged to deceased people.

      Refusal to touch or own things owned by evil people (say Hitler for example) could also be advantageous in that it cements a social bond to avoid and resist evil behavior.

      These are all speculative, but it seems to me that the widespread nature of this kind of behavior across multiple cultures seems to point towards some kind of universal cause, natural selection being one candidate.

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