Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What your hat says about you

Last night I was at a discussion where someone claimed to be surprised that anyone picks a car based on what "message" it sends about them. He felt it was very materialistic to do so, and said he would never think of buying a car in order to make a personal statement.

I doubt this is true. Several years ago Jeff's parents were buying a car and had the problem that one of the reasonably-priced and reliable cars they were considering was from a company with a reputation for luxury cars. This is a family that darns its socks, and they would be embarrassed to drive such a car.

I have the same dilemma buying clothes at the thrift store. I hate wearing something with a visible high-price logo, even though I know I paid $4.99 for it. I don't want other people to think I'm the kind of person who paid $70 for a sweater (whatever that "kind of person" is).

I think of it as the John Woolman Hat Problem. John Woolman was a Quaker abolitionist in the 1700s (before abolition was a thing, even among Quakers). At one point Woolman refused to wear dyed clothes, because indigo and other dyes were produced by slave labor. So he wore an undyed hat, but he had the problem that such hats were popular among young dandies. His pale hat made him look like someone who cared about fashion, which was not the image he wanted. In the end, he wore the hat and suffered a principled embarrassment.

Economist Robin Hanson calls this signaling. We all care what other people think of us, and we do lots of things to project certain messages about ourselves. Companies have an economic interest in getting us to signal "I am rich and have good taste" by buying expensive cars or whatever. But those of us who scoff at such things are trying to indicate "I don't care about such shallow things as brand names - I'm not materialistic like that." Which is, of course, its own signal.

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