Position, position, position – again

http://blog.wired.com/photos/uncategorized/picture_14.jpgI liked the Ross Gittins speech that I posted on Troppo a week or so ago.  I didn’t join in comments, but had a nagging doubt.

While I’m sympathetic to Ross’s idea that self control is a big thing in an age of plenty, I guess I felt a little uneasy at a certain intimation in the article that we’ve been manipulated by ads to be the way we are.

I’m not a friend of advertising.  I’d like to see some nice heavy taxes on all advertising other than informational advertising (classifieds and perhaps ‘specials’ with lots of info on products and prices).  But I’m afraid I think advertising is a very small cause of the ‘rampant materialism’ we see ritually bemoaned.

These views were reinforced today on reading Mark Thoma’s great blog ‘Economists View’.   Here he reprints two summaries of two different eco/psych experiments.

The second experiment cited shows how monkeys have a sense of fairness just like humans do, something we’ve known for a while.  They reject ‘unfair’ trades even if they can benefit from them though typically humans have a more fully developed sense of fairness than monkeys. Social democrats might be glad of this – it’s certainly OK by me.

But this sense of fairness is the flip side of a coin in which relative success and status matters.  Sure enough in the first experiment mentioned:

[Experimenters] tested male subjects in pairs, asking them to perform a simple task and promising payment for success. … Participants who got more money than their co-players showed much stronger activation in the brain’s “reward centre” than occurred when both players received the same amount.

Humans are social animals.  And I’m not sure if there are any social animals that are not quite strongly positional. And because we’re complex animals in complex societies, we’re intensely positional.  I support a range of cultural norms which argue that it’s ‘good’ to be less concerned with one’s position and status.  That is surely part of what civilisation is about. So I’m not saying ‘it’s natural’ so get over it.  But I am afraid that it looks to me like there are very definite limits to how far culture – or anything else – can take us in that direction.

People like being rewarded more, respected more, liked more, admired more than others.  Well to the extent that it happens to me I’ll confess I do.

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