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Keep Your Head Up in Some Rooms, and Your Head Down in Others
Friendship and association value
I recently had a long phone call with a friend from high school. Like me, he is no longer the same person he was fifteen years ago. Today, he lives in a rural town in California with his fiancé and is training to be a plumber. He told me about his house, his dogs, and how his family is doing. He also told me about another old friend of ours who got into a fight recently. The guy he was fighting suddenly pulled out a gun, and, as he squeezed the trigger, our mutual friend grabbed the barrel of the gun to pull it away. And now he has a hole in his hand. But he’s alive.
Shortly after this conversation, I called a friend from college who works at a bank. He told me about his pending promotion, how much he’s learning, and his future plans for law school.
Whenever I talk with friends who live different lives, I notice that I am slightly different with them. I was more guarded about professional updates and aims with the former friend, and more forthcoming with the latter. In terms of emotional experiences and vulnerabilities, I am more forthcoming with my high school friend and guarded with my college friend.
This is at odds with the western ideal of authenticity and being real. Authenticity means behaving the same with everyone, right? But it turns out, this is not the norm for most societies. In his 2020 book, The WEIRDEST People in the World, Joseph Henrich presents research showing that people who are from WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democracies) countries believe that people should be the same with everyone. They expect people’s personalities and dispositions to be consistent across social interactions.
In contrast, non-WEIRD people believe it is perfectly appropriate to adjust one’s behavior and demeanor depending on the situation and the person with whom they are interacting.
Henrich writes, “Americans sometimes see behavioral flexibility as ‘two-faced’ or ‘hypocritical,’ many other populations see personal adjustments to differing relationships as reflecting wisdom, maturity, and social adeptness.” (Here’s my review of this excellent book).
In fact, research suggests that WEIRD people view individuals who are the same in every interaction as more socially intelligent. On the other hand, people from non-WEIRD societies view individuals who are the same in every interaction as less socially intelligent.
Mad Men portrays this in a key scene when Peter Campbell attempts to expose Don Draper’s hidden identity to their boss, Bert Cooper. After listening to Campbell’s spiel, Cooper replies, “Who cares?” And then says, “The Japanese have a saying: a man is whatever room he is in, and right now Donald Draper is in this room.”
Still, this doesn’t answer the question of why people behave differently with different friends. I read a paper that discusses the idea of “association value” at length. Which puts some puzzle pieces together.
First, why would people sometimes undermine the self-improvement of others?
In an interview seven years ago, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, said:
“Nearly everyone in my family who has achieved some financial success for themselves, from Mamaw to me, has been told that they’ve become ‘too big for their britches.’ I don’t think this value is all bad. It forces us to stay grounded, reminds us that money and education are no substitute for common sense and humility. But, it does create a lot of pressure not to make a better life for yourself.”
Why would poor people object to others in their community obtaining financial and professional success?
The paper I read suggests that one answer is “association value.”
Association value refers to the abstract value that people have for each other. In short, it asks, “how valuable of a friend would this person be for me (and vice versa)?”
Association value has two components.
The first is how much value someone could add to your life. For example, all other things being equal, a rich person could add more value to your life than a poor person. A smart person could provide more benefits than a less intelligent person. The same goes for people who are strong or attractive. This is the reason so many want to improve on at least one of these dimensions.
The second component of association value is more complicated: how willing someone is to add value to your life. People who are willing to help us are more desirable than those who are unwilling. Reliable friends are better than fair-weather ones. Generous friends are better than stingy ones. So even if someone has high value in a given domain, they might still be less appealing as a potential friend if they are unwilling to share that value. Likewise, those who are eager to help us but can’t do so in a meaningful way aren’t appealing either. Plainly, eager but incompetent people wouldn't be ideal for social relationships. And neither would people who are competent yet inattentive.
This brings us to the zero-sum nature of friendship. We have a limited amount of time and resources. If someone is your friend, it means they value you more than they value others. They would help you over someone else.
People generally desire the best possible social contacts they can get. What makes a good friend is their ability and willingness to invest their limited time and resources in you over others. But their readiness to do so also depends on your association value: how willing and able you are to add value to their lives. If you can’t or won’t aid them, it is likely they will invest their own value into someone else who will.
Which explains why some people undermine their peers who strive to improve themselves. By increasing your association value through various forms of self-improvement, you make yourself a more appealing person to others. This includes existing friends, but also higher-value individuals who might not have been willing to invest in you prior to your leveling up.
Put differently, as your association value rises, unless the value of your existing friends also rises, you might increase your chances of finding better friends than them. If your social prospects increase, you might begin to neglect existing contacts in favor of newer friendships.
Existing friends, on some level, understand this. Not necessarily consciously. They might just feel a vague sense of unease when they see a friend doing much better for him or herself. They then discourage this friend from improving. Or withdraw because they think their friend will eventually vanish anyway. After all, if the newly improved person might eventually move on, their old friends would be better off building new connections sooner rather than later. They don't want to invest in what they feel is an obsolete relationship any more than you do.
My friend Ed Latimore captures the idea:
And this is often a core reason why people who think about improving themselves decide against it. It’s not necessarily that they aren’t capable. Rather, they might be concerned that their existing friends would abandon them. Or that they themselves might abandon their friends. Oddly, improving yourself can reduce your association value to your social ties.
I have experienced versions of this myself. I’ve lost old friends not because I’ve stopped speaking to them, but because they’ve stopped speaking to me. This, to some degree, is why I’ve become more guarded about professional success and career plans with old friends. Even though my life over the last seven years has drastically changed, I don’t want them to think I’m not their friend anymore. I want them to understand I’m still there for them.
And it’s why I’m more guarded about my concerns and setbacks with newer friends. I don’t want them to think the last seven or eight years have been a fluke. A few days ago, a highly accomplished acquaintance asked about “next steps,” implying that I should be thinking about future achievements. I wanted to impress this person by describing all of the great things I have planned. My response, though, was one of ambivalence. I suppose it’s natural to want more. But I’ve already surpassed any outcome I could have reasonably expected. I have a college degree and don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay my bills. I’m struggling with how to define success at this point. Again, these aren’t (or weren’t) conscious thoughts. It’s just that when my new life comes up with old friends, I feel that sense of unease and change the topic. And when I speak about professional concerns with more recent friends, I likewise feel that sense of unease and become motivated to shift the conversation.
Jerry Seinfeld has a great quote: “Keep your head up in failure, and your head down in success.”
A useful variation might be: “Keep your head up in some rooms, and your head down in others.”
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