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Luxury Beliefs are Like Possessions
The way we treat objects can be generalized to the way we treat beliefs.
Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.
They have a lot in common with luxury goods.
Luxury beliefs are valuable assets. They are status symbols that people are reluctant to relinquish.
But once a specific luxury belief loses social value, people are eager to discard it.
In psychology and behavioral economics, there is a concept called the endowment effect.
Studies find that people place greater value on items they possess or are endowed with.
For example, if you randomly give a pen to someone and offer them the chance to exchange it for the other one, more often than not, the person chooses to keep the one they were given.
Other studies have found that if you show a person a coffee mug and ask how much it’s worth, they will assign it a lower value than if you give them the coffee mug first and then ask them how much they’d sell it for.
The idea is that owning a thing somehow makes it more valuable.
Beliefs work like this, too.
In a 1986 paper titled “Beliefs are like possessions,” the Yale psychologist and political scientist Robert Abelson described this idea.
Often people’s beliefs are held tenaciously. And seem impervious to open discussion.
People get utility from their beliefs simply because they are their beliefs.
The way we treat beliefs can be generalized to the way we treat objects.
As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff and others have found, people often use analogies from the physical world to describe abstract concepts.
We say things like “climbing the ladder of success,” a “rising young executive,” and “reaching the top.” Addicts talk about hitting the “bottom.”
We also describe people as “high-minded” or “upstanding” or as “low-lives” who behave in “underhanded” ways. People say they feel “elevated” and “uplifted” or “down in the dumps.”
So the analogy here is that luxury beliefs are like possessions.
People “hold” and “cherish” beliefs. They “lose” and “abandon” their beliefs.
Generally, people are most likely to adopt beliefs that hold personal or social appeal. People want to hold fashionable views.
If people are critical of our beliefs, we are inclined to respond defensively, as if our taste or judgment has been called into question.
And if fashions in certain beliefs change, we may have to change our own fashionable beliefs.
The endowment effect for beliefs suggests that we assign greater value to beliefs if we possess them.
We see beliefs out there. They don’t have much worth to us. But once we decide to “own” one, we assign it greater value, and become reluctant to relinquish it.
We also tend to decrease the value of beliefs held by others. We denigrate their views in order to bolster the relative value of our own beliefs.
Furthermore, people often develop passionate beliefs about matters that are remote from their personal experiences.
You’ll hear all kinds of ideas about, say, poverty from affluent people who have never had a twenty-minute conversation with someone who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree.
The original luxury belief is that family structure is unimportant, despite a vast body of research indicating that a stable two-parent home is one of the strongest factors for a child’s wellbeing and future.
Among U.S. college graduates, only 25 percent think couples should be married before having kids. Their actions, though, contradict their luxury belief: the majority of American college graduates who have children are married.
Affluent people are the most likely to promote the view that marriage is unimportant, despite their behavior suggesting otherwise.
And they have assigned a lot of value to this nonjudgmental view, such that if you challenge it, many will respond defensively.
Upper-middle and upper-class people will say things like marriage is “just a piece of paper.” People shouldn’t have to prove their commitment to their spouse with a document, they tell me.
I have never heard them ridicule a college degree as “just a piece of paper.” Many affluent people belittle marriage. But not college. Because they view a degree as critical for their self-worth and social positions.
In fact, if you challenge the importance of college, many people will respond with anger. They hold the belief that college is good and are reluctant to part with it.
In general, people behave similarly toward their fashionable beliefs as toward their fashionable possessions.
The endowment effect primarily extends to fashionable beliefs, or luxury beliefs, as opposed to beliefs that are used to navigate reality.
Nothing will change our belief that gravity exists, or that green means go and red means stop because those beliefs are directly tied to life and death.
The further a belief gets from our concrete everyday realities, the more likely we are to treat it as a fashionable possession.
There are costs for changing fashionable beliefs, and costs for expressing them.
For example, people are well-aware that if they publicly endorse a view at one moment, they will look foolish to others if they later renounce it unless they have a valid reason.
This isn’t unreasonable. I am in favor of open discussion and changing one’s mind in the face of evidence.
But it’s important to remember a simple fact about human nature: Others become nervous about us if we change our views too often.
We want reliable social partners. People who are reluctant to take a position or who change their positions too frequently may be unreliable in a serious group conflict.
So people are cautious about adopting new beliefs.
In his book Society of Mind, the cognitive and computer scientist Marvin Minsky wrote:
“One function of the Self is to keep us from changing too rapidly.”
In addition to this strategic social reason, there is another reason we are reluctant to change our minds: It keeps us from being taken in by charlatans.
Obstinance serves a protective function.
If you hold a belief, whatever it happens to be, it obviously hasn’t killed you. At least not yet. Bias towards the status quo defends against beliefs that could upset this pattern of survival.
As evolutionary psychologists Florian van Leeuwen and Michael Bang Petersen have written, based on prior research:
“Individuals are not easily manipulated...humans engage in motivation reasoning, ignoring or discounting information that counters their prior beliefs. Such motivated reasoning might be one form of informational vigilance, protecting individuals from acquiring implausible ideas.”
And a psychoanalytic perspective from The Last Psychiatrist:
“The unconscious doesn't care about happiness, or sadness, or gifts, or bullets. It has one single goal, protect the ego, protect status quo. Do not change and you will not die.”
Of course, defending against change is not always a good idea. But it does serve a purpose.
Interestingly, researchers have discovered that the endowment effect (for objects) exists primarily in WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) countries.
In a study led by Coren Apicella, researchers randomly gave members of the Hadza—a group of modern hunter-gatherers—one of two differently colored lighters to make fire and asked them if they wanted to exchange it for the other color.
Members of the Hadza traded their lighters about half the time. In other words, they are immune to the endowment effect.
Joseph Henrich has suggested that WEIRD people in affluent countries tend to view objects as extensions of themselves and so are more reluctant to part with them. Which is how they treat their luxury beliefs.
I’ve been describing how people impute “value” to beliefs.
Behavioral economics studies use the term “value” to denote monetary worth when they study the endowment effect for objects.
Although we can’t buy and sell our beliefs for money, they still hold social value. We can adopt or abandon our beliefs not in exchange for money, but for what they signal about ourselves. For their social identification function.
People adopt certain beliefs because it gives them a feeling of belonging, and does not impose any serious costs. You can scream “defund the police” all day with the knowledge that you will not be personally responsible for whatever happens with policing policies. But by displaying that belief, you can elevate your social status among the people whose opinions you care about at no instrumental cost to yourself.
An anti-police position is a costly signal of one’s own resources. A luxury belief.
Back in 2020 and 2021, the wealthiest Americans were by far the most supportive of defunding the police. They also promoted a negative attitude toward cops in general.
The criminally-inclined saw these views being broadcast and gleefully thought, “message received.”
Affluent Americans promoted defunding policies, nurtured an attitude of disdain toward police, helped to increase crime rates, and then hired private security.
Very fit peacocks alerting leopards to the peafowl gathering point, secure in the knowledge that the other birds will be eaten while they can easily escape.
Finally, just as some people buy objects they don’t really like just to impress other people, they also espouse certain beliefs for the same reason.
Maybe someone doesn’t like the ideological fur coat they’re wearing. But if their peers praise them for wearing it (or punish them for not wearing it), they will never leave the house without it again.
Just as today’s fashionable clothing will soon be out-of-date, so will today’s fashionable beliefs. Is it time to update your wardrobe?