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Ep #34 Transcript | Rob Henderson: Social Status, Luxury Beliefs, Moral Psychology & Human Behavior

Full episode transcript (beware of typos!) below:

Nick Jikomes

Rob Henderson, thank you for joining me.


Rob Henderson 4:03

Hey, Nick, great to be here. Thanks for having me.


Nick Jikomes 4:05

Can you start off by just telling people what you do right now and what you're interested in, generally speaking?


Rob Henderson 4:11

Yeah, sure. So right now I am a PhD student here at the University of Cambridge in England, studying social and evolutionary psychology. My views are my my interests are sort of wide ranging. I'm interested in things like social status, social class, you might a lot of my PhD work is sort of on on moral judgment and morality sort of loosely related to a lot of John and Jonathan height work heights work. Yeah, so sort of all of that stuff. I'm interested in sort of conformity, social influence, you know, sort of how people can influence the behaviors of others by what they're doing and Yeah, sort of hierarchy, prestige, all of those, all of those kinds of things.


Nick Jikomes 4:54

I wonder if your interests have anything to do with the trajectory that you've taken? To get where you're at, because it's quite a unusual trajectory, most people who make it to Cambridge, or TL don't get there through the path that you did. So can you give everyone sort of an overview of where your life started? And how it sort of changed at some of these critical inflection points on your journey?


Rob Henderson 5:20

Um, so So to your question, yeah. You know, like you said, so so, you know, currently I'm studying in Cambridge. Before this. I studied psychology at Yale as an undergrad, research assistant there under Paul Bloom in his lab. And you know, before all of this before I sort of entered these kind of fancy universities, my life was a lot different. So to just back, you know, way, way up. Yeah, I had this sort of circuitous path journey to higher education. I was born in Los Angeles, to my mother, who you know, very quickly became addicted to drugs shortly after I was born. She was an immigrant from South Korea, and she succumbed to her addiction. So she was unable to care for me. Don't know who my father is, never met him. And so I was placed into foster homes in LA County, when I was three years old, spent a good portion of my early childhood sort of bouncing around seven different foster homes in total, you know, really didn't do well in school was changing schools, like every three to six months, was just totally unfocused. I was later adopted into this family moved in with them into a town called northern Cal in Northern California called Red Bluff, which is kind of this more rural blue collar town, populations like 13,000 kind of a lot of poverty in that area, the median household income when I moved there, it was like 20, set $27,000, median household income. You know, pretty, pretty high poverty rates, a lot of drug abuse, kind of a rundown area, my adoptive parents, you know, they were able to create a pretty stable home for me, I had an adoptive sister, too, I still do. We grew close. But then, after a couple of years into the adoption, my adoptive parents divorced. And that was pretty hard on me, my adoptive father was angry at my adoptive mother for you know, initiating the divorce and subsequently severed ties with me and stopped communicating with me as a way to get revenge on her. And, you know, that was just like another blow had a lot of like these sort of challenging early life experiences, both sort of economically and socially and emotionally. And later on, you know, sort of skipping through a little bit, but ended up joining the military as a way to just sort of get out of there and get out of all of the chaos that I was sort of ensconced in and over time, sort of maturity and found my path there after I enlisted, sort of found my interest organically just through sort of picking up books, reading articles, watching lectures on YouTube, things like that. And discovered, yeah, this is this is where my interests lie in sort of behavioral science, psychology, these kinds of things, social science in general. And yeah, I went to Yale on the GI Bill, and sort of, yeah, that's a long story short.


Nick Jikomes 8:14

So you eventually went to Yale, and then you made it to Cambridge, where you're at today, as you were going through these different phases in your life, what were some of the more salient differences that you observed among people in these different segments of society, especially in terms of how they expressed or signal to each other? What they valued and how they communicated with each other?


Rob Henderson 8:36

Yeah, I mean, so when I got to Yale, I was I came there, you know, I literally had gotten out of the military in August and started school in September. So like, in just a couple of weeks later, after I separate from military, I was a little bit older, I came from a completely different background. I mean, there was this pretty popular article in The New York Times a couple years ago, which found, you know, the just basically the wealth disparity among students at elite universities, there are more students at at places like Yale, more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%. So it's basically like surrounded by, you know, some of the wealthiest, you know, people from the wealthiest families in the country. And I was just sort of curious, like, you know, what, are these people like, what are they doing? What are they interested in? And, you know, I ended up coming up with this term. I'm just sort of organically, you know, I was reading a little bit of like Thorstein Veblen, his work The Economist and sociologist from the late 19th century, and how he had, you know, sort of observed how the elites of his time displayed their social status through luxury goods through sort of their material wealth, wearing you know, tuxedos and evening gowns and taking up these costly hobbies you're playing golf going giggling you know, having Butler's and servants and all these things. And one thing that I noticed right away when I got to that kind of Surprisingly, was how they look like normal college students on the outside, you wouldn't necessarily know just from looking at them that they were students at, at at sort of this rich University, except in the winter, like, at that point, Canada Goose jackets were really popular. And I remember when I looked up the price of Canada, Goose jackets just blew my mind. Because like the cost of those that was like, you know, it's like eight or $900, which is equivalent to when I first enlisted, that was like a month's paycheck, like $900. So I was like, blown away that they would buy this, this jacket that, you know, wasn't really that much better than like, you know, I don't know, a north face jet or something like that. Um, but anyway, but But generally speaking, they were kind of like, you know, materially not that different. I noticed, like, just in general, that rich people don't necessarily look wealthier if you walk down, you know, or technologiques in New York. And if you walk around, you can't, you don't always necessarily know just by looking who the rich people are, and maybe who the middle class and and lower income people are just from looking at them. Whereas if you walked through New York, 100 years ago, it was very easy to say like, that's the rich guy. And you know, that's, that's someone who's who's not. But there was something different in the ways that they talked in their viewpoints about like an important social and political issues. Yeah, the people I interacted with, I had a lot of strange experiences. And in overtime, I came up with this term luxury beliefs, which are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often affecting costs in the lower classes, and adopting sort of unconventional views. These are ways to sort of distance themselves from ordinary people from middle class people, people who didn't attend universities who don't keep up with the fashionable periodicals, and, you know, don't listen to podcasts and these kinds of things. So these luxury beliefs, you know, we can get into specific examples. But my claim is that nowadays, you can predict much more someone's social class from their views on on a handful of political or social topics than you can just from what they happened to be wearing or carrying with them at that time.


Nick Jikomes 12:06

Yeah, it's an interesting idea. Before we get into examples and unpack that a little bit more, let's talk about social status more generally. So from your perspective, from a psychologist perspective, how would you define what social status is? We all have an intuitive notion of it, but let's put a definition to it.


Rob Henderson 12:25

Yes, so So there, I mean, even in even in the psychology, psychological research, there's, there's some debate about what social status means. Remember, for a while there was like this debate about, you know, the difference between social status and power, power, I think now is viewed as control of resources, which isn't necessarily the same thing as status. Joseph Henrik, and others have defined, you know, this sort of delineated status or broken it down into prestige versus dominance, you know, sort of prestige is freely freely conferred status that I sort of give it to you because I admire you, versus dominance, which is, I guess, sort of more associated with power, which is, you know, I defer to you, because I'm a little bit afraid of you or something like that. But I think generally, at least the way that I use it, it's respect and admiration from peers, you know, there's this idea of socio metric status, Michael Krause, and others at at Yale have used this term and some of their research. So one of their interesting findings, they call it the local ladder effect, but they found that in terms of happiness, you know, the a lot of focus is paid to or attention is focused on, you know, income, you know, the relationship between income and low income and happiness. But what they found is that socio metric status or respect and admiration from peers is a much stronger predictor of a person's happiness than their socioeconomic status, at least in, you know, the US context, where, you know, generally speaking, even like, really poor people, or working class people, they still, you know, very few of them are sort of on the brink of starvation. So once you sort of have that minimal level of material sustenance, then the way that you're looked upon by by your peers, that becomes much more important for you in terms of your well being and your happiness. And so, so yeah, that's, that's kind of how I would define status.


Nick Jikomes 14:09

Interesting. So we all have an intuitive notion of status. Everyone wants to have high status within their local environment. This seems to be baked in, given that we're such highly social primates. What do we know about how far back this goes? Do we see this kind of fixation on social rank in pre industrial hunter gatherer tribes and non human primates?


Rob Henderson 14:34

Yeah, I mean, I, so I recently wrote this long form review of of now it's become one of my favorite books called hierarchy in the forest by Christopher Boehm, I think is how you pronounce his last name, Bo, each E H. M. He's an anthropologist, I think at UCLA, in this book is, you know, he compiled all of this research from anthropologists and psychologists and others, basically looking at the sort of archeological anthropological record And along along with observations from modern hunter gatherer communities, in Brazil and Africa, Papa New Guinea. And basically font family finds consistent patterns that people care a lot about their social rank within, within their communities. And there's this sort of, it's interesting, these communities tend to be quite a gala terian, and at least among adult male members, but it's not because they love peace so much, or like they love equality. It's really this sort of like constant tension. And this, this relentless focus on trying to sort of make sure that you never slip too low and making sure that others never go too high. And, you know, Boehm offers some examples from, like hunting troops among hunter gatherer communities and how, you know, these anthropologists will speak to them, and how they'll have these practices, where, you know, if a hunter happens to take down a large animal, immediately, all of his peers start making fun of him, and tell him how the animal actually wasn't that big and how that actually wasn't such a skillful throw and how when you were running, you looked like a little bit funny when you were running, and immediately start cutting him down. And the reason for this is that they don't want the skillful hunters to, to get big heads, they don't want them to become arrogant, because I guess, you know, this idea is that, you know, once they become too arrogant, then they will start to, you know, exercise dominance over over their peers, perhaps try to monopolize more resources, or try to, you know, take another man's wife. And so there's this sort of tacit kind of cooperative idea here, where everyone is trying to check everyone else. And of course, like, you know, among chimpanzees, you know, you see a lot of battles for rank, social dominance there as well. And it's much more overt among among a lot of the primates, non non human apes, so and then across like a human societies, we see this as well. One of the things that interested me, to kind of go back to your earlier question was the finding that, and this has been found in a couple of different studies now that in the US the that interest in obtaining status is correlated with current social status. So in other words, the higher status you happen to be in terms of sort of income, occupational prestige, and so on, the more interested those people tend to be in, in either preserving or or enhancing their status, which to me, that was a little bit counterintuitive, because, you know, I guess I would have predicted in advance, maybe the people who were sort of at the bottom, who maybe don't have much status don't have much influence, or wealth, that those were the be the people most most interested in sort of obtaining it and gaining more of it. But it's actually the people at the top who are most interested in social status, which I think like for me that put a lot of puzzle pieces into place, based on sort of the anxiety that I saw among sort of top top college students and top graduates.


Nick Jikomes 18:05

Yeah, that's interesting, tie in to the whole mental health thing, because I don't know the exact numbers right now. But I know that generally speaking, at colleges, including or even, especially the elite colleges, levels of anxiety and depression have been going up quite a bit over the last few years. And it's one of those things that's perhaps a bit counterintuitive, because you're talking about a population that has or seems to have all the things one would think, satisfy the needs as people that we that we have such that we don't need to be anxious or depressed, you're at a top college, you're getting an education, your material materially better than most people. And yet, we're seeing this increase in anxiety. So can you unpack that a little bit more?


Rob Henderson 18:48

Yeah, well, so. Yeah, I mean, I think it's super interesting. I mean, it matches my observations, too. And there's a lot of research on this as well, that among both undergrads and grad students, PhD students, yeah, the rates of anxiety and depression are, are on the rise. I just saw this. It was reported in the New York Times these findings from, I think, was a team of researchers at Yale actually finding that in the past, sort of lower income, adolescents reported higher rates of anxiety and depression, which to me, you know, of course, that makes sense. If you're lower income, you just experienced more challenges in your daily life. But I think starting in the 90s, it reversed to where affluent adolescents from sort of middle and upper middle class homes reported higher rates of depression, anxiety, drug use, all these kinds of harmful risky behaviors. And, yeah, I was thinking about what this could possibly, you know, why what reasons there could be for this, you know, why was there this this reversal? And I think one possibility goes back to sort of what I was saying the beginning I think, in the past, lower income meant like, more like it was more serious the kind of deprivation that people Experience up until fairly recently, I know perhaps because of like, you know, sort of state benefits and all these kinds of things, maybe maybe stepped in and helped a little bit. But in the past, if you were poor and poverty, like that was serious, like, maybe you actually couldn't eat that day. But once you reach that level of, you know, now, if you're lower income in the US, you still are not quite as poor as someone maybe 50 or 60 years ago, in your sort of, you know, income decile, or something. And so for them, like now that they've met that level, now, they don't have to worry as much about material deprivation. And in this case, for them, yeah, maybe they don't have that same pressure. Whereas for the upper class, I think there was like, back when, you know, a lot of people complained about the meritocracy. But I think the index gauge passed when the social classes were more isolated, and and there was less permeability between them when you know, if you were an upper class person, like if you went to Harvard say, odds are you came from a well to do family, like you're going to do, okay, no matter what, like you're sort of locked in to your social status. Whereas today, like there's, there's more permeability, you can rise and fall a little bit more, I think, also, like, in the past, if you were born to the right family, and went to the right school, I think that was enough, to some degree back then. Whereas now that's like, that gets your foot in the door, right, like getting getting the right degree. And so there seems to be much more pressure among among young people as well, that just be because you get into a good college, that's not the zoning, you're, you're set, because all of your peers are bright and ambitious to and so they're all interested in getting the right internships, getting into the right law schools and so on. I mean, you know, maybe maybe I'm jumping ahead of myself a little bit, but one of the things that I that I saw that was that was kind of funny, it confused me at first at Yale was I would see students sort of saying things like, investment banks were emblematic of capitalist depression. I think the same with consultancies too. And, you know, sort of listing all of the reasons why you should never work at one of these evil corporations or companies. And then weeks later, I would see those same exact students at a recruitment session for Goldman Sachs. And after a couple of instances of that, of seeing that I was, you know, I would wonder like, why is he doing this? Like, why would on the one hand, you would say, like, oh, it's evil to work here, but then you're trying to get a job there. Over time. My, my interpretation of this was that they were trying to undercut their competitors. I think like, it's, it's so cutthroat Yeah, in a position like that. So I mean,


Nick Jikomes 22:28

a lot of these ideas that you've been articulating, and then I've read from you, they remind me that they make a lot of sense of things in retrospect from my college days. So this is probably similar to your observations at Yale, I went to college at the University of Wisconsin. And I pretty much immediately went into what you would call the mechanistic sciences. So I was taking what the average student probably called fairly difficult courses that most people choose not to take unless they are weird, like me, or you're really into you know, science. And I was a first generation college student, and I struggled to pay for college. So like, every semester, I was always late. I was always like, trying to deal with that before like actually dealing with my courses and my, my academic responsibilities. That partly, I think, blinded me to, to noticing some of the other stuff that was going around me, but one of the things that was very apparent on day one is I got to the campus in Madison, Wisconsin. And you could see, but people would also just tell you, they would talk about the fact that there were two classes of students at the University of Wisconsin one was called the townies, and the other were called the Coasties. And a townie referred to someone who was typically Wisconsin native, meaning they were paying in state tuition, they were local, they were from the surrounding culture, etc, etc. A Coastie was someone who was typically from the east or the west coast, they were paying out of state tuition. And that was not a big deal for them, because they came from a wealthy family. And they dress different, they talk different, they look different. And I sort of didn't pay attention to that. But one thing I did notice was that on average, it was quite clear that the ratio of those two types of people would be different depending on the type of course you're in. So for example, there were a couple of cases where I took classes either by mistake because I thought they satisfied a requirement, or because I had to take them for degree reasons, even though they weren't they were outside of my interest areas. So I would take say, a communications class or a sociology class or something like that, that I didn't necessarily want to take but had to. And I would notice that the ratio was quite different. You would get a lot more students in those courses who are from the coasts who are wealthier, who had some of the visible signals of that, and who also behaved differently in ways I couldn't quite put my finger on. And I would see many fewer of them in, you know, in organic chemists. History course or something like that. And I never really wrapped my head around it. But you know, the courses where I would see more of these people from the coasts or in that class of students. They were much easier courses. I remember sitting in these classes and being like ready to go. And then like after the first few weeks, I'm like, wow, this is completely effortless. I don't have to actually do anything except show up to class and I will get an A in this class. But I always wondered if the students taking those types of courses more, were much more focused on fighting battles of status. Really, I didn't, I didn't really think of it this way inside their social circles, because I didn't notice that there was kind of this almost a viciousness, to becoming popular in those types of circles that wasn't apparent in the other class of students. And it really seems to echo some of the things you were talking about.


Rob Henderson 25:53

That's interesting. Yeah. I mean, I know you have any wondering, you know, I entered Gale at an unusual time, it was basically right when the student protests erupted. As a result of an email, one of the one of the faculty members sent to her students, basically, you know, the charges were that she was defending cultural appropriation and all these kinds of things. And I remember, you know, I had this really tense interaction with a with a young woman, this female student, and I was basically just trying to say, like, I have no idea why people are so upset, I'd read that email, I just didn't get it, you know, I had come from a completely different world. And so trying to understand, like, what, what it was that was so offensive about what this faculty member had said, was just confusing to me. And this young woman just said that I was too privileged to understand and what why people are so upset later, I found out that that this person, you know, grew up in Greenwich, which is like a really like one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country went to went to Exeter like, yeah, so it was just a strange thing to be called privileged by someone like that. But But I now I'm wondering like, are a lot of these people who played these hardcore status games are they more likely to say have a parent who went to college who come from sort of the upper middle or upper class, whereas the people like I mean, you know, just sort of anecdotally the people, I remember who were kind of either confused or questioning a lot of the the activism that was going on campus and calls for professors to be fired. A lot of them were kind of either first generation students or, you know, children of immigrants, or just people who didn't necessarily, you know, come from places like granite, you didn't go to go to private school. But so I think there might be something to that as well. And maybe, you know, if you compare, say, the level of status games and that kind of thing, I don't know, please like at MIT or Caltech, versus, you know, Harvard or Yale or something, I'll bet they would be some differences. Even though I would imagine that, you know, the caliber of students are roughly the same, or perhaps even even better at the sort of more stem oriented schools. And so yeah, I think there is something something there too, it's funny, the term you use townies versus Coasties. Oh, I've heard this, this term used here at Cambridge. So now I'm over here in England did like the class stuff here is just way more complex. I don't even try to try to examine it. He was much older and more layers to it. But But one thing that I that I learned here was they have the this distinction between talent versus gown. So the the town or the townies, I guess, are the people who live in Cambridge who sort of work here and operate the businesses and so on, who grew up here. And in the gowns, I guess they don't if they called them counties, but but the Gowan types are like the students and people associated with university, the scholars and so on. And I guess there there is this sort of historical tension in both here at Cambridge and and over at Oxford as well. And and yeah, I noticed that there isn't that much focus paid to the people who live here, I saw this at Yale as well, New Haven, which is where Yale is is located, is extremely poor town, a lot of poverty, a lot of mental illness, homelessness, addiction, I lived downtown in New Haven. So to get to class and back, I would walk through like a lot of a lot of poverty. And I just remember having these experiences like I go to Yale, and I'd hear people talk about the importance of activism and all of these kinds of things, social justice, and then like, I'd walk through, you know, a lot of homelessness and addiction and all this stuff. And I would think to myself, like, I don't know how serious these people really are, like, there just seems to be this duplicity to it that it really, I have no doubt that some of them are sincere, but I think a good portion of them are also mouthing the right words, because it helps them boost their status in their local environment. I mean, there are certain words you can say that will instantly Garner approval.


Nick Jikomes 29:49

Yeah, the last thing I want to say here before we move on, because I think we'll kind of loop back to this in a couple different ways is, you know, at the University of Wisconsin, you know, there's these really two different castes of people almost not necessarily one above the other. But I think the important observation is, there was no overt segregation, there was only self segregation. By and large, right, the one group would hang out with one group, and the other group would hang out the other group. And that was by choice. And so all of the social competition, therefore, we're sort of within group. And I'm interested in this idea of sort of within group or within class competition, because I think a lot of the things that you're talking about are that we observe in this general area, result not from people trying to compete or display superiority to those in sort of a lower cap cast, but actually competing with those that are approximately equal to them in status. And I think we'll come back to that. But okay, know, you've been talking about high status or elite individuals. You've mentioned that a couple times, again, we have an intuitive notion of what this might mean, but what would be the key determining factors that make someone high status or elite in society? You've already told us it's not strictly determined by wealth?


Rob Henderson 31:01

Yeah, I mean, so this is also sort of a contentious debate. I mean, I was reading a little bit of the sociological research on this as well about, you know, their discussions and debates between like status versus class, like, is there a difference between social status versus social class, all these things. I mean, I saw the very first like, book that I read about class in America. And like, this is sort of like, where, like, the way I can define it comes from Paul fossils book called, it's called class, a guide to the American status system, I think it was written in like 1981, or something. I mean, it's an incredible book, it's like a little bit tongue in cheek. But it is like a very useful book, I think, to understand class, some of the things are outdated, but generally, the way that he describes it is that you know, for, for the low class, they tend to define class is strictly in terms of money, or wealth, the more money you have, the higher class you are. And I kind of observed this too, when I was growing up, I remember, you know, I worked at this pizza joint when I was in high school, washing dishes. And I would talk with my co workers about, you know, like, striking it rich, it was all about it was all about money. It was never about like, I can't wait to get into college and get a good education or something like that, you know, all the other things associated with class, it was really about money, you know, playing the lottery, a lot of my coworkers play the lottery, my family, some some of them played a lottery too. And really, the interest was on like, how do I get a bigger bank account? By you know, how do I buy a boat or a nicer car? material goods? And then fossil says, for the middle class, it's more about education. So sort of the rank of your college or, you know, what you studied? You know, did you did you sort of stay in your local area? Or do you like, did you go away to college, you know, those, those are sort of markers of status to which I guess like, when you go away, that sort of indicator of how much money your parents have. But anyway, so that's the middle class sort of education. And then for the upper class, it's not just money in education, those things are important. But the final ingredient is, is your sort of habitus your, your your taste, your habits, your preferences, the kinds of media you consume, the kinds of books you read, I guess, today, you know, updated, we know which podcasts you listen to what are the periodicals you read, you know, your digital subscriptions, which I guess maybe now which stacks you read something like that. So So those those three ingredients are important. And what's interesting is that one of fossils claims is that you are sort of locked in, to the class you were born into. So no matter what you are the class you you happen to be born. So. So I guess like for fossils, someone like Mark Zuckerberg, I think he was born into like an upper middle class family and his parents were professionals, but they weren't like exorbitantly rich. So even though Mark Zuckerberg is, you know, a gazillionaire, he is sort of culturally will forever be upper middle class. Whereas someone who was, you know, born is like a Rockefeller Kennedy or something, I don't know, like one of these sort of dynasty waspy families or something, even if they aren't as rich as their great grandfather was, or something, and maybe the family sort of, on a downward trajectory in terms of their social mobility, they're still sort of upper class, in terms of their, their habits and tastes, and so on. And the kinds of things that they do. So, so that's another interesting element of this as well is that, you know, there is like, economic mobility, you know, you can start off poor and, and maybe go to college and get a high paying job and so on. And so you're economically upwardly mobile, but sort of socially and culturally, you you can't really break out of whatever you're born into, at least this is the claim of fossils, and some others.


Nick Jikomes 34:36

Yeah, it makes a lot of sense, though, behaviorally, right. A lot of behaviors and habits that we learn at a very young age really do get locked in, you know, down to the way that we talk and, you know, pronounce phonemes and things like this. It's very, very difficult to shake, the way that you talk and the way that you express language after you go through puberty, basically. So it makes perfect sense to me that that that would be the case. And this is probably related to the entire reason why we have terms like old money and new money. You know, if you come into money, you still have these sort of habits and behaviors that are effectively locked in because it's so difficult to unlearn them, or at least make them second nature in the way that the other behaviors would be for someone born into it.


Rob Henderson 35:20

Hmm, right, right. Yeah. Like you said, like, yeah, the way that people talk, the kinds of like, had like the foods that they like to eat the music they like to listen to, yeah, a lot of the, like, the sort of the cultural norms are hidden too. So if you didn't grow up around them, you don't necessarily know like the the proper way to to navigate them. And in some cases, they may even be deliberately hidden in order to sort of filter out like, who's an insider and who's an outsider. I remember I read this. This interview was in the Atlantic with these two sociologists discussing class and they give us example of, you know, a lot of workplaces no longer have dress codes. And it's sort of seen ostensibly, as this egalitarian sort of upgrade of like, you know, in the past, you knew you had to wear these clothes, but now you can wear whatever you want. And it's sort of freeing. But actually, one of the points that these two sociologists made, their names escaped me, but it was basically that the norms still exist, they just went underground. And now people are able to pinpoint, like, who can pick up on what those covert norms are and who can't. And this is another way of creating sort of insiders versus outsiders. Whereas if you have overt and clear dress codes, then anyone can fit in, right? Like, if you have to wear a suit and tie, you get the suit and tie and you can fit in, but now you don't know like, what's the right way to dress casually, they give this example of they were talking about a media company, I think, or like television studios or something. And they said that there was no dress code. And there was this guy who worked there who came from a working class family was this black guy, who would I think he wore like a tracksuit or something. And, you know, I guess like people there like they had, you know, they didn't like that, but they never told him and over time, like the guy just left any any left, you know, he left the job, because even though the dress code was casual, or no dress code, he didn't dress casually in the right way, and ended up, you know, not not really fitting in. And I think like there are a lot of instances of this of like, you know, we try to be more egalitarian, but we ended up it ends up sort of backfiring in some ways. Because, you know, back to earlier, you know, point that status is always sort of pervasive. And if you try to get rid of it, it will sort of manifest in a different way.


Nick Jikomes 37:38

Yeah, I'm really interested in this idea that a lot of the taboos we enforce our organic, and they're covert. And I wonder if that's a feature that is sort of naturally baked in. One of the things that's reminds me of is people's perception, or at least people's, what people will say their own statuses, I'm thinking here of the statistics, where, you know, you ask, and this is Americans, you ask Americans, are you lower class, middle class, or upper class, and some extraordinarily high percentage of them, say middle class. So the majority of the people that are actually upper class or lower class, identify as middle class, together with all of the people that are middle class. So there's this tendency for everyone to to be seen, as you know, just like everyone else, even though we all know that that's not the case for everyone. So is there something interesting going on there with what people behaviorally displayed? I mean, in terms of their other behaviors, versus what they will explicitly identify as?


Rob Henderson 38:38

Yeah, I mean, is I've seen those those stats as well, that like, you know, somehow every American and you know, whether you make, you know, 30, grand or 300, grand, your middle class person, I saw a lot of this in undergrad too, like, that was the first time that I, you know, someone could tell me, you know, oh, my mother is a doctor and my father's a lawyer, and you know, that we make a million dollars a year, but we're sort of like middle or, you know, something like that middle class, maybe upper class, and I just put my mind to here, you know, that you can make six figures and consider yourself a middle class person. I mean, even if you make 100 grand, I think that's twice as much as like the median household income in America. And yeah, I mean, a lot of that is, I think, yeah, sort of, you're comparing yourself to your peers, right? So if you're making 100 grand a year, you're not comparing yourself to the median American, you're comparing yourself to your friends who are in the sort of same social category as you same education level, the people you've graduated high school with, or college with, or something like that. And I think there's also like this element of upward social comparison. So this is you know, sort of findings from social psychology that people tend not to really think too much about the people below them, and they spend a lot of time preoccupied with those above them. So even if you're an upper middle class person doing well in your life, you're not comparing yourself to you know, people who are living in poverty or people who are just sort of getting by you're comparing yourself to the people who are a little above you, you're comparing yourself to the millionaires. And if you're a millionaire, you're comparing yourself to the billionaires. And so basically everyone except the billionaires think of themselves as middle class. And yeah, go on. Yeah,


Nick Jikomes 40:15

I think there, there's actually this, it strikes me. So when we're talking about intra class competition, and this positive correlation between how high your status currently is, and how much you want more status, and some of the things you're just mentioning, it actually starts to make sense. To me, when I think about two things, one, just the statistics of a normal distribution. And to something like Dunbar's number, this idea that, you know, even though we live in this hyper connected world, we're still these social primates that think in terms of, you know, the size of hunter gatherer tribes, so you can only know like, you know, the names of something like 150 people ish, and you're really only gonna have close relationships with, say, 15 people, whatever it is, but you know, a relatively small number. And so if you think in socio economic terms, and you just look at the normal or normal distribution of incomes, as your income goes up, it obviously goes up, but also the variance of that of the bell curve also goes up. So if you're comparing yourself to the 15 people closest to you, as your income goes up, the difference between you and those 15, people will also necessarily go up. And so you can see how it leads to this runaway effect, where you become more and more obsessed with how you're stacking up relative to the people next to you. And naturally, of course, you're going to want to ascend not descend.


Rob Henderson 41:35

That's fascinating, actually. Okay, so the idea here is that, like, if you're, you know, sort of a, you know, working class person close to 15, people, you know, there's not going to be that much, much range. You know, if you make, you know, $25,000 a year, the richest person in your group might make, you know, 37,000 or something like that. But if you're in the in the very top and you make 200,000, you know, you're your best friend, and that 15 person group might make, you know, several million. And so even though all of you are well off, and so on that yeah, that's that's fascinate. Yeah, I can imagine that there is like that sort of amplifies or cultivates more and more status anxiety among the upper class to the upper middle and the upper class that they're, they're constantly feeling like they're falling behind, because the higher up they go, the sort of richer their social circle becomes something like that. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me, too. Yeah, well, and I think there's also sort of selection effects to going on where a lot of the top universities are selecting for people who are interested in status. I mean, just to begin with, if you're going to apply to a top university, whether for undergrad or grad school, you are the kind of person who's sort of, you know, at least somewhat interested in things like prestige, and status and respect and those kinds of things. And so you're already sort of conditioning on that as well. And so yeah, and then those kinds of people are then surrounded by those just like them. And you can constantly feel that sense of like, like falling more and more behind. And I think it's not just money, though, like, I'm thinking about, like, sort of social habits as well, I was talking to this friend of mine, who was saying that, you know, his friend had read the, you know, this sort of widely cited statistics, something like 40 to 50% of marriages end in divorce. And then he said, You know, I'm looking at, like, my entire social circle, you know, a bunch of guys in their 30s. And, and none of us are divorced. And you know, some of us have been married for 10 years, there's no divorces. So I don't know, like how this stat exists. And you know, my friend told him like, like, look like, if you look at if you break it down by education, then it's a completely different story. Like basically all of us have postgraduate degrees. And among people with post grad degrees, no one gets divorced, it is like extremely rare for that to happen. So I think like, you know, often when you look at the sort of overall averages, it can obscure some of the nuances in terms of social class or education are those kinds of things to, and yeah, you can live in like a completely different world just by sort of what social class you happen to be in, not just economically, but but sort of socio culturally as well.


Nick Jikomes 44:06

Before we circle back to luxury beliefs, let's just talk about luxury goods as a transition into that. We all again, probably have a intuitive notion of what a luxury good is. But I'm wondering if you can comment on the fact that let's talk about clothing, for example. There's an entire spectrum of clothing out there and some of its more expensive and trendier and some of its less. Can you talk about the phenomenon that we'll all be familiar with? That, you know, fashion trends are constantly changing and turning over what's actually driving the change in trends in fashion say,


Rob Henderson 44:40

yeah, yeah, I mean, well, my understanding of this is that, you know, basically there's like this sort of a trendsetting group, the sort of return for this, but basically this small group of people who kind of wear something unusual or unique, and then it sort of trickles throughout the upper class and then over time, it sort of It trickles downward to the rest of the social classes who adopt this look, as it becomes more and more affordable. I mean, like, even things like, you know, going back to the Canada goose example, like, now you're seeing because you can buy these these jackets secondhand, or, you know, people are borrowing them or giving them away, like they've sort of diluted their value somewhat. So in 2015, those were the hottest thing you could wear in the winter, at least in New England. And now they're kind of like, you know, they're not that fancy anymore. You know, when when Ivy League students were wearing them, they were really special, but now anyone can get them. And now they're not such a hot ticket item. So I think there's this this sort of element of like, you know, they're the trendsetters, they establish something that's cool. And then other people adopt the look, and then over time, it sort of trickles through and sort of the next, the new cycle starts with, with whatever the next item happens to be. I think this is like, you know, a lot of things are like this, you know, iPods to I remember for when when iPods first came out, those things were like, you know, they were super expensive, only, like rich people could have them, there were like a couple of a couple of rich kids that I knew had them. And then you know, over time, like once they become more affordable, and like the newer models came out, and you can afford an older model. And now like having an iPod is like nothing, or an iPhone, or whatever happens to be. So all of these things, sort of have these these life cycles. And that sense for luxury goes in for fashion. And I think luxury beliefs work worked in similar ways.


Nick Jikomes 46:25

Can you provide now some clear examples of things that you you think are good examples of luxury beliefs that you've observed?


Rob Henderson 46:33

Yeah, I mean, so So the I wrote an essay, the very first one I wrote about luxury beliefs. You know, it was this example, I had this conversation with a former classmate of mine. She told me that her. So basically, she told me that Monogamy was outdated, and that marriage is kind of this passe thing? And that, you know, maybe we should we should move beyond it. And, you know, it was like, okay, that's unusual belief. You know, these are things that I didn't really hear in the military things I didn't hear growing up. But it's not uncommon to hear among graduates of places like Yale and, and so I asked her, like, what do you plan to do? Like, you know, first I asked her, Well, what, like, what was your family? Like? Did you come from that kind of family of like, I don't know, open marriage or polygamy or something? And she said, No, no, I was raised by, you know, a mom and a dad. And then I asked her, Well, what do you plan to do? Are you planning to live, you know, sort of that kind of open marriage or not get married? And she said, No, no, eventually, I'd like to, you know, find someone and settle down and have a family. You know, I want to get married, but But it shouldn't have to be for everyone. And I noticed that like, this kind of belief was pervasive among a lot of kind of highly educated people that they espouse, like one set of views, but then the way that they actually live their own lives, is, is sort of completely different. They're, they're almost like living the opposite of what they say, I hear this, this interesting phrase, you know, a lot of affluent people, they, they walk the 50s, and talk the 60s. And I so so I think this this idea that all family structures are exactly the same, and that monogamy or marriage is outdated. That's one example of this. Because if you look at who actually gets married, and who stays married and doesn't get divorced, it's disproportionately highly educated people, you know, example with my friend that I gave earlier. Whereas if you look at working class and more lower income people, the marriage rates are low. And then of those who do get married, the divorce rates are much higher, single parenthood is very high. When I look at the family structures of you know, the way that I grew up within all of my best friends from high school, literally, none of us were raised in sort of stable two parent homes. You know, friends were raised by grandmothers or, you know, like a single mom or step parents, something like that, or foster homes. And the friends that I made through through college and hear Cambridge, like those kinds of family structures are just unheard of everyone with with with with two parents. So that's that's one, I think. There are a couple of others. But I think that one to me was, that was like the lightbulb moment because I it reminded me of this other experience that I had in a class where the professor asked all the students, you know, how many of you were raised by both of your birth parents, and out of 20 something students, it was just me and one of their students who said that we were not, it was it was an anonymous survey. So I know it was just me and someone else in that classroom said that they were raised in a different kind of family structure. And that that was the first that was actually the first time that I realized that something was different in terms of the way that people grew up, versus, you know, the way that my peers at college grew up versus my peers say in high school, there's something completely different, not just in terms of economics in terms of how much money we had, which was like, clearly like there was a difference there. But then also, like, more subtly, the family structures that we came from the kinds of beliefs The importance of education. Yeah, this this emphasis on on education, it's kind of different to like, broadly speaking, I noticed that highly educated people love talking about the importance of education and how we need to get more poor kids in college. But then when I give specific examples, like the, the attitude tends to change, I have this conversation with the student here at Cambridge, about a friend of mine in high school. This guy, he could have been recruited to play. School in California think Sacramento State. And I remember he was failing a class and all he had to do was attend this makeup course over spring break sweet course, for you to show up to class. And I think got it got to be, then it would have like kept us up at the right level. And he could have been recruited to play football in college. He went for like, the first few days, and then we spent the rest of spring big, just like getting drunk and screwing around. And like, we just got in a lot of trouble. And, you know, at the time, like, I didn't care, he didn't care. But looking back, I realized, like, What were his parents doing? Like, why didn't they make sure that he was like, you know, on track to go to college? I told my friend here at Cambridge about this. And she said, like, Yeah, but like, you know, maybe maybe he wasn't meant to go, you know, like, that's what he wanted to do, if that's what he was interested in. And, you know, maybe you just didn't want to go to college. Like, maybe that's okay, like this sort of sympathetic, non judgmental attitude. And then I asked her well, like, what if that was your son? You know, like, What if your son was like, all he had to do was sit in a desk for two weeks, and he could go to college? Like, what would you do it? And she said, like, oh, I would make sure he was in that desk, or I would threaten to kill him. If he didn't go to class she


Nick Jikomes 51:33

was from she mean, everyone can do what they want to basically fascism.


Rob Henderson 51:37

Yeah, exactly. Right, like this totally free for all like, oh, you know, it's okay. People can do what they want, we shouldn't force anyone. But when it's her kid, it's suddenly. And so I think there's this like, for everyone else I adopt is non judgmental, you shouldn't get married, you shouldn't go to class, you can do whatever you want. But then when it comes to my family, and the people that I care the most about, the standards are much more strict. So I think these are just like, like a couple of examples. But the underlying principle here, I think, is the sort of non judgmental attitude for others. And then for me, it's, you know, much more strict, but there are there are others too. I mean, we can get into like, you know, the the craziness of like defund the police and all this stuff. Like there are a lot of like, luxury beliefs popping up.


Nick Jikomes 52:17

Yeah, what's, what's your take on that? And so let's have you talk about that luxury belief, as you see it. And then I'm wondering if you can comment on, you know, if you're right, if these are luxury beliefs analogous to luxury goods that are fashionable and go in cycles, that would predict that these luxury beliefs will cycle in and out as well, meaning that ones that we see today will go away at some point, probably not that too far into the future and new ones will replace them.


Rob Henderson 52:48

Yeah, well, okay. So so the the defund the police thing. I mean, when that started kicking off, I mean, I was like, just totally shocked by it at first. And you know, but then you know, my God, it's Twitter. It's like, you know, people who who spend a lot of time on Twitter tend to be sort of affluent, highly educated people, just statistically speaking. I mean, Pew recently came out with some some data on this, that they're much more likely to have college degree and earn, you know, a certain level of income. But I wondered like, what about people, you know, if you if you break it down by income, are there differences in support for this defund the police idea, unfortunately, you guys have shared some data on this, I had to do a little bit of digging, but I found it and basically, the the group that is most in support of defund the police are people in the highest income category. Something like something like 33, or 35%, versus the other income categories, it's like, you know, 20%, or something like that lower. So generally speaking, the the people who have the most money are most supportive defunding the police and of course, like this, to me is like the definition of a luxury belief. You know, this is a an opinion that confers status on the upper class, but will inflict costs and lower classes, you know, if you say defund the police, it makes you look good to your highly educated and affluent peers, it makes you look, I don't know, edgy, or progressive or something. But if you literally get rid of the police, if you eliminate the police, then the people who suffer the most are going to be poor people. The poor are already disproportionately the targets of all kinds of crimes. I mean, it's interesting, we spend a lot of time focusing on how poverty can sort of give rise to criminal behavior, you know, can you if someone goes poor, maybe they're more likely to commit criminal acts. But who are those acts committed against disproportionately against people in their neighborhood, other poor people? And, you know, it's interesting, we have these categories of, you know, rich, middle class and poor, but then if you sort of, look, look at it in a more sort of granular level, the people who tend to commit crimes are young men, and the targets of crimes tend to be the elderly and tend to be women. So it's sort of like, you know, do we care about poor elderly people? Do we care about poor women? Those are the targets of crimes. I looked at some data. I think this is from the FBI that the people in the lowest income category A compared to compared to the highest, you know, there's something like seven times more likely to be victims of of aggravated assault and robbery 20 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault like, basically, if you're a poor person, the likelihood that you're going to be a victim of a crime is like astronomical compared to sort of middle and upper class people. And when we talk about like defending the police, that's just like it, I guess that totally gets glossed over. And then of course, like, if you look at communities, and you see that, like, you know, most like, non white people are in favor of either the current level of police or more policing. Yeah, I think defund the police is just a classic example of this. There's like a more. So so yeah. And then your point like this, this, I'm not sure will actually trickle down. Because like, it's so costly, I think, to not have police that I'm not I'm not really sure that this is going to become like a fashionable belief, at least, you know, we'll see. Well, I mean, skeptical this


Nick Jikomes 55:53

one, in my observation, I think it can certainly trickle, you know, one step down, but not all the way down. You know, what's your meeting? Like? Like, like, upper upper middle class middle class? That's certainly been my observation, at least living in a cosmopolitan area. But i Where are you? I'm in Seattle. Okay. Yeah, yeah. So it's like, you know, I don't think we need to get into into it too much. But yeah, Seattle, you've got a very huge spectrum of people, you definitely see that belief on people, people who are higher status socio economically speaking. But it's not, it's not reserved solely for the upper quintile in my observation. But you know, you're not, you're not really seeing any of the homeless people at these rallies, they're too busy living their life on the street, struggling day to day. But I wonder if some of these beliefs will cycle that that does seem to be a prediction, you know, if I, if I call what you're talking about your theory, I think that would be a prediction of it, right? That the luxury beliefs would have to change because they are a mechanism for actually displaying your difference from other people?


Rob Henderson 57:01

Yeah, well, okay. So so this is, this is something that I guess there, there's some nuance here, like, on the one hand, you want to like like, if you're an upper class Person who is displaying your status through luxury beliefs, you want to distinguish yourself from the, from the little people, you know, from, from people who are not in your same social class. You don't want to be mistaken from like, the middle class or working class person. But there's also something going on like, like, you know, sort of intra class status signaling to like you had mentioned before. So I think within the upper class, you know, the, the sort of trendsetters within that group, if they say defund the police, and then it you know, sort of trickles to like, you know, the more sort of, I don't know, conventional upper middle class, you know, this sort of suits or whatever the kind of people who work nine to five or something. Once, you know, I don't know, executives and lawyers start saying defund the police, then the sort of the trendsetters in the fashionable types, you know, now that they see that the suits are our, you know, broadcasting that slogan, then it's like, okay, well, now I have to distinguish myself as a trendsetter. So it doesn't necessarily, I think, have to trickle all the way down to the middle and lower classes, once it trickles throughout that sort of, you know, upper quintile, say or an upper two quintiles, then you can sort of shift into into a different shift over to a different belief. Yeah, so So yeah, it's interesting, right, like there? Is this sort of, like, on the one hand, is a trickle down throughout the classes, or is it trickle throughout, like within that class? Yeah.


Nick Jikomes 58:32

And, you know, I'm struck by so. So these beliefs that you're calling luxury beliefs, they tend to be, they tend to have a moralistic character to them. So not only are you taking a stance or making observation on the way society is, or perhaps should be, but there's this sort of extra step where, you know, to believe it is to be better or, or righteous, and to not believe it is actually to make you lesser. And in some sense, what you're telling us is this, this might be even more literal, more literal than you might otherwise think. And it strikes me that it has this moralistic character to it, it reminded me of something that you posted at some point recently that I saw and it was something from the sociologist, Emile Durkheim, and he kind of did this thought experiment, where he gave his take on what it would be like if we somehow were to eradicate all crime and bad behavior in society. So he actually said that something interesting would happen in his view, if we did that. And I'm wondering if you remember that?


Rob Henderson 59:36

Yeah, yeah, I do. So So yeah, Durkheim was sort of this sociologist, I think, from the 19th century, sort of this old school sociologist. And the idea here is that, you know, the thought experiment was once you sort of eliminate all transgressions, and say that anything goes very quickly new taboos would arise. So maybe Basically like once, you know, as behaviors become more and more accepted, the the level of sort of moralism within the community remains the same, just new behaviors become considered evil or bad or transgressive in some way. And yeah, to me, this is this, I think he even gave a couple of examples about like, you know, even at like a monastery or something where, you know, everyone is sort of adhering to these, these these codes, they still have, like, certain things that you're not allowed to do, or certain kinds of misbehaviors that that they, that they condemn. So, yeah, I think that there is something here with with the luxury beliefs as well, you know, this is so this is actually connects a little bit with with my own research. This is just a hypothesis that I have, which is that if you look at it, so I've looked at some some sort of big data from the World Value Survey and others basically finding that young people have become much more permissive over time for kind of conventional, moral transgressions. So things like bribery, and corruption and death and these kinds of things. Young people, you know, even after controlling for education, income and political orientation, young people are still more permissive in 2020, relative to you know, 1990 in 1970. And so, so on the one hand is kind of interesting that like, we're kind of like more non judgmental, more permissive, whatever more cool about all this stuff. But on the other hand, you're seeing like a lot of strident moralism today among young people with sort of activism and social justice movements, and so on. And one of my claims here is that like this kind of connects to this Durkheim idea of Mr. kamin idea that now that we have sort of allowed all these behaviors to proliferate, we're not judging them anymore. We're not condemning them. That void has been filled. And it's been filled with these kinds of new transgressions about what you say and what you post online. And, you know, all of these, these other kinds of things are the kinds of things that you support your political views, your social views. If you hold the wrong views about various things, now, we're going to condemn you we so I think in this case, this is a way for people to gain status by condemning others in bolstering themselves and there is some some psychology research on this too, that we tend to view people who who sort of morally grandstand as as being somehow more righteous in some way, because the implicit message here is that if I condemn you for doing something bad, I guess the onlookers think, Well, I would never do that. Otherwise, I wouldn't condemn you. So you know, somehow by condemning you, that makes me look good. And, and so there's that element. And then I think there's also this element, not only of them trying to like lift themselves up, but they're trying to cut down their rivals as well. They're trying to cut other people down. By coming up with these new kinds of transgressions, then that didn't necessarily exist even a few years ago. Like it was crazy to me, he's like, now you can even go through someone's feed. And like, if I find a tweet that you posted from 2009, somehow, even though 2009, that tweet was fine, I can cancel you today. But that kind of thing is, it's kind of interesting from a sort of psychological perspective.


Nick Jikomes 1:03:06

Yeah, it we are seeing that more, it is fascinating. But I'm interested in this idea that these are, these are basically tools. These are like cultural weapons used primarily to compete against people that you view as competitors. And so that speaks a little bit to the intra class conflicts that we've been talking about. Are you familiar with Peter Church's idea of elite overproduction, and how that relates to the decline or instability of civilizations?


Rob Henderson 1:03:35

Yeah, I've read I think I read that piece in The Atlantic was it last year? And yeah, I read a little bit of his blog, about this elite overproduction and sort of the InterLink conflict stuff. So yeah,


Nick Jikomes 1:03:48

yeah. So the basic idea is, so Peter Turchin is a, I guess you would say, like scientific historian or something. So he's from like, quantitative ecology or some field like that. But he's trying to understand a more quantitative and somewhat even predictive way, the cycles that happened in history. And you know, one thing that you can observe over and over again in history is civilizations rise, they do their thing for some amount of time, and they eventually decline, right? So you can think of ancient Rome or any other ancient civilization that we might name. And according to church, and as I understand him, a key factor in destabilizing societies when they're on the decline comes from at least in part, elite overproduction. And what he means by that is when society makes too many potential elites, but there are not enough slots in the power structure, meaning high paying jobs or high status culturally influenced influential jobs, there are more people who feel entitled or that they should be an elite in such a position than there are actual positions. And so this leads to a like runaway intensification of competition among those elite or elite adjacent people. For those limited number of slots, and they basically go to war with each other, and that leads to cultural instability.


Rob Henderson 1:05:05

Right? Yeah. Okay. Now now yeah, I read a couple of chapters. Now this is this is bringing back some some of the things that so I read, like, I think it was war and peace and war where he discusses this. I think I specifically just read those chapters because I find it particularly interesting. And I've heard others sort of riff on this idea to West Liang, the other journalists and others, you know, they sort of, they refer to what we have today, as, you know, the the sort of Twitter class the overeducated, precariat, of like, you know, people with advanced degrees or people from fancy universities, but they're not making money commands commensurate with, you know, their, their education level, at least, like as they believe that they should be earning, you know, they're sort of expectations were higher than, than whatever the outcome happened to be. I think there is some some truth to this, I remember, for example, something about how, like, the number of households that are worth $10 million or more has increased by like, some some, like, substantial amount since the 1980s, you know, adjusted for inflation. But, you know, of course, like all of the the influential positions in government, you know, like the number of senators and congressmen, Congressmen, representatives, and the President, you know, of course, like, those are all fixed, the number of positions at elite media organs and universities are all fixed. I mean, like, so it's all you know, of course, I'm, I'm a PhD student, I think, are you a PhD student? You've graduated, right? I graduated a number of years ago. Okay, so you've probably heard, like, you know, all of the jokes about how hard it is to get an academic position and how, like, you know,


Nick Jikomes 1:06:41

it's true, right? Yeah. Yeah, we,


Rob Henderson 1:06:43

I think, like, it's framed as a joke just to help cope with like, how dire it is. But it is, like, you know, I, you know, hear from from young grad students, you know, I talk to you, they say, like, you know, you know, when my supervisor was my age, you know, 30 odd years ago, or whatever it was, you can like, you could write two papers, if you get two published papers, then you can get like a pretty good academic posts or more like a tenure track job, two or three papers today that might get you like, that might make you competitive for a postdoc, you know, like, the sort of like, PhD got more and more people are getting degrees, but the number of faculty positions has remained the same. I mean, which I guess like, maybe there's like a conspiratorial element here of like, this is why, you know, we're constantly saying more people should go to college because you know, a lot of a lot of highly educated people are hoping to get jobs at whatever the universities happened, open up or whatever. And I think there is like, like something something going on here, where I actually just read this article about how there was this influencer, I don't remember her name. But she got a job as like a sports journalist split, like completely on the strength of like the number of Instagram followers she had. And apparently like this started, like this sort of social media firestorm, because all of these people were commenting and attacking her saying, like, you know, why did I go to Columbia Journalism School, I should have just gone on Instagram and gotten some followers or something like that, like, basically the people who followed the, the sort of preordained expected path of, you know, go to college, go to grad school, this is how you get into journalism. And then like, some random person who I don't even know if she went to college at all, gets a bunch of Instagram followers. And bypasses just jumps the line and gets this this sort of prestigious position. And I think this is sort of indicative of that. It's really competition idea of like, just a lot of bitterness. And a lot of anger, I think, among among educated people.


Nick Jikomes 1:08:43

Yeah, no, I mean, it really is true. Like, if you think about politics, at the highest level, there are truly in many cases, a literally fixed number of spots, like we've had 100 senators since the inception of the Senate. And it's never gone up. When you think about academia, you know, I would say the number I don't know the exact numbers, but the number of tenure track professorships has gone up marginally, it's gone up much slower than the number of people seeking those positions. And when you think about something like college education, you know, everyone is now expected to get this. And you know, what, what that coupon allows you to get is much less than it used to be and people do really treat it as a coupon. Once you have that piece of paper, your expectation as a holder of it is that you can simply exchange it for whatever you perceive to be a good or influential position in society. And, you know, that's the dynamics there are fascinating and even when you think about social media, you know, in some sense, you know, Twitter and the internet, and Facebook and all of these things, they allow you to have maximum reach. But, you know, when you when you study these things, we all know that, that that it's dominated by Pareto distributions, you know, it's not everyone's going to become a social media influencer with a million Instagram followers. It's going to be a tiny sliver of people. So there's this sort of like, you know, this perfect As an 8020 effect, where more and more people are having more, more, more and more, a smaller slice of people are having a magnified level of influence. And there's this larger chunk of people that's having a level of influence or status that they believe to be well beneath what they're entitled to.


Rob Henderson 1:10:17

Right. Yeah, I mean, one thing that I've sort of been looking at recently, I was reading this book called Datak, lism. I can't remember the author's name came out a few years ago, but I would imagine that these findings still hold, which is that on on social media, I think it was specifically about Twitter. That like the Gini coefficient on of like followers on Twitter is actually higher than wealth in America basically, like, it's, it's actually much easier to make a million dollars spent to gain a million Twitter followers. And so yeah, there is like, you know, of course, like we talk a lot about the income inequality, the wealth inequality in the country, and how, you know, whatever the top 1% has this much compared to the bottom 50%. But in terms of, like, yeah, social media, social influence, and those kinds of things, it's actually even more skewed than than that in terms of like popularity for, you know, musicians book sales, like anything in like creative occupations, writing as well. Yeah, there's, there's this sort of vast, this vast inequality there, between those between those two, two groups, like the haves and the have nots, or whatever. One thing that you brought up, you mentioned this idea of like having the coupon or the piece of paper. Well, first, I wanted to say that it reminded me of, you know, speaking of how dire academia is something like only 5% I just read this article was in nature that 5% of people with PhDs, you know, newly new graduates will go on to obtain a tenure track job at a university is 5%. So you know, there's like one in 20 Chance 95% likelihood that you're not going to get that that dream job. One thing I find interesting in academia, though, is that like, that's still sort of expected that even though we all know 95% of you are not going to get a job in academia, the expectation is, you're going to do this, you're going to get a postdoc, you're going to go on to do that you're gonna put


Nick Jikomes 1:12:10

on grants for the university. Exactly.


Rob Henderson 1:12:14

But this other thing, you know, that this piece of paper idea, I was thinking, okay, so when I, back to this marriage idea for luxury beliefs, you know, I was talking to people about this, you know, a lot of people will say, you know, that marriage is just a piece of paper, you know, it's sort of in defense of cohabiting or, you know, sort of in defense of like marriage isn't that important. It's really just a piece of paper that we all pretend is something important. And it's sort of like, I don't know, it's sort of denigrates the whole idea of marriage, I guess it's just a piece of paper. But the way that you phrase it as, as a the academic degree, the diploma or whatever, like, as a piece of paper, I very seldom hear highly educated people refer to degrees or, or, yeah, these academic credentials as just a piece of paper. And I find this interesting, because, you know, on the one hand, okay, so if marriage is just a piece of paper, but shouldn't also, you know, your college degree is just a piece of paper to like, what's so special about that, but I think part of the reason why it's so seldom referred to as that way is because they, they derive most of their social status from their education, and they don't want to denigrate it.


Nick Jikomes 1:13:19

I think I think that's right. Part of the reason I speak this way, and this, you know, it's probably an unconscious thing that I learned very early on, that I can't shake is, you know, I have a, I have a coupon from Harvard. And it's a, you know, it's redeemable at all sorts of places for all sorts of stuff, trust me. But you know, I often refer to it that way. And I'm not even I'm not even thinking about it. But you know, I was a first generation college student, so I didn't necessarily grow up in an environment where it was talked about in the other way.


Rob Henderson 1:13:51

Oh, yeah, I see what you're saying. Yeah,


Nick Jikomes 1:13:53

yeah. And I think I've just sort of internalized that. So it's, it's prestigious, but it but it is also a piece of paper. Whereas, you know, that would maybe be considered sacrilegious in other social circles to


Rob Henderson 1:14:03

talk about it that way. Yeah, I kind of like, you know, it was the sad thing. Like if you read like too many statistics, like, it can be like, really, I don't know, either make make your perception or the one more accurate or warped it in a way that can sort of ruin it. But, you know, once I learned, for example, that like, once you get into a top university, your likelihood of graduation is is virtually guaranteed. Harvard, Yale, something like 98 or 99% graduation rates. And so once I realized that getting the letter of admission is more important. Like once you get the letter of admission, like that's actually more important than the degree itself. You really have to screw up. Yeah, yeah. If they, they make sure that you pass basically. And so like on graduation day, I remember like, my family was really happy. And I was like, you know, this was basically expected to happen like, is this really that exciting? Like we all knew that we were going to graduate, right? This is sort of like getting in is the hard part. But But graduating isn't actually actually that difficult. So we should have actually celebrated when I got in, so


Nick Jikomes 1:15:00

So what are you actually working on for your PhD research?


Rob Henderson 1:15:05

Yeah, so a couple of different things. So I just published a paper in evolutionary psychology, it's actually about COVID, finding that people who were more concerned about contracting COVID were more morally judgmental than people who were less concerned. So a lot of my research is actually on moral judgment. And a lot of this is, like I said before, inspired by Jonathan heights work on sort of moral disgust, moral judgment, political differences in in sort of moral condemnation. And the thing that I'm working on right now is about that the age, you know, sort of the relationship between age and moral judgment and how there is something going on here with, you know, across time, younger people have become more morally permissive. And my other interesting finding is that older people are more judgmental than, than younger people for a variety of different kinds of moral violations, controlling for political orientation, and all these other kinds of important socio demographic characteristics.


Nick Jikomes 1:16:03

Interesting, so people who were the most afraid of contracting COVID tended to be the most judgmental does this tie in with, and I don't really know too much about this area, but the idea that, you know, moral disgust, feelings related to moral disgust actually relate to our immersiveness to literal biological contagion, and sort of drive, you know, the more disgusted you are by stuff, the more you tend to discriminate in group versus out group.


Rob Henderson 1:16:30

Yeah, yeah. I mean, so there's this idea of the behavioral immune system, which is, you know, sort of the, the body's response to potential contaminants. So, you know, so there may be overlap between sort of physical disgust and moral disgust, you know, research on, you know, if people sort of experienced this emotion of physical disgust, or subsequently, more judgmental, and, and sort of more, more cautious and, and less, sort of, sort of less permissive for a variety of different kinds of behaviors, and like, you're saying they're more sort of group ish, more favorable to the end group, and, and less favorable toward the out group. So there's something something there as well, I mean, my finding on on on COVID, and moral judgment, you know, of course, like, I think it was, we sort of predicted in advance, and I think a lot of people would that, if you're highly worried about COVID, then you would be harsher towards people who violate can commit more violations that are that could potentially spread contamination, so people who say sneeze without covering their mouth, or use someone else's toothbrush without their permission, things like that, like you would sort of like if you're highly worried about COVID. And being worried about those things make sense. But we also found that people who were worried about COVID, were also more judgmental, for transgressions like sort of bribing someone to jump ahead in line, or sort of turning your back on your boss at work or sort of doing these kinds of like, a fairness violations but betraying people violating some kind of like a agreement or loyalty, these kinds of things. So it wasn't just about contamination. And so you know, I think there is this kind of, like this error management thing going on here, where if people are highly concerned about an infectious disease, then they're subsequently going to be hyper cautious towards any kind of wrongdoing that could potentially inflict more harm on them. So there's already this danger that exists. And so I'm not going to take any chances. And I'm going to condemn anyone who, who could pose extra, an extra level of danger to me, that's sort of the idea here. And want to look more judgmental over time as a result of COVID. So, you know, we ran studies in March and then later people in May were harsher than people in March, regardless of their level of concern over COVID. And we speculated we don't know this, for sure. But we speculated that this might be the result of prolonged exposure to this ongoing pandemic, that, you know, as the pandemic wore on, people became much more sort of hyper vigilant towards any kind of moral wrongdoing. And I couldn't help but connect that to like, you know, maybe things are calmed down now, like things are after the vaccines had been released, and maybe things are cooling down somewhat, but for a while, people were very judgmental about say, like mask wearing and, and hand washing and all of these things. And I mean, to me, it makes sense. It's sort of a it's an adaptive response. I think, you know, if you're, if you could potentially get sick, it makes sense to be much more cautious.


Nick Jikomes 1:19:43

Interesting. Well, is there anything, Rob that you want to leave people with? Any final thoughts on what we've talked about? Or, or can you tell people where to find you in your writing?


Rob Henderson 1:19:55

Yeah, I mean, I think we've we've covered a lot of interesting things here. You can find me at Rob Henderson calm and follow me on Twitter at Rob K. Henderson.


Nick Jikomes 1:20:04

Awesome. Well, Rob, I think you're you have a really great social media presence. You've sort of how to describe it, you've carved out like a nice niche for yourself. So I always know that your feed is going to contain, it could contain a number of things, but they're all within sort of a fairly tight range of topics. So I don't know it's like picking up a magazine that's about you know, one topic, I always know that I'm going to get something interesting in the general area of human nature and human psychology. And you also have a newsletter that I subscribe to, and I don't subscribe to many but But yours is one of the more interesting


Rob Henderson 1:20:37

I appreciate that. Thanks, Nick.



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