Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Conspicuous Consumption - A social problem

Dhiyanesh Ravichandran.

     Only when my family attempted to pack all our things at home to move to our new house, we realised  how many goods we have purchased in the past. Now a mini-lorry can't address our needs, we have to look for a maxi-truck! This signifies a great surge in our consumption patterns in the recent years - goods of all types and range. Nevertheless, our family income has never increased! This phenomena is not confined only to my family, but to the whole world, especially the developed world. But in developing economies like India and China, the average per capita consumption is increasing at a higher rate comparing to those developed nations, although our quantum consumption is much lower in value comparingly. This pattern can be attributed to the integration of economies globally and economists claim it to be a sign of growth to pursue the dream of reaching the 'developed' status, but we (sociologists) are critical about that.

Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption"
     In sociological theories, much less attention has been devoted to consumption and the consumer behaviour. There was a long-standing "productivist bias", where theories have tended to focus on industry, industrial organisations, work, and workers. Two notable exceptions can be Thorstein Veblen's famous work on "conspicuous consumption" and Simmel's thinking on money and fashion, but in the main social theorists have had far less to say about consumption and production. Veblen's work, especially, focuses more on consumption rather than production. It anticipated the shift in social theory away from a focus on production towards a focus on comsumption (Ritzer:1999).

     In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899),  Veblen criticised the leisure class (which is closely tied to business) fore its role in fostering wasteful consumption. To impress the rest of the society, the leisure class engaged in both "conspicuous leisure" (the non-productive use of time) and  "conspicuous consumption" (spending more money on goods than they are worth). Those in all other social classes are influenced by this example and seek, directly and indirectly, to emulate the leisure class. The result is a society characterised by the waste of time and money.

     At this point, we have to understand two overlapping concepts in this regard - Conspicuous consumption and Invidious consumption. Conspicuous consumption describes  how wealthy people spend large amounts of money on luxury goods and services as a way of showing their economic power and status. Such a public display of discretionary economic power is a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status. Whereas, Invidious consumption means, more specifically, deliberate conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status.

     Conspicuous consumption does not refers to all large expenses. But instead, it refers to spending as a way of showing off who you are. In fact, sometimes what you end up with is no better, or sometimes worse, than what you can get for less money. A classic example can be the use of silver utensils and fine china for meals, especially when guests are over. Bringing out the good stuff does show that you’ve attained a certain level of material comfort, but it’s also not very practical. Silver has to be polished, china breaks easily, and neither can go into the dishwasher. Their main purpose, then, is one of status display.

     We all know that Apple makes a wicked-cool cell phone it calls the iPhone. You can load little software programs on it, called “apps”, that do various functions. One of these apps is called the “I am rich” application. It costs $1,000 and serves absolutely no purpose other than to shine a red ruby on your iPhone that lets others know that you could afford to buy this app. That’s it. It shows that you’re rich and doesn’t do anything else. Apparently Apple no longer carries it at its stores because it was getting bad publicity (again, making decisions on how people perceive something).

     We cannot limit the concept to just the well-to-do. Even college students engage in it. The use and craze for posh brands of dresses, sandals, gadgets and other fashionable items is a good example. In spite of the cheap availability of locally-made generic wears, students prefer costly Puma or Adidas, even though students don't need that 'so-called' high-level performance. One could make the case that it’s an issue of style and cultural taste, and that makes sense. But the main reason for their appeal could be that name brand clothes show status. They show that you have the money and prestige to wear the coolest things. Whatever the goods and services maybe, we always try to orientate with the costly and luxurious options of the lot. May it be a consumer good or education, healthcare or any other services, our choices are conspicuous to possible extent.

     In India, such a trend seems little serious. Considering the widening income gap between the rich and poor, and plethora of societal stratification, conspicuous consumption is a social pathos. It creates and widens class differentiation at different levels. It leads to consumerism. We measure our success only in terms of the accumulation of material things, which is a major factor contributing to greed and corruption. We are tempted by the extended range of goods available and by their grabbing TV advertisements. We must understand the corporates hand behind this drive. In a capitalistic economy, a company can maximise its profits only by increasing the sale of the produced goods, which ultimately depends on people's consumption. In such a background, quality and durability of the goods and services are compromised; only then people will consume again and again.

RATIONAL CONSUMER: Have command on what you consume and do not get dictated by someone
     As a rational consumer, we must think twice and decide wisely in consuming a good or a service. We must have command on our consumption and ensure that our needs are addressed efficiently. When we limit ourselves to meet only our needs, everyone around us can meet their needs. There can be no waste of money, time, labour, resource, etc.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cognition - Truths and Errors

We humans have been occupying this pale blue dot on this universe for a small period of about 2-4 million years and have developed into a species with a lot of advantages over our fellow animals. Many of us believe that we humans have the perfect features required to sustain in this planet. But that statement has been proved wrong many a times physiologically and psychologically. In this article I will try to deal with the significance of the psychological errors or as they are widely known, biases in our cognition.

We all see the world not as it is, but as we want it to be. We follow certain pattern while processing our cognition. So what influences the way we process our thoughts? The major reason for such biases is “Motivated Reasoning”. Motivated reasoning is the term used to refer to the process by which people tend to come to a certain conclusion that makes them feel better. To brief it further it is the tendency to alter the facts or opinions in a way that they fit perfectly into the long held opinions of the person or to recall incidences in which we had the upper hand. Motivated reasoning also leads us to make varying attributions in different situations.
Attribution is the process through which humans as observers infer the causes of other people’s behaviour. It may be from an individual to an individual or from an individual to a group. Fritz Heider (the man who found attributions) and Simmel did an experiment in which they showed the observers a short clip of random motion of  a circle and two differently sized triangles. At the end of the experiment they asked the observers to report their observations. The people tended to attribute some cause to the movement of the objects. Heider believed that all humans tended to try to interpret and attribute a cause for the behaviour of other humans. Some evolutionary psychologists came up with an explanation that either humans or one of our evolutionary ancestors must have developed the tendency to anthropomorphize the movements around us as it gave them the evolutionary advantage of being on guard for their predators.

Humans make two types of attributions. They make either a dispositional attribution or a situational attribution. Dispositional attribution is one in which the observer attributes the cause of a person’s behaviour to that subject’s internal states like the personality etc. Situational attribution is one in which the observer attributes the causes of a subject’s behaviour to the situation that prevailed before or during the course of that behaviour. Social Psychologists have found a variance in the type of attributions we make based on the observer’s position in the situation. The possibilities are listed below considering myself as the observer:

I see someone do something (good or bad)
                                      I make a Dispositional Attribution saying that the incident happened because of the individual’s ability or disability.

I do something good
                                     I make a Dispositional Attribution saying that the incident happened because of my own hard work and ability.

Thus looking at these observations we can get to a conclusion that motivated reasoning has its effect on all the cognition that takes place in our brain. This also contradicts to the belief of many people that the human brain and human cognition are flawless. To err is human. 

                             I would never die for my belief because I might be wrong.
                                                                                                                    -Bertrand Russell