Food for thought
October 15, 2011 7:58 PM   Subscribe

"Somehow, we all end up in the same place, chasing the same trends while drinking the same drink while staring at the same app on the same phone." Jonah Lehrer (previously 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) looks at the drive for distinctiveness via a recently published study [PDF] by Jonah Berger and Baba Shiv. "The point is that our most essential desires are weirdly intertwined, which is why it’s interesting that making people think about distinctiveness has such a big impact on how badly they crave food."
posted by cashman (26 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'd like my sense of self and personality to be decoupled from my purchases, thank you.
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 PM on October 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

(1) It's not about being individually distinctive; it's about wanting to be part of a group that distinguishes itself from other groups. (2) Food is damn tasty and transcends just about every other impulse but sex. (3) Another "slow news day" article.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:17 PM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and The Whelk - best of luck with that.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:18 PM on October 15, 2011

As someone who works in a natural foods store populated by natural foods store customers, this has been on my mind a lot recently.
posted by Earthtopus at 8:34 PM on October 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Remember that if you're not being sold something, you're the thing being sold.
posted by signal at 8:37 PM on October 15, 2011

And it sounds from this that even when you are being sold something, you're the thing being sold. Or at least, like they are selling you to yourself. Or something.
posted by lollusc at 8:47 PM on October 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Bob, I like to think of myself as someone who shops at Target."
posted by The Whelk at 8:52 PM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

These experiments, like most psychology experiments, used undergraduate students as subjects. This always carries the risk of not being a representative sample, but when your test involves the desire to be distinctive, you can pretty much ignore any conclusions drawn from that data.

I'm looking forward to their study on the prevalence of body dysmorphic disorder based on surveys of beauty contest participants.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:32 PM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

OPP (Older Person's Perspective who is aware of what the acronym meant 20 years ago):

Strangely, despite that "Do Your Own Thing" phrase, I don't think the emphasis on being different/unique/eccentric...even individualistic was an intrinsic part of the 60's/70's phenomenon. Being part of a tribe, a group, with shared characteristics (necessarily anti-authoritarian and of course anti-war) was the starting point. Within that, exploration of one's individuality was well-celebrated. But not the point of life.

As repeated ad nauseum in Adbusters and elsewhere, the desire to create one's own identity is perversely marketed as being necessitated by declaring allegiance to one or another product (or even a glibly chosen political stance). Aesthetics, with its elevated and "deep" artistic implicitly implied manifestations has always been a remarkably easy way to declare one's individuality.

In the 60's, though, simply assuming an anti-authoritarian stance, whether faddish or deep-seated, was enough. Being social animals, declaring identity with a group opposed to the status quo was enough. Whether you wore your dad's raggedy G.I. jacket or a weird and garish beaded cape didn't make a hell of a lot of difference.

Now, though, with the almost instantaneously created social groups and the need to associate ourselves with temporary movements through declaration of electronic social media alliances has created a different landscape. The need to be different, although always part of the Euro-American experience more so than in most historical socio-cultural contexts, seems to have accelerated recently, perhaps as a result of the cultural homogenation evident in the North American cultural (and physically man-made) landscape.

My opinion about the perceived value of individual differentiation happens to be informed by two very different aspects of my formation as an individual, though. First of all, as a Surrealist and a Jazz pianist I take for granted the fact that there is no one else who has made the same artistic choices and has produced the same art as I have. Secondly, on the meditation pillow, the simultaneous loss of ego and compassionate embrace of our interdependence has made the celebration of a carefully gardened Sense of Unique Self seem like a bit of a fool's errand.

This age-old dilemma has branched out into an artificially fractal consumerist trap recently, in my opinion.


posted by kozad at 10:39 PM on October 15, 2011 [9 favorites]

Jonah Lehrer's drive to be different apparently inspired him to split his infinitives. He's different from me, I'll give him that.
posted by incessant at 10:59 PM on October 15, 2011

posted by loquacious at 11:03 PM on October 15, 2011

Marketing is a spooky and intriguing discipline. A very sharp marketing professor once told me that the key to the entire thing was understanding that the best way to market a product was not to focus on the objective need for the product itself. Instead, it was to trigger anxiety and yearning around one of a small number of deep human needs (community, sex, status, etc.) and then associate the product with that need. Led me to look at marketing in a new way.

I don't think the need for distinctiveness is primal. (I may be prejudiced, but I have never felt such a need, although as I get older I naturally become more distinctive simply because my story and history is unique). Instead, I think the desire for status that's primal. In our culture certain kinds of distinctiveness confer status. If you can pull off originality with flair you are seen as a leader of sorts. Like Kozad, I think the intense marketing emphasis on originality and distinctiveness is retrograde politically and designed to sell products more than anything else.
posted by zipadee at 11:05 PM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

The need for distinctiveness is mainly present within those who are already distinctive.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:47 PM on October 15, 2011

Reading the paper, I don't think the research shows that distinctiveness is an essential desire. Just because it activates the same dopamine pathways? It's heavily promoted and valued in Western culture, so it could be a cultural expression of the desire for social acceptance.

There's a tendency to believe that if an effect is cultural, it can only have superficial consequences, never at a deep level in the brain itself. This is another individualistic prejudice that downplays the impact of culture on our individuality. Lehrer wants to make it biological for it to be taken seriously, I guess.

But in reality, the effects of culture are very strong. I read a study about a particular gene that when switched on, made people in Asian cultures especially unlikely to talk about their problems with others, but had the opposite effect on Westerners. This is because the gene has some kind of influence over sensitivity to cultural norms. The result was that the same gene increased the suicide risk in Asian culture but had a protective effect in Western culture, because of those culture's different norms about self-expression.

So I don't have too much trouble believing that something could be mostly cultural but also impact your brain's dopamine pathways.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:04 AM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mind your wants 'cause someone wants your mind.

Funk is a non-profit organization
posted by palidor at 1:40 AM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Jonah Lehrer seems trapped in a second year psychology undergraduate course writing assignment groundhog day.
posted by srboisvert at 2:22 AM on October 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seems to me like Lehrer is stuck on a sort of "Hipster's Paradox": that hipsters are essentially people who want to be middle class and bohemian at the same time. In the process, they participate in a system that tries to commodify authenticity. Country music or japanese traditional teapots or whatever seem way more authentic than this conformist target-mall-plastic culture that one's parents provided so one buys a silk-screened Johny Cash T-shirt and posts it on facebook. But then when the hipster recognizes someone else with the same t-shirt they are confronted with the fact that they are not unique and that authenticity can't be bought and so they are filled with self loathing and possibly the need to snark about the other person as a "hipster". Lehrer is at least honest about this but he needs to go a layer or two deeper.
posted by mr.ersatz at 4:08 AM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

You expect insight from a marketing journal? An appreciation of what it is to be sexual from studies that present undergrads with pictures of ladies in swimsuits? Revelation of the human condition acquired by asking undergrads about a time they "felt distinctive"? Lehrer is good at times. This is not one of them.
posted by stonepharisee at 4:44 AM on October 16, 2011

Ersatz, David Brooks wrote a whole book about that called Bobos in Paradise, Bobos meaning "bourgeois bohemians" by which he meant basically the entire Boomer generation, or ay least their preferred ethos.

Which I guess makes hipsters pretty much exactly like their plastic-mall-culture-providing parents? And probably ensures they will become that which they despise if they aren't already.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:50 AM on October 16, 2011

Insight can come from Goddamned near anywhere.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:12 AM on October 16, 2011

So much of this article and the comments in this thread are bringing to mind Adam Curtis' Century Of The Self... People have been working for decades to get western societies to the point where they seek self expression through things that are being marketed to them. One of the first and best things one can do is inform onesself about what is happening. That's the key to beginning to break their power over you.
posted by hippybear at 6:00 AM on October 16, 2011

According to the data, people primed to think of sex (via swimsuit models) were much more interested in buying the most distinctive products. Interestingly, this desire for distinctiveness could be quelled by giving the aroused males a candy bar. Because our different drives are largely interchangeable, a few bites of chocolate managed to reduce the desire that had just been triggered by the arousing images. We no longer needed to be so unique.
really now
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:05 AM on October 16, 2011

I AM A GRILLED CHEESE --- ahhh, fuck.
posted by webmutant at 10:38 AM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Listen, sheeple - if you're not the consumer, you're the product being sold to the consumer, but you're also the consumer of the products that the consumer who's buying you is selling to the products of consumers being sold! Wake up!
posted by naju at 10:53 AM on October 16, 2011

i dont wanna wake up

its the fuckin weekend youre not my dad
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:33 PM on October 16, 2011

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