Why You Have To Keep Up With The Joneses

Recently, I came across this article from an older issue of Scientific American entitled Opinions and Social Pressure. I didn’t find the article too interesting until halfway into the second paragraph when the following sentence appeared:

The same epoch that has witnessed the unprecedented technical extension of communication has also brought into existence the deliberate manipulation of opinion and the “engineering of consent.”

With the advent of the internet and the rampant consumerism of today, this statement resonated with me. In essence, this passage refers directly to advertising, which seeks to engineer your desire for an object.

The article went on to discuss humanity’s desire to fit in and the various different ways this desire can be leveraged, culminating with this bit:

Vhen a subject was confronted with only a single individual who contradicted his answers, he \vas swayed little: he continued to answer independently und correctly in nearly all trials. When the opposition was increased to two, the pressure became substantial: minority subjects no\v accepted the wrong answer 13.6 per cent of the time. Under the pressure of a majority of three, the subjects’ errors jumped to 31.8 per cent. But further increases in the size of the majority apparently did not increase the weight of the pressure substantially. Clearly the size of the opposition is important only up to a point.

Disturbance of the majority’s unanimity had a striking effect. In this experiment, the subject was given the support of a truthful partner-either another individual who did not know of the prearranged agreement among the rest of the group, or a person who was instructed to give correct answers throughout.

The presence of a supporting partner depleted the majority of much of its power. Its pressure on the dissenting individual was reduced to one fourth: that is, subjects answered incorrectly only one fourth as often as under the pressure of a unanimous majority.

The article is fascinating, as it indicates over and over again that our rampant consumerism is due to the effect of advertising working as leverage on some people, then those people working as leverage on others, increasing the cultural desire for more and more physical things.

Even more useful, the article points directly to some potential solutions for fighting off the human desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” Here’s a list of the implied suggestions.

Reduce your exposure to advertising. The best way to do this is *gasp* watch less television, as television is an incredibly effective advertising medium. Advertisements on television are designed to make you feel included in a group if you buy a product; that’s why ads use attractive people, so on some level you’ll believe that you are in that group if you buy the product they’re selling.

Find friends who want to resist the consumerist mentality, or encourage your own friends to resist it. If your common activity is wandering around the mall, you’re constantly being pulled by a social magnet to buy things you don’t need. Suggest staying at home and playing a game or watching movies or just talking about things rather than wandering around in an environment designed to convince you to buy.

Live in a place where the consumerism effect is less. In other words, look for rural or small town living. In most small towns, there is much less rampant consumerism to tempt you, plus the Joneses aren’t living in million dollar houses. A modest house in a rural area fits right in, so you don’t need to completely break yourself just to keep up with the neighbors.

Following any one of these suggestions can reduce the desire to continue the rat race of “keeping up with the Joneses,” which in the end means you’ll have more financial stability and more freedom to do what you want, not just do what the neighbors are doing.

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  1. Michelle says:

    Trent, the Asch line comparison study is a classic in the the social psychology field. You might also be interested in reading up on social comparison theory and relative deprivation.

    (When I took a social psychology course last summer, we used the current edition of the text by David Myers and it was pretty good.)

  2. Matt says:

    Good post, I try not to keep up with the Joneses… I don’t really like their tastes.

    Trying to remove yourself from our consumerism laden society is a challenge but your point about TV is a big one. I don’t watch a lot of TV and as a result I’m not as likely to want to fit in with whatever they’re peddling now a days.

  3. rodgerlvu says:

    thanks. you are the most intelligent person i ever met…

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