Ethics and the Nobel Laureates in Economics
Debate regarding economic inequality

Social effects on preference and choice (some thoughts)

Mark D. White

Prawfsblawg featured a post today by David Schleicher (nspired by this NYT article) on the topic of Pandora, the online music service that suggests new selections based on the musical characteristics (tempo, style, etc.) of your current musical preferences. Schleicher compares this to a blind taste test for coffee, and argues that both miss the point by focusing on a limited set of attributes of the items in question (what I called "intrinsic qualities" in my comment), but not on the social factors involved in choosing music, coffee, etc., and then implying that choices should be made according to only those narrow attributes.

My comment there was:

I think you're discounting the importance of intrinsic qualities over social aspects for some people. Some people do not regard coffee or music as network goods - for instance, I prefer the taste of Dunkin' Donuts coffee to Starbucks, so that's what I drink. It would never occur to me to pick my coffee based on what other people drink or what they'll think about my choice. If I find an artist, song, or album that I like, I seek out other music in the same style or vein, and so forth."

(This comment reflects a profound antipathy for the concept of "relative tastes" or "envy effects" on choice or well-being.)

In this post, I want to muse a bit on my professed antipathy for these concepts, which I've never analyzed.

Part of my antipathy is based on introspection; as I said in my comment, I choose my coffee, food, music, reading material, etc., on the basis of intrinsic qualities, and not on other people's tastes or opinions of my choices. I'm not going to say I never care about what other people think--for instance, I do hope that my colleagues think I'm a good person and do respectable work, and I do try not to dress too strangely--but I don't care what anybody thinks about my personal tastes, which in turn do not depend on theirs.

As a result, I am always skeptical of studies that purport to show strong status effects in choice (following Veblen) or an inordinate emphasis on relative (versus absolute) income (Robert Frank's thesis). But I am willing to admit that there's a decent chance I'm just a freak, and maybe everyone else is like these studies show. (The popularity of Starbucks coffee, rancid burnt swill that it is, would certainly support that.)

Of course, to each his or her own; if what a person truly cares about is her relative status or income, that is her own business. Yet, it still bothers me. I think it has something to do with basing your own well-being and happiness too much on those of other people, which implies that your choices and actions will be unduly impacted by those of other people, rather than by reasons that "should" matter more. Obviously, that "should" carrries a lot of weight here; it seems to me that your reasons for acting should come from essential aspects of you, representing what you like, reflecting your personality and identity, and not just what other people do, have, or think. (Of course, some think that personal identity is, to some extent, socially determined, but I don't think that should be taken to imply that tastes and preferences need be relative.)

So where's the ethics here? It would seem to be a failure to respect yourself: acting on relative preferences compromises your integrity by subordinating your reasons for action to what other people choose to do, and in turn subsuming your essential tastes and preferences. Look at popular culture: we celebrate the characters in books, TV, and movies who march to the beat of a different drummer, who follow their own paths, who defy the aesthetic conventions of their peer groups and express their individuality regardless of what other people think. If we do admire such people, it follows that we find something virtuous in such behavior, that these people are being more true to themselves than those who merely follow the crowd.

Any thoughts?


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I may rely on others' opinions to tell me about a good restaurant, a good movie, etc. if I do not want to spend time figuring it out myself. My friends who are foodies, e.g., know restaurants better than I do, and then I save on search costs. Are they influencing my preferences? Yes, a bit, because I am lazy. On the other hand I am not as picky and can be happy in so-so as well as excellent dining establishments.

Mariogiovanna Boccara presented a paper at the CUNY Graduate Center this past Tuesday on groups, networks and preferences.

College of Staten Island

Thanks, Simone - you're our first "outside" commenter! I wish I could have heard Boccara's talk; I'll try to find the paper at the GC site.

I think there's a difference between getting advice from people and using that information, together with your preferences, to make a better choice, and making your preferences themselves contingent on others' choices and their opinions of your choices. If your food preferences are based on flavor (let's say), and your foodie friends give you advice on which restaurants have more flavorable food, thaat's fantastic. What I have a problem with is basing your preferences themselves too strongly on what other people like, or what they'll think of your choices.

So if someone tells me, "Starbucks really improved the taste of their coffee," I may try it, but if instead they tell me, "oh, you have to go to Starbucks--all the cool people buy Starbucks," I won't--coffee isn't a social or communal issue with me.

Mind you, this is not to deny that a Starbucks outlet may have value purely as a hangout--and, when choosing a hangout, you want to be around people you like to be around. No problem with that either, since that is an intrinsically social matter. But the matter of the coffee itself--such as when picking up coffee to go--does not seem social (unless you have a crush on the barrista), and buying coffee you don't like just to be seen with the "cool" cup is unsettling to me.

I fundamentally agree with your conclusion about self respect and integrity needed for meaningful choices--rather than simply following the masses.

Independence in choice is admirable (virtuous?). But what if we examine more significant issues than coffee flavors, music selections, and so on? What about a North American male's preference to wear pants rather than a dress? Aren't most choices about the most significant stylistic elements dictated by the culture one grows up in and the expectations of one's peer group?

The intrinsic benefit of a skirt in hot weather should be obvious, but the social benefit of pants for males far outweigh the intrinsic benefits of skirts in most contexts (Scots excepted). We are all, to some degree, captured by our peers, except for a very eccentric few -- who are often shunned.

Showing independence through coffee flavors and music choices seems a bit hollow in this broader context....

P.S. I like Starbucks Bold, and the supposed "instant" coffee they're hyping is a joke. :)

You're right, Jonathan--clothing occupies a curious middle ground in that sense, providing basic shelter and warmth, but also serving an important social signalling function. (There's a great post about this at Prawfsblawg too.)

You may be right that "showing independence through coffee flavors and music choices seems a bit hollow in this broader context," but I think that supports my point of contention regarding Schleicher original post, which emphasized the social factors in even those decisions.

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