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October 21, 2009

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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.

Simone
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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