We’re Rats, So We Race

A New York Times article [via Instapundit] titled, “In Silicon Valley, Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich” explores why many people with assets and sometimes incomes in the millions who live in Silicon Valley don’t feel particularly rich. One paragraph gets to what I consider the heart of the effect.

But many such accomplished and ambitious members of the digital elite still do not think of themselves as particularly fortunate, in part because they are surrounded by people with more wealth — often a lot more.

Unfortunately for our happiness, we humans lust after status. Throughout history, we sacrificed vast amounts of resources on the tokens and expressions of status. I have written before about how gold became a universal trade good and eventually universal money purely due to people in every human culture using gold to fulfill the universal desire to demonstrate status. In contemporary America, we use houses, cars, vacations and organic food to signal our status but the overall level of consumption status remains high.

Yet, why do people like the hardworking millionaires of the article keep running on the exercise wheel of status when they already stand at the top 1%-2% of the status hierarchy of the developed world and stand even further up on the hierarchy of the entire world? I think the explanation is disturbingly simple.

Our lust for status comes from deep in our genes. Unfortunately, our sense of status evolved when humans lived in small groups of a few dozen at most. As a result, we key our sense of status not off the greater, but emotionally abstract, society but off our immediate peer group, the people we see and work with every day.

Absolute measures of material wealth count for nothing. If an individual has a net worth of one million dollars but all his peers have a net worth of two million, that individuals will feel as if they have a low status. Status is, after all, a purely relative measure. As a relative measure, it defines a zero-sum game in which a gain by one player means a loss by another. Material goods likewise lose their absolute significance and we judge them only in relation to the material goods of our immediate peers.

It never stops. The kings and emperors of old stood at the pinnacle of status for their societies and yet still they obsessed. They compared themselves to other contemporary rulers or, worse, they compared themselves to historical figures. They built great monuments to themselves merely so that future generations would know the great degree of their status. If those who held sway over the lives of millions still obsessed over status, what hope do the rest of us have?

Psychologists have actually found that individuals who live in communities where most people make less money than they do report higher levels of happiness regardless of their degrees of absolute wealth. So the richest person on the block in the ghetto derives more status satisfaction than the poorest millionaire at a country club.

Now we know why rich people in Silicon Valley don’t feel rich. Being rich isn’t about absolute wealth but rather relative status. If you have a solid gold bathtub but everyone else in the neighborhood has two, your bathtub won’t bring you much pleasure.

Classical philosophers, early Christianity and Buddhism all place great emphasis on the dangers of lusting for status. I think western civilization lost that warning somewhere along the line. We seem largely unconscious of the degree to which the desire for status determines our behavior. We become like rats, genetically programmed machines who run and run but never understand why.

17 thoughts on “We’re Rats, So We Race”

  1. This also explains the common leftist arguments about “the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer”, when in absolute terms the poor today are better off than they were 20 years ago, and significantly better off than the richest of the rich were 100 years ago. In relative terms, the poor are still a long ways behind the rich. If you’re so foolish as to get stuck on status relative to the group as your key measure of “progress”, you’ll be constantly fighting to a stalemate.

  2. Absolute magnitudes are irrelevant. No one has any basis to gauge that, unless they are history buffs. Status and “positional goods” will always be the main motivator for people, and most people’s standard of comparison is necessarily other people and what they have compared to you.

    There are lawyers at big firms who are in the top 1% of income in the country who are miserable because they are failures compared to their peers.

    The only escape is to cultivate Christian detachment, also known as the virtue, doctrine and discipline of poverty — not necessarily the vow of poverty taken by religious, but a detachment appropriate to each person’s state in life. “The renunciation which is essential and strictly required is the abandonment of all that is superfluous, not that it is absolutely necessary to give up the ownership of all property, but a man must be contented with what is necessary for his own use. Then only is there a real detachment which sufficiently mortifies the love of riches, cuts off luxury and vain glory, and frees from the care for worldly goods.” Exercising the self-discipline to set your sights on other goals than whatever type of food pellet happens to be motivating all the other rats in your particular maze.

    This is all easy to type but hard to do.

    I have lived long enough to observe that people who keep their lives materially simple are happier than those who are constantly chasing after this or that nice-to-have thing.

    I see no way to break the cycle of envy and status-seeking, including trying to pull other people down, other than a religiously-based spirit of detachment. Capitalism cannot survive without drawing on social capital that it did not create and cannot, by itself, replace.

  3. Although the article focused on people who are working mainly for financial and status reasons–at least, the article gave the *impression* that that’s what they’re working for–there are also a lot of people in the venture/tech world, some of them quite wealthy, for whom a primary motivator is the love of what they do.

    The NYT is one of the most status-obsessed publicaitons in the country, and it’s not surprising that they would play up the status angle.

  4. Status-seeking isn’t necessarily bad. It is probably bad for many people, for whom their self-comparisons with their peers lead mainly to their becoming dissatisfied with their own lives. However, many great advances in science, the arts and business have been driven by someone’s dissatisfaction with his own status, and by that person’s subsequent attempt to raise his status by creating something valuable.

    I suspect that humans would not have progressed nearly as far as they have, without status-seeking, envy, lust and other behaviors that are conventionally decried. Without status-seeking, the Silicon Valley millionaires quoted in the Times article might be happier, but much of the cornucopia of technology and wealth generated by Silicon Valley might not exist.

  5. Reading over the article, I wonder if something hasn’t been missed. Some of those featured mentioned feeling both insecure and uncertain that their wealth is fully deserved. Regarding the former, one has to wonder if the dot-com crash hasn’t made all those millions seem a bit shaky. Regarding the latter, some of the millionaires seemed to view their fortunes as a little too fortuitous. They weren’t harder or better workers than a lot of other folk, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Wealth that one does not feel one rightly earned can feel ephemeral, even when it is securely tucked away in a bank.

    People don’t just want to be more successful than others, or enjoy a higher status. They want to believe that they earned the success and status, that it is a just reward for their own efforts. When they see others who are less successful, but (in their view) just as deserving, this calls into question the justice of their success. One response to this situation is to work all that much harder, as if to demonstrate that the success is, indeed, deserved. One might speculate that Americans, with their Calvinist background, are especially inclined to this sort of behavior.

  6. Just read a great article by Tom Wolfe I found linked at NRO that dealt with a variation of this same theme. I have my own ideas about what it all means, but that’s too complicaed to get into in this format.

    Suffice it to say, when you try to fill in empty spaces inside by substituting externals, whether material or social, it doesn’t seem to work very well at all. Not all black holes are found at the center of galaxies…

  7. I tend to agree that sometimes it is our desire to be right that motivates us. Certainly, we don’t get paid to write here, but I think it is a joy (at least for me) because I can control my argument and make it – that is, I get a chance to make my case.

    One of the arguments in Jonathan Rauch’s “In Defense of Prejudice,” is Another dirty secret is that, no less than the rest of us, scientists can be dogmatic and pigheaded. “Although this pigheadedness often damages the careers of individual scientists,” says Hull, “it is beneficial for the manifest goal of science,” which relies on people to invest years in their ideas and defend them passionately. And the dirtiest secret of all, if you believe in the antiseptic popular view of science, is that this most ostensibly rational of enterprises depends on the most irrational of motives–ambition, narcissism, animus, even revenge. “Scientists acknowledge that among their motivations are natural curiosity, the love of truth, and the desire to help humanity, but other inducements exist as well, and one of them is to ‘get that son of a bitch,'” says Hull. “Time and again, scientists whom I interviewed described the powerful spur that ‘showing that son of a bitch’ supplied to their own research.” Shortly after I taught that essay we went to a family celebration, where one of my husband’s cousins, a geology ph.d. who worked for Exxon, explained to me that he was grateful Exxon had let him work for ten years before he showed he was right and he had found something useful. (I’m no scientist, if he explained it, I didn’t understand it.) But he phrased his explanation in just that manner: Those guys thought I was crazy and wrong; I was determined to show them I was right. In other words, what kept him going was his desire to show those sons of bitches. Of course, there are happier attitudes to have for ten years, but, then, the rest of us can be happy that some of those guys figured out better ways to find oil and to get it out of the ground.

  8. I thought the article was thoughtless non sense. In an environment where 4% to 5% (after inflation) is a good return on money, you need a lot to replace a reasonably good income. Multiply your salary by 25. If you want to retire before an advanced age (i.e. young enough so that you must think of your money as a perpetuity instead of a life annuity), you will need that much to replace your income.

    A million can only replace $40,000 of income. That is not a high income these days, not even for a working class family here in Ohio. A successful professional in the Silicon Valley, or in New York, will make a multiple of that. Do the math folks.

  9. I was introduced to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs way back in the ’60s. Personal observations seem to confirm it in operation.

    Part of the problem is that our ‘institutions of higher learning’ are nothing more than fancy tech schools which certify qualifications for employers. At one time they were institutions with a great deal of focus on developing the ‘man’. The classics were marginalized and eventually relegated to the ‘ash heap’ of history in academica because they weren’t relevant to ‘modern’ culture. However, over 2,000 years ago, the Greeks were asking the same fundamental questions that hit adults around age 40 in our modern world. Who am I, why am I here, what’s it all about. And today they wonder what the aghast is all about? These are questions and issues they were suppose to have addressed in ‘college’. You were suppose to have gained the knowledge and experience to set the rest of your life by. To understand yourself, your drives, your purpose. No longer. Quick, give me a piece of paper for saying I’m qualified for a job, not necessarily a life.

  10. “The problem is even if you win the rat race you are still a rat”

    You are a rat if you lose, too. And most people lose, most of the time. The point is to be King of the Rats, and feared and respected by the other rats. People who say they are “above all that” and “too proud” or “too good” to be in the rat race are nothing more than rats who know they will lose. The rat race is the only game in town.

    (That is how it looks to me in my more cynical moments, which are becoming more frequent.)

  11. I agree with the idea that the unhappy wealthy (who are probably fewer in number than the NYT illustrates) may be trying to make up for a personal psychological need by owning more material status symbols. I read the same article, but I couldn’t really muster up enough empathy with the subjects to really “feel their pain”. Maybe Mr. Silicon Valley should volunteer at a homeless shelter, or just take a vacation and drive through some impoverished neighborhood in the US or abroad; he just might return home very happy and grateful for his lot in life.

    I think it’s not just wealthy people that it happens to; people from all walks of life and classes try to “keep up with the Joneses”, but how much does one really need? For example, I have a practical and well maintained American car for commuting, less than 5 years old. I want a really fast sports car, but I don’t need it to feel like a complete person. The salesman I bought my car from told me several stories of people trying to buy cars well outside their budgets, but many felt they needed a certain car to be at or above the level of their peers.

    Maybe philanthropy helps some wealthy folks enjoy their wealth more.

    I only hope I can convince my children not to chase status but to be happy with what they have.

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