Fashion Excuses

Imagine a woman who bought expensive new dresses every few months, new dresses that matched the latest dress fashions. But she denied that she personally cared about fashion. Instead, she said:

  • “New dresses are just better. For example, new materials are better.”
  • “My body changes fast, so my dresses must change fast to match.”
  • “Clothes should match culture. It’s not right to wear pre-Ferguson dresses after Ferguson.”
  • “I really like variety; anything even a bit different than before is great.”
  • “As a professional dress-maker, I must keep close track of fashion.”
  • “To bond better with others who track fashion, I do so also.”

Some of these explanations might be true for some people. But overall they are not very believable explanations for why most people track dress fashion. More believable are:

  • “I want people to see I have the time and money to track fashion.”
  • “I want people to stare at my body, and new fashions catch eyes.”
  • “I want people to see that I can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions. This shows my good judgement and social connections.”

While these reasons are more believable, they are not the sort of reasons that people like to admit.

Now consider people who focus more on more recently discussed “fashionable” topics in tech, academia, social trends, policy debates, media, blogs, etc. Such people can have many possible reasons for their focus. But as with the dresses example above, some of these reasons are ugly, being ones we don’t tend to like to admit. Which tends to bias us toward offering other prettier sorts of reasons, to the extent that we can make them seem to fit.

Thus if we notice that we are tending to focus on more recently fashionable topics, we should suspect that we have not fully admitted to ourselves that we actually do so in part because of ugly reasons. Which should lower our estimates of the contribution of prettier reasons. So, compared to what we thought:

  • things aren’t improving as fast,
  • we less need to adapt topics to changes in us or in society,
  • we don’t actually like topic variety as much,
  • we are less producers, and more consumers, and
  • we care less about bonding with others.

Instead you should suspect that you follow topic fashions more because:

  • You want people to see you have the time, education, and smarts needed to track topic fashions.
  • You want people to notice your wit and intelligence, which you display as you track topic fashions.
  • You want people to see that you can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions, to show your good judgement and social connections.

If we are built to hide ugly motives, and substitute pretty ones, we should suspect that our actual motives are uglier than we think.

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  • PaulKinsky

    This is true for most things, but not software, which really does change very quickly. (Although fashion-following and the pursuit of intellectual trendiness do play a part)

    • Ben Salemi

      Fashion also changes very quickly. My sense is that fashion changes very quickly because that elevates its signalling value. Fashion changing quickly seems essentially utilitarian (where utility here is the ability to signal).

      “Software changes quickly” isn’t really a specific enough statement. Windows XP is still roughly 20% of the install base of desktop OS. Depending on what you are doing and why, software may change very slowly or very quickly. There was a time when Ruby on Rails, Cold Fusion, etc. were going to take over the programming market. People flocking to those technologies weren’t engaging in utilitarian behavior vis-a-vis programming, as the subsequent loss of cachet indicates.

  • Will

    If you care about fashion for the three believable reasons listed, then you do care about bonding with others – you want the respect, attention, and admiration of others. I think this certainly is a kind of interpersonal bond, though a one-sided one, and can form part of a stronger two-sided bond.

    The purpose of many things is signaling, but the purpose of signaling is often to find new friends, lovers, collaborators, etc. and otherwise establish bonds.

    • Impressing people may make them want to bond with you, but impressing just isn’t the same as bonding.

  • guest

    In all honesty, I follow your blog for those ugly reasons.

  • In academia topic choice is not directly about signaling your dedication. Rather, people focus on ‘hot’ topics because that is where you can get published and where the grant money is. You could argue that reviewers and grant agencies are looking for signals, but I prefer to believe that at least in part people genuinely get excited about new ideas.

    • “prefer to believe” says it all.

    • Muv Luv

      Note that this is not inconsistent with Robin’s post. A good way to appear that you are excited about new ideas is to actually be excited about new ideas. But the counterfactual component (if these ideas didn’t have value as a signal, we wouldn’t study them) still holds.

  • I endorse this post. Now, a nitpick: your penultimate 5 bullets adapted in parallel from the first 5 (her stated reasons for following fashion) don’t make much sense. They’re just the first 5 statements abstracted and negated (to form corrections to somebody’s false ‘why’), and leave me thinking (because they were hard to digest) that not much thought went into them. We can imagine specific applications to our own practices but I doubt most will (which I guess is the ideal payoff of being unclear).

    • All five make sense to me as applied to topic fashions.

      • Specifically I wonder how much of “don’t just follow the latest *intellectual* fashion” is just: “if I were a leader *I’d* be setting the agenda.” While I agree that we spend a lot of time talking about unimportant stuff; someone could say: “what about this ranked list of stuff where our discussion could make a positive impact in our lives … why are we moving on when there’s still more to do here?”

        But I imagine a real benefit to having shared intellectual-small-talk topics that rotate – there’s a chance your interlocutor will have fresh in her mind some evidence you didn’t see yet (not likely if it’s all social media sharing, but still, I see a purpose in talk-flocks too).

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  • M Wms

    I think people just like novelty.

    • Until you’ve read all the books in a large library, why would you need new books to fill your need for novelty?

      • M Wms

        There’s reading (or wearing), and there’s buying. What I’m saying is that I think people like owning new things, enjoy the acquisition process, adding new books to their shelves or clothes to their closets. I bet that many books and clothes bought are not ever read/worn.

  • lump1

    In thinking about this, it’s hard to ignore the fact that emulated minds and AI have recently become quite fashionable. Anyway, insofar as I’m drawn to fashionable fields, it’s for three reasons:

    1. More publication opportunities (reviewers shelve good papers on unfashionable topics), and lower standards for publication.

    2. More stuff that’s easy to take down: The first wave of fashion chasers are not that clever or insightful, and they leave many exploitable holes in their work.

    3. People are actually paying attention to the fashion, so if your stuff is a part of the wave, you might actually play a role in the trajectory of the debate. It might not be optimal, but it beats being unread.

    • Sounds like “I’m a producer, not a consumer.”

  • The internet makes it increasingly easy to follow trends (too easy), which sets the stage for a countersignaling tendency involving dedication to timeless questions.

  • oldoddjobs

    Is it really “prettier” to say that a bunch of people become fascinated by a given topic at a certain moment in time?

    • Yes, compared to how ugly people consider the more plausible reasons to be.

      • We prettify it further by rationalization: from the authority of best-seller lists to doctrines of the wisdom of crowds.

  • 27chaos

    I don’t like the assumption that we’re not very good at directly assessing our own motives. Do you have evidence for it? I attribute most discrepancies between behavior and stated thoughts to irrational thinking and deception, not poor perception. Introspectively, my perception of my motives seems very good. It’s the other things I have a hard time with.

  • robertwib

    I talk about things that are fashionable in part because I like talking to other people, and that’s what others are most likely to want to join in a conversation about. This isn’t particularly admirable, but nor is it particularly ugly.

    • That is the “to bond better …” reason.

      • TaymonBeal

        You think that people don’t actually like talking to each other, then?

      • IMASBA

        After a while these things become a bit philosophical. We like talking to other people so we talk to other people, but the reasons we like talking to other people are evolutionary and may have to do with signalling. Whether we talk to each other because we like to or because there are evolutionary reasons depends on what exactly you mean by “because”. It’s only when we start to consciously make up explanations that go beyond “I just like doing it”, and that deny the evolutionary/signalling reasons, that hypocrisy can occur.

      • Folks like talking to each other less than they think they do.

  • Lord

    It is just game theory. Admitting we are status seeking undercuts the status we seek and turns us into failures if we fail to achieve it. Better to pretend not to seek it and relish it if we do. Scoff at those who pretend otherwise, though I would say status occurs on many different dimensions and we don’t all have the same status in mind. It is just being human.

    • Admitting we are status seeking undercuts the status we seek

      The appearance of effortless achievement augments impressiveness, but that trend doesn’t always dominate. Academic scientists, for example, readily admit that they seek professional recognition.

      [The prestige component of status isn’t so highly conflicted; the power component is.]

      • Lord

        It is also true that status is not effectively pursued directly as it becomes imitation and tend following, so we must pursue other objectives, lead and promote them, hoping it results in status. Status may be one of our goals, but it isn’t necessarily our only one, nor our most immediate one, curiosity and learning come to mind.

      • While it’s true that imitators signal that they are lower status than those they imitate, imitation isn’t necessarily (or even generally) low status. (If it were, we wouldn’t do it so much and so obviously.) Status is often effectively pursued directly.

        The reason we hide our status-drives, even from ourselves, isn’t that acting on them directly is low status but rather because they engender hostility. [As you say, status isn’t all we seek, and folks often don’t want to bond with the arrogant.]

  • Ronfar

    I dunno. I just talk about whatever it is that other people are talking about…

  • Cahokia

    The signalling motivation should not apply as strongly for cases of people following fashionable subjects without communicating their interests to others.

    You can read blogs for years, rarely or never leave comments, and not tell any of your friends about it (talking about blogs being an especially boring subject).

  • JW Ogden

    At some point I realized that I wanted my children to do well at least partly so that I could brag about them. Now I tell my son “study so that I have something to brag about”.
    Also I find that if I predict a team will in a sport I then really want them to win but some people seem to be able to just always go for the local team.

  • stevesailer

    Like everybody else, intellectuals get old and repetitious. Paying attention to hot new topics is a way to force yourself to learn new things at an age when you’d rather just repeat yourself.

    • OK, that counts as a distinct excuse, but like the other excuses it is unlikely to plausibly explain very much of the total fashion following activity.

      • stevesailer

        I review movies in part because the studios spend a lot of money to get people interested in something or other this week.

        So I often have to read up on some topic I hadn’t previously known much about in order to come up with a novel insight for a movie review. For example, “The Imitation Game” got me to read up on Alan Turing so I could say something not too stupid about the great man.

    • But it would seem that old intellectuals are less likely to follow trends than younger ones.

    • Jason Young

      And like you’ve said more than once, never underestimate the power of boredom. We all get tired of the same topics around the same time.

  • advancedatheist

    So what motivates Neoreaction, then? Fashion, or genuine misgivings about the Enlightenment’s experiment after 250 years?

    I find the idea fascinating as a cryonicist because I have my doubts about the progress myth promoted by the partisans of the Moral Arc Reactor. If cryonics could make you individually survivable over a longer than usual span, you could find yourself in future societies which have rolled back at least parts of the Enlightenment’s social agenda. At the very least that could happen through a drunkard’s walk.

    I can see that the feminist women in cryonics get really uncomfortable when I bring up the possibility of their revival in a patriarchal future society where the men wouldn’t indulge them in the way they have become accustomed to; so I acknowledge that as a guilty pleasure motivating my interest in Neoreactionary thought.

  • mobzach

    This is rather a utilitarian view of fashion.

    Maybe people follow fashionable topics because they are interesting. As more people take interests in the topic and talk about it, it genuinely becomes interesting to them. It doesn’t mean that they are seeking it out to show off something about themselves.

    With fashion, I believe that hairstyles in the 80s look worse than today’s styles. It isn’t like I see two styles as equals, but choose one because it will get more benefits in society. I genuinely think one is uglier even if I know objectively, they should be the same.

    The ugliest reason people follow fashions is because they are more influenced by groupthink than they realize.

    Sure some of those logical reasons play the part especially if someone actively seeks out the latest fashions, but I feel like this misses a big sociological factor that influences people’s behavior.

  • Foo McBarson

    The idea that people have hidden motives is hardly a new one and in most cases individuals involved have a pretty good idea of what hidden motives might be at play. When my lawyer tells me that I need legal work to deal with an unexpected source of legal obligation, I hardly need an economist to tell me that he’s saying this so he’ll make more money. All of the “hidden” motives you give for a woman who likes buying clothes are pretty obvious and intuitive, and I don’t find it plausible that your counterintuitive motives for covering trendy topics exert significant influence. Everyone involved with blogging knows that the name of the game is getting traffic for your blog. This book is good: Writing about a trendy topic is a good way to get traffic–it’s easier to ride someone else’s wave than create a new one.

    But even some perfectly utilitarian blogger with no ugly motives would probably write about trendy topics if they were important ones. Perfect utilitarians also want traffic so their voices are better heard, and it makes sense for society to have Schelling points where everyone can contribute their views on a particular topic around the same time so the best ideas rise to the top of the discussion. So it’s more sensible to complain about people discussing mundane, relatively unimportant topics because they are trendy.

  • dolly

    What about convenience and what’s fresh in your mind? Fashionable topics are probably in your news feed, and on whatever radio talk shows you listen to on your way to work. They’re things that others may rant to you about. So even with no particular intentions, you could end up having these topics at your fingertips.

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  • Nancy Lebovitz

    Another of the possible ugly reasons is fear of being despised for wearing unfashionable clothes.

    See also: ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.’– Oscar Wilde

    It’s scary to think that there might be a parallel with popular topics– they aren’t very good, but people don’t know what very good is, so they just keep thrashing from one mediocre topic to another.