Variety Seems Social

We sometimes complain that we are bored, and so we need to “change up” our products, services, and life habits. We often says this is due to our general preference for variety. But we are actually quite selective in when we want variety. In many areas of our lives we have little variety, and that doesn’t bother us much.

Toothpaste and mouthwash have flavors, but I use the same flavors for months at a time. My breakfasts are mostly alone, and have only minor variations from day to day. Dinners I usually eat with my wife, and we rotate between maybe a dozen different standard dishes. I often eat lunch out with a half dozen colleagues, and we rotate between a half dozen or so places, and in each place I vary what I order. When we host someone who visits from out of town, we go to a wider range of places.

The clothes I sleep in vary very little, and the clothes I wear around the house vary less than the clothes I wear to the office, which vary less than the clothes I wear to special occasions. Under-clothes vary less than more visible clothes. In my home, when we’ve repainted, or bought new furnishings or wall fixings, we tend to change things more often in our more visible rooms. We change the yard the most often, and the living room and entryway the next most often.

Products like cars, couches and refrigerators vary more on the outsides that more people can see than they do on the insides that few people see. We more often rearrange visible things like the placement of furniture compared to less visible things like where clothes are located in our chests or closets, or where dishes sit in kitchen cabinets. Advertising can change the images and attitudes associated with products, even when products don’t physically change, and we have more ads for types of products whose use is more visible to more people.

The general pattern here seems to be that variety is social – we prefer variety more for things that have wider social scopes. It is as if we personally don’t care much for variety, but we need our larger social circles to see that we can afford and tolerate a great deal of variety.

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    Robin, not saying you’re wrong, but I just wanted to point out that what’s more visible to others is probably also more visible to you. So you could say we like variety where we ourselves can actually notice it, and that would point to our need for variety to be more than just social (this makes sense: we are curious creatures, hunters, gatherers, always looking for stuff that’s just over the horizon because using our brains to gather intel and make use of opportunities is the only major survival strategy humans have, other than our ability to run for relatively long distances). And you could say that having not that much variety in things you can see but outsiders cannot see (like your dinner dishes) is a sign of you just not caring that much about those things (if cooking was a hobby of yours you’d probably have have more variety in dinner dishes).

  • A few months back, an acquaintance told me that I should not always wear the same clothes. He said that people in the house thought I was weird because I was wearing the same clothes all the time. It baffled me as I do not really know anybody in the house. Look how people talk!

    He said that he wanted to tell me because I had said I wanted to fuck a lot of girls and that would get in my way.

    I thanked him for the opinion and proceeded to give even less fucks about what others think. In your face!

  • Lord

    Perhaps this is partially personality with more extrovert people being more sensitive to what others think. I still like to try new flavors and varieties even though it is just me, and even though breakfast doesn’t change much, I still rotate though a variety of choices though the choices don’t vary that much. This probably declines with experience as we know our preferences better and there are fewer things we haven’t tried, after all, is there really anything truly new under the sun? We also learn what choices really matter to us, like food and drink, and which are superfluous, like toothpaste.

    • I used to be obsessed to have variety in food. As someone nicely pointed out, I loved food, not myself. Now I love myself and see how futile it is to keep chasing variety all the time. By now, eating almost bores me. Just good to get the energy.

      • Lord

        Variety is the spice of life. Without variety one might as well be dead.

      • I get a lot of variety. Through my emotions, thoughts, discussions, fighting. But in the end, it is all inside.

      • Lord

        A more pointed question might be why don’t we prefer infinite variety and that would be there are some choices we really like and others we don’t such that more variety mostly provides more that we dislike at a true cost in terms of attention, time, money, and satisfaction. At one limit we have obsessives anxious with any variety and at the other compulsives unable to find satisfaction in any choice or seeking so much the balance of their life becomes out of whack.

      • What exactly are you trying to say?

  • kol

    The large amounts of forced/expected variety behaviour (or attention grabbing attempts to prod me into caring about or spending resources on variety behaviour) is one feature of consumerist capitalism that I dislike.

    “It is as if we personally don’t care much for variety, but we need our
    larger social circles to see that we can afford and tolerate a great
    deal of variety.”

    It could then perhaps be better for everyone if everyone cut back on variety behaviour in some types of situations. Call it the collective action problem of “happily boring together”. Some arguments for school uniforms I’ve heard could, now that I think of it, be interpreted along the lines of variation restriction for the general good.

  • A more plausible explanation is that variety requires effort, and it is more worthwhile to make that effort when many will be benefited by it, rather than one alone. This is why I would use much more variety when cooking for others, than when cooking for myself, and I know quite clearly that this is the reason. I like the variety myself, but not so much that it is worth the bother in order just to benefit myself.

  • Thomas_L_Holaday

    C’mon, Hanson, shop for some underwear.

    Or subscribe-and-save:

  • conchis

    Robin, I think your standard “everything is really about signalling” assumption is a bit lazy here (or you’re over-generalising from your own personal experience).

    My personal experience just doesn’t align with this at all – I think there’s a much more complex interaction between the nature of the goods in question, individual variation in underlying preferences for variety, and social/signalling elements than what you’re suggesting here.

    There are some areas of life where I have a favorite or a default that I stick with (e.g. what sort of coffee I drink), and others where I like a lot of variety (e.g. food). I don’t have a good theory about what drives the difference, but it seems clear that neither of these is more ‘social’ than the other. Also, the clothes I wear at home have more variety than the clothes I wear to work, which is exactly the opposite of what your model would predict.

  • brendan_r

    Yup, and some of the things that almost all people take the most pleasure in are the “little things” which tend to be routines hidden from all but close associates like morning coffee, reading kids a book, watching favorite TV show, settling down into favorite comfy chair to read, walking the dog, and even yard work for some people.

    And you’ve got routines within these routines, i.e. the Seinfeld guitar jingle at the beginning of each episode that I’m sure causes the brain to squirt whatever it is that makes people feel happy and relaxed.

  • Paul Crowley

    This seems a strong argument to me, but I can think of a possible counterexample. People enjoy publicly complaining that the UI of something they use every day has changed. By this theory they should be competing to show off how much they enjoyed adapting to the new.

    • If they used that UI socially, we’d have a stronger prediction of variety preference.

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