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.