Why Impress Friends?

For both foragers and farmers, social connections and status relations established as a teen and young adult lasted for a lifetime.  So it made great sense to invest in such things.

In the high-mobility upper-class US today, however, people move from high school to go to college, and then move somewhere else for a job; their investments in earlier friends gain them much less.  And it seems like behavior hasn’t updated fully to this new situation – it seems young adults invest too much in developing friendships and local status that they will soon lose.

Bryan Caplan argues that parents today make a similar mistake in trying too hard to impress friends and family via their parenting style.  Bryan argues persuasively that we vastly over-parent today, relative to long term effects on kid outcomes; kids of slacker parents will do just fine, he says.

When a year ago I worried aloud that slacker parents might look bad to associates, Bryan said that while you should worry about sending good signals to schools and employers, no one who matters cares much about your parenting:

Almost nothing is at stake … Even if you make a great impression, the rewards are trivial.

This week I discussed social conformity pressures within “smaller networks of neighbors or coworkers”:

This is small enough for rumors to tell most everyone about big norm violations, but too big for everyone to know everyone well.

Bryan commented:

Modern parents’ depend primarily on the market, not other parents – to meet their needs – and parent-on-parent sanctions are small and sporadic in any case.

How far Bryan will take this argument?  What other common social norms do people worry too much about, because in fact school or work will never know, friends and family hardly notice or care, and neighbors don’t matter?  For example, do people worry too much about clothes they wear, or swear words they utter, at home, while shopping, or at the park?  Or if someone felt inclined to torture small animals (legally), would informal social sanctions among friends and family really offer little barrier to openly pursuing this hobby?  And if animal-torture would go too far, where exactly is the line?

Added 11aOct10: Bryan responds:

  1. Clothes.  If you’re single or on-the-job, keep worrying.  If you’re married and off-the-job, suit yourself – and your spouse.
  2. Swearing. If swearing bothers you or the person you’re with, don’t do it.  Otherwise, you’ve got almost nothing to worry about.
  3. Animal-torture. Imprudent in front of almost anyone.  It’s so extreme, word will spread and there will be blowback.

… As long as you keep your personal and work life separate, you can almost always ignore career consequences.  And if you’re married, “keep your spouse happy” is 95% of what you need to know.

You should still worry about how you look to other potential employers, even if  your current employer seems happy with your work.  Similarly, you should still worry about how you look to potential mates, even if you are married. And people quite often find new jobs and mates via their network of friends (and mates and jobs).  I agree with Bryan that you should worry less about mild than extreme violations, but I can’t buy his advise to worry only about your spouse and co-workers except in extreme circumstances.  Being known as a slacker parent will hurt you socially. It might not hurt enough to stop, but it will hurt.

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