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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  • gwern

    > For example, do people worry too much about clothes they wear, or swear words they utter, at home, while shopping, or at the park?

    Almost certainly. How often do you see someone you know at the mall? It’s a memorable occasion when you *do*.

    (Wouldn’t adolescence be much nicer if the kids didn’t take it to seriously?)

  • It’s probably impossible to make judgments about issues like is until all the facts are in concerning the degree to which humans’ emotional wellbeing depends on our perceptions of others’ opinions of us. I think it is plausible that we’re just wired to care very much about social sanctions placed on us by members of our in-groups, even when these sanctions are completely trivial when measured in terms of their effects on our long-term (and perhaps short-term) material well-being.

    It might be tempting to say that our emotional sensitivity to social sanctions is irrational–that it is a kind of emotional *over*sensitivity–a psychological heuristic left over from a time in our evolutionary past when abiding by social sanctions was extremely important to our material well-being. In other words: it is a spandrel. That is a plausible story about why we care so much about social sanctions and cultural capital more generally, but it misses my point. Insofar as emotional well-being is itself an intrinsic good–something we care about for it’s own sake–who cares about the historical or evolutionary story of how we came to have this psychological trait, or whether it is imperfect as a means to material well-being?

    In other words: I think the definition of irrationality that is operative here assumes that if some behavior or psychological trait doesn’t tend to improve a person’s material well-being, then it is irrational. But that is crazy. Given the messy psychology we’ve got, there are going to be trade-offs between our material and emotional well-being, and a full definition of irrationality needs to recognize that.

  • I guess people like impressing others, as a terminal goal, so instrumental worth could indeed be low, but not an argument to stop worrying about impressing.

  • Robert Koslover

    There still exist small towns and communities where many people, for better or worse, tend to not take advantage of modern options for “high mobility.” In such places, it is common to find people running (or working in) businesses that were previously run (or worked in) by their parents, or even their grandparents. For example, since I moved to East Texas, I have met quite a few people who have never even left this state, and even some who have never traveled in an airplane. (And I assure you that these were not impoverished illiterates; it would be both a mistake and unjust to look down upon their choices.) Anyway, for such communities, I think it really does make sense to put a high value on long-term friendships, associations, etc.

    • Doug S.

      Texas is really big, though. “Not having left Texas” might as well read “Not having left France,” considering that Texas is, in fact, bigger than France.

  • Rebecca Burlingame

    Most of my family on both sides came from East Texas. On my Dad’s side, Grandpa took turns farming either there or close to the coast, moving his family back and forth constantly during the depression years. All the aunts and uncles migrated to urban areas such as Houston and the grandkids even spread out further. My aunts and uncles were good examples of being “born at the right time” economically, but they reacted against Grandpa’s wandering instinct by mostly staying put.

  • mbk

    In short, the adage “Evolution is smarter than you”.

    A recent history of 50 years of electronics, 70 years of information theory, 200 years of industrial revolution, does not mean that suddenly humanity now knows all about behaviors that have worked for millions to hundreds of millions of years.

    Just because something is not currently very useful in 2010’s US upper middle class suburbia, i.e., applying to say 1% of the world’s population, this does not mean it’s not useful, period. Chances are we declare certain things “useless” just because we don’t understand their longterm usefulness, on average. It’s very short sighted. It’s basically what Hayek called “scientism”.

    Not to mention that evolutionary “usefulness” is defined as reproductive success, and here even in middle class US suburbia being basically liked by others may help.

  • Tilde Equals

    In your post, you seem to imply that most norms are downward-levelling. I find that hard to believe. When parents move into wealthy suburbs to send their kids to better schools, they do so partly to be in an environment where their kids will be subjected to better kinds of peer pressure (e.g. to get better grades or join sports teams with their friends). I’d argue that modern humans would have discarded the notion of “society” and reverted to social structures from the foraging and farming days a long time ago if most norms (at least among the people who make decisions that impact how society is structured) weren’t upward-levelling.

    Working specifically to impress friends that you’ll never talk with again may be irrational, but behaving in a way that those friends find impressive isn’t irrational at all.

  • y81

    Surely, in the upper middle class urban and suburban professional circles that I inhabit and that Prof. Hanson is writing about, most of the “over-parenting” is done by stay-home mothers. Lawyers and i-bankers don’t over-parent (although maybe they write the checks for it): they’re too busy at the office. And the stay-home moms have every reason to care about the good opinion of the other moms, because that is the social environment in which they will be living for the next twenty years.

  • Social sanctions are indeed ineffectual at the level of larger society; which perhaps is why some of our strongeat sanctions are reserved for those who resist the pressure to self-organise into much smaller groups that can keep an eye on them (and, for example, be reasonably confident they do not torture small animals). Sure, I can’t tell if my neighbour meets my standards of socially acceptable behaviour so I just apply the near-universal “single creepy loner” test. Socially, we use references as much as we do at work and sanctions are rightly feared by those who wish to continue participating in wider society.

  • Michael

    The non-workplace social sanctions that are imposed on poor parents and people with poor social skills (bad dressers, inadequate personal hygiene, obnoxious in conversation, etc.) are typically ones of omission: they are not invited to all of the social events and they fail to establish closer friendships with a larger group of people, though they may still have a tight circle of friends who accept them as-is. Whether this omission impacts their life is dependent on the person.

  • Signalling need not be the real story, or not the whole story. By keeping an eye out for peer pressure, we tap into the wisdom of the crowd. Thus the desire to impress friends makes parents both more knowledgable and even more motivate than they would otherwise be. The result is better parenting, and that benefits foragers, farmers and industrials.

  • snarles

    “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.”

    How else should they invest their time?