Identity Via Consumption

Originally published on 7/2/2015

Human brains are lazy. Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow points out that whenever possible, our brains will take the shortest path to information. For the most part, this is a good thing. Without the "fast" system, even simple decisions like what to get for lunch could literally take HOURS to decide.

But, like many of the practical things our brains do, it has lots of side effects. I've been thinking quite a bit about one of those side effects in particular: putting shortcut labels on people.

When our lazy brains want a quick label for people, the will find the fastest one they can rather than treat people as individuals. When this happens aimed at other people, it's where stereotyping and prejudice come from. But, it's also where our assumption that someone in a white lab coat is competent. It cuts both ways.

It also is equally aimed at ourselves. It is one of the ways we form our self-identity.
Depending on the labels we choose for ourselves and others, we attach tons of attributes that belong along with those labels. Whenever we start a sentence with "I am a . . .", the next bit is one of these shortcuts.

I am a software developer.

That gives you and me both an image. If that's all you know about me, you'll fill in LOTS of blanks in your mental image of me. So will I. This inwardly-focused version is what I notice frequently in conversations with people lately.

Some use these labels to improve the way we and others think of ourselves. If I say
I'm a "brewer", leaving off the "home" label, you might assume I work for a commercial brewery, an assumption I can use to tap into attributes that shift between the terms. If we push this too far, people doubt the labels we apply to ourselves (see calling oneself a "guru", "expert", "master", etc. rather than letting others do it

Sadly, we also use these labels to put ourselves down. If one is prone to low self-esteem or depression, phrases like "I am a loser" or "I am an idiot" can feed into a feedback loop, especially if others use the label for you as well. Of course, the negative identity labels can also be used as self-deprecating jokes, counting on the fact that others will know that the label is misdirection.

You get the idea. And, if you participate in many discussions online, you know that these labels are flying back and forth as critical parts of most arguments.

Increasingly, I'm shying away from the use of these labels whenever I can. To some degree, that's a way to be mindful of which attributes actually apply, rather than just taking them all on or projecting them onto other people.

Instead, I'm focusing on descriptions of activities I participate in: I play Irish dance tunes on mandolin in a band, I make beer in my back yard, I write custom software for a living.

That, in and of itself, isn't particularly interesting. But, doing so, made me really aware of something in our culture. Everywhere you look, the identities that people claim and divide themselves and others into groups are rooted in consumption.

People talk about being a sci-fi fan or a hockey fan, or even more specifically a Trekker/Trekkie vs a Star Wars fan. They use the consumption of specific media as litmus tests that indicate all they need to know about a person to know whether they'll like that person or dislike them, saying things like, "I just can't hang out with someone who doesn't like Star Wars." Similarly for "liberal" and "conservative", "Atheist" and "Christian" and "Muslim".

Rather than getting to know people, we catalogue the things they like to watch, eat, drink, listen to, etc. and slap labels on the result. To some degree, these things do give us easy "handles" for starting and having conversations with people. But, for our closest friends and spouses, when the relationship deepens, we move beyond these labels and know the person on the other side as an individual.

I think my bias away from labels is an attempt to spend less time in that "superficial" phase and get to know people better. And, when I talk to people about what they DO rather than what they consume, the energy level in the conversation gets a spark that's not there in other cases.

On a cultural level, this obsession with labels rooted in consumption has led to an echo chamber where entire relationships are nothing BUT these kinds of labels. Quoting lines from media are a way to communicate that we are part of a labeled group. That's led to a staggering amount of the humor and comedy being nothing other than making references. I'm not the only one to notice this.

For a while, I couldn't understand why so many comedies hitting movie theaters and on TV weren't funny to me. I figured out that those I didn't find funny didn't actually have many jokes. Instead, they just made references and people got used to laughing when they recognized them. Hell, there's an entire genre of movies dedicated to this.

It's a genre that emerged from older comedies like much of Mel Brooks' movies. There's a shift that happened along the way though. Brooks' movies made references, but he ALSO made a joke. He twisted the reference in some way, which is what made it funny and not just a reference.

But, 10-15 years ago, "parody movies" gradually lost the jokes and stuck with just the references. And stopped being funny.

I'm not sure exactly what my conclusion is. I do know how these things I'm noticing steer my interactions and the way I examine my own behavior. Maybe you've noticed similar. Maybe my mentioning it has made you consider this stuff too.

Regardless, the next time you talk to me or someone else, see if focusing on what they make, what they do, and what they think makes for better conversation than asking if they saw that episode or that movie. Or, at the very least, ask them what they THINK about the thing they consumed.