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Luxury: More than naked survival

Between waste, status symbols and motivation: What do luxury and rewards mean for humans - from an anthropological point of view?


The biological conditions for most animals are such that they can cover their basic needs, but hardly any overproduction takes place, which would lead to an abundance of resource availability. However, access to resources is not evenly distributed, and some individuals have more because of their hierarchical status or on the basis of their territory: more food resources, more reproductive partners, more offspring. Is this already luxury?

The limits of what we define as luxury are fluid. The origin of the word luxury comes from the Latin, where the "dislocated" is to be understood as a deviation from the normal, and stands for abundance and waste. So luxury is a departure from necessity, a source of pleasure. However, luxury also means a wasteful use of resources, without consideration of general availability and sustainability.
On the one hand, there is so much room for pleasure, more pleasure, than ever before. At the same time, however, even in our performance-oriented society, one's nose is puffed when someone devotes himself exclusively to enjoyment. The luxury we seek is one that we have earned as a reward for hard work, not the one that falls into our laps. The former is considered the well-deserved compensation for the fact that our everyday life is often very joyless, and serves as a motivator to provide the services that demand the professional life of us.

Why Luxury is Sexy

Luxury objects also serve as status symbols. If we can afford luxury, it signals that we can not only meet our basic needs, but produce a surplus that we can use lavishly. While controlling for an excess of resources is an attractive feature, this is limited for their ruthless handling. In the evolutionary history of humans, resources were not only vital, but also decided whether it was possible to reproduce successfully. Therefore, control over resources in the mate choice has played a crucial role, but always coupled with a willingness to share those resources. In evolutionary psychology, the male quest for status is explained by heightening the reproductive prospects of our male ancestors. Studies show that there is still a relationship between social status and male reproductive success. From this point of view, one could conclude that status symbols are not pure luxury, but serve a need: they help men to increase their partner market value. However, they only fulfill this function when combined with qualities that suggest prosocial and supportive behaviors such as social acceptability and generosity.

Luxury as a drive

It is not surprising that "indulging in something" plays a central role in a society where many people do not consider gainful employment as intrinsically rewarding, but as a means to an end. The behavioral biological basis for our actions is the motivational complex. Motivation moves us in the literal sense, it gives us an incentive to get moving, energetic effort to do and sometimes tedious and unpleasant things to do. In humans, the ability to wait for reward, that is, to achieve the motivational goal, is more pronounced than in any other animal. For most species, there must not be too much time between behavior and reward - or punishment - otherwise they are not perceived as interdependent. In humans, however, this delayed reward works surprisingly well and extremely long term. We endure the unpleasant professional life for a whole year well with the perspective of a fantastic holiday. We put restrictions on our everyday expenses in order to make a bigger investment. But also the consequence of going to the gym or dieting has its roots in an expected future reward.

"As living standards rise, things become self-evident that were reserved for a few special moments in the previous generation."
Elisabeth Oberzaucher, University of Vienna

Inflationary luxury

What we consider luxury as non-essential but desirable depends very much on our living conditions. What are status symbols and prestige objects for which we are prepared to give up something else? As living standards rise, things become self-evident that were reserved for a few special moments in the previous generation. Along with the higher affordability, the desirability of these things decreases. Luxury is the extraordinary, the not always available, the expensive. What is available for everyone loses that special quality. So where we direct our desires depends less on real needs than on what is considered rare and valuable.

For a long time, the automobile was considered a luxury because for most people mobility was affordable only by other means. The value assigned to one's own four wheels can still be seen today in the following anachronisms: unlike consumer goods, the VAT rate on cars is still 32 percent instead of 20 percent. This increased tax rate does not run by any means under the utility name "luxury tax". For the purchase of a car people are guilty, whose mobility could also be implemented without own motor vehicle. Especially in larger cities, owning a car for most people means owning a stand instead of a vehicle, considering how rarely it is moved. Here, however, a change is currently taking place: the number of young people without a driver's license is increasing. In metropolitan areas, the number of cars per capita drops. The cars have been replaced by new luxury properties.

Status symbols for the crowd

Since the effectiveness of status symbols depends on others being expected to snack on the cake, options open up to promote a more sustainable use of resources. Everything can become a status symbol, it just has to be recognized as such. This has happened, for example, in the food sector: In recent years, the consumption of high-quality food in the upper middle class has gained massive importance. Not only a lot of money is spent on it, it is also communicated intensively about it. Only with a corresponding income, it is possible to finance the specialties of the regional organic farmers and the noble wines of the hip winegrower. In addition to enjoyment, sustainability also always cites sustainability as the motivation for this consumption behavior. The luxury nature of sustainable nutrition means that it is currently reserved for an elite, but makes it a coveted status symbol, and could therefore help a broad mass strive for it. This motivation over detours was proposed by the evolutionary psychologist Bobbi Low and taken up in behavioral economics. The evolutionary psychological argument is based on the fact that status plays a role in mate choice. So if sustainable behavioral alternatives are made status symbols, they are more likely to be pursued as desirable.
The term "Nudging”Has been well known since Richard Thaler was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Economics. Instead of rational arguments, this method uses emotions and unconscious processes to get people to choose the more sustainable behavioral alternative.

Thus, luxury is a fantastic possibility: if we manage to combine the right qualities and objects with the image of luxury and status, we make environmentally conscious and humane behavior desirable and attractive. If we choose this option from an inner drive, then we will remain more reliable in this desirable way for the entire planet than if rational arguments are presented to us with our index finger raised.

Waiting for profit maximization

Reward delay requires a fair amount of self-control. The extent to which we are able to do this as early as childhood has been studied in the 1970 years using the marshmallow test. Here, a child was given a marshmallow and offered two options: either it could eat one marshmallow immediately, or it could control itself and wait a while for the experimenter to come back. If the child had not eaten the marshmallow by then, it would get another. These experiments showed that the children had great difficulty in resisting the temptation; most ate the candy before the experimenter returned. Recent research showed an increase in the proportion of children who remained steadfast. However, this could have something to do with the fact that today children have more unhindered access to sweets.

The behavior of adult people also shows that we are not really good at thinking about the future and waiting for rewards. Whether it is investment or retirement planning, we do not necessarily make the most economical choice. Behavioral economics provides insights into the conditions under which we are willing to choose the later but higher rewards: the immediate reward must be significantly less than the future profit, and it must not be too far in the future. Last but not least, we must be confident that our investment in the future is in safe hands. Alone the time distance already creates uncertainty.

Photo / Video: Shutterstock.

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