Luxury beliefs with Rob Henderson
I’m really excited to release my first podcast! Occasionally, I will do podcasts with special guests, exploring themes which have featured on my Substack.
This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rob Henderson, an academic and essayist who is well-known for his theory of luxury beliefs. Rob is doing a PhD in psychology at the University of Cambridge and writes essays for a range of online outlets. In a series of essays which have gone viral, Rob has introduced the concept of luxury beliefs. Luxury beliefs are ideas that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.
One example of luxury belief is that all family structures are equal. This is not true. Evidence is clear that families with two married parents are the most beneficial for young children. And yet, affluent, educated people raised by two married parents are more likely than others to believe monogamy is outdated or that all families are the same. Defunding the police is another example of a luxury belief.
You can listen to the podcast on the player above, or there’s a transcript below.
Tom: So Rob, thank you so much for joining us. If we could start with a general introduction to the concept of luxury beliefs, and perhaps you can also talk about your own background, because you’ve had an extremely interesting life.
Rob: Sure. Thanks again, Thomas, for welcoming me here today. Well, my idea of luxury beliefs I define as ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while often inflicting costs on the lower class. I can give a few examples of this as we move along here. But the way that I arrived at this idea was through my unique life experiences and my interactions with students and graduate at elite universities. Right now I’m a fourth year PhD student about to finish my program here at Cambridge. Before this, I studied psychology at Yale as an undergrad, and I worked as a research assistant at Yale. Before my entrance into these posh universities, my life was a lot different.
I was born into poverty in Los Angeles. My mother was an immigrant from South Korea, and she became addicted to drugs, she didn’t know who my father was, I never met him, and when I was three she was no longer able to care for me, so I was placed into foster care in LA and spent my early childhood living in just a bunch of different foster homes all around the city. Some of these homes had 8-10 kids living in them, a lot of foster siblings, a lot of kids coming and going, it was really tough for me as a kid.
I was adopted by a working-class family when I was almost 8, and we settled in this rural town in northern California called Red Bluff. It’s consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in California. My adoptive parents, we sort of had this nice little family together, but then they got divorced a couple of years, about a year and a half later, and my adoptive father subsequently severed ties with me. He was angry at my adoptive mother for leaving him. So that was hard on me, after not knowing my birth father, and then the foster homes, and then losing my adoptive father. It was just a really tough life. My adoptive mother, we subsequently moved into a duplex, and I was raised by a single mom for a while, and there was just a lot of drama and disorder all throughout my youth.
So, when I was 17 right after I graduated high school, I joined the military out of desperation, just to get out of all of this stuff I’d been mired in. All of my high school friends were in similar situations, in families and home life, just completely falling apart. All of us were doing very badly in school. So I left, enlisted, and then long story short, that process of military helped me get my life together and get on a better track. And that was how I ended up attending Yale and Cambridge.
So those experiences have shaped the way that I view the system, my interactions with these students. And, as well, my readings of these classic sociological texts, as well as more modern research from psychology. So, Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide to the American Status System. And then you have recent research from psychology indicating that higher status, wealthier individuals tend to be the most preoccupied with status. And so, I became just extremely interested in exploring this idea of why it is that there are these interesting class divisions in political and moral views, and how things should be.
And the way that I think about it is, luxury beliefs are the new status symbol. In the past, the upper class displayed their status and their social rank with their material goods, and today they still do so to some extent, but as material goods have become more affordable, it’s a less reliable indicator of class. So now, affluent people, elite students of these top universities and the like, they display their positions now with luxury beliefs, which are these sort of novel and unusual beliefs, but they often have detrimental secondary consequences, these knock-on effects for people who don’t have access to the same kinds of resources.
Tom: That’s fascinating. You had an amazing life, and I recommend listening to Rob’s podcast with Bari Weiss for more on his life story. But today we’re really going to dig deep into the ideas. In your writings and podcast appearances, you emphasize economic drivers of luxury beliefs. But you’re a psychologist, of course. You’ve just submitted a psychology PhD at Cambridge. And so, I was wondering, can you tell us a bit more about the psychological drivers of this phenomenon, and also how they articulate with economic drivers? With regard to recent political developments, there’s a lot of talk about economic drivers. But in something like right populism, the academic literature shows that economic factors aren’t actually that great a predictor of right populist views. Unfortunately, there’s not much research at all on liberal or left-liberal views, but it’s a fascinating question, so if you can elaborate on that a bit.
Rob: It’s an interesting question. I guess there are different ways of thinking about it from a psychological perspective. So, I mentioned some research earlier. There’s this research from Cameron Anderson, I think at Berkeley, who’s basically found – and not just Anderson, but others – that the most highly ranking people in society, the people with the most wealth and the most prestigious occupations and high social standing, if you ask them questions about how interested they are in having influential positions, or power over others, or control over resources or all those other things, they’re the most interested in those things, which is perhaps a little counterintuitive. I think I would have predicted in advance that the people of the lowest end, the lowest rung of society would be the most interested in obtaining influence, resources and power and so on, but it’s not. It’s the people at the top who want more. So that’s one perspective here. It’s really something about wanting to gain more influence when you’re already in that position. And there’s also an evolutionary psychology perspective here about people who- naturally, humans favor having the respect and admiration of their peers, and they want to be well-liked and well-regarded because – very simplified – but in the ancestral environment, you needed the validation and acceptance of your peers in order to survive in those small-scale communities.
So, the psychology that arose in that environment remains with us today. So, when you’re around people who hold a certain worldview and certain socio-political beliefs, it’s very uncomfortable to challenge that. I can even feel that myself. I’ve ridiculed and challenged a lot of the luxury beliefs, but even I can feel myself… and I don’t know how much of it is conscious versus implicit or unconscious, but I can feel myself speaking in ways that I have never spoken in before, entertaining ideas that I would have never entertained 7-8 years ago when I was still a lowly enlisted service member. So, a lot of this is going on under the hood in our psychology. And this is because we want to get along. Now I’m in academia, I want to get along with my peers, I have to behave and speak in a certain way and so on. And even if I disagree, I have to couch it in a certain way, so that I’m not despised. So, all of these things are, I think, psychological drivers here. But there’s also the desire for - Pierre Bourdieu, he was a sociologist, but he called it ‘distinction’, which is this desire to signal against the group that you don’t want to be associated with. And so, if a belief is conventionally held by working class or lower middle class people, a very simple way for you to distinguish yourself is to question that belief or say you believe the opposite of that. And I think that’s what we’re seeing with upper middle class and upper-class people. What’s the prevailing view of the conventional, ordinary person in society? I’ll turn that on its head, challenge it or question it, or say something different just so that I can stand out from those people. So, those two things in common - wanting to distinguish yourself from the masses, but then also wanting to fit in with your social group, with your social circle – have cultivated what I call luxury beliefs.
Tom: Fascinating. It’s really notable that there’s so little recent research on the economic foundation of left-wing/liberal ideologies. There have been multiple studies of right populism. And I think that there’s little recent research on the economic foundation of left-wing/liberal ideologies because it goes a little too close to home for academic researchers.
Rob: Well, have you seen recent research on left-wing authoritarianism? The construct of right-wing authoritarianism, I believe it arose in the 1950s with Theodor Adorno or someone from the Frankfurt School, and then it became an accepted construct in social psychology for decades, and it was only within the last two years that researchers in the field began thinking that maybe there’s a left-wing authoritarianism too. They’re finding consistently that there’s a lot of overlap between people on the extreme left and the extreme right who hold these authoritarian views. It is interesting, this asymmetry, where there’s decades and mountains of research on right-wing authoritarianism, but there’s five papers on left-wing authoritarianism.
Tom: It’s extremely conspicuous, it’s a big problem. So I really think that your concept of luxury beliefs deserves to be empirically tested extensively. I hope to see that in coming years. Moving on to - as I was saying, you’re a psychologist. And with luxury beliefs, one thing I haven’t really seen you discuss in your writing is whether you think that these beliefs are psychologically beneficial or harmful. Because according to someone like Jonathan Haidt, they’re actually harmful. So that raises the question, if they’re harmful, why do people have them?
Rob: Well, I think it depends. So, the people who espouse these beliefs are not harmed by them, and if they are, the damage they incur is not as severe as other people who would adopt these beliefs. So, in some of my writings about luxury beliefs, I’ve brought in the idea of costly signaling theory, which is essentially this idea that the amount of resources or effort expended to make some kind of display, to invest in a signal, is basically an indicator of the underlying quality of what that signal is meant to convey.
So, the classic example is the peacock’s tail. The peacock carries around this large set of tail feathers, which is actually detrimental to its survival, but it’s also an indicator to peahens that it’s very fit, it can afford to lug this thing around. Well, I argue that in many cases, for luxury beliefs, it’s also a signal of one’s position in society, that they’re so well-off that they can afford to entertain ideas that are disconnected from reality. And if they themselves practice – for example, I’ve called polyamory a luxury belief – if you're a certain kind of person with a certain kind of temperament, disposition, education and resources and all those things, you can experiment with novel relationship arrangements, and if it goes bad, if there are kids involved, if there are hurt feelings and so on – there can be a lot of emotional fallout from jealousy and all those things – but if you have money and resources, you can afford to deal with it. But, if polyamory – and I’m just using this example as a luxury belief – spreads to people who are in a different social position, the cost they incur is much more dire.
And you can see this with the proliferation of the championing of sexual freedom, for example. You can see the number of out-of-wedlock births among high school graduates in the US, women who are high school graduates. Something like less than 10% of women with college degrees have a baby out of wedlock, versus people whose highest level of education is just high school, it’s more than 50%. But in the past, in the early 1960s, the two groups were identical. About 5% of babies were born out of wedlock for both social groups, for both educational categories. But in that period in the early 1960s, the universities and the people who wield social influence began challenging a lot of the social norms and subverting a lot of the cultural guard rails, and they could afford some of the damage from what they were espousing, but as those beliefs proliferated throughout society, the less fortunate incurred much of the cost.
So, this was why, for example, when I told the story about when I was at Yale, something like 90% of my classmates were raised in a two-parent stable family. Whereas when I look at my high school, I had five close friends in my high school, and out of the six of us, none of us were raised by two married parents. It was me with my unusual background, my friends raised by single mothers, or grandparents, or extended family members, or foster care. It was completely different, the social realities. So, it’s not harmful for the people who espouse the luxury beliefs, and relatively less, even if they do adhere to them, which many of them don’t. But for the less fortunate, the lower-income people or people lower on the ladder, it is detrimental to them. And this is something that I try to highlight. You can espouse the beliefs, and maybe they make you look good, maybe they increase your status in your local community, but in the long run they are often not good for society as a whole.
Tom: Yeah, that’s a really interesting answer. I’ve been thinking of a book I read recently: A Cooperative Species. Two economists/anthropologists, Gintis and Bowles, published it in 2011. They prepared a game-theoretical model of evolution, and their argument is that human cultures and ideas benefit groups rather than individuals because culture was selected at group level in evolutionary contexts. Basically, the idea is that, in evolutionary contexts, the groups that were victors were the ones that survived and thrived, and so ideas that benefited the group tended in the long run to thrive.
Rob: That sounds like cultural evolution, related to mimetic theory. I don’t know. I think that luxury beliefs are actually disadvantageous for survival in that context, in the long run. I think maybe there are useful memes that survive, but in terms of benefitting human communities, I don’t think so. Because not all memes are good.
Tom: Of course not. It could be something that benefits the class rather than society. Maybe it’s harmful for individuals and society but benefits the class.
Rob: Interesting. Okay. I’ll have to think more about that.
Tom: And what I was gonna add as well, the research on the benefit of being in a family. There’s no debate on it, the findings are unambiguous. And like you, it irritates me that the family isn’t promoted more, because it’s so clear that there are benefits, especially for lower classes.
Rob: Yeah. The research that I’ve dug into, I used to be just repeatedly surprised, because all of my beliefs were- often many of them were overturned, some of them were confronted, but generally what I consistently find is that there are two different constructs in evolutionary or developmental psychology. One is childhood harshness. Harshness is essentially low income, low resources. And the other that is often studied is childhood unpredictability and instability. And this is a little more nuanced, which is essentially how often the kid relocated, how many different family members moved in and out of the home, how disorderly was the kid’s day-to-day life and environment, how safe they feel. And these two things do correlate to some degree, but they’re far from perfect. The correlation coefficient is 0.2 or 0.3, meaning that there are plenty of families who have money and there’s plenty of disorder and instability in them. And there are plenty of low-income families that do manage to provide stable homes for their kids.
But consistently, what I’ve found is that when you’re interest in outcomes like risky behavior as adolescents or criminal behavior in adulthood, or addiction, or even things like depression and anxiety and these things that we care about, childhood instability is much more highly correlated than childhood socio-economic status or childhood harshness. And to me this indicates that being poor doesn’t have nearly the same effect as growing up in chaotic and disorderly environments. And this is true even controlling for socio-economic status. There was a study I encountered recently and read carefully which basically showed that- this was measuring substance abuse in adolescence. So kids who grew up in rich but unstable families were more likely to become addicted or get involved in substances as teenagers than poor kids who were raised in stable families.
So to me the preoccupation with economics and poverty and all these things, I think it’s important, I’m certainly not against financial assistance for low-income communities, but once you reach a certain minimal point of economic well-being, beyond that I think it’s much more about the social and emotional needs of young children.
Tom: Yeah. And unfortunately many policy makers seem not to be aware of it.
Rob: It’s uncomfortable. I think there’s this retreat to discussions of economics and money because everything else feels too uncomfortable for people to discuss. There’s something safe about talking about money, and how if only people had enough money or had more assistance then this would alleviate a lot of problems. But once you start talking about how parents spend their time, or abandonment, neglect, abuse, all of those things, people don’t want to feel judgmental, and so they clam up. They don’t want to talk about those things.
Tom: If you want to get even more controversial, I think religion is a major predictor of child welfare. This moves quite nicely to another issue. In your podcast with Bari Weiss, I was intrigued by the discussion of structural versus individual explanations for outcomes and implications for the working classes. You say that among liberals there are a lot of explanations like they’re in poverty, they can’t help that, but actually, for individuals, that can be a disaster, if you don’t accept responsibility for your life, if you don’t see yourself as being in charge of your own destiny. I guess the issue- I’ve been thinking of this, and the problem I have is, as a social scientist, I really believe strongly in structural explanations because I think the evidence is most consistent with that. But at the same time, if I were giving advice to someone in a difficult situation, I wouldn’t say it’s just structures. That would be a disaster. It ties in with the issue of religion even. For example, on the one hand I was just thinking now, religion predicts individual welfare particularly among lower classes, but I would be very uncomfortable saying to someone to go to church and believe if I didn’t believe it to be true.
Rob: It’s a difficult question. The religion question is fascinating. I’ve seen research showing that if you are religious and attend some kind of religious service weekly, the effect on happiness is equivalent to moving from the bottom income quintile to the top income quintile. So basically, it’s like earning several tens of thousands of pounds or dollars more per year, in terms of your happiness. But yeah, I’m not personally religious, but I do think there’s value there that a lot of academically adept and smart people often ridicule or undermine. But regarding your question, broadly speaking, of course there are structural issues. The system isn’t perfect, there’s no system that’s ever been perfect. But, I think that overemphasizing is harmful to disadvantaged people, to lower-income communities. The reason for this is that it’s all well and good for you and me, living fairly comfortable lives, to talk about how bad things are and how people are dispossessed and so on, but when you’re living in that environment that’s just not a helpful mindset.
If someone had sat down next to me when I was a kid and said, ‘why would you be interested in going to college? Less than 3% of foster kids go to college, the foster care system is completely fucked up and there’s no way you’re going to make it, and 25% of foster kids end up homeless’, and rattled off all the statistics related to structural issues in the foster care system, and I was 15 years old or something, hearing all of that, I would have been like, oh, well, there goes that dream, I’ll just resign myself to being another data point in these statistics. But I’m grateful that none of that ever reached me. I grew up in this dusty working-class town, Twitter and all that just wasn’t around back then. Nobody I knew was a member of the chattering class. Very few college graduates around me, that kind of stuff. And so, it was a different mindset of working hard, trying to scrape by, doing what you can to make it, and trying to improve yourself. A lot of people failed, but I’m glad that that attitude was pervasive, for the most part.
And I remember, I worked at a restaurant when I was in high school, I was a dishwasher at this Italian restaurant, and a lot of my coworkers were burnout guys in their early 20s, they had tattoos and long hair, pierced eyebrows and stuff. A lot of these guys were wannabe rockers or something. But they were fun, I enjoyed hanging out with them. And I remember when I left that job, I was 16, I had got a job at a supermarket, bagging groceries and collecting carts from the parking lot. So, I told my manager this at this restaurant – he’s a guy in his 40s who had spent time in prison, and later on became a manager at this restaurant. He took me aside and he was like, ‘this isn’t what you wanna do in life, I’m proud of you, no one wants to wash dishes for a living, so I’m glad that you’re getting out of the dish room, you’ve got this other job, it’s a step up.’ And is it a big step up, going from washing dishes to bagging groceries? Maybe not in the grand scheme of things, but in my little mind, when I was 16 having this talk with my manager, I felt good. It felt good that that was what he was imparting to me. Each job you have should be a little better than the one you had before. And if instead some 40-year-old college professor had said, ‘you're stuck here, you were washing dishes and now you’re bagging groceries and that was your one dead-end job after another, that’s just structural issues here’. I think that would have contaminated my mind, and perhaps led me on another path.
So I think it’s possible to hold two ideas in mind at once. Yes, there are issues that we should be thinking about trying to solve, but on the other hand, also reminding people that you do exercise control in your daily life, and no matter your circumstances, there are ways to improve it, however incrementally.
Tom: You’re absolutely right. I think I’ve been exposed to too much social science research! You can get very fatalistic, and even nihilistic if you read some of the findings in journals. So, moving on to another issues. I write a lot about liberalism on my Substack. As we know, liberalism has undergone many changes in recent years. Many people have been very critical of the direction that liberals have gone in. For example, regarding social justice ideology. And of course, the idea of luxury beliefs is very relevant to this. What does luxury beliefs tell us about the development of liberalism? Obviously, liberalism is a very old ideology, do you think that this partly insulates it from luxury beliefs?
Rob: I’m not a political philosopher or theorist. I’m probably not familiar enough with liberalism to give the best answer. I don’t know. It seems like people who identify as political liberals are reluctant to challenge luxury beliefs. I’m not sure why this is. My understanding of liberalism – I know there’s many strands – but sort of this value of pluralism of being able to pursue what goals you desire, impartial justice, human rights and so on. But, luxury beliefs inherently prize some people over others, some groups over others. I think it can often exploit our empathy for historically mistreated groups. So, luxury beliefs have already embedded themselves in the minds, attitudes and behaviors of the upper middle class and members of the upper class. And if you look at survey data, even something like ‘defund the police’, which I don’t think would be a classically liberal idea, because classical liberals do value law and those kinds of things. So, at least from what I’ve found, the survey data from YouGov in 2020, the people who were the most in favour of the ‘defund the police’ movement were people in the highest income categories, people who earned more than 100,000 dollars a year. This is in the US. And people in the lowest income category, people who earned less than 30,000 dollars per year, they were the least in favour of defunding the police. And so, in a way, at least in that instance, the lowest-income people were the most liberal, or classically liberal, or something. So, I’m not sure if liberalism is immune from it. Maybe this is just a temporary blip, and people will come back around. I have seen people suggest that liberalism is robust to a lot of the stuff that we’re seeing now, but time will tell.
Tom: Yeah, it’s tremendously interesting. I share your concern with some of the developments. I think I’m fairly optimistic that liberalism is robust, but when you read the surveys that say that 50% of Democrats support defunding the police, it just boggles your mind, because there’s no way that someone could say that defunding the police is a liberal goal. It’s just not. As you were saying, I’m very worried about the inability of moderates to take the radicals on. It suggests that liberalism is heading in a pretty dark direction, for the moment at least.
Rob: It seems that way. Short-term, things may remain the same or perhaps get worse. But liberalism has, I suppose, undergone more severe tests than what it’s going through right now, and it’s come around. But the tests it went through, that’s sort of a euphemistic way of putting it, I mean, during those periods of time, there was a lot of unpleasantness occurring, a lot of death, destruction and pain and so on, before liberalism triumphed. So, long-term, maybe there’s something there, something worth being optimistic about. But in the short term, a lot of bad things can happen, often with the best intentions. And I think a lot of people who hold luxury beliefs, I don’t think that all of them are doing it consciously or in a calculated way. I think a lot of them are just getting along and trying to do the right thing, they have their hearts in the right place, but they just don’t spend a lot of time on reflecting on the consequences of a lot of the things they’re espousing, and thinking about how much of a mismatch their own lives are. Because oftentimes, a lot of these people don’t practice what they preach. So that is something that I’ve been trying to underline.
Tom: Of course. That’s really interesting. And a final question on implications for liberal democracy. Again, when I’ve been reading your work on luxury beliefs, I’ve been thinking about sociology literature and stratification, because luxury beliefs are a symptom of stratification. As you point out, there’s a reason why these beliefs are prevalent at places like Yale, because it’s a highly stratified environment involving the upper classes. Historically, stratification is bad for liberal democracy. So, I was wondering if you’ve thought about implications for liberal democracy.
Rob: Yeah, I think so. I think that when… so, one facet of luxury beliefs is basically the idea that people will prize status and approval over truth. And any time people prize social status over the truth, I think bad things can happen. The further you drift from objective reality, the worse things can get. So, if people are not willing to confront what’s actually going on and prefer to fluff up their peacock feathers and look very good to their peers, rather than trying to understand what’s going on with historically mistreated groups and people who actually need help and so on… I mean, one idea I’ve been toying with, perhaps another example of a luxury belief is – at the moment I’ve been thinking about calling it trickle-down meritocracy. A lot of people on the left will ridicule trickle-down economics, often associate it with the right, like, just let the rich people keep all their money and somehow that money’s going to magically trickle down to the hands of the dispossessed and the poor. Well, trickle-down meritocracy is often an idea championed by people like liberals, but people on the hard left as well, that we need more underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in positions of power, and somehow this is going to solve the structural issue. The idea seems to be that if we can go to these disadvantaged communities and just pluck a few of those people out and put them into these positions, somehow the benefits that they accrue are going to trickle down to the communities that continue to languish.
Tom: That’s fascinating. I haven’t thought of that before.
Rob: But it actually doesn’t tend to work. The communities don’t seem to improve. What you tend to see are members of those groups leaving and entering elite institutions, and their own lives get a lot better, but the communities that they left continue to languish, often they get worse, but somehow this is okay because look at how many executives there are at Goldman Sachs who are members of these disadvantaged groups, or how many members of the new class at Harvard, how diverse it is. But why should those things matter, when the communities they came from are continuing to suffer through the plight of being in that kind of environment? So I think this is one manifestation of luxury beliefs making liberal democracy worse.
Tom: Great, that was fascinating, Rob. Thank you so much for joining me today. Please, do follow Rob on Twitter and sign up to his newsletter. And you have a book coming up next year, Rob?
Rob: Yeah, late this year. It’s a memoir about my experiences in the foster system and how I ended up going to where I am today.
Tom: Excellent. I can’t wait for that to come out. I’m sure it will be great. Thank you so much, Rob, for joining us today.