Why do we like expensive things?

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 10, 2012

The good things in life are costly. I can see two sources for this sweet tooth we have for the expensive. Perhaps you can think of more.

The first one is simply from a counting argument. Out of all possible states the universe can be in, the vast majority have high entropy. So without assuming anything about our preferences, except for the method of coarse graining, most things we can possibly want are improbable. Sustaining negentropy is expensive, which makes sustaining/achieving we want expensive.

The second is from costly signaling. A signal is reliable if it credibly differentiates those who possess a certain quality from those who don’t. Which is to say, the presence of the signal correlates with the presence of the trait. In practice, this amounts to reliable signals being costly. Those who truly possess the trait can more cheaply (but still quite expensively) signal the trait than those who do not but want to fake it. Signals are of course ubiquitous in animal communication, and even more so in our profoundly social species. So whatever it is we desire tends to be something expensive, so that the possession of the thing discriminates between us and those we want to distinguish ourselves from. The most obvious of these traits are biological fitness, wealth, power. Which we signal variously by risky behavior, expensive computations, the purchase of exorbitantly priced luxuries, the wanton subordination of others, etc. All of them expensive stuff.

These two are only the broad reasons why we like expensive things. There are of course plenty more narrower ones. Anything else?


2 Responses

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  1. Sister Y said, on June 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    Because we are members of the same species, our biological (and cultural) similarities produce similarities of taste. Limited resources make widely-desired things scarce, hence expensive. I don’t think this is the same as the negentropy reason.

  2. Alrenous said, on December 3, 2012 at 6:29 am

    I have the same two.

    I find it important not to forget all the expensive things that nobody wants. Like high-risk low-return financial investments, they exist, but there’s no reason to pursue them. Knowledge of the deep oceans, for example.

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