I like to think that despite being wealthier than most Americans, I remain immune to materialistic desires. I drive a 17-year-old Honda Accord and wouldn’t know designer clothes if you wrapped me in them, head to toe. But it turns out that I’m wrong. I’m not above materialism despite my wealth and social status. I’m immune because of it. Since I don’t need to signal my social value, I can save my money for other purposes.
In places with great income inequality, those people with lower incomes live under great social stress. Their low position in the social hierarchy is more obvious and more consequential. In response, some poor people purchase the kinds of good that create the impression that they have social resources to spare, even when they are cash-strapped. And people living in low income neighborhoods – the ones who are relatively well-off compared to their neighbors – are nevertheless worried that they’ll be misperceived as resource poor. So they purchase expensive and conspicuous goods, to make sure their resources are visible to outsiders.
As an example of this behavior, researchers recently examined Google search trends across the U.S., and found that people in states with relatively high income inequality were more likely to search for luxury brands than those in other states. Looking for the latest from Ralph Lauren (who, I discovered, manufactures overly expensive clothes)? The frequency of such Google searches is higher in Mississippi than Iowa (relative to more generic Google searches, like for “weather” ), in Mississippi than Iowa, and in New York than Nebraska. Basically, people living amidst greater income inequality are more interested in luxury goods.
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