Post No.: 0561
Beyond for genuine necessities, a few nice luxuries and some financial security for the future and for one’s family – a major reason why people want ever more money and materials is because they believe that this will bring them closer to those who have a higher social status than them, and further away from those who have a lower one. Many people are suggestible to buying whatever the celebrities they aspire to be like are flogging for the reason of wanting to feel closer to being like them. (But they ironically become financially poorer for doing so and thus move further away from those celebrities in terms of their wealth; whilst those celebrities get even richer from promoting these, typically high-profit-margin and unnecessary, products!)
In an imperfect way, we chase money and status because it can lead to some things that make us happy – it can afford us more family and friends. Having more money can assist in obtaining a mate and providing for offspring. Although many people will declare that their capacity for love completely transcends the material – their transcendence is seldom that complete. For more certain, it costs a lot to raise children! More friends can also be obtained by having a higher social status because more people will notice us. Albeit whether these people will be true friends or just around wealthier people for their money or to bask in the reflected glories is another matter.
But it’s an imperfect instinct to ‘chase ever greater wealth and higher status because it can lead to more family and friends’ because some people today chase money and status while they sacrifice time with their furry family and friends. It’s similar to the crude and imperfect intuition of thinking that ‘glowing skin means being healthy’ because lots of people do things to their skin (like deliberately get a suntan) at the risk of ruining their true health (getting skin cancer).
As an instinct, ceaselessly chasing and hoarding resources probably worked superbly in pre-agricultural times and environments when resource security was never really certain. Even when human ancestors had enough for the month, the following year or season was highly uncertain, hence a simple behavioural rule of ‘grab as much as possible now’ and ‘have it when you can’ worked nicely for most of human existence.
But like other instincts in general, it’s so automatic, unquestioned and strongly genetically ingrained that in today’s modern world it has become (when it goes beyond seeking a certain threshold of sufficiency) maladaptive to affording happiness – never mind environmental sustainability, which definitely puts the long-term collective future at risk! And long-term success should really be what ultimately matters; and Homo sapiens have an incredibly long way to go before they can claim to be one of the longest species to ever live! Evolution has been too slow for genetic instincts to remain optimal with this unprecedented modern rate of human civilisational change.
As a simplification – from an evolutionary biology perspective for human ancestors, or an even earlier species that humans evolved from – getting more A (resources) reliably meant getting B (more friends, good health, happiness and reproductive success). Thus this behaviour evolved to become a simple programmed behavioural rule or instinct, facilitated by giving humans a motivating and short-term rewarding feeling of pleasure any time they sought for or obtained A.
But today, this simple instinct in this modern human environment (that tens of thousands of years of human ancestors never faced before, nor any other animal on Earth really) still means that humans chase and prioritise obtaining A, even during times when it comes at the expense or sacrifice of B, because the amount that can be envied, consumed and hoarded has risen exponentially. Money (as an invented resource that can be easily and infinitely hoarded unlike storing meat provisions – and how many pelts will one ever need?!) has become the direct goal, rather than the true goal of family and relationships. The brain receives a motivated – intense but fleeting – rewarding feeling whenever we seek and obtain A, which we believe will lead to B, but now we’ve ‘forgotten’ that A was to serve B rather than A being the end in itself; especially because A is a goal that can be insatiably endless.
It’s akin to the neurological reward that sugar gives – many humans consume merely for that hit, ‘forgetting’ (or not being aware, due to simple genetic programming that primarily evolved during a scarcer environment) that the pleasurable feelings of consuming sugar is really about serving calorific needs. Thus many people in the ‘developed’ world today obtain enough calories yet still continue to consume just for that high rewarding feeling, at the risk of their true health. Human ancestors probably never had much opportunity to overindulge in sugar hence the simple programmed rule of ‘get more sugar’ was healthy for their survival and activity levels. But this very same instinct isn’t healthy to blindly follow for most in today’s world – especially because of the amount of invented refined sugar products available today.
The motivation can be so strong that people naturally want to fill as many moments as they can with these fleeting rewarding pleasures (e.g. via drugs, junk food, impulse purchases), sometimes to an unhealthy excess. The instinct to know when to stop didn’t evolve to be as strong because this was needed less in environments of pre-agricultural scarcity. (Partially similarly, sex nurtures relationships, but wanting too much and committing adultery destroys relationships.)
Many domestic pets face problems in the modern human world that their genetic instincts haven’t prepared them optimally for too, hence obesity, diabetes or behavioural problems. Woof!
It’s the environment in conjunction with particular genetic instincts – especially one’s upbringing environment because early influences can have deep and long-lasting effects on one’s life as a whole. Unfortunately, a lot of people’s upbringings are filled with messages of conspicuous consumption and of status being dependent on money, vanity and fame.
So humans aren’t optimally pre-programmed for this modern consumerist world of relative plenty, where – for many – meeting their necessities isn’t a problem and security is reasonably certain (if people managed their resources better), but there’s so much to tempt or pressure them in the environment in terms of luxuries, desires, social comparisons and the cultural pressures to conform to conspicuous consumption and vanity, lest their status be negatively judged.
Homo sapiens have only been around for a relatively short time in the history of life on Earth, the Agricultural-and-Industrial-Age world has only existed for a very brief time so far, and genetic evolution is comparably glacial (especially in a modern life of reduced selection pressures, thus these oversimplistic genetic instincts are finding it even harder to die off). People can educationally and culturally adapt though – and will have to, because endlessly rising consumerism in a finite resource world is logically unsustainable. Unfortunately, too many people prefer to trust in and follow their instincts over gaining and applying what can be learnt through education. It’s just like we frequently hear people acknowledge that ‘it’s the inside that matters’ yet they still can’t help but judge others based on first external impressions.
Also, every new person is born pre-programmed with the same ancient instincts but none of the vast and growing pool of human knowledge gained so far because none of that gets passed onto the next generations genetically. It’s like every individual must personally learn that the Earth isn’t flat, rather than follow the more intuitive belief based on appearances. That’s why it seems like every teenager must learn from their own mistakes!
The gap between the richest and the rest has also widened enormously during this time hence if one wants a high status (which is always relative compared to the status of others around us), it’s a more difficult, stressful and endless road. Most people would’ve found it difficult to become the big kahuna of their own tribes in the past – but they were more equal to most of the others around them if they weren’t. Most people want to feel at least above average. But in a modern world where some people own millions or billions, many people who are actually richer than 95% of the world’s population can feel like they have less than average. Lots of people younger than you might earn and have more too, which would’ve been much rarer in the far past.
Most people want to be above average in all kinds of desirable attributes. Most already think they’re above average in intelligence, as well as physical attractiveness; although with the latter, impossible beauty ideals portrayed in manipulated media imagery has increased insecurities. Greater nutrition has increased average heights over time but few want to be 10ft tall because no one else is 10ft tall i.e. the desire to be above average in height isn’t endless and ‘height inequality’ isn’t so vast – unlike wealth in a world where the media is constantly filled with stories about people who have over ten thousand times more than others.
This means that contentment – if one’s self-esteem depends on one’s perceived comparative wealth status to others – is harder to reach in a highly unequal world. Hence lots of people in this world feel insecure, unhappy and unhealthy despite apparently ‘never having it so good’. Social comparisons don’t care about what’s absolute but rather what’s relative compared to what others have.
It’s fine and admirable to be ambitious – especially for those whose basic survival needs aren’t as secure – and it seems like humans are generally naturally driven to be ambitious. But it mustn’t come at whatever cost it takes. Although hard work and demanded talents are required – luck mightn’t be on our side anyway. The distribution of wealth isn’t determined by independent but many dependent factors (e.g. one’s country of birth or financial inheritance). The markets don’t always most demand what society most needs either.
Different individuals possess different genes and thus intensities of these genetic instincts, in conjunction with different environments, upbringings and educations. But humans have several sub-optimal genetic instincts for this modern world but are kept alive and healthy with the help of modern medicine, by the fact that there’s vastly improved safety from predators and other truly likely life-or-death threats, and because there’s generally plenty enough to go around. (Well if only resources were more optimally distributed rather than greedily hoarded by a relative few. Many crimes are fuelled by greed too.)
In short – for some, endless resource-grabbing has become a substitute/proxy for the real things that bring lasting and meaningful happiness, because of genetic programming that evolved predominantly during a very different environment. Consequently, many people put chasing money and status over tending to their existing family and friends enough – which are the real, sustainable sources of happiness. This programming is reinforced through a culture that says wealth equals status too.
Our instincts guide us well and are efficient most of the time. Nonetheless, we are all behaving sub-optimally if we over-trust or purely rely on our instincts because they were mostly borne from an era that’s very different to today’s modern commercialised times i.e. they aren’t always right. (This includes problems like sexism and other biases in other contexts too.) So we must occasionally question them, and most of all learn and adapt. ‘Good enough to propagate the next generation’ may technically be good enough from a natural selection perspective, but we should aim to better ourselves through education in order to live as happily and healthily, and long-term sustainably, as we, and our children, possibly can.
We don’t have to play this game of chasing status – just like lots of people don’t care if you think they’re rubbish at football because they don’t measure their own worth through the ability of kicking a ball. Status can be measured in so many different, more meaningful, ways, such as through selfless heroism, leadership or expertise.