Purchasing the Feeling of Being Present

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Why do we overpay for speaker cables, cheese, watches and virtually every luxury good?  It used to be a hobby of mine to see if people can tell the difference in blind comparisons between cheap A/V equipment versus expensive A/V equipment or cheap beer versus expensive beer and I will tell you from doing this many times that every single one of us massively overestimates our ability to tell the difference between cheap stuff and expensive stuff.  I’ve made a ton of money betting against people whether or not they can tell the difference between things like aerated and non-aerated wine.  It always goes the same way: when you tell people which is which they’re sure that they can tell the difference, and then the second you take away the labels they have no idea.

In college I saw an art history major who should have known better earnestly asked if a slide was a gesture drawing done by the previous beginner drawing class.  She was mortified to hear that it was actually one of Rodins famous sketches.  As a pretentious undergrad and a big Rodin fan I laughed at her but honestly I can see how anyone could make that mistake.

If you think that there’s something intrinsically and objectively better about fancy wine or fine art, you’re empirically wrong, but I wont try to persuade you of that anymore.  Experiments show over and over that people can’t tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine, but this study that showed that people enjoy wines  far more when told that they are expensive made me decide to shut up and try to enjoy luxury goods.

Why do we enjoy scarcer stuff more?  I’m convinced that it’s because it pushes us to be present, which is really the best feeling in the world.  We eat the local, organic vegetables slower and actually look at the fancy furniture we bought.  These days, I’ve stopped engaging my contrarian instinct to prove people wrong and started enjoying what I’m paying for: the pleasure of actually experiencing what I’m paying for.

2 thoughts on “Purchasing the Feeling of Being Present

  1. Hi Luke,
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I’ll have to check back here. I hope you’re well, by the way.
    On the topic – it seems related that people find bets of large sums of money in a way romantic, while small wagers are not really interesting. As a person without much cash, my take home is to try to appreciate things like a connoisseur sometimes even if they are inexpensive. For example, there are some taqueries which are inexpensive, but which I truly appreciate.

  2. I like your general sentiment, but you’re taking it too far. Cheap audio gear sounds shit, for example. Cheap cars often, not always, aren’t engineered or built as well, and so on. While the two products are at the same relative price point, when I was a soda drinker I could always tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi (Coke has flavor and Pepsi is sweeter). Don’t even get me started on beer… …cheap beer has a soda pop finish, significantly less flavor, and often less body. Art is a hairier matter (I studied art history as well). The distinction in art has less to do with craft and more to do with conception and authorship. There is a difference between Art, art and commercial “art.” It may not always be a superficial difference (craft). It requires knowledge of history, theory, philosophy, and authorship. I think we agree with each other in a roundabout way wrt art. Lastly, as far as your premise goes, I’ve a designer jacket (Guess), which I paid $15 for several years ago, and every time I throw it on I feel fantastic (it’s stylish and also very comfortable). So, to be clear, I think that there are certainly people (and they may very well be the majority) who enjoy expensive, garish, or scarce commodities simply because the commodity is expensive, garish, or scarce, but those people lack taste, and taste is what you’re writing about here – nothing more, nothing less.

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