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Rob Henderson is one of my favorite up-and-coming writers. I like him because he’s one of those people who doesn’t fit into a category. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, but I met him in a book club about technological stagnation. He’s spent years in the academy, first at Yale and now at Cambridge, but most of his influence comes from his online writing.
Most of all, he’s interested in human nature. In particular, psychology, status, and social class. Those interests come from his background. During his childhood, he bounced around between foster homes in California. After working as a busboy, a dishwasher, and a supermarket bagger, he joined the Air Force at the age of 17. After his enlistment, he ended up at Yale and now, Cambridge. Please enjoy my conversation with Rob Henderson.
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Find Rob Online:
The basis and genesis of Rob’s ‘luxury beliefs’ idea. [00:01:41]
How Rob became interested in evolutionary psychology. [00:07:40]
The interaction of different factors of social status. [00:11:24]
How the title of researcher impacts the way evolutionary psychology information is received. [00:13:43]
Symbols of fitness; what certain things communicate to others about you. [00:16:18]
Rob’s thoughts on the best and worst things about online dating. [00:21:50]
Academia versus online learning. [00:25:34]
Rob’s thoughts on the trends around standardized testing. [00:28:54]
Learning basic life skills with less parental support. [00:34:21]
The compounding feedback loops of social status and anxiety. [00:37:29]
The decline of the aristocracy and its values. [00:48:27]
How Rob has approached writing and improving his skill. [00:51:04]
Rob’s thoughts on the so-called decline of the West. [00:54:36]
Possible outcomes of new professional configurations and the Zoom economy. [00:59:36]
The monetization of intellectual work. [01:02:45]
Surprising and exciting connections that Rob has made through writing online. [01:04:29]
Possible reasons for the boom in the ‘pet economy’. [01:05:08]
The memoir that Rob is currently writing about the effects of his upbringing. [01:07:59]
[00:01:41] DP: So, Rob, you have an idea, a term that you coined called luxury beliefs? Why don’t you break down the genesis of this idea and tell us a little bit about it?
[00:01:50] RH: Right. So, luxury beliefs, I define as ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. This was my way of trying to understand some of the class and status dynamics that I was seeing, as I sort of moved through different social classes, and what I was observing when I was an undergrad at Yale as this sort of nontraditional student, currently a grad student at Cambridge. Before this, I was an undergrad at Yale. But before that, my life was a lot different. I was in the military, I had grown up in like a pretty working-class town in California, and then throughout my early childhood, I was in foster homes.
So, just a completely different background than a lot of the people that I was interacting within college, and here at grad school. Luxury beliefs themselves, I pieced it together through what I was reading in sociology and history and in psychology, which is basically that in the past, people used to display their social class and their status in society with material goods, with pocket watches, or the way that they dress, tuxedos, evening gowns, this kind of thing. Today, I think it’s considered a little bit more gauche to display your class in that way with what you’re wearing, or the way you present yourself in your terms of your material goods. But people in the upper classes and the upper strata of society still want to show their class and their background and the position. My claim is that they do it through beliefs, through having unusual or novel or strange opinions that distinguish themselves from, say, more conventional ideas from the middle class, or the working class. Claim is that it’s similar to fashion in that it tends to trickle down.
So, when models are something, they wear a certain kind of clothing, and then after a while it trickles down, and everyone adopts that look, my claim is that luxury beliefs kind of work the same way, where say the elite start propagating an unusual or unconventional belief or idea. And then over time, it’s broadcast because the elite wield disproportionate influence in society, through media, through music and pop culture, through podcasts, we share these ideas. And then over time, more and more people start to adopt it. Once again, we feel this pressure that everyone believes this, now it’s time for me to believe something else so that people don’t forget who I really am and my position in society.
[00:04:11] DP: So, what’s an example of like a specific belief that you would deem as a luxury belief, talk about it through the lens of who you were coming into Yale, being someone who didn’t grow up in the elite class.
[00:04:23] RH: So, in one of my essays, the first one that I read about luxury beliefs, the example that I give is the benefit of having two parents. So, this sort of intact family structure, which this idea that I’ve run into repeatedly, among highly educated people is that all families are the same or you shouldn’t judge or there’s no one situation that’s any better than the other. But one of the things that surprised me when I got to Yale was that – so the way that I grew up, I had five close friends in high school and none of us were raised by both of our birth parents. I was foster homes and adoptive parents. My background is sort of a mess. But my other friends were raised by like their grandma, or like step mom and a dad or something like a single mother.
When I got to Yale, I noticed that literally everyone was raised by both of their birth parents, including military veterans. So, other guys who I would hang out with, and you might think that, “Oh, the military, it’s more of this blue collar, working class background.” All of the military vets that get into a place like Yale were raised by both of their parents, and that surprised me too. But then when you talk to them and ask them about this, like, “Isn’t it good to have two parents and have that family structure? Isn’t that part of the reason why you’re here?” And they’ll say, like, “It’s not really about that. I’m not sure families are different. It doesn’t really matter.” Rather than broadcasting or promoting this very beneficial thing. Of course, there’s like empirical work and we can get into that too, if you want. But that’s one clear example, I think, is the benefit of having that kind of family.
[00:05:50] DP: I think that one of the things that stands out, and I’m going to use an analogy here is the fact that not only do this trickle down, like fashion, but they change like fashion, and that there’s certain beliefs that are fashionable, and there can be these, I guess you could call them intellectual cascades where something happens, and then all of a sudden, people change how they do things.
I once had a conversation with an Indian immigrant in San Francisco, and he was like, “We should bring suits back to the workplace.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? What are you talking about? No, casual is great. We get to show up in our Lululemons.” He’s like, “No. The problem with casual is it creates all these implicit fashion standards. And then when you’re an outsider, you don’t understand the subtleties. So, you can wear casual, but then you do it wrong, and now everyone’s laughing at you and your status goes down. Where’s what’s nice about a suit, you put on a tie, you put on a shirt, you put on a jacket, you put on some pants, you go to Men’s Wearhouse, you buy two or three of them, and you’re set.”
[00:06:52] RH: That’s very interesting. I read something similar. I think this was an interview with a couple, I think they were sociologists in the Atlantic, where they were describing this very thing about how a lot of workplaces adopt this sort of casual dress code. But there are unspoken rules about it. They gave an example of, I think this was like the movie studio or television set or something like that, where they had this casual dress code.
But then the sociologist said that there was a guy there, this black guy who worked there, I guess he dressed casually, but not in the way that they dressed casually and he stood out for that reason. And then he didn’t end up working there for very long. It wasn’t clear if he was fired, or if he left or what, but like they gave this example of, if everyone has a rigid dress code, and they sort of know what’s expected, this is what you’re supposed to do, then they don’t have to deal with the unspoken rules that you sort of absorbed through osmosis through growing up in those middle years.
[00:07:40] DP: Totally. Within your work in general, what was the thing that got you into studying evolutionary psychology? Was there like a moment where you’re just like, “Ha, something is really weird about this.” Is it the lies that we tell as a society? The way that we cover up a lot of these questions, and we don’t allow people to talk about them? What is attracting you to these ideas?
[00:07:58] RH: The origins of my interest in psychology in general, I just basically picked up a copy of How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. This was in 2011. I just happen to get his book at a bookstore, started reading it, bought his other books, and then went from there. But yeah, at that point, I had never been exposed to these ideas before. So, I was just blown away at this idea that you could study the mind, you could study psychology and behavior, especially through this Darwinian evolutionary lens that there are certain constants or universals historically, and across cultures, and so on, that people sort of want certain things. It manifests itself in different ways, of course. I think it’s just a fascinating set of ideas to try to understand who we are.
To me, maybe one of the most complex objects, but certainly, to me, the most interesting. What do you think about the field of evolutionary psychology and do you find it interesting? Or what do you find interesting about it?
[00:08:51] DP: Yeah, I mean, I find it to be quite interesting. It really presumes that basically what gets you to reproduce is the thing that we select for. So, I probably haven’t thought enough about examining that claim. But to the extent that that isn’t true, I think that you can find certain things that might be misguided, and that’s what I always look for when I try to study industries, not only how do people think, but what are the blind spots of the field. So, maybe that’s a different way of phrasing my question. Are there blind spots in the field of evolutionary psychology that you consistently see?
[00:09:33] RH: Yeah. I mean, sometimes I think, people can take the ideas and stretch them too far. I guess one point of contention that I have is not necessarily the findings themselves, but the way that people can interpret them. Papers, evolutionary psychology finding says something about, on average, men are willing to go into debt to buy material goods to impress women to increase their sexual fitness or something like that. Then people sort of take that descriptive claim, and then think that that’s how people should behave.
Sometimes I’ll share this finding or something and the guys will comment, like, “Okay, time to get a credit card and put myself in debt then,” or something like that. That’s not what they’re saying. They’re just saying, “On a descriptive level, this is what’s happening, our interpretation of it is for sexual fitness, that’s our guess as to the reason or our sort of educated, informed speculation,” or whatever. And then people will sort of take that and run with it. I think that is misguided. How things are is not necessarily how they should be.
[00:10:33] DP: I was talking to a friend, a professional poker player, actually quite outstanding as a poker player, and he used to live in this giant mansion in Hollywood. One night he was hosting a party at his house, beautiful women, good looking guys, models, actors, actresses, everyone hanging out at his place. We were talking about the problems with Los Angeles’ social status and the way it’s created. And this girl comes up to him and he’s all excited because she’s super cute. She introduces herself, first question, what kind of car do you drive? And he’s like, “What? Why are you asking me this?” This is not a worthy first question. He’s a Midwestern guy, grew up in Ohio. He’s like, “What is going on here?”
This is my question to you, what do you think are the factors that select for this sort of Los Angeles social status of materialism, the New York social status of what kind of job you have the Boston social status of how smart you are? How do these interact with each other?
[00:11:39] RH: That reminds me of a study. I think it’s been done twice now. So, it has been replicated in my knowledge, which is basically the researcher showed women pictures of a man next to a car. So, there were two conditions and one condition he was standing next to like some kind of four door sedan, conventional car, very sensible. And then the other car was like a Lexus, or something like that, some luxury automobile. Basically, same guy, same clothes, same everything, just the car was different and they asked these women how attractive is he essentially. Overwhelmingly, the guy next to the Lexus was rated as more attractive.
There’s something to that, that idea that the car does, with status and it has those social rewards attached to it. But as far as like, why would it be this way? That seems like a very complicated question that I don’t even know — I would be interested to hear like, or see if there’s been any research on this about why Los Angeles is the way it is, perhaps because of movie industry, who really knows. New York, Boston, these kinds of places, maybe old money, something like that, may be why it’s less about material goods. Older money, they’re usually frowned upon over displays of wealth, whereas maybe Los Angeles, it’s sort of new money, West Coast and that’s why it’s more acceptable there. I don’t know. What do you think?
[00:12:52] DP: I’m not sure. I guess the way that I would frame the question is something like, maybe people are actually really good at knowing what the social hierarchies are. So, Boston really rewards people who are intelligent, maybe New York rewards people who are rich, Los Angeles kind of rewards people who have material goods, something like that. Actually, people are very stern in their desire to follow the social hierarchy and to connect with people at the top of it, but maybe you’re very malleable and adaptive in terms of how that social hierarchy actually plays out, and what the mechanics of it are.
[00:13:30] RH: Yeah, that actually seems to make a lot of sense. I mean, that Boston itself, a lot of universities there, so, that would be one reason, I think, yeah, why they value, intellect or how clever you are something like that.
[00:13:43] DP: Speaking of LA, I was walking with a friend, really smart guy, and he runs one of the largest anonymous accounts on Twitter, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of followers. So, I always like hanging out with him. He’s very perceptive, and we’re walking along the beach. He said, “One of the things that’s so interesting is that, on the internet, our conversations about gender are so all over the place. So, people don’t really talk about it.
But then you get to these private groups, and it is the thing that fires people up the most.” As evolutionary psychology, as a field, basically an arbitrage on you basically say, “There’s going to be a supply and demand mismatch, because people are really interested in this, but supply is going to be lower, because we’re like, not allowed to talk about a lot of these things in public.” So, you go out and the demand is really high, but the supply is artificially deflated. So, you go out and you basically have this advantage in your career, and you’re just arbitraging the social dynamics of these conversations.
[00:14:42] RH: So, is the idea here that sort of taboo to speak about evolutionary psychology in polite society, but because it’s like, whatever my academic field and I’m doing it as a job or whatever, then it’s more okay to discuss it. I think there’s something to that. Someone’s pointed this out to me too, that like I’ll share like evolutionary psychology stuff on Twitter and someone pointed out to me like if you were just some guy sharing that, people would interpret that very differently, but because you’re a PhD student, because it’s what you’re interested in, it’s your field of study, then people are like, “Oh, okay, that’s more acceptable.” I’m like, “I hadn’t thought about that.” But I would like to see that experiment, play out like some dude, just share these findings and see what happens to them. I think it’d be very funny.
[00:15:18] DP: Yeah, like that dog study that you pointed out a couple weeks ago, about when a guy is going for a walk, and they go up to a girl asking for a number. Their chances of getting the numbers three times higher if they have a dog with them.
[00:15:33] RH: That’s right. Yeah, what was it? It was something like 9%. If you were just in any control condition, or whatever, no dog, no nothing. And then with a dog, it was like 27%. So yeah, three times higher. I’ve seen another study similar to this. I think it might have even been the same researcher, where they had the guy by himself carrying a guitar case. It was a similar effect three times higher, or something. You don’t even have to have a guitar in the case, because they don’t know what’s in that case. So, you just carry the case, and yeah, so I found that to be also quite amusing.
Interestingly, if I remember that study, the guy, when he had a gym bag, I think they added this other condition of carrying a gym bag, and it was actually lower than the control condition. So, it’s better to have nothing than carry a gym bag. But I don’t think that was like statistically significant, but sort of interesting.
[00:16:18] DP: So, we’ve talked about ostentatious displays of wealth, we’ve talked about animals, we’ve talked about guitar cases. What do these things have in common in terms of the mating ritual?
[00:16:27] RH: So, all of these symbols indicating something about underlying fitness. So, for example, if you’re carrying the guitar case, maybe you know how to play the guitar. But let’s say that you do know how to play the guitar, that’s sort of an indication of intelligence of diligence, conscientiousness, creativity, if you’re able to play an instrument. If you have a Lexus, or some kind of nice car, we can sort of infer that you have a quality job, you’re able to accumulate resources.
So, all of these things are sort of proxies for something that’s actually unobservable about you, but that a lot of people are interested in, which is course one would be how good of a romantic partner would you be? Quality of your underlying genetic fitness? And then the other would be like allies. Do we want to be your friend, yes or no? If you’re smart, or rich, or strong or talented in some way, then of course, this will increase your appeal to potential social allies.
Ultimately, why do we want these things? Why do we want friends? Why do we want romantic partners? Because these things in at least in terms of the evolutionary environment from which we came this ancestral environment, it was beneficial. It sort of increased your survival, and your likelihood of having children if you had friends. if you had mates, and perhaps there were some humans in that environment who didn’t care about those things. “Oh, I don’t care about status. I don’t care about that stuff.” Well, those people were not our ancestors, not our ancestors. They didn’t make it. So, we come from the status conscious early humans.
[00:17:57] DP: I guess what’s always been confusing to me about this is the appeal of the struggling artist. The guy who is walking around with the guitar and makes no money. He’s got long hair. His hygiene is only 50/50. He’s got a couple tattoos, lives in some disheveled shack. But man, can he sing and he string those chords. Why is that so attractive?
[00:18:22] RH: I’ve thought about this too and I’ve talked to people in like, nonacademic settings. I’m not entirely sure. I do know this is the case. Even if you’re like a bartender, or like a local musician, you’re saying, like just not doing very well. But I think it’s something about at least in that local context, you are the top dog or whatever, right? If you’re playing an instrument on a stage, everyone’s looking at you and this sort of like hijacks our psychology at least temporarily. We’re sort of fooled into thinking like, maybe not fooled, maybe that’s unfair, but like, we sort of think this person is dominant, prestigious, powerful person.
Same thing with a bartender, right? A bartender, at least in terms of whatever compared to like a surgeon or something. It’s not necessarily the most prestigious job. But in that environment, you are in control of the goods that people want. Your status is elevated in that local setting. Yeah, I’ve heard some people say, I don’t know if this has been researched, but bartenders probably are more successful in their romantic lives than even physicians. I’m not sure if that’s true, but wouldn’t surprise me.
[00:19:23] DP: Fascinating.
[00:19:25] RH: Yeah, any guys listening, maybe go to bartending school instead of medical school.
[00:19:29] DP: Dude, maybe you’ll be a dating consultant after you graduate and get your PhD.
[00:19:32] RH: Yeah, if I did that. So, like the way the academia works, there’s such snobs man. So, if I did that, maybe it would make me some money, but then all the other academics would be like, “Oh, that’s so tacky or whatever.” It’s cool in academia to like, not make money, do a postdoc for $31,000 a year, try to just spend that time landing a tenure track job. It’s just interesting, like, what’s the currency of status is in academia.
[00:19:57] DP: Why is that? Do you think it’s like some kind of reverse signaling like I’m so committed to my field that I’m going to avoid making money and just focus and then I’m going to drive some ‘92, torn up used car or some cigarette butts on the ceilings just to prove my commitment to my ideas?
[00:20:12] RH: Well, number one, it’s like, you’re not going to make much money anyway, even professors at the top schools, they get paid pretty well. But you’re not going to get rich in that way, especially compared to their peers. A professor at Harvard makes six figures but like not making as much as their friend at Goldman Sachs or something. I think because you’re not going to make money. The currency of status has to be ideas, publications, books, scholarly journals, stuff like that. If you do something that crosses over and is popular, I think it’s becoming more okay. But it’s still considered a little bit vulgar.
Robert Cialdini’s book, maybe you’ve heard of Influence, really popular social psych book from the ‘90s. I think in that book, he describes his experience writing, like in the preface, he’s like, when I told my fellow academics, I was going to write this popular book, they not so subtly said, it was a bad idea. And writing for a popular audience is silly, but I think it’s changing slowly now. It does remind me though, like your comment about the car and the cigarette butts and everything, it reminds me of, I vaguely recall reading that people like when their lawyer drives a nice car, but they don’t like when their doctor drives a nice car.
So, they sort of want the doctor to drive, maybe not like a clunker, a beat-up car, but like a sensible car. I think the idea here is that you want your lawyer to be good and the indicator of how talented your lawyer is by how much money they make. But for some reason, people don’t have that same intuition about doctors. They think that if the doctor drives a nice car, they don’t really care about the patient. They just care about making money. But I don’t know why they wouldn’t think this about lawyers. So, maybe something similar with academics too, that if they drive a nice car, then they don’t care about the ideas, something like that.
[00:21:50] DP: What do you think the best thing about Tinder is and online dating is and what do you think the worst thing is?
[00:21:56] RH: So, the best thing about Tinder might be is the ease. I mean, especially right now, the lockdowns, you can’t go to bars, you can’t meet in any other way. And so, Tinder has made it easier to potentially meet with people. I think now, it is the number one way people meet and especially for young people, millennials and Gen Z. I think it’s like overwhelmingly the most common way to meet. The convenience is probably the best thing.
The worst thing might be that — because on Tinder, almost 100% driven by appearance. If you’re not a super attractive person, I think Tinder is probably pretty hard. I mean, I have friends who use Tinder. I’ve told this story before. I have one friend who I mean, he has a girlfriend now. But back when he was on Tinder, he was like a rock star. He had in excess of like 20,000 matches. He was so successful on Tinder, Tinder contacted him, gave him freebies, gave him like all these perks and upgrades and all this stuff. Especially if you’re a guy, they want those guys on there. Of course, I mean, popular people in general, especially popular guys.
And then other friends who, they’re not bad looking. They’re sort of average, whatever, normal looking guys, but they just get very few matches. A couple matches a week or something like that. So, I think this is skewing the mating market, the distribution, the gains are sort of accumulating to the top, I think. At least being from the male side. I’ve seen research on Tinder showing, for example, that on average men swipe on women 65% of the time. And for women, they will like, a guy on Tinder something like 4% of the time. Yeah, I think that these kinds of dynamics, which sort of reflect real life, magnified in the Tinder world, and may be contributing to why for example, sexlessness is on the rise for young people. Even compared to 10 years ago, I’ve seen some very shocking stats on this.
[00:23:59] DP: What kind of stats?
[00:24:01] RH: So, for example, I saw this study, it was 2008 to 2018. So, what was the sex life of a young person in 2008 compared to 2018? For men, what was it? Something like 15% of men in 2008, these young men, reported that they hadn’t had sex in the past year, and by 2018, it had doubled to about 30%. I mean, like one out of three guys, young guys reporting that they haven’t had sex in the past year. For women, it increased too but not as much. I think it was something like 10% in 2008, and then jumped to like 15% in 2018. So, it increased slightly, but not as much.
I mean, it’s not just sort of sex, but it’s also like frequency of having sex, relationships, whether you’ve ever been in a relationship or not. All of those things are sort of on the decline. I think some of this is driven by online dating. I think it’s just made things harder. It seems like also people are less willing, I guess. Young guys that I talk to, seems like they’re less willing than young guys used to be to just put themselves out there and take social risks to ask a girl out. It’s seen as weird or something. It’s just like you do it on Tinder. Now, if you match with them on Tinder, that’s when you ask them out, but not in real life.
[00:25:15] DP: Yeah, someone’s got to write a book called The Internet, the subtitle will be A Story of Power Laws.
[00:25:22] RH: Yeah. That would be great. I mean, like that is, I think, what’s sort of going on here. And it’s fascinating actually, to see it play out even in the mating market, that the gains are sort of accumulating slowly to the top, whatever, 10% or something.
[00:25:34] DP: Yeah, question. So, totally switching gears here. So, you spent a lot of time learning online, I spent a lot of time learning online. I’m all about it. I think the internet is amazing for learning, but you’re getting your PhD. What am I missing by learning on my own that academia offers in spades?
[00:25:54] RH: Now, I don’t know if I’m the best guy to defend academia, because I have my own gripes with it. Brian Kaplan has talked about the signaling model of education. So, maybe you’re not missing out on the learning itself, like you’re still getting quality education online. But one could arguably say that if you don’t have something to show for it, like a legible signal to communicate this, then maybe you’re losing out. But even that I think I’m a little skeptical of because if you have a platform, like the way you do, and you have an audience and whatever, like you can communicate your learnedness or your knowledge or whatever, online now. So, maybe that’s one thing.
The other thing is perhaps I was just at an academic conference last weekend or the weekend before, basically, like at academic conferences, all the work is presented that hasn’t even been published yet. You’re sort of like on the leading edge, on the vanguard of the knowledge that’s being produced, see it firsthand. But really, I mean, if you wait, like six months, that stuff’s going to be out anyway. To me, that’s kind of cool as like a nerd in psychology to know, like, “Oh, this is sort of what’s going on right now. This is what people are interested in, or here’s some novel findings.”
But otherwise, yeah, man, I think the Internet has changed a lot of things. It’ll be interesting, like post COVID, to see whether education will be viewed in the same way. I have some real gripes about it. I mean, you look at like the dropout rates for college in the US, it’s really shocking. It’s like almost 50% of people who start a bachelor’s degree don’t finish it. Of course, like a lot of those people take out loans, they go into debt, and plus the time wasted, too, because going to college for a year, that’s a year of your life that you don’t have anything to show for it, and would have been better off just working. I think. So, it’s tough man.
[00:27:30] DP: Why do you think so many people are dropping out?
[00:27:32] RH: Depends who you ask. I mean, some people say, it’s money, oh, it’s because they can’t afford it, or because the costs are too high, or whatever. They focus on the economics of it. But I’m a little skeptical of that. Because in my home state, California, if you look at the dropout rates for community college, so community colleges, especially in California, it’s very affordable, it’s easy to get financial aid or brands or whatever, especially if you come from like a low-income family. But the dropout rate for community college in California 70%. So, it’s cheaper, but the dropout rate is higher.
So, I mean, I hate to say this, I think even if you made it free, the dropout rate would be just as high. I think a lot of it is thinking about the guys that I grew up with. I have friends who are knocking on the doorstep of age 30, and they’re still in community college, like taking one class at a time smoking a lot of weed, failing a class, taking another one, working part time. In this holding pattern of someday I’ll get this associate’s degree or someday I’ll transfer to a four-year college. And they don’t, because they were bad students in high school, and very few people suddenly transform into good students in college. I think this might be one reason why too is just that like a lot of people who go to college, maybe especially the ones who dropped out, maybe they would have been better off just not attending.
[00:28:54] DP: How does all this impact how you think about standardized testing?
[00:28:57] RH: It’s hard to know now. It seems that there’s this trend more and more against standardized testing. Every so often there’s an article or not better something in the New York Times with the Atlantic about how it harms poor kids, poor people. I think that’s a very big mistaken. I think it’s misguided. I mean, there’s research on this. There was a study from, I think it like 2016, I think this was in Chicago, they administered basically universal IQ test to everyone in the school. Basically, this increased the number of like poor and minority kids in gifted programs. So typically, gifted programs, kids are selected based on the recommendations of teachers and parents, subjective adult judgment. But when they gave everyone an IQ test, suddenly like way more overlooked kids were selected into these gifted programs.
There’s other research too, similar to this. My own experience with standardized testing has been aligned with that. I was really bad student in high school, grew up in a very chaotic series of households and situations. I never thought of myself as like student or a smart kid or anything like that. I read a lot. I would even like sometimes do the problems in the textbooks and generally a curious kid. But I wouldn’t do homework. I didn’t really care that much about formal learning. But then when I took the ASVAB, so this is a standardized test that everyone who enlist in the military has to take.
My recruiter, I was 17, my recruiter pulled up his chart, and he was like, “You could actually convert this to the SATs, it’s a similar test in some way.” He showed me that, like, I basically got like the same percentile score as one of my friends in high school who was going off to college. That blew my mind. I was like, “I’ll probably score average on this thing, like score like everyone else, and just whatever.” But he’s told me like, “No, this is a really high score.”
And that was like, one of the first times where I recognized, “Oh, if I wanted to, I could have been a good student in high school. If I had actually just applied myself, like all of my teachers said.” Then later on, yeah, I think that was like the first inkling that I had that stayed with me as I considered college later on. Yeah, I think standardized testing is actually a good thing. If I could like wave a magic wand, I would do what the economists say. But basically, like what that school did make the SAT free and universal. I think a lot of kids would learn something about themselves, and perhaps more college.
[00:31:12] DP: So, there are two arguments that you tell me why they’re right or wrong. First one is, well, standardized testing disproportionately rewards people who have very long attention spans, and it rewards people who are probably high in conscientiousness, and the way that modern corporatism really rewards, but then it doesn’t reward people who are high in creativity high in agency, first thing, Second thing, well, wealthy kids, they can just sign up, they can get a tutor, they can game this whole test. That’s not fair. Poor kids can’t do that.
[00:31:42] RH: First idea. It’s good. Yeah, I agree. I hated sitting there taking those tests. Like you said, it’s designed to be that way. It screams for conformity and conscientiousness, and willingness to sort of do those things. But if that’s what it takes, if that’s what it takes to sort of do well in college, then fine. Maybe if you’re a creative type, those talents would be better applied elsewhere, and not necessarily worth spending four years in college, when you could be making art or whatever it is that you want to do.
I don’t have a strong argument against that necessarily. I mean, one way to think about this might be just to make it shorter, I’d be curious actually, to see like whether a shorter SAT would be just as predictive. I mean, because there are all kinds of scales and instruments that we use in psychology that have shorter versions of them, like the big five personality test that everyone’s heard about. There are short versions of this, like the TP, the 10-item personality inventory. It’s literally 10 items that correlates very highly with a much longer version of the personality inventory. If we could make a short-standardized version of the SAT, why not?
To the second point, the research on SAT coaching is actually, it’s completely the opposite of what the testing companies or the test prep companies tell you. You go to like a Kaplan or like Princeton Review, or one of these testing coaching companies, they say like, “Oh, in two weeks will increase your SAP score by 100 points.” The actual academic research shows that that’s completely wrong. On average, I’ve seen SAT gains 5 to 15 points in the most ideal of circumstances and that is one, two, maybe three questions more that you would get right on the SAT.
There is like a small percentage of people that the SAT coaching does seem to work for a little bit more. These are maybe people like immigrants, maybe English isn’t their first language. So, just sort of familiarize themselves a little bit more with testing and the format of the test. But generally speaking, for the average person, SAT prep doesn’t really do much. I mean, the other thing is like, how would you explain situations in which you have poor kids who take this test and do very well on them, and they had no prep whatsoever?
There are rich kids who have plenty of prep, and they still don’t do very well. There’s a reason why like the varsity blue scandal from a couple of years ago where all those celebs, got into trouble for like paying to get their kids into the schools. Well, some of those people were literally paying professional test takers to go take the SAT and pretending to be someone else to take that test. Why would they need to do that? Why not just hire a tutor and drill their kid, right? Well, it’s because drill doesn’t really work that well. So, that’s why they have to take the test. That’s what I would say with with that one.
[00:34:21] DP: I want to hear about your experience learning basic life skills, taxes, incorporating businesses, getting health care, stuff like that booking flights, for all I know. When I’ve got a problem with stuff like this, I just call my dad and I say, “What do I do?” And he helps me through it. We sit down and he’s happy to do it. We spend an hour, however long it takes. Sometimes when I was younger, in particular, he’d just took care of it for me. You didn’t have that luxury. So, what are some of the things that you never learned? What are some of the things that you learned late? And how did you have to adjust how you actually learned about the world, given your lack of parental support?
[00:35:04] RH: Even something like taxes. So, I was really lucky in some way, because I joined the military when I was 17. So, like, literally right after high school, I enlisted. The military basically becomes your parents, especially if you have like good supervisors, good colleagues like I did, they will basically hold your hand. I don’t know how to do my taxes, they’ll literally like sit down with you and say, like, “Here’s how you do it.” If you want to buy a car, like a lot of young guys, they turn 18 and join the military. And now they’re making not that much money, but they want to go buy a super nice car, and then their supervisor, someone talks them out of it and says, like, “Don’t do that.” Or like, yeah, if you want to take out a loan or whatever, like, a lot of the resources are there to help the young guys who don’t know sort of naive about the world. So, that was actually the perfect environment for me.
Other sources of knowledge for me to help me was just the internet, Googling things, looking things up, reading about other people’s experiences, like even just spending like 30 minutes on Reddit, trying to figure out what I’m doing and seeing other people who have the same issue. Reading, I mean, reading has been a sort of constant in my life since I was a kid. When I was really young, I would read like biographies and memoirs of like athletes or other people who had gone through really tough life experiences.
I mean, I still read this kind of the memoirs. I’m almost finished with Mike Tyson’s autobiography. To read something like that, to see these guys came up in like really bad environments, the worst of the worst, and like, they still find a way to make it and share some of their life lessons and their experiences. Lucky in that way, too. So, both my, I guess, innate curiosity and love for reading and then I happen to be in a good environment with other people who held my hand and taught me how to do things.
[00:36:46] DP: What should I know about Mike Tyson?
[00:36:49] RH: He was like literally robbing old ladies at gunpoint when he was eight years old. He was like going through, in Brooklyn with his other little kid friends, they have like guns, and they would just go up to women, rob them, break into houses. He was still hanging out with those kinds of people. Even after he became the heavyweight champion, and he was a millionaire, he’d still go back to the hood, hang out with these guys and do drugs with them and like steal, and he was writing about this, too. He was like speaking about his younger self. I don’t know why I was doing this. But you have to understand, like I was 19 years old, I didn’t know any better. If you think about where I grew up, that’s just how it was. I didn’t think like, “Oh, I’m a millionaire now, I can’t hang out here.” When you grew up in that mindset, it’s really hard to get away from it.
[00:37:29] DP: Totally. One of the things that I found to be very interesting from reading your writing is the way that social status has these compounding feedback loops, where it’s actually the people who are at the top of the status hierarchy, who then want more status. I was talking to a friend about his boss, and I was like, “How successful has he been?” And he was like, “He’s rich, but he’s not private jet rich, which is really what he wants to get to.” I think that private jet rich is just this whole thing that reflects something very peculiar about the way that wealthy people want status and the way that people even convert wealth into status.
[00:38:07] RH: Yeah, so that finding was also sort of a piece of my luxury beliefs idea, sort of inspired. It was a couple of different recent psychology finding, showing that basically, people who are already affluent and educated, those are the people who desire status the most, they care the most about preserving the status they have, and then acquiring even more. These were like pretty sizable effect sizes. In psychology research, shockingly, it’s sort of the opposite of what you would expect that people who are at the lower end, on the lower rungs, maybe not much education or money, that those are the people who would desire the most to sort of climb up and acquire status in society, but it’s the people at the top who want more. And that actually clicked a lot of things into place for me when I observed what was happening in undergrad, when I saw the way that students were acting, or the interesting levels of deception that I was observing.
For example, oddly, the number one career paths of those kinds of students, finance, tech consulting, there’s this weird culture on the campus where like, finance is for snakes. Don’t go into that, those are just evil capitalists, whatever. They sort of denigrate finance, as a field, try to like undercut other people’s motivations to pursue those jobs. So, if you go to a career fair or something, or like a networking event, you will see those very same people at those events. My interpretation of what’s going on here is that like, they’re basically trying to reduce the competition. They’re basically like broadcasting don’t go into those fields. They’re bad, they’re evil, capitalist pigs or whatever. Then when I go to the networking event to talk to the Goldman recruiter, then there’ll be fewer people competing against me.
The other thing was like when I got there, I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m at Yale. This is like a surreal dream to me that I was even able to go to a place like that.” It still doesn’t quite feel real for me. But I remember like being there and seeing just how stressed out everyone was. And I’m like, “How can you be the stressed out when you’re here? You’ll probably be okay.” Just the fact that I got into college, it’s going to be fine, whatever. Well, first, they trained their whole lives to get in there and they’ve grown up around people similar to themselves, which I think exacerbates the status anxiety is when everyone around you is also a hungry status seeker, who’s a very impressive person, who has all of these great ambitions and can maybe achieve some of them.
That makes people themselves sort of experience maybe a little bit of envy or a little bit of like, “Oh, I guess I’m not setting my sights high enough. So, I need to do more, and creates this culture of constant striving and stress.” I think this is a very, maybe overlooked in some of the discussions about what’s going on in campuses, and what’s going on and how these trends sort of affect broader society.
[00:40:50] DP: Yeah, it’s funny, you’re talking about finance, and management consulting, really. Out of my friends, those are the jobs that people dislike the most, that my friends from college did. So, my friends from college who ended up doing other things tend to like their jobs more than the people, for example, in finance, who work with these ridiculous hours, sleep under their desk sometimes or management consulting, where they talk about their work and the drudgery. I mean, it just sounds miserable.
They really have no desire to treat Deloitte, like it is their life’s purpose. And they look at the careers page of Deloitte, which often says something like, or a lot of these big firms, I don’t mean to pick on Deloitte, which says, “Come here. Do the best work of your life.” And they’re just trying to get out of working. They like traveling because they get to see all these different cities, but they just do the same thing over and over again.
Sitting at dinner with a friend who worked for another one of the big four consulting firms, and he just had won every social competition. Yeah, he’s captain of the high school varsity football team, had really good grades in high school, one of the coolest kids, college like everyone knew his name, got all the girls and probably graduated 3-9, and now he’s just working this job that he just loathes. He despises that. But you know what, it makes mom and dad proud. It is that name which they get to throw in the back of their bumper sticker on their fancy Cadillac Escalade, and that’s what it’s all about. I’m just like, “Man, are we really this warped and controlled by the chains of status?”
[00:42:32] RH: Those kinds of people, yes. So, the people at the top are the most, I think, controlled by those chains. The people who have the most status, they get it because they are the most controlled by it, right? They sort of follow those pathways for a reason. Those are the people that are attracted to those kinds of fields and those kinds of jobs. Yeah. I’ve seen the same thing with my own friends working in jobs that they don’t like and they’re miserable. But they know that when they drop the fact that they work at McKinsey, or whatever, then like people’s eyes light up or whatever or think of them in a certain way. Or at least they imagine that they believe they think of themselves in a certain way.
So, that part of status is tough to confront. The way that I sometimes think about it is the work of hopefully getting his name right. I think it’s Randolph Nesse. He recently wrote a book called Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. He’s an evolutionary psychiatrist. So, he speaks about mental illness and psychology from an evolutionary perspective. One of his claims is that a lot of the things we do are not for our own happiness, but rather to maximize our chances to pass on our genes, make our genes happy, not us.
So, if you are a tireless status seeker, and preoccupied mostly with impressing other people, that might be an advantageous evolutionary strategy that makes you miserable. It’s a behavior that on average, would pass on your genes more so than someone who’s less preoccupied with it. That’s, I think, part of what might be going on there. The other part is a drawing more from sort of the evolutionary psychology perspective, why we’re constantly chasing like the next milestone? I see this in a lot of my friends do they believe, “Oh, if I just do this one thing, if I just get that one internship or job or award or whatever it is, then I’ll be happy, then I’ll be complete.”
And then they get it and then nothing happens. Or they’re happy for like a month or two. and then they’re on to the next thing. Evolutionary psychologists basically posit that happiness, it’s not just something nice that evolution bestowed upon us. Basically, it’s there as a motivator. It serves to get us to do things. For early humans say, who maybe did one thing and then they were happy and they were content and never felt like they needed to do anything impressive ever again. They were much less likely to pass on their genes than say like the caveman who did one thing, maybe enjoyed the accolades for a couple of weeks, and then went on to do the next impressive thing. They were much more likely to win partners, win friends, allies, and so on. I think like all of us have a little bit of that in us too.
I mean, if you look at the happiness research, almost nothing that we do or experience increases our happiness beyond about three to six months. So, whether it’s getting promoted, or whatever it happens to be, entering a relationship and so on, our happiness levels tend to go back to baseline after a few months. I did read an academic study, which they found three things in particular, that did increase happiness in the longer term, and they were, I remember this correctly, it was getting married, having children and large financial windfall on the level of like winning the lottery or receiving a massive inheritance.
But otherwise, yeah, most things don’t affect us as much as we wish they would or hoped they would. It’s nice because it goes the other way too. A lot of the things that we think will make us miserable. Again, we’re only sad for a little while, and then we sort of return back to our baseline. Very few things, irreparably bring us down to where we can’t recover. Bad things aren’t as bad as we think.
[00:46:07] DP: You ever heard of the arrival fallacy? It’s an idea from a Harvard professor. It’s basically this. He defines it as the illusion that once we make it, once we get to our goal reach our destination that we dream of, we’re going to have lasting happiness.
[00:46:22] RH: I’ve never heard that. I’ve heard the idea, but I’ve never heard the arrival fallacy. I think it nicely captures that idea. And yeah, man, like I’ve experienced it, too. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who hasn’t fallen prey to that fallacy that like, “Oh, once I do this thing, then I’ll finally be happy. I’ll be the person that I always thought I would be or should be, and everyone will love me.” Usually, it doesn’t work that way.
[00:46:43] DP: Yeah, it’s funny, you’re talking before, and we were talking about Hinge and Tinder early on. One of the things that they do is they actually raise the returns to go into fancy colleges and working at prestigious companies, because that’s what they highlight on the profile. So, in a bar, you still have that attractiveness that you were talking about earlier. But you don’t unless you’re wearing a McKinsey hat and Harvard shirt. You don’t have the upfront display of where you work and where you went to school that you have on these online dating apps. So, that’s one of the big things that they perpetuate.
[00:47:18] RH: That’s fascinating. If you were to wear that Harvard shirt, or the McKinsey hat, like that would be looked upon, I think, by many people as vulgar, or sort of like crass. If you were that Harvard sweater, people might look at you in a certain way. But if you have it, it’s normal to do it on Hinge or Tinder. No one frowns upon displaying those things where they work, where they went to school, on dating apps. Yeah, that’s really interesting. Yeah, there’s none of that sort of natural chemistry or magic that can happen in person.
I’ve seen some interesting attempts to help women, for example, meet partners that they want. I can’t remember the name, I think it’s called The League. People who have like, really high credentials or whatever education earn a certain level of income, only they can qualify to make a profile on these apps. So, most of the users of like Tinder and Hinge, like it’s more men, I think it skews more male than female. But on The League, it skews much more female, probably because they’re looking for something more long term. They don’t want to have to sift through as many people to find a desirable partner. It’s interesting to see how like the market responds to our evolutionary desires for romance and what we happen to like.
[00:48:27] DP: What do you think is behind the decline of the aristocracy? The critique of the aristocracy is they live with this material abundance that is really just lavish and superfluous and kind of opulent, actually. Decadent, right? Too much of this, too much of that. But there’s another part of the aristocracy that was quite noble in its pursuit of excellence, and its scholarship. That doesn’t seem to be very fashionable anymore. Why do you think that is?
[00:48:56] RH: I just read this paper from Robert Sapolsky and I tweeted it too. I have not yet like done a deep dive. But the idea was basically, and this was drawn from both like human cultures as well as primates. So, I think it was chimpanzees and bonobos or something where basically, if a hierarchy is stable, then the people at the top of the hierarchy tend to be happy, and the people at the bottom tend to be unhappy. But if the hierarchy is unstable, basically the happiness gap shrinks and the people at the top are actually less happy. I wonder if there have been some interesting critiques of meritocracy lately. Michael Sandel was recently. I think it was on Sam Harris’ podcast or something, talking about his new book, The Tyranny of Meritocracy. There’s that other, I think he’s like a Yale professor or something talking about something about like why meritocracy is bad. To the extent that we live in a meritocracy, that means that the hierarchy is unstable. In a meritocracy that means that the people at the top won’t necessarily always be there and that whatever people from really deprived or impoverished backgrounds may be able to sort of climb their way upwards. The people at the top may find themselves toppling downwards.
I think this may be one reason why we see so much. We see a lot of arrogance from our elites, but also a lot of anxiety, sort of dueling perceptions, arrogance, anxiety. I think this may be why they are not displaying as much like noblesse oblige, or something as one might expect. Whereas if you are secure in your position, you don’t have to worry about being taken out, and you don’t have to stress about whether your kids are going to be where you want them to be. I see a ton of stress from like upper middle class and upper-class parents, hoping that their kids will get in to the same school that they got into or better, regression toward the mean.
On average, if you’re a smart person, your kid is actually not going to be as smart as you are. They’re sort of experiencing this dread there, too. So, all of this anxiety, I think, maybe why they’re behaving in ways that aren’t conducive to leadership. But this is just a speculation.
[00:51:04] DP: I want to hear about your writing process, how have you actually improved as a writer?
[00:51:07] RH: Yeah, my writing process is haphazard. Like I see your tweets, man, and it just like makes me feel so bad. I need to take a class. I need to learn how to actually like structure my writing. I have a bunch of index cards on a cork board of ideas. I see these young guys too. I follow some of these, I don’t know influencers or young guys or whatever, like podcasters and they’re like, “Oh, I use this app to store my ideas. And then when I click on that app, it opens, this app opens an archive of everything I’ve written, everything connects everything.” I’m like, “I have, like Evernote. I have Google Docs and index cards. When I sit down, I pretend that no one’s going to read this. No one’s going to read this, I’m just going to sit down and let it all go.”
And then later, after I’ve completed a rough draft, then I’ll just go through line by line and try to take on more of the perspective of a reader that sort of theory of mind, like what would a reader think about this, a naive reader doesn’t know what I’m thinking. And then I usually have like one or two other people just quickly go through it and give me their thoughts. That’s pretty much it, at least for the newsletter and for more popular writing. I just have to pretend like, no one’s going to read it. Podcast, too. I never listen to my own podcast. I’m too self-conscious to myself.
[00:52:13] DP: So, how do you know when you have an idea worth writing about?
[00:52:16] RH: If I get excited about it, I notice other people tend to get excited about it. I’m a little bit more sort of halfhearted or like, a little less excited about it, compared to other ideas. I noticed that readers feel that. They can sense that in my writing, like, “Oh, he’s not excited.” So, they don’t seem to be as excited. But when I am really interested or passionate about something to where, like I write about it, and just forget about how much time has passed or what else is going on in the world, and I’m just like in the writing zone. I have all these papers open and trying to like, put all these ideas together. That is when people seem to respond more to it.
[00:52:50] DP: To the extent that academia has a negative signaling effect with good writing, and that being verbose and complicated is actually good for your career, is it paradoxically going to hurt your chances of getting published in prestigious papers if you become a good writer?
[00:53:05] RH: I mean, of course, it’s like a little more complex than my popular writing. But I still try to be clear. I haven’t had any issues. I get rejected, just like everyone else trying to get into academic journals. But I don’t think it’s because of the writing, necessarily. I think there is more of a movement. At least in psychology, and philosophy, I’ve noticed to try to become clearer. I think part of this is because people just don’t have time anymore, and so they want things to be more clear. But yeah, I don’t think it’s hurt me, in my academic writing, fortunately. But yeah, there have been some interesting critiques of academic writing, which I largely agree with.
So, speaking of signaling, I saw this interesting study about PhD dissertations. It was a sort of negative correlation between like the rank of a university that the student was writing at, like the PhD student was writing and density of the vocabulary in the dissertation. So, basically, people at lower ranking universities were more likely to use jargon and complex vocabulary, and people at higher ranking universities were more likely to be clear and straightforward in their dissertations. This could be probably something to do with signaling such that maybe if you’re not at the best university in the world, you sort of feel more of a need to prove yourself and to demonstrate your knowledge. If you’re at a top university, maybe you don’t feel as much that you need to signal your intelligence to your writing, because people assume like you’re probably already pretty smart.
[00:54:36] DP: You and I were both in a book club together. And I guess the main question I have for you is, is the West in decline?
[00:54:43] RH: Okay, so this is really funny. I was just talking. I did a podcast with [inaudible 00:54:47] about American decline. I was talking to him about a conversation I had with my girlfriend. So, her family, they’re Chinese-Malaysian, more traditional. They’re Buddhist and so on. So, my girlfriend, she knows all about my life. She pointed out to me that when she tells her family about what my wife was like, it will confirm all of their worst stereotypes about America and how messed up it is.
I asked her, like, “What do you think about America?” And they’re like, “Oh, they think it’s corrupt, and everyone’s promiscuous, and people don’t take care of their kids. There’s just divorce and single parenthood and blah, blah. Oh, America’s rich and powerful, and so on.” But in terms of the culture, they think it’s decaying. I find that hard to disagree with, from my own perspective, but then also just looking at the broader trends, looking at the research the survey data about what’s going on in the country.
Yeah, I mean, we’re a rich country, we’re powerful, and so on. But in terms of like, our inner lives, emotional or spiritual, or whatever social aspects of our lives, it seems like people are less happy, less – I don’t know, just like less energetic, optimistic. I’ve seen research on this. So, for example, optimism. If you ask people in developing countries, places like India and Brazil countries in Africa, the young people are more optimistic than in developed countries like the US and the UK and it’s hard. It’s hard to try to explain that through purely economic lens.
There’s just something that I was thinking about too, is even though there’s this divide and happiness between like the upper class and the lower class, it actually seems to be growing. It’s always existed, but I just saw some interesting data from, I think it was [inaudible 00:56:23], who showed that it’s actually increased even more in the last like 40 or 50 years. I just don’t think like that can be good for society, like economic inequality is an issue. But I think this sort of like happiness, inequality might be just as important.
[00:56:38] DP: Yeah, I’m obsessed with David Foster Wallace right now. This is one of the big questions he was asking. Grew up among educated, upper middle-class people who were working prestigious jobs, winning the awards, having the fancy jobs, driving the fancy cars, and they got into their late 20s, early 30s. They’d sit around the campfire, and they’d get real honest after a couple beers, and then they’d be like, “We’re miserable.” He was trying to grapple with why. And it’s fascinating.
That’s one of the central questions of my work, too, of trying to make sense of, why is it that it seems like everything that was promised, the hierarchy that was given to me and promised me as a kid, the things that I was told to value, I ended up failing at those games. I ended up losing every single institutional game that I played. I didn’t do well on the SAT, I had horrible grades in high school, I played college sports, but wasn’t quite good enough, then I wasn’t good enough as a college student to then work the prestigious jobs. Then I watched people who were good enough at those things and they are consistently miserable.
So, I lost. But I am now looking at the results of that loss. I don’t envy them. I’m like, “What is going on here?” David Foster Wallace is putting the language to this. I think he had a very cynical perspective on where a lot of the West was going, because he saw that the things that we’re told to value don’t actually lead to the promises that people say that they lead to.
[00:58:18] RH: I’ve seen a lot of that too. Guys, I know working in jobs that are or superficially very prestigious, and every undergrad at a top university is striving for but they’re not happy. They don’t feel fulfilled. A lot of them, I think have just sort of been bamboozled into thinking that like, “Oh, yeah, once you go to this school, get this job and do this, then you’ll be happy.” And, “Oh, no, I’m not happy. Well, maybe I’ll go to law school now, then get another job and make more money, and then I’ll be happy.” And it’s never worked out that way, it seems for a few people, but by and large, it seems like there’s this hamster wheel, like chasing something that actually doesn’t happen the way that you want it to.
Yeah, I think a lot of these may just go back to some of the evolutionary psychology research and happiness research that I mentioned before, is that a lot of things don’t increase our happiness, the way that we think or as much as we think, or as long as we think. Of the things that do, we’re not really taught. Those things that I mentioned, is getting married, having kids, and then of course, like a large financial windfall, which very few of us are going to win the lottery. But those first two things, our society doesn’t really promote that or talk to young people very much about that, or how to be a good parent, how to build a family or all that stuff. I mean, it’s much more about like college, money, jobs, prestige, and less so about like relationships and family and romantic. It’s sort of a sterile existence.
[00:59:36] DP: Within the corporate world as it pertains to the internet, what is a genetic trait? Or how would you select genetics differently to be successful in the internet economy? So, let me give you an example of something that I would answer. Of course, it’s just a thought experiment, but you can basically take away height as the advantage that it used to be.
So, if you’re 6’3”, 6’4”, the economic benefits of being super tall, are shocking in terms of the empirical data. But the guy who runs read Write of Passage, he’s our student director he’s like 6’3”, I had no idea until after I had hired him that he was super tall. I was like, “Dude, you’re a giant.” And that could be something that sort of gets washed away in terms of the Zoom economy, we could call it. How would you think about this?
[01:00:30] RH: That’s something I hadn’t thought about. One thing that I’ve seen floating around this idea of, “Oh, if you’re online and doing these Zoom calls, and so on, there’s less –” I guess, like, maybe related to the idea we had earlier about what kind of clothing you’re wearing at the workplace, there’s less signaling in that way where like, if you’re in a corporate environment, the boss comes in, you see them in their nice car, and they’re like designated parking spot and the way that their office is structured, and it’s bigger than everyone else’s, and so on, there’s less of that in the Zoom economy, where everyone’s sort of looking at the same screen. That might be one aspect of this. It flattens a lot of those differences.
Something that I was thinking about too, alongside that is, you can still see what’s behind the people. I mean, you have some control over it, you can sort of choose but I’ve wondered, like, if you can see into people’s homes, where they work or whatever, if people are still making those sorts of inferences about them, in terms of their class, and position, and status, and so on. Maybe not. I could imagine actually going one of two ways here. But maybe valuing, prestigious education less, if you’re always online, like you can sort of like see quality. If you’re at your computer, and you can quickly look up someone’s output or product, you don’t necessarily care as much about their resume. So, maybe that would be one possible outcome of all of this.
But I could also see it going the other way to where like people actually care more about that. Because if you’re not meeting people in person, they want someone who’s reliable. I think there’s a little bit of anxiety or insecurity about like hiring over the internet, without ever meeting someone. So, they may use education as a proxy for trustworthiness. You’ve probably heard of like the dictator game or ultimatum games, like the sort of economic games people play in the lab for money. It depends on trust. If you and I are given $10, and the researcher tells me like, if I put $1 in the pot, it grows to $2 and then we both split it.
The more dollars that you and I put in and then in doubles, then we go can divide those earnings. But it would be rational for me to not put anything in and then hope that you put all your money in, and then I’ll take that money. In those kinds of games, people for whatever reason, trust others more if they’re said to have a degree from a certain university or have a certain kind of occupation or whatever. Yeah, I think education will be, the view of it, or the perception of it might shift.
[01:02:45] DP: Do you worry that there’s not good business models for what you do? Isn’t it important that you can get rich from thinking about this stuff? And that there are really good methods of bestowing status? I mean, sure, you got, however, many Twitter followers that people can see and that helps you put your shoulders back as you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, “Yeah, I’m doing pretty well in life.” But how are we going to help intellectuals like yourself make money? Where do you see that going?
[01:03:15] RH: It was a tweet from you, I think about how, we have a bunch of PhD students or graduates who have all this knowledge and the internet might open a path for them to share it and get paid for it. Yeah, I definitely see that. I mean, I think it just has to happen because you can’t have that surplus of highly educated people and not many jobs in academia. Something like 4% of PhD graduates in the US end up getting like a tenure track job at university, when they get a PhD. That’s what a lot of people want to do. Most of them are not going to do that. So, they have to go somewhere. YouTube, podcasting, lectures. I’ve seen people do like what is it like online seminars, sort of like a book club that you were in I are in, but it’s sort of led by the expert and they charge everyone a certain amount of money for the weekly discussion of, whatever, texts they happen to be reading or ideas they’re sharing or whatever.
Yeah, I think it just has to go that way. Why would you study something and learn it and not want to share those ideas? At least in my case, like I have become more interested in pivoting like sort of a way. I still find to finish my PhD, but once I’m finished here like to sort of leave the academic system and to share ideas with a broader audience in that way and I think more people will be doing that.
[01:04:29] DP: What’s the coolest thing that’s happened because you started writing online?
[01:04:32] RH: It’s hard to pick out any one specific thing. Just in general. I’ve met so many interesting people. It’s just crazy. If you share your ideas online, your essays, newsletters, Twitter, interesting people are like attracted to other interesting people. I have met you. I’ve met other interesting – Chris Williamson and others. People who, two years, ago would have never dreamed would email me, DM me or something on Twitter. It’s just like surreal. The social contacts that I’ve made and the people that I’ve met and the conversations that I’ve had that’s grown out of becoming present and visible online and on Twitter.
[01:05:08] DP: What is behind this sort of – it feels like refreshed love of animals that humans have? The pet economy is booming. People treat their pets definitely better than they treat themselves, often better than they treat their children in terms of like, “Oh, that’s so cute.” That emotion is just booming. What is going on there?
[01:05:33] RH: I guess I’m behind the curve on this one. I did not notice this. I’ve seen like, people sharing Instagram and Twitter and stuff, cute animals, and I remember like cat videos being like really big for a while on YouTube. I think one thing that might be going on here, at least among young people, is there are more childless young people, people in their 20s and 30s, who aren’t having kids, but they still sort of have that a desire to take care of something that’s vulnerable, and still have that response to cuteness to like neoteny, as like they say, in evolutionary psychology, like cute, youthful looking features. I think that the absence of kids, especially in like bigger cities, where they’re like very few young children, living in them, that animals might have sort of taken that place for people.
I can’t remember, I read somewhere, I think it was written as a joke, young adults shouldn’t be allowed to have a dog until they have kids first, because I guess the idea here is that like, part of the reason why the birth rate is declining is, “Oh, they’re taking care of dogs instead. But if they were to sort of redirect that emotion to having children, that would lift the birth rate or something like that.” Yeah, could be something like that. What do you think? What do you think is going on there with that? Because this is the first time I’m hearing about it.
[01:06:43] DP: It’s just an observation. But one of the things that I think also happens is sort of in the nature of virality, you get things that everybody can talk about. People are quite homogenous, in terms of the things that – these sort of base level emotions. We actually are very differentiated in the things that we’re really passionate about. But then we’re very much the same in terms of just basic interests and entertainment. So, what then happens is, you get BuzzFeed Tasty videos, everyone likes food. Food culture sort of blows up and explodes because of the internet. Likewise, in the same way that food is prelinguistic. You could say in terms of our reaction to it, the same thing happens with pets that we’re attracted to them at a very base level. It’s just this emotional instinct. So, because we can all talk about it, the whole thing becomes more popular. I think your point about not having kids, it’s really spot on, too.
[01:07:42] RH: Yeah, that is interesting.
[01:07:43] DP: Well, Rob, this was wonderful. Thank you so much for your writing and just amazing to see how far you’ve come in terms of growing up without a lot of the advantages that other people have and ending up where you are now.
[01:07:59] RH: Yeah, thanks, man. I’m writing a memoir about my experiences here. One of my aims with that is basically so that fewer people have experiences that I had. People who didn’t have them will sort of learn more about what that’s like to live in that kind of situation.
[01:08:14] DP: What are some of the things that you experience that you think that by writing the memoir, you’re going to help other people not experience?
[01:08:21] RH: What I’d like to do is to share what it’s like to grow up in instability, in chaotic environments, what effect that has on young kids, and that, through sharing this, maybe fewer people – well, firstly, few people have that luxury belief that family is unimportant, or less important, that maybe more parents will pay more attention to their kids and see that they are taken care of, and nurtured, and so on and feel safe. Because those experiences, those don’t vanish or go away, just because you become a grown up.
I think on some level, highly educated affluent people are aware of this, just because they’re rich, a lot of them did have absentee parents or whatever. Those feelings still remain over time. I think this is often overlooked in discussions about like, what’s best for kids, we talk a lot about poverty. But I think just as important, or maybe more important days, that sort of instability and feelings that young children have, when they don’t feel like they’re cared for. They’re not sort of paid attention to, they seek that attention in other ways can be disruptive.
[01:09:22] DP: Does that show up in your personality in some way now?
[01:09:27] RH: Now, sometimes in smaller doses. So, this is something that I try to explore in the book, too, is what’s changed. I mean, a lot of it was like, I just had to do a lot of work. But another part of it, I think, was just getting older. Just naturally, when you get older, you sort of settle down a little bit, you just become less angry. For example, shortly after I arrived at Cambridge. So, I was rowing for my college. This was like 5 AM, like I was on my way to the boathouse on my bicycle. So, one thing about the UK is that like the drinking hours are all night. First there’s no public drunkenness laws and the bars don’t close at 2 AM. So, you can, literally at 5 AM, you’ll see like cars full of drunken dudes going crazy.
So, I’m on my bicycle and there’s a car that pulls up next to me, three, four dudes, and they’re just going wild, whatever. And then like, he started yelling something at me and then one of the guys opens the car door to step to me. And I was like, fully ready to just throw down, like, my instincts kicked in. I was like, “Let’s just do this.” One of his friends pulled him back into the car, and they drove off. Afterwards, I’m riding my bicycle and I’m thinking like, “That was so dumb. I’m an idiot.”
What would that have looked like to Cambridge student getting into a fight with like a bunch of drunk guys in the middle of the street and intersection. But that’s the kind of stuff that I would have done, even in the military, doing stupid things like that. Young men in particular, who don’t have stable parents. They feel like even more than a lot of other young guys that they have something to prove. I think that stayed with me, like throughout my adolescence, teenage years, young adult years and tapered off later on. But still there’s to some degree.
[01:10:54] DP: Marshall McLuhan said, “Violence is the quest for identity.”
[01:10:58] RH: Yeah, I mean, I think that definitely applied to me and the guys that I grew up with, sort of a way to express whatever it is that we were feeling. A clinical psychologists called externalizing behaviors, they have to have this sanitized term for it. But it’s basically not understanding what you’re feeling on the inside and then acting it out on the world and inflicting harm on yourself and other people because you don’t understand what’s going on. I go, like, pretty in depth in my book about that.
[01:11:24] DP: Lovely. Well, I can’t wait to read it. Thank you, Rob.
[01:11:27] RH: Yeah, thank you, Dave.