BERGER: Communication. Consumers want other people to think certain things about them, and so they wear clothes that communicate particular identities. Conspicuous consumption, or spending lots of money on visible goods, is a good way to try and communicate wealth, but this signal breaks down when any wannabe can buy a certain car or handbag. What were once status symbols become just aspirational markers rather than the real thing. Consequently, insiders may engage in more inconspicuous consumption to signal only to others in the know. Such subtle signals may be almost invisible to the mainstream, and this helps maintain their cache.
LEHRER: In a 2007 paper, you note that "Manhattanites stopped wearing mesh trucker hats when the bridge-and-tunnel crowd adopted them." In other words, the urbane crowd abandoned a fad once too many of the "wrong" people adopted it. You argue that this kind of switch is because consumers choose products that communicate a "desired identity." Is this true of all product domains? Or are certain consumer items more intertwined with our identity than others? If so, why? Why are hats more reflective of our identity than, say, backpacks?
BERGER: Certain domains are definitely more symbolic of identity and this fact has a lot to do with utility and function. People buy detergent based on what cleans the best, and consequently that choice doesn’t say much about who they are. Shirt choice, however, is based much less on function. Two different colored shirts do an equally good job of being shirts, so observers are more likely to attribute someone’s choice to something about their identity. Similarly, things that violate functionality are more likely to be seen as identity-relevant. Wearing sunglasses indoors makes it harder to see. Wearing a scarf in the summer is unnecessary. Consequently, these behaviors are more likely to be seen as signals of identity because they have little functional value.