From COOL: How The Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World, by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015, by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp. All rights reserved.

Status seeking and the rebel instinct
Sturgis is a sleepy little town of about seven thousand in the sparsely populated state of South Dakota. To most travelers, it’s known, if at all, as one of the few towns along Interstate 90 where you can stop and get gas between Rapid City and Spearfish. Since 1938, however, for a week in August the otherwise quiet streets of Sturgis are shattered by the deafening roar of hundreds of thousands of motorcycles when the city plays host to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. For as far as the eye can see, rows and rows of motorcycles line the city streets; the air is filled with the scents of beer, leather, and exhaust. The rally now draws about half a million motorcycle enthusiasts of all stripes.

Sturgis is also the unlikely research site for two marketing professors, John Schouten and James McAlexander. For the last few decades, they have traveled to rallies including the one in Sturgis and have ridden countless miles alongside Harley-Davidson owners as ethnographers in what may be the longest and most detailed research project on the evolution of a consumer subculture. When Schouten and McAlexander began their study of the Harley-Davidson subculture in the early 1990s, Harley-Davidson sold about 70,000 motorcycles annually. At the time, the Harley-Davidson subculture was a relatively homogeneous and hierarchical one, centered on the norms of personal freedom, patriotism, and machismo. Even in the early years of the study, however, the traditional outlaw image of Harley-Davidson bikers belied diverse subgroups, some of which were chapters of HOG, the Harley Owners Group that Harley- Davidson began in 1983 as a company-sponsored riding club. One chapter, for example, serves as a support group for recovering addicts and alcoholics, another for Vietnam veterans, and one chapter is even a born- again Christian club that huddles around a motorcycle radio on Sunday mornings to listen to religious services.

A lot has changed in the world of Harley-Davidson owners over the last thirty years. By 2005, Harley-Davidson’s annual sales had shot up to more than 325,000 bikes. And according to Schouten and McAlexander, “In these intervening years we have witnessed the death of the relatively monolithic subculture of consumption that we first encountered. In its place we have observed the emergence of something larger and richer, something we are more comfortable thinking about as a complex brand community or a mosaic of microcultures.” In particular, in place of the predominantly white male baby-boom population of the early 1990s, now more women, Gen-Xers, and other ethnic groups participate, which in turn has led to a broader range of lifestyles among riders. Members of the Harley-Davidson groups find a great deal of meaning and significance as they become more involved in those lifestyles, a process Schouten and McAlexander describe as identity transformation and self-reinvention. These consumer subcultures contain quasi-religious (sometimes literally religious) and ritualistic elements, and strong feelings of community identity that members describe as a brotherhood of shared belief and experience. This process of self-invention and reinvention and social connectedness through consumption patterns is in stark contrast to the disapproving image of consumerism as shallow and solipsistic, and points to the affiliative logic of social selection.

Why did the Harley-Davidson consumer culture evolve from a hierarchical to a pluralistic one, a “mosaic of microcultures”? For that matter, why are similar transitions from hierarchical culture to pluralistic microcultures a pervasive theme in the recent history of consumerism? In fact, many consumer culture studies over the last few decades point out the proliferation of such microcultures, the proliferation of lifestyles, and related trends toward consumer diversification. Indeed, the growth and diversification of consumer culture itself coincides with a more general trajectory of many societies along similar lines. The political scientist Ronald Inglehart has studied large-scale social change since the 1970s. Since 1981, he has been the director of the World Values Survey, a massive series of national surveys that now poll people in nearly one hundred societies representing 90 percent of the world population.

Inglehart found a titanic shift in values across generations, starting among the postwar generation who came of age in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Older generations held what Inglehart describes as values that were shaped by the economic realities of growing up in a world where material sustenance and physical security were scarce or uncertain. As a result, people prioritized the materialist values of economic and physical security. Postwar economies, however, brought prosperity and increasing abundance. With these new realities, young people came to hold a set of “post-scarcity” economic, political, and cultural values. These emphasize autonomy, self-esteem, self-expression, aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction, rejection of authority, and tolerance for lifestyle diversity and individual self-expression, which we examine in more detail in chapter 8. As the Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers notes in Age of Fracture, an influential intellectual history of the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century, social fracture characterized this period. That is, large social movements and collectives splintered into increasingly fragmented ones. Sociologists, economists, and political scientists also shifted their explanations of social change from analyses emphasizing large-scale social structures to smaller-scale explanations focusing on individuals, a shift of perspective perhaps most famously captured by Margaret Thatcher’s remark that there is no such thing as society.6 Political scientists and historians such as Inglehart and Rodgers trace the rise of an increasingly diverse, fragmented, and pluralistic society, but what forces within us helped drive these transitions, particularly in the changing consumer culture?

In this chapter and the next, we’ll put the neural machinery of social signaling into the broader context of cultural biology to explore how human status motives interacted with social and cultural forces to first create and then diversify status systems. The structure of these forces is so basic that we share essential elements of them with our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee. Chimps live in hierarchical groups, strive for status, and sometimes band together to rebel against dominant chimpanzees. Indeed, for most of history, it appears that humans likewise lived in hierarchical status systems. We’ll see that hierarchical societies, such as chiefdoms and the city- state, emerged alongside scarce, defensible resources with striking rapidity and frequency. This is because we too possess a “status instinct,” which disposes us to seek status and to compete with others for it, a motive rooted in the logic of social selection, which fuels the formation of status hierarchies.

Unlike our ape relatives, however, we humans are also motivated by the status instinct to enforce status differences through social institutions that create systems of social stratification. Social institutions emerged in our world that integrated cultural ideas and social roles into a social order that codified hierarchical status. At the extreme, this created status systems such as the Hindu castes of India, where society was segmented according to hundreds of rigidly defined groups, occupations corresponding to those castes, physical segregation among castes, and strong social norms regulating interactions (such as marriage) among social groups. In such a world, individuals and groups are not merely different: one’s place in the hierarchy corresponds to one’s social status and determines one’s access to valued resources, including income, prestige, and prominence.

The status instinct also motivates the human thirst for political ideology that tries to justify social stratification, perhaps rooted in what primatologists call the “conservative coalitions” that chimpanzees create to support their social order. Here are the primordial roots of conservative political sentiments, which include aversion to change, dislike of uncertainty, and opposition to equality. These sentiments produce ideologies—such as beliefs about gender roles, purported racial differences, and meritocracy—that attempt to justify hierarchical social order. In fact, by investigating a personality trait called social dominance orientation, researchers have uncovered the genetic and evolutionary origins of political orientations, which help to explain why some embrace more conservative political ideologies than others. Far from a modern invention, then, political orientation is rooted in the ancient logic of the quest for status. Together, these forces create a ruling elite, the status quo establishment, a dominant group that controls access to resources and status by subordinating others.

Of course, many formal institutional systems (such as the military, businesses, and universities) also incorporate a hierarchical status system. Status may be marked by title, dress, or turf—as in the relative size of one’s office. Throughout human history, and even in prehistory, hierarchical status systems seem to have emerged whenever there were scarce, defensible resources for people to inherit. Many such stratified societies also regulate consumption through sumptuary laws, which enforce social hierarchies by regulating consumption according to social rank. Essentially, for as long as there have been legal codes, these codes included restrictions on consumption, particularly regulating dress according to social class. These sumptuary laws helped to systematize status in well-defined hierarchies and quelled the proliferation of alternative status systems—two hallmarks of traditional societies.

Hierarchical status systems and the emergence of the status quo establishment create what we’ll refer to as the Status Dilemma, the “zero-sum” status contest that forms the core of many critiques of consumerism. These typically focus on well-ordered status hierarchies, ranking systems in which each individual is assigned a status rank. Picture a pyramid with fewer and fewer positions the higher you go. The only way to ascend is to knock someone above you out of their spot. Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption is the prototypical example, and many contemporary critiques retain the same basic logic. Because high-status rank is so limited in a clearly ordered social hierarchy, only a few people can have it. The overwhelming majority are destined to be frustrated and unhappy, in the anti-consumerist view.

Consumers are trapped by a second element of this dilemma: the psychological motive of emulation, copying the consumption patterns of those above to gain rank. Those belonging to lower status groups emulate those of higher status and seek to raise their own status through emulation. Emulation works because in a hierarchical system people recognize and agree where goods fi t along this status gradient, and so one’s possessions transparently signal status. Here begins the zero-sum game: high-status consumers introduce a new taste, people of lower status emulate them, higher-status people then abandon the taste because it’s become popular among the lower status, and the next cycle of imitation-abandonment begins. Consumerism’s critics often invoke the Easterlin paradox here to claim that this cycle of consumption doesn’t make anyone happy. Like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the individual pursuit of self-interest makes everyone worse off, the Status Dilemma stems from the idea that our individual pursuit of status concerns and emulation makes everyone worse off.

But these critiques are fatally incomplete, because they leave out the flip side of the status instinct. As with our chimpanzee cousins, because the status instinct leads to rivalry, it creates an opposing force. We call this the “rebel instinct,” a deeply rooted emotional aversion to being subordinated. In chimpanzees the rebel instinct can sometimes lead to what primatologists call “revolutionary coalitions,” and even to deadly coups. Similarly, from the quarrels over power in small bands of hunter-gatherers to modern revolutions, the rebel instinct fuels our anger, frustration, and resentment when others try to dominate us—that is, when we grasp what psychologists refer to as a sense of relative deprivation compared to the ruling elite. Although consumption critiques still rely on picturing consumption as a zero-sum contest for status in a hierarchical society, a crucial change in the human rebel instinct transformed social hierarchy. The chimpanzee rebel instinct only shuffles the status order. Human rebellion can reject the status quo and create alternative status systems. Our capacity to create lifestyle subcultures and countercultures depends on our status and rebel instincts, and together these created the dynamic of oppositional cool consumption.

To examine how these motives played a role in the evolution of consumer culture, we’ll draw on a key idea from evolutionary biology. One evolutionary response to competition for limited resources is diversification, which diffuses competition. Although we often think of evolution as primarily a “culling” process, one of the most remarkable facts of the natural world is the sheer number and diversity of species. Pitted against selective pressures is an equally extraordinary process of creation, diversification, speciation, and radiation. Whereas nonhuman animals come to occupy new ecological niches, humans can create new social niches—new status systems to expand the routes to status. But because social and cultural forces traditionally impose hierarchy, an oppositional force was needed to create new social niches. Enter cool. This is why the first phase of cool, rebel cool, was oppositional.

The rise of cool consumerism was a rebellion against three strands of the Status Dilemma: hierarchical social structure, the psychological motive of status emulation, and the conception of status as having one dimension (specifically, wealth). Beginning in the 1950s, rapidly rising standards of living and growing mass media increased competition for status in a hierarchical society. Social pressures to conform, racial and gender discrimination, and social institutions designed to maintain the status quo all conspired to intensify the Status Dilemma. The emergence of cool stemmed from an oppositional stance that rejected this dominant hierarchical social structure instead of emulating those on its upper rungs. Indeed, the architects of rebel cool, such as Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac, inverted the dominant social hierarchy, rejecting the values of those at its top and appropriating the values of those at its bottom. The defining quality of cool, like much of modernism itself, depends exactly on rejecting emulation—on seeking to oppose the norms of traditional status—personified by the image of Kerouac ditching Columbia University to head out on the road with the petty criminal Neal Cassady.

As Thomas Frank chronicles in The Conquest of Cool, the anti–status quo values of cool aligned with consumption seamlessly and rapidly. Imagine a teenager in the late 1950s donning a leather jacket like the one Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One. Wearing it was an act of protest, evoking scorn and contempt from the arbiters of mainstream taste, which would give its wearer a perverse sort of pride. Disapproval from the status quo establishment led to an increase in self-esteem among rebels and respect from the rebels’ in-group. This is a form of negative consumption directed at out-groups that’s linked to the brain’s avoidance system (more on that below). These dynamics helped transform hierarchical social structure into an increasingly pluralist one as more and more diverse lifestyles proliferated. This transition helped reduce direct competition for status by expanding the routes to status, and so alleviated the Status Dilemma. We suspect that the alleviation of the Status Dilemma and the increase in routes to status is one reason why happiness has increased around the world over the last three decades or so.

 As these changes reshaped consumer culture, rebel cool itself morphed into a second phase that now reflects the realities of what pundits refer to as our “knowledge economy.” For these reasons, the historical period from the rise of cool as an oppositional norm in the 1950s to the present-day DotCool, involving the transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy, has been an age of staggering social rearrangements and societal fragmentation.

To get a glimpse into the rise of cool consumption as a rebellion against the Status Dilemma of 1950s hierarchical society, consider the rise of teenage rock-and-roll bands in the late 1950s, a good illustration of the emergence of cool consumption. As James Coleman recounts in his classic 1961 work The Adolescent Society, athletics was almost the only route to status for high school boys of that era. Having such a limited route to status, perpetuated by the social organization of schools, created a Status Dilemma as schools grew larger and competition for limited status intensified. This competition created pressure to diversify social niches. As a result, teens created new routes to status by participating in rock-and-roll bands, as the sociologist William Bielby chronicles in detail.

Traditional accounts of the rise of teen bands emphasize rebellion against parental authority. But the real impetus behind the rise of teen bands was the Status Dilemma that schools created. Indeed, as Bielby notes, Pat Boone, not Elvis Presley, was the favorite recording artist among high school boys and girls of the late 1950s—hardly the figure of rebellion. As Bielby states, “demonstrating competence in rock and roll performance was seen as a potential means of gaining the same kind of peer acceptance as one does from being athletically competent—and again, and in my interviews, it is typically articulated in just that way.” While the early rock-and-roll persona may have opposed the norms associated with high school athletics, the culture of rock would become increasingly oppositional later on when it merged with the counterculture movements of the 1960s.

The rise of mass media made it easy for boys joining rock-and-roll bands to present themselves in terms of a rock-and-roll identity. The growth of television in particular meant millions of Americans now watched the same images of youth lifestyles. Meanwhile, Hollywood was portraying teenage music lifestyles in movies, such as Alan Freed’s Rock Around the Clock and Rock, Rock, Rock (both 1956), and was revealing a growing fascination with the newly emerging “teenager,” as seen in movies like Gidget. As Bielby notes, by watching television in the late 1950s a teen could readily learn that a rock-and-roll identity meant wearing white bucks, rolled-up jeans, sleeves rolled up two turns on a short-sleeved shirt, and a skinny belt buckled on the side. Television amplified the meaning of goods and created mass understandings of lifestyles, and people could now easily recognize the teen’s adopted rock-and-roll persona.

Mass media weren’t the only factors behind the popularity of the teenage rock-and-roll band and its route to status. Postwar economic expansion, growing material affluence, and the rise of middle-class consumer spending contributed critically to the rise of cool consumption. This was an era of dramatically rising standards of living: Average family income increased by almost 60 percent between 1950 and 1960. Unemployment rates hovered at historic lows: the average unemployment rate in the 1950s was 4.5 percent. The upshot was that more and more money was going to feeding lifestyles rather than stomachs. Indeed, consider that in 1900 families spent about 80 percent of their income on necessities (defined as food, housing, and clothing). In 1950, it was about 70 percent, but then it declined rapidly to only 50 percent by 1980 (around today’s level). In 1900, U.S. households spent almost half their income on food. A century later, it had declined to about 13 percent. These are all indicators of the century’s rise of “lifestyle” discretionary spending. In the 1950s, discretionary teen spending would have a powerful effect on shaping youth lifestyles by merging music and mass consumption, beginning with the rock-and-roll teenager. In the 1960s, though hippies avowedly rejected consumerism, their lifestyle also depended on rising standards of living and the discretionary spending that facilitated music, travel, drug experimentation—even the ubiquitous hippie VW bus. “Alternative lifestyles” were made possible by the rising material affluence of postwar America.

It’s no accident that musical genres also diversified over time as consumerism provided more opportunities to build lifestyles around various musical styles. Music and youth lifestyle consumerism are now completely intertwined. Today, young people believe that their musical taste is the best indicator of their identity, an identity that extends to how they represent themselves on social media. Music lifestyles are so clearly demarcated among youth today that there’s a deep consensus among young people about what various kinds of music reveal about fans’ personalities, values, ethnicities, and even social class. To give you a sense of the diversity of music today, consider the following: Despite predictions of the death of the hit, a relatively small number of songs account for most of music sales today. In fact, the top 1 percent bestselling hits each year account for about 75 percent of all artist revenues. That sounds as if most people are listening to the same songs. But we need to put that 1 percent more into context. That’s 1 percent of the roughly 25 million songs for sale. So the top 1 percent is 250,000 songs! To put that in context, you could listen to a different top 1 percent “hit” continuously every day for a year and only get through about half of them. The capacity to construct lifestyle identities around musical tastes helps explain the explosion and diversification of popular music styles, from a relatively homogeneous 1950s rock and roll to a wildly proliferating set of genres and subgenres. There are now more than one thousand distinct musical genres.

These forces have profoundly changed the structure of status systems over the last three decades, particularly among the Millennial Generation (those born between 1982 and 2003). Consider, for example, the modern high school. To many of us, there are few institutions more hierarchical than the American high school. Think of how the high school is portrayed in Clueless, for example. An adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, the 1995 movie focuses on a high school where the social hierarchy is as rigid as in Austen’s England. The archetypal high school hierarchy is well-known: from the jocks, cheerleaders, and preps at the summit to the druggies and wallflowers at the bottom.

But as pervasive as this image of high school hierarchy is, most contemporary high schools have much more complex status relations and are typically more pluralistic than hierarchical. As we’ve seen with the limited routes to status in the 1950s high school, the traditional hierarchical high school creates a Status Dilemma. Another structural pressure is the growing population of the typical student body today. Ever larger high schools create “structural pressures toward cultural differentiation and pluralism.” Such pressures sparked more-pluralist school cultures, in which there is less ranking, stigmatizing, or hostility among groups. In fact, in such school cultures, students frequently mix among members of different groups and move back and forth across them. New routes to status facilitate this proliferation of lifestyles, including the expansion of extracurricular activities such as band, orchestra, chorus, and drama. The popularity of the television show Glee (which also emphasizes pluralistic norms) and its cultural impact is a notable example. According to a National Association for Music Education poll of choral teachers, record numbers of students are turning out for auditions as this route to status becomes increasingly visible.


As the sociologist Murray Milner notes, an important element of the increasingly pluralistic structure of high schools is the growing acceptance of gender equality and diversity. In a traditional school’s hierarchical setting, a young woman’s status was often dependent on her associations with men. In a pluralistic structure, the routes for women to gain status expand to include, for example, being a leader in school government, participating in a broader range of athletic programs, and more. A pluralistic structure also offers increasing access to status and respect for LGBT students.

Gender equality and gender diversity are themes that recur again and again in the transition from hierarchical to pluralistic status. Diane Martin, along with Schouten and McAlexander, for example, examined the changing nature of women’s participation in Harley-Davidson groups, noting the pronounced move from the backseat to the driver’s seat and that move’s redefining role in those microcultures.