Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Self-deception through appearances

Many people put great emphasis on shiny equipment, designer clothes, and similar. I used to consider this a consequence of vanity and a wish to make a good impression on others. With time, however, I have begun to suspect that it largely serves to strengthen their self-esteem, to create the self-deception that they are (in some particular regard) the top of the crop.

Notably, professional teams portrayed in movies and television typically have first-rate equipment and designer clothes, work in buildings and offices that are on par with the best to be seen in real life, etc.—even in ordinary fiction. When we move on the sci-fi, there seem to be no limits. Because the competence levels are often equally unrealistic, this could contribute to creating a mental association between top equipment and top competence.

(Beware, however, that other mechanisms are possible, e.g. that a skewed opinion of what is a “normal” standard of equipment is created.)

A possible way this could work, is that people who have a feeling that they are not competent enough (consciously or unconsciously) compensate by having better, more expensive, and more “shiny” equipment: The equipment serves as “proof” of their competence. After all: I have a leather chair, a designer web-cam, a wooden desk—I must be good. Notably, children often display a similar reasoning in a more obvious manner, e.g. in insisting on having the same brand of shoes as their respective sport idols, wearing a shirt with the right number on it, or similar. In fact, in their play world, they may even imagine being a specific sports star (as opposed to being a sports star in their own right). [TODO: Tie this in with the concept of playingAt.]

Indeed, my impression is that less competent people are more prone to invest in “shiny” items, and more competent people in “practical” items. (Obviously, this could also be explained by the more competent simply making better choices as a result of their competence). Further, there is a well-know cliche of absolute beginners who show up to e.g. a golf game with expensive top-of-the-line equipment—even though a cheap entry brand or rented equipment would have served them just as well. It is also not uncommon that green business graduates have better looking equipment than software developers with ten years of experience (and correspondingly higher competence and salaries), as was the case at E4.


Interestingly, it is very often the case that more expensive and more “designed” equipment gives less actual value than cheaper products. (Not to speak of the value–cost ratio...)

The IPhone, which has some surprising limitations for an item in its price range, is a very good example—as are “designer” cell-phones in general. Women’s shoes is another interesting case: I once saw a TV feature which showed 100-Euro high-heels where the heels detached at the second wearing. MS Windows and Office are among the very best examples, but the range goes as low as 5-Euro magazines: On the rare occasions were I do buy a magazine of any kind, I categorically stay away from the high-gloss category, which seems to invariably consist of magazines with few (but thick) pages, lacking in non-trivial information, containing poor and often hyperbolic writing, and sometimes giving the impression that the authors have been paid by interest groups (e.g. the movie industry for a DVD magazine) to give the articles the right slant—while being more expensive than ordinary magazines with more and better content.

This hypothesis could also contribute to an explanation of some of the really poor software interfaces in use today: If the incompetent majority feels more competent by using Microsoftian flashy-but-user-hostile interfaces, then they will prefer products with those interfaces, leading to ever more products adapting to this idiocy. In contrast, command lines, keyboard short-cuts, non-WYSIWYG editors, whatnot, enable the user to do more and better work faster, but are typically entirely lacking in flashiness.

Similarly, many people (in particular women) have the odd idea that owning more expensive items (e.g. handbags) somehow demonstrates superiority. I would speculate on a mechanism where throwing money out the window proves the ability to throw money out the window, and where whoever can throw the more money out the window proves the greater wealth. (With the added implication “I am richer than you; ergo, I am better than you.”—overlooking factors like actual accomplishments, mental growth, etc. Notably, this behaviour also proves a lack of rationality and intelligence...) The absurdity is demonstrated by how the price of an item is taken to be its value, e.g. “I just spent 2000 dollars on a handbag. I now have a handbag worth 2000 dollars. I can’t wait to show it to my girl-friends.”, where a more reasonable person might think “Why did I just waste 2000 dollars on this clunk, when I could have gotten something better for 20 dollars? Worse, I cannot even wear it, lest someone finds out how stupid I have been.”.

In the end, however, it is not the equipment that makes the competence, but intelligence, hard study, thinking about what was studied, gathering experience, thinking about the experience, thinking about the thinking, ... Further, as the more competent will choose equipment by utility, and utility is often negatively correlated with “flashiness”, having flashy equipment can often be a sign of lower, not higher, competence: A hammer made of solid gold would be very expensive, impress the naive—and be near useless to a carpenter.