Some almost random thoughts..

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why fashion and gossip can feel like matters of life and death.

If you look at the magazine stands all over the world, you'll see that the women's section is dominated by fashion and gossip. Why do women find it more important then men to know about the latest fashion trends and rumours?

Maybe evolution can explain why women seem to care more about fashion and gossip than men. Find out why getting the latest handbag, dress, shoes and rumour really is a matter of life and death.

Humans evolved over millions of years as hunter-gatherers in an environment much like the African savannah. The people that we see around us today are those whose ancestors did well in that environment. The men going out hunting. The women taking care of the children and gathering fruits and vegetables. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much skill involved in gathering. It is mostly a matter of time and luck. You walk and walk and every now and then you bump into that tree full of fruits or those plants with the roots just ripe to be eaten.

When you find something, you get your stomach and your arms full and go home. Sometimes you may find just enough for you and your family, but often there is quite a bit more than you need. So you walk home, not only with the fruits or vegetables, but also with some valuable information. The information that can let others know where they can find that fruiting tree or those ripe vegetables. In a world where the sugar of ripe fruits is at a premium, that really is valuable information.

But there is a time constraint on the value of that information. Many animals are after the sugars in the fruits, they could be gone in days or even hours. And even if they are not taken, the fruits will soon fall to the ground and rot. So if you want to make the most of that information, you need to move quickly, it won't last. When you come back to the group, who will you tell? Will you share it with everyone, just shout it out? In your best interest, you should give it to the person that will return the favour some other day. So that when they find something, they will let you know and you can go and get your share for your family another time.

So who should you let in on your little secret. How about that friendly, but somewhat lonely neighbour? As much as she tries, the neighbour isn’t more likely than you to find a valuable store of goods. Your best bet is the woman that always seems to be in on the latest finds. You want to maintain a close relationship with her. Telling her about your find will surely make her happy to know you. And she will be able to tell you when there is another great find some time later. But you cannot count on her always returning the favour unless you still seem to be of good use to her in the future. She will let you in on what she knows as long as she thinks you will be able to return the favour one day.

This is why it is important as a woman to show you are in on the latest finds. That you belong to the inner circle where news seems to arrive first. Anything you can show to signal this privileged position increases the likelihood that others will let you in on their next bit of hot information. It signals that you are worth sharing information with, because you will be able to return the favour some other time. That is what gets you that steady stream of valuable fruits and vegetables for yourself and your children, and prevents you from having to wander the fields forever.

The gathering of wild fruits and vegetables is a highly information intensive occupation. It requires a good information network and an ability to show it off. Gossip is one way to show you are quick to be informed. Fashion is a more recent signal between women showing who is an insider worthy of your secrets, and who is not. Of course there can be real value in clothes that make you look good, or a rumour that shows someone can't be trusted. But there is a separate female interest in being the first to spread the information. Like cars could not have been a status symbol between men before 1900, using clothes and accessories as a signal may only have become possible since the introduction of mass production. But the need to signal is there, how it is done depends on the most efficient method available.

When there is value in spreading the word about the latest finds, actually discovering them is a solution to compensate for the lack of information. So women of a lower social status may be seen shopping longer, in search of small treasures. When it comes to rumours, discoveries are made by constantly watching social interactions in search for novelties. The chewing gum alternative in today's world is watching soaps on television. Every little insight you gain gives a buzz, as if you've just secured some more credit in the information market. And if you can't find the latest, you can always make something up, but don't get caught!

Gathering isn't as simple as it seems, it takes a good social information network and the ability to show you have it. Gossip and fashion are signals used to show off the gatherer's position in the network. Women still dedicate a lot of effort to keeping up with the latest information, because once it really was a matter of life and death..


Diogenes said...

When I lived in New York City I was happy to sit and watch women walk by. New York women have the best fashion sense. They look beautiful. They tell me that they dress for men, for other women and for themselves.

Adriaan said...

I think it is is important to see that clothes can carry more than one signal. Yes they can make you look better to men. But there is a separate female interest in looking up to date.



Laughter and storytelling:

All humans are equipped with the ability to experience the same social emotions like shame, pride, envy and respect. But the applicability of these emotions can vary strongly from group to group and over time. So the brain needs us to constantly calibrate our social morals with those of our group. The most efficient way to do this is through storytelling. We evolved a love of listening to stories, because in a stone age setting that would expose us to the reactions of our group to the story. We slowly but surely mirror the reactions we hear around us, like laughter and outrage, so that we end up in sync with the social morals of the group. This shows why watching comedy without the studio laughter is difficult. Not only can't you laugh with others, you actually get the message that what you hear shouldn't be deemed funny, because nobody else is laughing.

Laughter and storytelling combine to make us compatible in behaviour, because when it comes to social morals, it did not pay to be different. In the modern world, we have automated the storyteller in the middle of the group, into the TV-set we mostly watch on our own. But without the vocal reactions of our group, it might have become a waste of time.

Hunting and gathering.

As humans we solved our basic food problem. Getting the calories we need to survive is easy. But like animals in the zoo that get fed, we have kept much of the display behaviour related to our feeding methods throughout our evolution.

The gatherer into gossip and fashion.
The success in gathering partly depends on the quality of your information network. You need to hear in time where the latest fruiting tree is. There may be more than enough for the person that finds it, but not enough for everyone. A gatherer that finds food will share the information with someone that seems likely to be able to return the favour another time. So gatherers have evolved a need to signal having a quality social network and being 'up to date'.

Gossip and keeping up with fashion trends are modern display behaviours linked to the innate need to be up to date and to be seen to be up to date. With gossip, a gatherer has a special interest in being the first in relaying otherwise useful bits of information.

The hunter into sports and career.
Stone-age hunting is a team effort needing diverse skills. You are better off hunting with a few others. But you do not want to bring anyone along who can't pull his own weight. You do not want to share the meat and the glory with a slacker. So the hunter has evolved a constant need to show they will make a valuable team member to other hunters. That is what gets you on the best hunting party and that gets you the best food and possibly 'extra' mating opportunities.

Every opportunity you have to compete with others to show off your skills can help you get picked by the best. Modern sports and even career are behaviours linked to the need to show you are a valuable team member and you deserve your spot in the highest league. The displays needed to establish and keep your deserved rank would settle down in a small group. In our modern large group the hunter has become stuck in this display behaviour because there is always a higher league to get into. And people's social circle has become more homogeneous through the sorting that happens in school, housing and work arrangements. So there is always someone close ahead or behind. This may be an important driver behind the 'never enough' economy.

Blog Archive