The Cost of Faking It

When Paul Bloom and I gave a presentation at SciFoo this summer, we talked about how essentialism influences the way that we feel about objects. Many of us (but not all I grant you) think that special objects are unique and irreplaceable because we attribute an inner “essence.” As regular readers of this blog will know, I have argued that rampant essentialism explains many strange and seemingly irrational human beliefs and behaviours. It explains why most of us value memorabilia from people we admire, and find ‘murderbilia’ – possessions of people we loathe, disgusting.

Essentialism is more than just association as I am always at pains to point out. We are more disgusted by holding a cookery book previously owned by Hitler than reading a biography about him detailing all his atrocities. Something about a personal possession triggers our emotional revulsion.

Is it worth paying for the original?

At Scifoo, Paul talked about his book, “How Pleasure Works” and the role of essentialism in our attitudes towards authentic things. The pleasure we derive from a Rolex, is the belief that it is genuine. Even if a counterfeit Rolex is indistinguishable from the genuine watch, we would not enjoy it as much despite the fact that everyone thinks we are loaded enough to buy such an expensive timepiece.

It turns out that the difference between authentic and counterfeit products is not only price – we feel and act differently when we wear fake items. Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) published an interesting paper in Psychological Science back in May this year – it takes me that long to catch up with the latest research – demonstrating that people who knowingly wear counterfeit sunglasses cheated more on a bunch of tasks, were more likely to think other people behaved dishonestly and generally felt like frauds themselves.

This is a really surprising paper as most people predict that wearing counterfeit items would not make someone think this way. So even if you buy a fake Rolex or Gucci sunglasses to improve your social standing and self-image, the reality is that you are going to feel worse about yourself if you did not buy the item in the first place. Look out for more illusions of the self in my current book I am working on.


Filed under Research

9 responses to “The Cost of Faking It

  1. So, let me get this straight – they gave people free sunglasses and told some of them that they were Gucci, others that they were fake Gucci, and had a control group that were given placebo/unmarked sunglasses – then gave them simple tasks to perform that they could do more easily if they cheated? Or are they saying people who ordinarily have a poor sense of self-worth are more likely to think others are cheating, cheat a bit themselves, and buy fake Rolexes? Just askin’.

  2. jacarandamimosifolia

    Yes, I’m equally a bit confused by what you mean the experiment was and what it demonstrates. You say “people who knowingly wear counterfeit sunglasses cheated more on a bunch of tasks…and generally felt like frauds”. Does this mean that people who buy fake stuff (perhaps because they can’t afford the real thing?) have lower self-esteem? If so, that doesn’t seem terribly surprising to me, or am I misunderstanding?

  3. brucehood

    This was an experimental study and not a survey about what types of people buy fake items but rather how a simple manipulation can influence people. The blog is a summary of the paper that reported three different experiments. Two groups (knowing versus not knowing that they were wearing fake designer classes) were compared on three measures. In the first study, those who knew they were wearing fake glasses were more likely to cheat on a computer task. In the second study, they were asked to evaluate other peoples’ behaviour and the expt group were more likely to be negative about others. In the final study they answered questions about self-worth and were more self-deprecating.

    Their conclusion is that when you know you are wearing fake items, this contaminates your own behaviour, attitudes to others and sense of self-worth.

  4. jacarandamimosifolia

    I think they cheated on the computer task because they couldn’t see the screen properly wearing fake sunglasses…

  5. The sunglasses thing is very interesting. I do think that Bloom’s point about the Rolexes, while not incorrect in the main, is a poorly chosen example in the details — there are more differences between the real thing and the knockoff than just name. They may look nearly identical externally, but generally speaking there are genuine quality differences.

    (Not that those quality differences always matter in practice, but it’s still a poor example)

  6. Arno

    Sounds very much like cognitive dissonance to me: we have certain stereotypes about people who wear certain items, and when we realize we are wearing the same items, this leads to a dissonance effect between our own positive self-image and the act of wearing items we consider part of unlikable people. The negative values on all three tests could simply be due to ruminating about these negative feelings.

  7. Ah, I wonder if this was where SciAm Mind got the piece I recently read about fake duds leading to deception and even thievery.

    I used to work at an upscale department store, and I was always amazed at the profile of the some of the shoplifters. Why wear the counterfeit getup simply to steal a $300 scarf? Baffling.

  8. That’s not even 10 mituens well spent!

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