Must-read: Josh Barro: “Sorry, but Your Favorite Company Can’t Be Your Friend”

Must-Read: It’s not companies that are trying to blur the lines, so much as pro-market ideologues (and I mean that of the extremely-smart Josh Barro in the nicest possible way) trying to draw lines that cannot be sharply drawn.

Look: Back in the environment of evolutionary adaptation we evolved as gift-exchange animals. Monkeys create and reinforce social bonds by grooming each other. Canids create and reinforce social bonds by… I’m not going there. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation.

And on top of this evopsych propensity to be gift-exchange animals–what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”–we have built our complex economic division of labor.

But we face a problem: How do we enter into a gift-exchange relationship with somebody we will never see again. And we have a solution: a cash-on-the-barrelhead exchange. But as soon as we enter into a gift exchange relationship with someone or something we will see again–perhaps often–it will automatically shade over into the friend zone. This is just who we are…

Josh Barro: Sorry, but Your Favorite Company Can’t Be Your Friend: “‘It seems crazy, doesn’t it?’ said Ann McGill…

…also a professor of behavioral science at Booth who studies product and brand anthropomorphism — our practice of projecting human qualities onto the things we buy. It turns out, Starwood customers are far from the only consumers in a complicated, humanlike emotional relationship with a brand. As social psychologists describe it, there are two broad categories of human relationships: exchange relationships, in which we trade for mutual benefit; and communal relationships, which are based on mutual caring and support. Normally, you are supposed to have the former with people you do business with and the latter with your friends and relatives. But sometimes, companies try to blur the lines, insinuating themselves into your friend zone…

December 18, 2015


Brad DeLong
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