Photo by DieselDemon, Flickr CC

In the age of Spotify, Netflix, and hipsters drinking PBR, it has become cool to consume a little bit of everything. If we’re used to the upper class consuming high-end culture like fine wine and classical music, though, why would elites start making a big deal about lowbrow culture? New research by Oliver Hahl, Ezra Zuckerman, and Minjae Kim finds that people who feel they have high status, but also feel like that status may not be authentic, will reach for “more authentic” lowbrow culture.

The authors used two main experimental studies. In the first, 123 undergraduate students watched competitors in a game who shared their “personality type.” In reality, participants were randomly assigned to the winning or the losing player in order to prime their sense of high or low social status. Some high status participants were told the game was public to promote insecurity, so they would feel their membership in the status group could be questioned. Other high status participants were told the game was private, to make their status feel more secure.

Later in the same study, participants were presented with two paintings and a biography for each painting’s artist: one artist who became famous through self-promotion more than skill, and another who was not well known but was instead “discovered” for his skilled work. Respondents who were members of the winning group in the early game, and insecure about the win, were much more likely to pick the low-status “authentic” artist who had was more skilled, while respondents in the secure winning group were much more likely to pick the high status artist. 

The second experiment presented a similar scenario, but had 181 participants watch the winners and losers of the game and see which paintings those simulated players selected later on. Like the first study, this one used public competition to raise questions about the authenticity of the winners and “denigrate” their social status. Respondents who saw potentially inauthentic winners pick the low-status “authentic” artist were much less likely to evaluate those winners negatively later on.

While other sociological research shows that members of elite groups use cultural tastes to signal their membership in the upper class, this work shows how we also publicly present our “tastes” in certain ways to compensate when we feel socially insecure.