The Perfect Question to Ask Before ANY Purchase [For Anticonsumerists Only]

Readers, I've found the perfect question to ask yourself before making any significant purchase. It clarifies everything about your real reasons to buy. Here it is:

If you could tell no one, would you still buy it?

If your answer is yes, then you are probably buying it for the right reasons. However, if your answer is no, you're not buying the item for you. Its purpose is to impress others. And buying things to impress others is a checkers move. [1]

Now, there's a lot going on in the question above, much more than it might appear at first, so let's work through a practical example and unpack what happens psychologically. Let's say you're considering buying a high end watch. If you were to ask yourself would you buy it and tell no one--and no one would ever see it, know about it or hear about it--what would be your likely answer? Be honest.

Your answer would be no, you wouldn't buy it. Simple. If you were being honest with yourself, you'd want to have others see your purchase. Therefore you're buying it for them, not for you! It is a purchase made solely for the purpose of identity construction. Since you don't enjoy playing checkers with your life--you'd much rather play chess--you know you can safely avoid buying this product. It's incredibly helpful and clarifying to know this.

Now, why is this question for anticonsumers only? Because a consumerist will quickly and effortlessly rationalize it away. "Of course I'm buying this $50,000 Patek Philippe watch just for myself. Obviously I would still buy it even if I could never show it to anyone. Plus I'm just not the kind of person would buy something just to show off. I never status signal. That's crass behavior."

I hate to generalize, but I'm going to anyway: In stark contrast with consumerists, anticonsumerists tend to have a deeper understanding (and a deeper humility) about human nature. We are primates. Which means signalling behavior is a structural and foundational part of who we are, and nearly everything we do plays a role in establishing our place in various social hierarchies. Thus to say "I never status signal" is delusional. It's far more accurate to say we are never not status-signalling. [2]

So, after hearing the confidently-stated rationalization above, it's instructive to consider the following two-part question 1) will this person buy the watch, and 2) will he never show it to anyone?

The likely answer: Yes to the first, and a painfully obvious NO to the second. Of course he will show it off. This is why this question doesn't work for consumerists. It's too easy to rationalize away and then, later--after you've forgotten all about the question and your answer--act inconsistently with what you said.

But if you're aware of both your ego and your propensity to rationalize (and more importantly, your propensity to rationalize without thinking you do), the question works. Flawlessly. People with healthy egos know they signal, but they also try their best to avoid buying things to impress others. And they try their best to avoid deceiving themselves about their real reasons for buying things.

Thus thinking about whether you'd never show a new potential purchase to anyone clarifies these reasons. Suddenly, certain purchases seem… off. Ridiculous even. You can safely put your wallet back into your pocket and go on living your life, rather than living to impress everyone else.

READ NEXT: When It Comes To Banning Soda, Marion Nestle Fights Dirty
AND: Oppositional Literature: The Key Tool For Achieving True Intellectual Honesty

[1] Once someone said to me, "But I like playing checkers!" Not in this metaphor you don't.
[2] Paradoxically, even the act of not status-signalling can be a form of status signal, depending on the nature of your social group. I'll kick your ass in frugality bro!!

I borrowed (okay, stole) the seed idea of this post from Wall Street Playboys, a provocative blog if there ever was one.

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