Every choice comes at a cost: choosing one alternative means giving up another. By spending time writing at my local coffee shop, I cannot spend that time hiking in the mountains. By having Mexican food for dinner, I cannot have sushi. And by spending $5 on beer, I cannot spend that $5 on lunch. Or on gas for my car. Or towards a down payment on a home. Or on a donation to charity. You get the picture. The true cost of that $5 beer is whatever the next best use of that $5 would have been; that’s the opportunity cost of buying the beer.
Such opportunity costs are critical decision inputs, but people often neglect them. A recent paper by Shane Frederick and colleagues elegantly demonstrated that without explicit reminders, people act as though they do not have any opportunity costs. Merely reminding consumers given the option to buy a DVD that “not buying the DVD” means “holding onto that money for other purchases” (a fact that is self-evident upon a moment’s reflection) decreases the number of people buying the DVD!
Why do people neglect such an important and obvious factor in their purchase decisions? It turns out that “What can you do with $10?” is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Elke Weber and Eric Johnson have found that because of the way our memory is structured, it is difficult for people to generate examples of categories like “things to do with $10” even when prompted. We are more likely to use inputs that come to mind more easily, so if it’s hard to think of opportunity costs, we’re unlikely to use them in our decisions. The result is that when given the opportunity to buy a DVD for $10, we ask ourselves “Do we want to buy the DVD or not?” rather than “Do we want to buy the DVD or use the money on something else instead?” If we like the DVD, it’s easier to say yes to the first question than the second.This begs an important follow-up: What if other uses did jump to mind? Would we be more likely to think of other alternatives as potential opportunity costs? A paper based on my dissertation research suggests the answer is “yes!” Some forms of money are so closely associated with certain products that the money makes those products jump to mind. Consider a Starbucks card, one particular type of money. I’d wager that you immediately thought about coffee as one possible use. Starbucks is so closely associated with coffee for most people that the thought of a Starbucks card triggers the thought of coffee automatically. As a result, people think about coffee as a potential opportunity cost when they spend a Starbucks card.
Why does that matter? A $10 bill is always at least as valuable as a $10 Starbucks card—you could use your $10 bill to buy anything, including a $10 Starbucks card—but that value is not so obvious when no good alternative uses come to mind. To test whether this holds, I asked one set of self-proclaimed Starbucks lovers whether they were willing to make a $10 purchase using a $10 Visa card—85% said they were. I asked another set whether they were willing to make the $10 purchase using a $10 Starbucks card—only 63% said they were! The $10 Visa card had to be at least as valuable as the Starbucks card, and yet these Starbucks lovers were more willing to spend it! Apparently opportunity costs did not come to mind when using the Visa card but did when using the Starbucks card.
What are the broader implications? Stretching beyond the data, some people are concerned that they don’t pay enough attention to the tradeoffs they face. For these people, using “mental budgets” (for food, for entertainment, for clothes, etc.) can help them automatically think about tradeoffs by creating associations between money and its possible uses. Just like in the Starbucks study, having a mental budget for food can change a decision from one of “should I spend this money on happy hour today?” to “should I spend this money on happy hour today or on groceries tomorrow?”
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll discuss findings like these through this Costly Choices blog, including research on how people think through and make costly choices, how they spend their money, how they plan ahead for the future, and related topics in consumer behavior. Until then, when faced with a tempting purchase, try asking yourself “how else could I spend this money instead?” And then when you find yourself paralyzed with indecision (a topic for another entry), just enjoy the beer.
A dollar is what a dollar buys.
Collage and Authorship
Rave can essentially be seen as collage, on many levels. Collage is nothing new to youth culture. Dick Hebdige in his classic text Subculture and the Meaning of Style", drew attention to the breakdown of image and referents presented to us by punk, but instead of collage he used the anthropo-logical term 'bricolage'. ('Bricolage' can roughly be translated as artisan-like inventiveness.) Hebdige likened bricolage to early surrealist experiments with collage and spontaneity. He quotes Alfred Jarry:
"It is conventional to call 'monster' any blending of dissonant elements....I call 'monster every original inexhaustible beauty."
Hebdige describes these acts of bricolage as subversive practices'. He also argues that the 'subculture punk bricolages together bits and pieces of previous subcultural worlds to 'disrupt and reorganise meaning' and it is this activity which makes punk subyersive, for example the use of rips and saftey pins in punk dress codes which were put together with school uniforms.
But his analysis of the subversive activity of bricolage is confined to visual signifiers. In rave, the concept of 'bricolage' could be applied to the techniques of collage/sampling. Rave music effectiyely destabilises the listener's values and common sense perceptions, which is reminiscent of Andre Breton's Manifestos of 1924 and 1929 which established the basic premise of surrealism: that a new surreality would emerge through the subversion of common sense, the collapse of prevalent logical categories and oppositions (e.g. dream/reality, work/play) and the "celebration of the abnormal and the forbidden". I think these oppositions are to some extent broken down in a rave, as the music, the lights and the atmosphere conspire to take the raver out of the restraints of body and fixed identity to a new, altered state. The experiences of yirtual reality and raves have close connections with dreaming, in that they are like giving in to the sublime flux of the unconscious.
Jon Savage has suggested that in the field of popular culture "to ambitious musicians, the past is a memory bank from which the future can be constructed". It is by endlessly and seamlessly sampling from a-historical and international sources that rave music creates a sublime atmosphere of an ever-lasting present.
The art critic Mario Perinola says in his essay "Time and Time and Time Again":
"Now we are dealing with a confusion between past and present which excludes the possibility of authenticating the lived moment."
A dance track which was being played on the radio a month ago can seem as remote as music from the seventies, and traditional tribal drumming from another continent can seem closer and more familiar to the present. Rave music plays on this confusion between past and present to create an intense, chaotic reality for the raver. In this synthesized contraction of the past everything is available, everything can be delayed, slowed down, speeded up or distorted. It is this contraction of the past which excludes the possibility of authenticating the lived moment. If everything can be manipulated and distorted, is anything real, authentic, to be accepted at face value? Gary Cobain, member of 'Future Sound of London', said in Equinox:
"If you look at the sounds that we collect, it's basically a very very cheap way of making yourself look anything but the truth. It's a very clever way of making yourself look like the most cosmopolitan, travelled, interesting, multi-headed individual. We're masters of the machine, and that's all."
Perinola argues that we are on a passage from European derived aesthetic to a 'planetary' one. He later calls this a trans-aesthetic, which cuts across historical, geographical and cultural boundaries and in so doing dissolves traditional oppositions:
"....trans-aesthetic communication no longer occurs through forms that are inseparable from determined historical contents, but through structures that can sustain the most diverse meanings, in accordance with the concrete historical situations in which they are called upon to operate."
Using the structure of collage, rave can intersect the past from this new perspective. The essence of rave is that there are no boundaries, and all music is interchangeable. However, traditions have grown up around rave enabling young people to forge identities around it, and media and entertainment industries to make profits from it. But there have been times when rave does succeed in cutting across defined boundaries: by mixing hip-hop and euro-pop and rock, Balearic beat broke down traditional subcultural boundaries, and made similarities out of apparently diverse forms. Likewise, Jungle puts together a diverse range of musical styles not witnessed since Acid House on the rave scene.
This sampling process can become very interesting in certain contexts. For example, when Junglists sample from Jazz, a form which is considered 'art', they are disrespecting it and 'using' it. At the same time they borrow from the ontology of horror movies, a cultural form that society sees as trash culture, and turn it into something semi-religious. It's a celebration of dark forces, and of underclass life. By putting the two of these things together, an art form with trash culture, it throws open the whole question of what is high or low culture and what is art. It questions the value system which is commonly ascribed to various cultural forms, and suggests that all culture may be of equal value, if its ultimate purpose is the reclamation of the alienated objects of 'mass society'.
Gary Cobain has made the same point in an interview for Raygun magazine: "I'm constantly torn between what the history of music says has value and what I've found has value."
As Ian Chambers has observed in his essay "Maps for the Metropolis", collage dressing and musical eclecticism dominated the 80's.
"Previous rules gave way to more open prospects of mixing the already seen, the already worn, the already played, the already heard."
Rave culture has been able to take this cultural eclecticism further by embracing new technology which has made it possible to seamlessly and endlessly collage from any aspect of life. In doing so it problematises prevailing notions of private property. Gary Cobain describes the activity of collage when creating rave music:
"The whole authorship of sounds changes. We carry on sound that we're receiving. I wasn't the girl screaming in the park, that wasn't me. There's a performance there - she did it; thanks a lot, I took it."
Of course rave is not unique in this activity; hip-hop raises the same questions of authorship and the accessibility of anyone being able to produce rave culture is reminiscent of the punks' mythical calling to urban youth: "Here's one chord, here's two more, now start your own band" . Like punk, raves offer a liberation from the notion of expertise.
The sampling process also enables people to repossess culture, create something new out of it, rather than treating culture as alienated objects handed down to the individual for passive consumption. By changing and mutating the sounds that we receive, and ideas that are given about the function of objects and technology, people reclaim them as their own. Michel De Certeau in "The Practice of Everyday Life" describes the activity of reclaiming culture by reading, but this could equally be applied to sampling music and sound:
"He insinuates into another person's text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation; he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it like the internal rumblings of one's body ... A different world (the reader's) slips into the author's place."
Rave poaches or squats on everyone else's culture. And it is an irony that the 90's have witnessed the convergence of rave culture with other DIY cultures such as travellers and squatters.
According to de Certeau, marginality is no longer limited to minority groups, but instead is massive and pervasive. It is the non-producers of culture who are the marginalised, and it is through their anonymous, unreadable and unsymbolized cultural activity within daily life that the marginalised articulate themselves.