Why do we want to one-up one another?
November 11, 2006 12:03 AM   Subscribe

Why do people (myself included) feel the need to identify oneself with something cultural (i.e., book, movie, etc)-- as having been interested in it PRIOR to another person? What, if any, is the evolutionary purpose for this instinct?

For example, the other day I found myself , when hearing about someone's interest in the film "Running With Scissors", on the verge of explaining that it had been my favorite book for ages and that I'd been anticipating the film for quite some time-- (and then telling all about my experiences with the author's other works). This near-instantly struck me as a non-useful addition to the conversation, so I quelled it, but regardless...

I'm not the only one to feel (and do) this-- but why? What's the purpose? Why the "I knew of it first" impulse?

I'm fine with containing it within myself-- just curious as to why I feel it in the first place.
posted by mireille to Human Relations (26 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

I think it is cultural, a desire to be the leader of a trend/meme/??? rather than a follower. To be unique rather than one of the many. As if the original, unique experience is worth more than a common everyday experience.

(in what sense do you intend evolutionary?)
posted by edgeways at 12:27 AM on November 11, 2006

You are likely just trying to say "Look, I'm cool too", or "I'm smart", or even "I'm cooler and smarter than you". I don't think it is mean-spirited, but likely comes from some level of insecurity.

It's the same basis for the know-it-all. They'll tell you they do it just because they think everyone else would be just as interested in what they know to be interesting, but it's really just because they need to show the world that they are important too.

We all do it to some degree. And I don't think it is horrible when used sparingly to the right audience. If you are concerned, just try reminding yourself that there are better ways to make people find what you are about interesting. Explore that and you may no longer feel the need to jump in with extraneous info.

That's my armchair psych opinion anyway.
posted by qwip at 12:27 AM on November 11, 2006

I would imagine that it has something to do with the way our tastes help to define us. As John Cusack's character in High Fidelity puts it: "It's what you like, not what you are like."* And if what you like is also liked by millions of others and everyone you know, then your sense of who you are is diminished. You become another trend-follower, instead of a trend-setter. Maybe by pointing out to others that you saw that movie / read that book / loved that band before it went mainstream, you're making sure others know that your taste is not informed merely by what's currently popular.

*And of course, I quote a movie loved by many, that was first a book loved by many. I haven't even read the book, so feel free to point out that his character said it in the book first.
posted by good in a vacuum at 12:29 AM on November 11, 2006 [3 favorites]

Evolutionary psychologist, ethnologist, anthro-sociologist I am not, but it seems that throughout our periods of survivial as necessity rather than survival as just being, that the ones who found something necessary first were the ones who procured more for their families. Perhaps they found the best water source in the area, or an incredible berry source, or achieved the best hunt. All of these would seem to deserve them the first pickings and kudos from the entire community.

I can't fill in the interim as civilization grew, but it seems as I observe our culture around us that those who find that sweet band or know all about that suddenly cool artist seem to get mad props from the circle that would appreciate it. It happens all the time when I turn people on to an artist that I've known for a while that my friends(especially newer friends) didn't know about but fall in love with. The statement is usually like, "Dude, you rock". So, don't we all like getting appreciation from those around us?

For me, it's not feeling better or "first", but the joy at sharing my love with someone else. When they end up feeling the same, I feel closer to them and to the artist that created the work. I do get some satisfaction of being the one that knew it first, but with such a vast world of culture we in the hyper-connected western world have access to, everyone gets their times in the spotlight.
posted by a_green_man at 1:12 AM on November 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

what an interesting thread.. good ideas here
posted by lois1950 at 2:13 AM on November 11, 2006

I am guilty of this too (I have felt the need to point out to people that I read Fight Club before it was a movie and I liked Bran Van 3000's Drinking in LA before it was on that beer advert).

I think it's predominantly just a way of demonstrating superiority to others - "I liked that before he did, therefore I am superior and we will make better babies".
posted by alby at 2:45 AM on November 11, 2006

When "Toxic" came out, the people subjected to it in my car were in three camps: (1) It could be appreciated ironically, (2) one could pretend to appreciate it as a pretense of unpretentiousness, or (3) only a complete dork would even claim to appreciate this song. Friends held either of the first two positions, while my kids -- obviously less sophisticated and astute -- just denied any relationship to the woman driving the car. I'm listening to my song, I'm happy, but... Alone. Alone with the theoretical millions of Americans who made the song a hit, none of whom I know.

Then in Village Voice or somewhere I read an analysis of the perfection of pop songwriting that is "Toxic." See? See? I said. I told you! With a kiss from your lips I'm on a ride! It's GREAT. Oh but riiight... I'm pretending to believe the ironic Village Voice piece was sincere -- ironically. Or hmmm, some vacuous candyfloss crap is annointed by the learned as transcending other crap for the sheer purity of its crappiness -- how pretentious. Or great -- Mom has found some sort of dork magazine.

The song is the same, but the social context of art is going to be part of the experience of it. No one wants to seem like the social context is the only part of the art he values, so he is sure to let you know that he liked it before he knew it would be popular to do so. At the same time, he wants to have that shared experience with you. He wants you to like what he likes. Whether you do will shape his experience.

Actually all this is self-serving.
I just want credit for hipping you all to "Toxic." -- if you didn't already know.
posted by Methylviolet at 3:06 AM on November 11, 2006 [4 favorites]

To armchair hypothesise even more; I'd agree with a_green_man above that one could take it as harking back to hunter gathering 'I found the food, I'm the daddy' but also we have to remember that we are social beings also. Being social beings then we want to be with the powerful, esteemed in-crowd. If an individual is seen as a conduit to the clued up in-crowd, the soon to be trend, then it may not be surprising that those we share it with value us for it and we get a kick out of being first. Just a thought and no facts or figures to back this up.
posted by Gratishades at 3:20 AM on November 11, 2006

Dude, I was riding fixed gear bikes before every messenger-wanna-be and hipster in town. Wait, did I just do it? It's just simple one-upmanship.
posted by fixedgear at 4:39 AM on November 11, 2006

It takes years to build up a deeply special relationship with another person. But once that relationship is built, it's extremely strong, unique and defining. It seems fundamentally wrong for someone else to claim a casually claim relationship with your best friend, wife, husband, father, brother, etc. -- without mentioning you and your stronger claim.

Art is able to create this same feeling, but very quickly. You can read a book once (or see a movie once) and feel like it is "family." It doesn't matter than millions of other people have read the same book. The thing that makes storytelling work is that it hooks into intimate parts of us. So it feels wrong for someone else to claim a connection -- especially a casual one. Your connection isn't casual. It's profound and deep and they need to KNOW that.

And, of course, there are those special movies, book and songs that you've watched, read or listened to over and over for years -- those ones that really have become a deep part of who you are. You are married to those objects. Of course you feel proprietary about them!

I suspect there's much truth to the posts here about trying to gain superiority, but that's not a very big part of my personality. I'm generally happy being the beta dog. But I too feel this urge (though I almost never act on it). I especially feel it when there's some novel or film that means the world to me -- that I've lived with and grown up with -- and I hear someone say, "yeah, that's a kind of fun book" or "yeah, I enjoyed that movie." KIND OF FUN? ENJOYED IT? I'm not religious, but I imagine a Christian would feel the same way if someone said, "Jesus? He seems like sort of a nice guy."
posted by grumblebee at 6:29 AM on November 11, 2006 [7 favorites]

There's a big difference between liking something that everyone else likes, because you like it too and you would anyway whether or not it was popular, and liking something that everyone else likes, because everyone else likes it. The former means that you make choices and have taste, the latter means that you are a sheep without free will. Naturally, we all want to be in the first category.

From an evolutionary point of view, the person who likes the good stuff first is analogous to the mutation itself. For example, suppose you have a population of black moths living in a white forest, who would benefit from white coloring. There's a difference between being the first white moth (a mutation), and one of the countless other white moths that is spawned because that first white moth was able to survive. Similarly, when a new quality artist emerges on the scene (especially if it's 'indie' and there's no marketing mechanism in place to give them momentum), their popular success depends heavily on that first group of people bold enough to say to their friends, 'Here is something new, which has not yet been deemed cool or uncool. And I am going to take all of my own credibility to tell the difference and put it on the line to say that this is cool. Are you going to argue with me?' Cut to ten, twenty years later, when what we're talking about turns out to be REM. Of course those first fans want credit for liking them before they got famous...implicitly, claiming that credit means saying 'People like me made that band possible, you plebe! Without my discerning taste, and confidence in that taste, sheep like you would never have had the pleasure of having that stuff spoon-fed to you by MTV!' And that's got to feel good, right?
posted by bingo at 6:41 AM on November 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not to seem all superior or anything, but I was asking these sorts of questions *way* before you.
posted by The Confessor at 7:23 AM on November 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

It seems unlikely in the extreme that identifying yourself as being "first" in appreciation of an art form or piece is a specific instinct that was selected for by an evolutionary process. It is, in fact, a good example of something that is culturally learned: the value of various art forms is culturally dependent. The value of "discovering" something is culturally learned, and often materially reinforced. For example, people who "discover" artists can make huge sums off of cheaply purchased (or gifted) early art after the person becomes famous. Friends who introduce you to a new artists that you like gain your appreciation and respect. This process reinforces the value of knowing something "first". Even in school, we are often rewarded for being the first to understand something, the first to get something done.

The thing that strikes me about your question is that you start with the behaviour, and ask why did evolution select this, instead of starting with evolution and asking what evolutionary selections could result in this behaviour. While the behaviour itself is defined by the culture we live in, it falls into larger behavioural categories of in-group/out-group definition, competition, and art-appreciation that almost certainly have evolutionary links. The behaviour can be better understood as the outcome of the interaction between several evolutionary predispositions, a particular material context (say, that includes a publishing and movie industry), and a particular set of social values that reinforce the behaviour. All resulting in something that feels like an "impulse".

(and a note to Gratishades and a_green_man, bragging about finding food first was pretty much social suicide in many foraging tribes studied during the 20th century. It's difficult to extrapolate to our evolutionary ancestors, since people have very different customs even when they have similar subsistence patterns, but it would not be my inclination to link the behaviour the OP describes to supposed foraging behaviour.)
posted by carmen at 7:31 AM on November 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

He's a friend and I knew him before ya
Oh yeah
Your famous friend well I blew him before ya
Oh yeah

I don't have an answer, but I suspect it may lie somewhere in the answers to these questions in a hypothetical statistical survey:

a) what's the prevailing gender of subjects most often exhibiting said behaviour?
and b) what's the median age?
posted by pleeker at 7:43 AM on November 11, 2006

According to psychologists, one of the tasks of the 20s is to develop a "public self." Generally on your own for the first time, with your first real job, you start defining yourself through your outward appearance of success -- partners, clothes, gadgets, house, car, music. You use such things to measure your worth against those around you, to develop a sense of who you are.

In the 30s, people start to focus more on their own inner guidance. Opinions from others begin to matter a bit less; someone not liking your clothes or music is less likely to feel as threatening, because those sorts of things don't tend to define your sense of self anymore.

I point this out because it seems like people in their teens and 20s, and people who discovered the art or music in question in their teens and 20s, seem to do this most often. It's a way, I think, of defending your sense of self, and it seems developmentally appropriate (though not "evolutionary") for people growing up in a consumer society. As teenagers and 20-somethings, we begin to learn who we are by trying on these material things -- because they're easier to try and discard than spiritual or emotional things -- and those help prop our selves up so that we can develop further.

I would point out that the High Fidelity quote comes at the beginning of the movie, and by the end [SPOILER, OF A SORT] he's completely reversed that, and that reversal constitutes his growing up.[/SPOILER]
posted by occhiblu at 8:32 AM on November 11, 2006 [3 favorites]

Discovering something new and making it personal is an esteem and comfort issue. Its like when new people start moving into your town and building condos. You see them as foreign outsiders. This interferes with your sense of domestic bliss. Its xenophobia at its core. Evolutionary? Who knows, but there is a drive in humans to distrust other humans not like themselves, not in their family, not from around here, etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:55 AM on November 11, 2006

I tend to not toot my own superiority/hipness, which has thrown me in even more uncomfortable situations where someone I know does it for me. Now, when I do toot, I try to frame it so it's doesn't sound snobbish, which isn't always easy.

It is difficult being the coolest person in the room.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:10 AM on November 11, 2006

It’s about having better radar and sharper senses, being a more acute hunter/gatherer with a broader, deeper awareness of one’s surroundings. Doesn’t matter if the object of the hunt is cultural or nutritional; if I’m on it first, it still suggests that if you stick with me, you’ll always have the freshest yummies.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:47 AM on November 11, 2006

I think the issue isn't as simple as the superiority of the early adopter, but about context. Usually if something is yours alone, you have a private relationship with it and the context is very unique to, say, a given subculture. But when things become mainstream, the object itself changes--it may not become worse, but it becomes different in character, so by stating that you liked it before it was famous, you aren't necessarily claiming first dibs, but a relationship with an entirely different object.
posted by kensanway at 11:19 AM on November 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not everything is evolutionary.
posted by delmoi at 11:19 AM on November 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Everybody may love a parade, but most also subscribe to bandwagon aversion.
posted by rob511 at 12:28 PM on November 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

You never know, because evolutionary psychology theorists are highly inventive, but I suspect even the most fanatic among them would have a hard time finding the exact caveman parallel of the urban hipster priding himself on having first discovered the coolest new thing everyone else heard about one year later.

It's one effect of marketing, and marketing does exploit very basic impulses, but it creates new ones too. The early adopters may believe they're asserting their immunity from its influence yet they're just reinforcing that influence. No wonder they're the most prized target. It's just a difference of scale.

(However, just saying 'oh wow it's been my favourite book for ages and I'm so looking forward to the movie' doesn't strike me as belonging in that category, if you're just stating that as a fact and to share a genuine interest.)
posted by pleeker at 1:17 PM on November 11, 2006

Everybody may love a parade, but most also subscribe to bandwagon aversion.

In America, in this society, it seems self-preservational to avoid the bandwagon in many circumstances. I don't think it matters so literally with your literary tastes as with, say, politics; but, the tendency to intentionally distance yourself from general stupidity transfers from one to the other.
posted by Netzapper at 1:36 PM on November 11, 2006

Slight derail, but, how many people are actually "bandwagon-averse"?

I'd say that, while there are certain groups (which someone who knows about AskMeFi probably belongs to) where being into the more obscure / left-field / up-and-coming parts of culture makes you cool, the vast majority of people in this world still get their current affairs from the evening news on TV, their music from the top 40, and their movies from the local multiplex.

Being into some band nobody else ever heard of, for the average person, would make you a weirdo, and if you so much as described the plot outline of "Running With Scissors" to them, they'd look askance at you and avoid your table in the lunchroom.

So, my answer to "why do we do this?" is "most people don't -- you're obviously in a subcultural group which prizes that kind of knowledge as one of its defining characteristics".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:24 PM on November 11, 2006

I agree with occhiblu, on the how this issue is age-related -- used to matter to me way more than it does now.
posted by Rash at 8:41 AM on November 12, 2006

I'm rather bandwagon-averse. A good term! The one thing that, at one point, bugged me, was about espresso drinks. I fell in love with the stuff instantly, when I was 17, in Italy. But it was 1974. It irritated me when the stuff becamse so...common. But that was when I was past the age when it was reasonable/typical to point this out, so I just appreciate the fact that, these days, it's easy to get a quick espresso when I want it.
posted by Goofyy at 10:08 AM on November 13, 2006

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