Do Wealthy People Consume High Culture to Signal Their Wealth?

I am a student of social interactions in groups. I love observing how people’s behavior change when they are in the presence of certain types of people.

Covert signaling is a main part of our social interactions. In Silicon Valley, for example, people love to signal how busy they are (“I’ll find the time”). In a potentially romantic situation, people signal their plans for the evening, their marital status, and the like all through carefully chosen vocabulary.

A rich adult friend in the Bay Area told me awhile ago, “Collecting art is also important. It’s not all about business.” It got me thinking: Is collecting art — and consuming other forms of high culture — mostly signaling? Do wealthy people consume high culture because they now can, or is it signaling?

High culture, for me, includes:

  • Opera, symphony, ballet
  • Museums
  • Fine cuisine
  • Wine or watch collecting
  • Fine art

If signaling is a main reason why people do certain social / cultural activities, it’s no wonder the wealthy have had to resort to purchasing mega “experiences” (like hiring Elton John at your daughter’s wedding). After all, many cultural products which used to be available only to wealthy are now available to common folk. While being seen at the opera used to be a sign of high status, I would bet that the income levels of opera patrons is more diverse than it used to be.

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