Never Go To Vegas, And Other Unspoken Rules Of Being An A-Lister

Dec 19, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2018 3:00 pm

All social classes have unspoken rules.

From A-list celebrities to teachers, doctors, lawyers, and journalists — there are social norms that govern our decisions, whether we realize it or not.

Researcher Elizabeth Currid-Halkett studies social networks, and has observed certain patterns across swaths of American culture. In her book Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, she looks at the super elite: the celebrities who populate the Hollywood Hills and the tabloids in our grocery stores. She makes a distinction between fame and celebrity.

"Fame is simply people knowing who you are," she says. "The sheer number of people who know who someone is, is very different from a public being fixated upon someone." For example, we all know who Bill Gates is — but we aren't all wondering what Bill Gates ate for breakfast today, the way we might wonder that about Beyoncé, or Barack Obama, or Jennifer Aniston.

This week on Hidden Brain, we look at the invisible qualities that all celebrities have in common, and how our interest in them builds because of cues we get from one another. Later in the episode, we look at another elite group: the yoga-loving, Whole Foods-shopping, highly-educated group that Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calls The Aspirational Class.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Being a celebrity can be boiled down to a simple formula. Follow these rules, and you can be an A-lister, too.


VEDANTAM: Rule No. 1 - go to the right parties.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's the year's most electrifying red carpet with exclusive...


VEDANTAM: Rule No. 2 - hang out with the right people.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Two of the most successful singers in the biz - Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift. I mean, the two have been BFFs for, like, ever.


VEDANTAM: Rule No. 3 - be seen, but in small doses.

ELIZABETH CURRID-HALKETT: Overexposure, as we know, actually does make people lose interest.


VEDANTAM: Rule No. 4 - never go to Vegas.


JON FAVREAU: (As Mike) What are you talking about, Vegas?

VINCE VAUGHN: (As Trent) Vegas, baby, Vegas.

CURRID-HALKETT: If you go to Las Vegas, it actually pulls your star power down.

VEDANTAM: Now, maybe you are thinking, this episode isn't for me. I'm not an A-lister. I have no desire to be one. I don't read Us Weekly or keep up with the Kardashians. But Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's research into elite social groups might just apply to you, too. Elizabeth is a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California. But if you look at the book she's written, she's actually fascinated by social networks from Hollywood to the highly-educated people who spend their time and money on things like...

CURRID-HALKETT: Yoga, breastfeeding, buying organic food, attending farmers markets, listening to NPR, reading the books on The New York Times best-seller list - these are all physical manifestations of your cultural capital.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN - elite groups and how our choices are shaped by the people around us.


VEDANTAM: When you look at which stars shine the brightest in Hollywood, do you ever wonder why certain people are famous and not others? Talent certainly has something to do with it. Wealth and beauty don't hurt. But in her book "Starstruck," Elizabeth says there's something else at work.

CURRID-HALKETT: One thing that happens with, you know, interests, fads, and fashions and fixations on particular celebrities is that there is a collective interest. But that collective interest is recursive.

VEDANTAM: Meaning, if lots of people are paying attention to something or someone, that begets more attention.

CURRID-HALKETT: There are complicated reasons for why this is. And one of the things that I think really propels this kind of network effect is that in cultural markets and in taste - which, in many ways, celebrities are a part of a taste-driven market - we look to each other for signals for what to pay attention to. And in many ways, this explains the success of lots of taste-driven things. So whether we're talking about films or music or artwork, are the objects or people who rise to the top really that much better or that much more interesting than everyone else? Probably not that much more.

The disproportionate win is the function of what economists call a winner-take-all market, which is that because we're looking for clues, we look at the person next to us and what they're paying attention to. And so that then we pay attention to it, too, and then someone looks to us. And then it's really hard to say if that thing - whether it's a Mark Rothko painting or my friend on Facebook - is the thing to pay attention to. But by that point, we already are.

VEDANTAM: When Elizabeth Currid-Halkett talks about celebrities, she isn't talking about all famous people. She makes a distinction between people who are well-known and people who fascinate us.

CURRID-HALKETT: Fame is simply people knowing who you are. And the sheer number of people who knows who someone is is very different from a public being fixated upon someone. Oh, that Bill Gates, isn't he in technology? - is very different from, what did Bill Gates eat for breakfast today? - and many, many people wanting to know.

VEDANTAM: It can be bewildering the way we care desperately about the details of some people's lives, but not others. Barack Obama is a popular politician, but not every president becomes a celebrity in the way that he did. I remember reading an article in The New York Times about the number of almonds Obama ate every night after dinner. We know exactly which kind of socks Jennifer Aniston likes to wear and the type of diet Beyonce followed after the birth of her first child.

CURRID-HALKETT: I think that what has really changed, if we think about the evolution of celebrity, is that we have access to that material now. So celebrities have existed in some shape or form since probably the beginning of human civilization. We've always been more interested in certain people for things that transcend their talent, and we've been more interested in the personal details of certain people.

But in, you know, the Hollywood studio system, that was so much more controlled, and today, it's not by virtue of many different things. And so that focus on the number of almonds that President Obama used to eat - I want to say the number is seven. I'm not sure, but I remember that article and being very interested in this - that that is also a product of the fact that we can get that information.

VEDANTAM: Our ability to get that kind of personal information, coupled with the fact that we are drawn to what other people are drawn to - this is a formula for celebrity. We hear that Obama eats seven almonds and that other people care that Obama eats seven almonds. And suddenly, this detail seems fascinating. It reminded me of a study that the researcher Stanley Milgram once conducted in the late 1960s. He had someone walk along a sidewalk in New York City. The person walked down the street and then suddenly stopped and looked up. The experiment was documented in an educational video.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We are all individuals, but we live in a world with other people, and we must often accommodate to them. To what extent can we remain individuals in the social world? What kinds of pressures do others exert on us to conform, and how do we deal with such pressures? How can social psychology study the issues of independence and conformity?

VEDANTAM: Most pedestrians ignored the man and kept walking. But a few passers-by, about 4 percent, stopped and they looked up too. Then the experimenters had a larger group suddenly stop and look up. When it wasn't just one person but a group, many more pedestrians stopped to look up as well, nearly 20 percent, almost five times more than before.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: As they increased the size of the initial crowd, they found that the proportion of passers-by who imitated the looking up response also increased.

VEDANTAM: We take our signals about what to pay attention to from one another. If one person's looking up, who cares? But if 10 people are looking up, well, there must be something to see.

CURRID-HALKETT: That's exactly right. And there've been a number of different studies since Milgram where social scientists have looked at this as well. Anita Elberse did this really interesting study where she argued that big companies like Amazon actually create a collective, cohesive fan base for things because they allow us to coalesce around big hits. There's another really interesting study done by Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik where they did this fascinating study between two different groups of people listening to music.

VEDANTAM: Let's think about a popular song from a few years ago.


CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) I threw a wish in the well. Don't ask me, I'll never tell. I looked at you as it fell, and now you're in my way. I'll trade my soul for a wish.

VEDANTAM: Now, the year that "Call Me Maybe" was released, 2012, there were a number of other pop songs that could have topped the charts, like why not this one?


FUN: (Singing) Anymore. Oh, oh, oh.

VEDANTAM: Or this one.


KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller. Doesn't mean I'm lonely when I'm alone. What doesn't kill you makes a fighter.

VEDANTAM: You could argue that "Call Me Maybe" was a catchier song. But did you feel that way the first time you heard it or was it only after everyone else held up the song as the song of the summer that it started to get stuck in your head? When a song becomes popular, we get signals from lots of people that we should pay attention to it. We hear it over...


JEPSEN: (Singing) So call me maybe.

VEDANTAM: ...And over...


JEPSEN: (Singing) So call me maybe.

VEDANTAM: ...And over again.


JEPSEN: (Singing) So call me maybe.

VEDANTAM: Then the hook's in our heads and before we know it, we somehow know all the words.


JEPSEN: (Singing) Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy. But here's my number, so call me maybe. It's hard to look right.

CURRID-HALKETT: The takeaway was essentially that if you didn't know what other people were listening to, there was much more chaos in the list of the most popular music. It was much more ambiguous, you know, what everyone thought was the best. But if listeners knew what others thought was good, that would actually compound upon itself. And then you got a much clearer list of the most popular songs.

VEDANTAM: At the heart of your book is an argument about how celebrities become celebrities. And you say it has a lot to do with being part of a very elite, invite-only network. What do you mean by that?

CURRID-HALKETT: So when I started looking at celebrities, I was trying to figure out if there were particular personal attributes, even talent attributes that drove, you know, the rise of a celebrity. And it was really hard to come up with them. Simultaneously, I was really trying to understand the social dynamics of people who worked in creative industries. My first book, "The Warhol Economy," was about how creative industries worked in New York City. And it was a very qualitative book.

And I found when I spoke to artists and musicians and designers that despite the fact that they didn't have a lot of money and that a lot of them needed space to do their work, they felt compelled to live in New York City even if, you know, getting a big warehouse space in Ohio would have served them well in a practical sense, that they needed their social lives in New York. And so when I finished that book, I really wanted to get a sense of the social networks and the social milieu in which creative people, you know, lived and worked in and how important it was.

So I teamed up with my colleague Gilad Ravid, and he and I looked at photographic data of celebrities. And we used Getty Images, and we looked at all of the caption information of photographs in their entertainment catalog over the course of one year. And what we tried to do was make sense of not just who is in photographs together but who went to the same parties, the same events, and where those parties were and if there was a pattern in who showed up at parties together. So was there a randomness to the photographs? Was there something that drove why people showed up?

So what we tried to look at was a way to cut things off. You know, so how could we organize all of these people in the database? So we looked at "Forbes' Star Currency," which ranked stars, you know, based on their star power. And we divided them into - the top 60 into three different groups, A list, B list, C list. And we then looked at these stars in the photographs. So we corresponded these two different measures. And what we found was that the only group that had a non-random, very closed connected network, a click, essentially, were the A list and that they really reinforce their position by spending time with each other at the same parties over and over again and not spending time with anyone else.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It was like a slumber party, you know? It was amazing to be around so many wonderful women.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's one A-list slumber party.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It was an A-list slumber party.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I am here with Naomi Watts for "The Impossible," best actress Oscar nominee; Amy Adams, best supporting actress nominee; SAG best ensemble nominated, Oscar nominated, everything nominated - "Silver Linings Playbook."

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: I can't believe this is happening twice.

CURRID-HALKETT: What was also interesting was that the B-list and the C-list - they did not have those same connections, even with each other. So they had a much more disparate network amongst each other. And in fact, their categories were almost arbitrary. It was really if you were in this top-20 group, that you were extraordinarily exclusive and actually perpetuated that exclusivity by spending time just with each other.

VEDANTAM: So if this is the case, then a question arises, which is, how does anyone ever crack the A-list club? If it's essentially a closed club, and the people in the club take great pains to keep others out and the only way to become an A-list celebrity is to be invited to the club, it creates something of a - you know, a conundrum, which is, how do you actually break into the club?

CURRID-HALKETT: I argue in the book that it's - you take this kind of quantum leap. So it's not a intuitive thing. Like, if I just keep toiling away as a B-list celebrity, at some point I'm going to be A-list. That's not how it happens. So something big either happens in your career or big happens in your social life, like you get married to an A-lister or you suddenly are, you know, best friends with an A-lister. And in some way, they allow you to permeate the A-list. But you can also do it because of your career.

When I was looking over "Starstruck" in preparation for this interview, I noticed that in this far corner is Zoe Kravitz. So she wasn't an A-lister or a B-lister. I think at the time of organizing this, she was a C-lister in this database. But, of course, she's now one of the key stars of "Big Little Lies," which is an extraordinarily - television show on HBO. People are obsessed with it. She's amazing in it.


ZOE KRAVITZ: (As Bonnie Carlson) OK, it's shocking and a bit disturbing, but I think it is important that we separate the nobility of the cause from the misguided means of pursuing it. You know, we champion the former and dissuade her from the latter, right?

CURRID-HALKETT: And so where would she be now? I'd imagine she's probably moving to A-list, and that's a function of something that happened to her career. And those are the ways in which you permeate it if you're not, you know, a young star is born, and you can immediately become A-lister because you've starred in this great film and you're, you know, this actress or actor who was just discovered. But the other way is, if you're already in the Hollywood machine, that you jump in as if you've either connected with someone or you've done something with your career that enables you to leap.

VEDANTAM: You found that it makes a difference where you get photographed and that there are, in fact, only three places in the world where it's actually important to get photographed if you want to crack one of these super-exclusive clubs.

CURRID-HALKETT: So yes, this is an amazing finding. When we looked at all of the photographic data in our database - and we had something like 600,000 photographic events or photographs, rather - we found that 80 percent of them were taken in Los Angeles, New York or London. And that really did mean that in the eyes of the media, which then becomes the eyes of the public, you really had to be geographically bound to these places for people to know who you are and to become a celebrity.

Now, of course, some people don't want that. I mean, if you think about someone like Daniel Day Lewis, who's an incredibly revered actor - I think he actually just retired. But he lives out, I think, in the Midwest. He has no interest in this. So people know him because he is talented, but he's not a celebrity in the way that the stars who are photographed over and over again are. And we are then able to build an interest and a fixation on them.

VEDANTAM: And so if you're heading to Vegas to get photographed at a big social event, this might actually be something of a strategic mistake.

CURRID-HALKETT: So this was very interesting, that there were certain places that really upped star power. And one of those places is - you know, if you go somewhere, you know, international, like Tokyo, and if you're in London for a certain number of days. If you go to Las Vegas, it actually pulls your star power down. And I thought a lot about this. And I think one of the things is that it's not a hub for talent-driven star events, and it really is about just partying. And so there is a sense that going to Las Vegas really drives, you know, you're-famous-for-being-famous element. But if you're a - you know, a bona fide A-lister, you're going to the Vanity Fair Oscar party, but you're not making your way to some nightclub in Las Vegas.

VEDANTAM: So there's something very sad here because if you're a B-lister or a C-lister and you want to crack the A-list club, you know, and you're attending the events that you can get into, which might be in Las Vegas, for example, that might actually be hurting your chances to eventually make it into the A-list club, which leads us to the dispiriting idea that once a B-lister, always a B-lister.

CURRID-HALKETT: Well, I think that's a pretty good observation. It really depends on what your goal is. I mean, if one's goal is to just be, you know, on everyone's radar, to be in the tabloids and to possibly do something with that recognition, then go to Las Vegas. If your goal is to be revered as one of Hollywood's elite, it's a better idea to stay home.

VEDANTAM: Even if becoming an A-lister isn't your goal, Elizabeth's research might apply to you. After the break, we're going to talk about social forces that are more relevant to your life. That's going to be especially true if your life includes farmers markets, yoga classes and instantly recognizing this voice.


NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: And at the Supreme Court, if the legal questions were dry, the argument was not.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This week we're talking about elite groups, from A-list celebrities to a new social elite that Elizabeth Currid-Halkett has dubbed the aspirational class. This elite group is highly educated. Its members breast-feed their children. They spend money on things like organic produce and expensive Pilates classes. We sent producer Maggie Penman to a hotbed of the aspirational class, a Whole Foods in Washington, D.C. She asked shoppers a series of seemingly unrelated questions about their habits and choices, and we're going to hear some of their answers throughout this conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I think small farmers is really ideally where I would get most of my produce. I try to shop at farmer's markets as much as I can.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yeah. Organic food definitely because I'm a father of three kids, and I think it's important to give them healthy food.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: For my son, I only buy organic food.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I always buy organic food, if I'm not getting it out of my own garden. I don't want the chemicals. I don't want the pesticides. I don't want things that don't grow naturally from the earth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I do try to make choices that are local, sustainable, good for my body.

VEDANTAM: Now, these are all thoughtful people. When you ask them why they do yoga, they might say something like...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: It's good for my health. It's good for stretching. And I like the part that it's got a little bit of a meditative aspect reminding me to just kind of take a break from the day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Why do I do yoga? Because it makes me feel fabulous.

VEDANTAM: What if I told you that all of these well-meaning people making individual choices that are good for them and good for their families, that these people are creating a new social elite?


GWEN STEFANI: (Singing) If I was a rich girl, na-na-na-na na-na-na na-na-na na-na na-na na...

VEDANTAM: Its signifiers might not be fancy cars or flashy watches, but Elizabeth Currid-Halkett says this club is every bit as exclusive as the A-list.

CURRID-HALKETT: I started thinking about this book really through being inspired by Thorstein Veblen's book, "The Theory Of The Leisure Class," which I read many, many years ago as a graduate student and continue to refer to in my later work. And I was fascinated with his ability to characterize day-to-day behavior that revealed social position and economic position. But I also knew that things had changed a lot, and these, you know, ways in which we showed social position were not material anymore, or not entirely material. And another thing that seemed to be happening was that these kind of flashy signs of wealth were not celebrated anymore. I mean, you had the sort of flash in the 1980s, and you had, you know, some of that in 2002 with the tech bubble. And that really stopped being mainstream appropriate.

And so of course we still have plutocrats and private jets and oligarchs and their yachts, but that that became more complicated for most elites, that that type of outlandish material consumption and revealing of wealth was less interesting. And part of that is because the material goods that might show wealth in a day to day basis had become so commonplace. You know, lots of people have nice cars and flat-screen TVs.

VEDANTAM: It used to be that when we thought about people who were in an elite social class, we often noticed who they were because of conspicuous consumption. You make the argument that I think a lot of people would find difficult to follow, which is that the new social class, or the new marker of social class is what you call inconspicuous consumption. What do you mean by that?

CURRID-HALKETT: So this all started because I wanted to look at who bought silver spoons in America today because Thorstein Veblen's, you know, famous example was that, you know, the wealthy bought silver spoons and, even though they weren't more useful, in fact people purchased them because they were a sign of status. So I just - you know, to be honest with you - initially thought it would be kind of fun to see who's buying silver spoons these days. And so I looked with my doctoral student, Hyojung Lee, I looked at the Consumer Expenditure Survey, and we looked at flatware, and we noticed that it was not this top 1 percent that was spending all of this money on flatware. And so it got me thinking about, well, what do the rich spend money on now? And here we have this big data set of all these consumer items. Let's find out.

And what became really clear was that they were spending on things that weren't inherently material and obvious. And so the stats actually made me think more qualitatively about how the wealthy spend. And so you have tons and tons of stats showing that, really - I mean, inconspicuous consumption. So consumption we can't necessarily see drives a lot of wealthy spending today, whereas the middle class - and I mean this in the true sense, those in the 40th to 60th percentiles - are spending on material goods. What did that qualitatively look like? And so I looked around, and what you see is this use of cultural capital to show social position, and ways in which people talked wasn't about, you know, their fancy new car. It might be justified by it being diesel, or it's electric, and Pilates classes.

And then you look closely, and you're like, well, those are, like, you know, 20 bucks a pop. Like, how - like, if people are going to those three days a week, that's real money. And people buying all this organic food, which, if you look in the grocery store, it's, you know, sometimes at least 50 percent more expensive than the conventional fruit. And yet these became the practices that were inherently more expensive, and yet they weren't screaming wealth in the way that previous elite spending patterns might.

VEDANTAM: I asked Elizabeth for examples of things that people purchase that would be conspicuous forms of consumption...

CURRID-HALKETT: Luxury cars, fancy electronics, fancy handbags, really, you know, expensive watches.

VEDANTAM: ...And inconspicuous consumption.

CURRID-HALKETT: So education, nannies, gardeners, housekeepers, pensions, retirement, health care. These are things that people can't see, and yet they're actually a lot more expensive than having a nice watch or a nice bag.

VEDANTAM: Elizabeth has noticed in her research a shift in spending patterns among the wealthiest Americans, away from the flashy and toward the invisible. Like, for example, breast-feeding.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: So we understand that it, like, helps, like, build their immunity when they're really small?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: My first child didn't get his first cold until a month after I stopped nursing, and that was 16 months.

VEDANTAM: Elizabeth argues that breastfeeding is an important marker of entry into this new social elite.

CURRID-HALKETT: When I became a mom, you know, I immediately breast-fed my kid, and I signed up for Mommy and Me classes. And, you know, my husband and I said, we should definitely get an education fund started so that, you know, he can go to whatever college he wants to. And breast-feeding, by the way, you know, just like saving in a college fund, were just the things that my friends did too. So everyone was just doing this, and we didn't even question it. I mean, everyone went to Mommy and Me classes and read to their kids from, you know, day one of life. And it pushed me to think about, well, does everyone do this? And when you look at the data, you realize what a bubble you're in, right? You're in a bubble if you can save money at all. You're in a bubble if you can save for your kid's education. And you're in a bubble if you are breast-feeding your kids for six months to a year.

And that made me realize that these were all signifiers of being a part of, you know, an educated class with good maternity leave and a decent salary, and that those were, again, markers of my social position and they were for lots of people in my group. And if I actually never left my group or thought about it, I would just think that's how people behaved. And you realize that, wow, that's not everyone. And yet, in my world, it was everyone.

VEDANTAM: So when you think about breast-feeding, it's interesting that you're thinking about it in terms of inconspicuous consumption because people would say, what's being consumed here? You're deciding to breast-feed your child. How is that consumption of any kind?

CURRID-HALKETT: Well, you're actually spending an awful lot of money to breast-feed your child because time is money today. In a knowledge-driven economy where you know, frankly, the flexibility of work life is a product often of education and well-paid jobs and good maternity leave and good health benefits, that's expensive. And so that was the thing that really was interesting to me when I thought about how elite spend money today, is that they spend it to get time back - spending on gardeners and child care and housekeeping. That's that's what that is. That's, I don't want to have to do this with my free time, and I have the money to not have to do it.

And breast-feeding is something that is incredibly time intensive, and it takes a long time to get the hang of it for a lot, a lot of moms. And I'll add something else. And this is something from one of the sociologists I interviewed. You also have to be in a social world where you feel comfortable if you're going to do that in public. And so actually all of that is built into, you know, being in an environment where you feel that you're safe and that there's other people doing that, and then the fact that the time that you devote towards breast-feeding is expensive.

VEDANTAM: So we've talked a little bit about inconspicuous consumption at the front end of life. I'd like to go to another example of inconspicuous consumption that you mention, at the other end of life, at the time we die. You'll find there are really interesting differences now between rich and poor in how we think about death and how we conduct funerals.

CURRID-HALKETT: Yeah. So one of the interesting statistics or findings in my analysis is that the poor spend over a quarter more on funerals than the rich. I was stumped by this finding, to be perfectly honest. So I asked my colleague, David Sloane, who's a historian at the University of Southern California, and he has written on funerals and cemeteries. And I said, what to make of this? And so as he explained it to me, one of the things that happens is that, you know, poor families have much greater social capital, and so the funeral becomes a very, very important center of, you know, social gathering. You know, even if it's of course solemn, and it's honoring the person who just died, that it does become a place for the entire community to come together. And, you know, think about sort of conventionally, you know, like the Irish wake, for example. And so it then has these performative aspects, right? So it's about, you know, showing the honor towards the person who's died, making a big deal. It's also that you have more people there. So it becomes a much bigger event than it does for wealthier families.

VEDANTAM: There are also class differences in burial practices.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: I would like to be cremated. I think burial is a poor use of land space.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #12: I would want to be cremated, I think.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #13: Well, it has become my family's standard to be cremated, and I think it has a lot to do with a sense of an overcrowded planet.

VEDANTAM: Increasingly, cremating the dead has become a signifier of class.

CURRID-HALKETT: Yeah. So this is another interesting distinction between the rich and the poor. The rich cremate more and the poor bury more. And, again, I was stumped by this. But again, when I spoke with my colleague, David, he said, well, it's because they have very different attitudes towards death, and the wealthy tend to keep it very private. And this, of course, inherently lowers its expenses. You might extend this to this idea that, you know, the poor have greater amounts of social capital, and so again the concentration of people coming makes it more expensive. And that they actually, the richer and the more educated you are is the more likely you are to cremate. And I don't know what this is. I mean, is this, you know, correlated to religion? Is it correlated to, you know, belief in the afterlife? You know, I don't know, but it's clearly, there's a larger trend that wealthier people not only want something private but they also have a different philosophy about what to do when someone dies.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, how these choices add up to the creation of a new social elite and why some wealthy people feel guilty about being rich.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week we're talking about elite groups. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett has been studying the spending patterns of the wealthiest Americans. She finds them moving away from things like fancy cars and giant TVs and instead spending their time and money on breast-feeding, organic food and education.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #14: My children are the recipients of the most expensive education in the history of the world.

VEDANTAM: Stepping back to look at the big picture of Elizabeth's research, you can see how privilege replicates itself. From the earliest days of someone's life, they're either breast-fed or formula-fed. Maybe that one thing doesn't make a big difference, but as they grow up, their parents are buying organic tomatoes or conventional tomatoes. They get signed up for piano classes, or they don't. Their parents are able to save for their college education, or they're not. Elizabeth argues that each of these small decisions adds up. It creates a new social elite.

CURRID-HALKETT: These behaviors and practices reinforce their privilege and reinforce the privilege of their children in a way that superficial material goods don't pass on from generation to generation. One of the people that is very interesting to consider when looking at this class is Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus. So he argued that - you know, he was the kind of great thinker on cultural capital, and he argued that there were these physical manifestations of cultural capital. And so yoga, breast-feeding, buying organic food, attending farmers markets, listening to NPR, you know, reading the books on The New York Times best-seller list, these are all physical manifestations of your cultural capital, right? They show your education, they show that you have time, and they implicitly show you have money.

The thing that I think is most cause for concern with the rise of what I call the aspirational class is that there is a kind of belief that all of these practices are actually for the good, for the good of society. You know, I'm putting money away for education for my child. I'm breast-feeding my child. That's what my doctor told - my son's pediatrician told me to do. I am, you know, practicing yoga, which makes me healthier, which is important. And then there becomes this, you know, ignorance to the fact that others can't do this.

So I find breast-feeding to be a particularly fascinating one because in my, you know, bubble of motherhood, you know, everyone breast-feeds. The thing that I have found with some of my friends who are mothers in this social group is they actually feel really bad when they have to stop. And they feel embarrassed if they have to introduce formula because they have to go back to work. And so suddenly, you know, writing this book, I was thinking, why would you feel bad about any of this? I mean, this doesn't make sense to feel bad about this. And so you realize that this is a signifier of a particular type of motherhood that they espouse to.

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about one specific aspect of inconspicuous consumption that is really striking and in some ways might actually be at the heart of many of the other things that you are mentioning, and that's education. You say that the top 10 percent of Americans have increased their share of educational expenditures by almost 300 percent between 1996 and 2014, while the poor are spending essentially the same amount as they've always spent on education, the same since 1996, despite higher tuition costs, higher education costs. Let's just talk about education for a second and stay with this idea. What are the effects, do you think, of this increasing disparity in how people are investing and value education?

CURRID-HALKETT: The thing about education is that it essentially sets a child up for future success in the workplace, right? So, you know, historically if we think about the middle class of the 20th century, you know, something like under 10 percent of men had college degrees. And now the overall population, it's something like 33 percent of people have a college degree. So college degrees have become essential for social mobility, and these knowledge-driven jobs, whether you're working for NPR or you're working as a professor or you're working as a banker, they require college degrees, often graduate degrees. And so being able to send your child to college, essentially, it doesn't insure, but it certainly increases the likelihood greatly that you will pass on that social mobility, you will give them a chance. The part of this that is alarming is that it's so, so expensive.

So if you look at the increase in the cost of all sorts of goods over the last, I think it's 10 years, education has increased 80 percent in its cost. And that is so hard for people to write checks for. Even if you're in the upper-middle class it's hard. And so that is part of the problem with education as being a status good now, is that in fact it's not just the moment in time of status, it's the reproduction of the privilege. And I would add one more thing to that. You know, part of how you apply to universities these days is that you have this very wonderful culturally rich mosaic of a person, right? So they've traveled abroad, and maybe they've taken piano or violin lessons. They have fabulous SAT scores, they've gone to a pretty good high school. There's this whole package. And I think that that matters more and more. It matters a lot more than when I applied to university. I can say that. And those things cost a lot of money, and you can see it. So for example, the top 1 percent spend 20 times more on musical instruments than the middle class. In fact, they spend five times more than the rest of the top 10 percent. So if you think about the way in which we get this cultural capital that is so important in the college application process, that is also expensive.

And I'll add one other thing that is not my own data. This is Raj Chetty from Stanford. They looked at elite bachelor's degrees. So they used Ivy Leagues. And they found that if you were in the top 1 percent, you were 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League than if your parents were in an income group outside of the top 1 percent.

VEDANTAM: So here's a paradox, Elizabeth. And, in some ways, I think asking this question might betray my own class membership (laughter) in terms of you know, the aspirational class, but, isn't there some intrinsic value in breast-feeding and in learning the piano and in investing in education and investing in retirement and making environmentally conscious choices? I mean, the thing that I find tricky is that in some ways it seems like you're launching a critique of these practices when many of the practices arguably have something good to say for them. And, of course, at the top of the list, I'd say listening to NPR.

CURRID-HALKETT: This is a great question. And, again, I will reveal my own class position. I do all of these things that I write about. You know, my child started piano at the age of 4. You know, we save for college. I breast-fed my child over a year, both of them. I practice Pilates. (Laughter). So I am as guilty as you in not just engaging these practices but also believing that they are the right uses of my time and money. But the thing that was important for me as I wrote this book was to think about how you get access to do these things and who does and who doesn't. Because it's really clear when you're dealing with a Rolex that unless you have $5,000 to $20,000, you can't wear a Rolex watch. OK? But it's just a watch, right? I mean, maybe you give it to your son, but it's just a watch. But when I looked at these practices, I thought, this isn't just a watch. These are things that are really good. They're really important. But part of the fact that they are so important is why they really set the stage for the next generation. And the luxury to do them, I think in many ways the people who participate in these practices, who are members of the aspirational class, aren't fully aware necessarily of how privileged we are to be able to do these things and how difficult it is to do these things if you don't have the education to know that X, Y and Z should should be done, or you don't have the income to write the check to do them. So one of the things that I think is kind of interesting about these practices is that, you know, there's a sort of obliviousness. It's a very good-natured obliviousness, but it is. It's a, well, I'm just doing these things 'cause they're good for my family and they're good for the environment. But there is still this reproduction that adds to inequality. So if you're buying organic food and you're breast-feeding your kid and you're exercising, you probably think you're doing the right thing in society, you're doing nothing wrong. And you're listening to NPR so you know what's going on in the world, and you probably read The New York Times, and you feel updated and you feel that you are on the right side of things.

And if we actually think about, you know, for example, what happened with the election, and, you know, a lot of liberal elites were shocked. Oh, my goodness, how did this happen? And actually if you step outside of one of those liberal elite bubbles, you completely see how it happened. People don't think like this. They don't necessarily have the same practices, and they actually in some ways resent the exclusion that is just - even if it's accidental is very, very obvious for people who are not members of the aspirational class.


VEDANTAM: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is a professor at the University of Southern California. She's the author of "Starstruck" and "The Sum Of Small Things: A Theory Of The Aspirational Class."

If you're feeling a bit sheepish after hearing about this research and you're wondering whether your choices to go to yoga classes and buy organic produce are problematic, you're not alone. Erynn Beaton is an assistant professor at Ohio State University. She studies inequality. She offers us this commentary on the conflicting emotions people feel about their wealth.

ERYNN BEATON: My husband and I don't go to church, but we wanted to have some sort of Sunday routine. So I tracked down an emergency shelter and asked to volunteer. We go down there at 5:30 every Sunday, and for about 90 minutes, my husband and I stand side by side as people shuffle past holding out Styrofoam plates. He serves the vegetables. I serve the entree and some bread.

The food. What can I say about the food? Some days it's noodles and chicken with some corn. My husband and I look at one another as we serve the meals. We'd eat this food if we had to, but definitely not if we had a choice. The people we serve take plastic bottles of hot sauce back to their tables and slather their food with it.

I remember one woman in line. She must have been in her 40s. She looked very, very tired. My husband's an extroverted man, and he cheerfully greeted her with, how's it going? She stared at him. No, that's not right. She glared at him. Finally, he asked, was that an inappropriate question? She nodded. Yes.

After we're done at the shelter, we go out to dinner ourselves. Usually sushi. We sit at the bar and I order spicy tuna, rainbow rolls, dragon rolls. My husband likes anything with tempura. He orders craft beer. If it's hot outside, I have a glass of chardonnay. If it's cold, I like pino noir. We talk about the evening and the contrast between the meal we're having now and the one we just served. I feel guilt. Worse, I feel shame.

I recognize this feeling. As an ethnographer, I've conducted research into the behavior of the very wealthy. In one study, my colleagues and I spoke with wealthy people who are interested in combating inequality. We usually think of the very wealthy as uncaring and selfish, but the people I studied sound a lot like my husband and I do at the sushi bar. They're stricken. Some of them are self-made entrepreneurs, but still they feel guilty. And it's worse for those who inherited their wealth. One rich woman confessed that it was much harder for her to admit to being wealthy than to come out as a lesbian.

All of us live in worlds of our own. We spend time with people who look like us, who go to the same schools. We do this not only because we get along easily with people like us, but because those people allow us to see ourselves the way we see ourselves. When I talk to someone who moves in the same circles I do, I recognize myself. When I look at myself through those eyes, that Erynn I'm familiar with. When I look at myself through the eyes of that exhausted woman at the shelter, I see an unfamiliar version of myself, the privileged Erynn.

Few of us are willing to break outside our social networks. It's not comfortable to look at the world and ourselves differently. One reason privilege endures is because those of us who have it are often unconscious of it. This is what makes the hard work of getting out of our comfort zones so important. If you want to create a more equitable world, the first thing you must do is to step outside.

VEDANTAM: Erynn Beaton is an assistant professor at Ohio State University.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Maggie Penman and Rhaina Cohen, and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Renee Klahr, Jenny Schmidt and Parth Shah. Our unsung heroes this week are Jonathan Gang, Ann Noi Sannee (ph) and Maria Belinska at The Conversation. The Conversation is a news and commentary website that helps bring great ideas from academics to the general public. Jonathan, Ann and Maria helped produce Erynn Beaton's commentary in today's episode. You can sign up for The Conversation's newsletter at theconversation.com/newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and listen for my stories on Morning Edition on your local public radio station. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Hi. I'm Maggie Penman. I'm one of the producers of HIDDEN BRAIN. The stories you hear on this show aren't simple. They can be a complex web of historical context and science and law, money, politics, emotion. That's what we do here. We explain. We probe. We follow. We fact check. Conversations on NPR give you perspective, new ways to shed light on what goes on in the world. Support the thoughtful journalism you rely on. Visit donate.npr.org/hiddenbrain, and then then share how this show helped you understand the world this year with hashtag #whypublicradio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.