New research: When consuming culture, elites send signals

Why can appreciating lowbrow art make you seem more authentic?

By Rebecca Linke  |  August 3, 2017


Paintings by Grandma Moses are an example of outsider art. She began her painting career at 78.

Why It Matters

Who is authentic, and who is trying to feign authenticity? Understanding the motivation behind some of our likes and dislikes is key to understanding why we valorize some cultures and disregard others.

Here’s a puzzle that has long stumped social scientists: Why do high status people value cultural items we might expect them to dismiss for lack of sophistication or low status associations?

For instance, why do elites display indigenous art and artifacts in their homes, or listen to rap music? Why is comfort food like macaroni and cheese so trendy at high end restaurants?

Exploring this issue is the focus of a recently published paper by MIT Sloan deputy dean Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, along with Oliver Hahl, PhD ’13, now on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University, and MIT PhD student Minjae Kim. The paper, titled “Why Elites Love Authentic Lowbrow Culture: Overcoming High-Status Denigration with Outsider Art,” sets out to not only understand why high-status individuals seemingly seek out “lowbrow” cultural products, but also the impression this consumption makes on others.

Some quick background
As expounded by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, elites in the twentieth century often maintained their status by cultivating “cultural capital” to limit entry into their circles. “They distinguished themselves by developing a particular way of consuming and talking about highbrow culture,” Zuckerman said.

But as the twentieth century drew to a close, American cultural sociologists began to realize that the picture was more complicated. While those of high status continued to consume highbrow culture, they also were consuming culture that was regarded as lowbrow, making them “cultural omnivores,” the authors wrote.

“This phenomenon wasn’t fully explained by research,” Hahl said. “It is visible in many historical examples, such as the post-Civil War north fetishizing the plantation culture it had just defeated, but it seems to be more prominent now.”

The question Zuckerman, Hahl, and Kim wanted to answer was why — and they started by building their research on a previous paper that Hahl and Zuckerman published in 2014. The key idea of that paper is that we tend to view high-status individuals as cold and inauthentic because they often seem motivated by a desire to get ahead and defeat others even while they profess to be “intrinsically motivated.”  

Using those findings as a jumping off point, in this most recent paper, the authors test their hunch that the feelings of inauthenticity that elites often experience can help explain why elites seek out lowbrow culture: they are hoping that its authenticity “rubs off” so to speak. They call this the “authenticity by appreciation” effect.

The research
In order to test their theory, the authors created a multipart experiment where, through subtle manipulations, they were able to split people into three distinct groups: people who viewed themselves as high status, but were insecure in their authenticity (in other words, felt they had achieved their status by questionable means); people who were high status but secure in their authenticity; and people who were low status. 

2017-NattererAugust Natterer, a German outsider
artist, claimed this drawing 
predicted World War I.

Once the subjects were divided into these groups, they were shown outsider art — or art by self-taught artists, a subcategory of art that remains somewhat low status, despite having grown as a genre — and the biographies of those artists. Zuckerman stressed that the art itself was secondary in importance to the artists’ biographies, which were presented in a way so that participants deemed one artist to be successful but inauthentic (because he had sought recognition) and another to be unsuccessful but highly authentic (because he had pursued his art for its own sake and was later discovered). The study participants were asked which piece of art they would prefer to hang in their homes.

Of the three groups, the only group that said they preferred the painting by the successful/authentic artist was the high-status/authenticity-insecure group. Both the high-status/authenticity-secure and the low-status groups preferred the painting by the successful/inauthentic artist. The preference of the authenticity-insecure group also stood in contrast to the pretest participants, who showed a baseline preference for the painting by the successful/inauthentic artist.

Zuckerman, Hahl, and Kim then set up a second experiment in a similar way to the first. In this case, the participants evaluated high-status people who had questionable authenticity — however, some of the high-status people appeared to like art by artists of high authenticity, some liked art by artists of low authenticity.

This study showed that indeed, those people who are otherwise regarded as inauthentic because of the way they attained status are no longer regarded as lacking in authenticity when they are seen as appreciating lowbrow art — but only if it is high in authenticity.

What next?
Hahl, Zuckerman, and Kim’s research answered some big questions, but raised others. For instance, Hahl explained, “some cultural artifacts might be off limits.” He referred back to a 1996 study in which elites valorized some low-status music genres, but not heavy metal. Does this mean that certain groups use different cultural products to show their authenticity?

That study also focused on Western elites, but cultural differences mean that the findings outlined by Hahl, Zuckerman, and Kim may not hold true in other places, or when examined through the lens of gender.   

And while the experiments largely validated their authors’ hypotheses, the results hold puzzles as well. Zuckerman in particular questions why audiences haven’t caught on to this game of appreciating low-status culture that some high-status actors play to increase their perceived authenticity. He speculates that this may be slowly occurring as the logic of the “authenticity by appreciation” effect is more widely understood.   

They were also surprised by the strength of the effect in the first experiment. “People in general tend to prefer the artist who has achieved higher recognition,” Zuckerman said. “But when you make people insecure about their authenticity, you can change their preferences. I think we are still pretty amazed that that’s true. It is a pretty remarkable thing to accomplish with such a subtle stimulus.”