In the abstract, most everyone wants to be the best version of themselves they can. More attractive bodies, developing and improving useful skills, a good education, achieving career success; who doesn’t want those things? In practice, lots of people, apparently. While people might like the idea of improving various parts of their life, self-improvement takes time, energy, dedication, and restraint; it involves doing things that might not be pleasant in the short-term with the hope that long-term rewards will follow. Those rewards are by no means guaranteed, though, either in terms of their happening at all or the degree to which they do. While people can usually improve various parts of their life, not everyone can achieve the levels of success they might prefer no matter how much time they devote to their crafts. All of those are common reasons people will sometimes avoid improving themselves (it’s difficult and contains opportunity costs), but they do not straightforwardly explain why people sometimes fight against others improving.
“How dare they try to make a better life for themselves!”
I was recently reading an article about the appeal of Trump and came across this passage concerning this fight against the self-improvement of others:
“Nearly everyone in my family who has achieved some financial success for themselves, from Mamaw to me, has been told that they’ve become “too big for their britches.” I don’t think this value is all bad. It forces us to stay grounded, reminds us that money and education are no substitute for common sense and humility. But, it does create a lot of pressure not to make a better life for yourself…”
At first blush, this seems like a rather strange idea: if people in your community – your friends and family – are struggling (or have yet to build a future for themselves), why would anyone object to the prospect of their achieving success and bettering their lot in life? Part of the answer is found a little further down:
“A lot of these [poor, struggling] people know nothing but judgment and condescension from those with financial and political power, and the thought of their children acquiring that same hostility is noxious.”
I wanted to explore this idea in a bit more depth to help explain why these feelings might rear their head when faced with the social or financial success of others, be they close or distant relations.
Understanding these feelings requires drawing on a concept my theory of morality leaned heavily on: association value. Association value refers to the abstract value that others in the social world have for each other; essentially, it asks the question, “how desirable of a friend would this person make for me (and vice versa)?” This value comes in two parts: first, there is the matter of how much value someone could add to your life. As an easy example, someone with a lot of money is more capable of adding value to your life than someone with less money; someone who is physically stronger tends to be able to provide benefits a weaker individual could not; the same goes for individuals who are more physically attractive or intelligent. It is for this reason that most people wish they could improve on some or all of these dimensions if doing so were possible and easy: you end up as a more desirable social asset to others.
The second part of that association value is a bit trickier, however, reflecting the crux of the problem: how willing someone is to add value to your life. Those who are unwilling to help me have a lower value than those willing to make the investment. Reliable friends are better than flaky ones, and charitable friends are better than stingy ones. As such, even if someone has a great potential value they could add to my life, they still might be unattractive as associates if they are not going to turn that potential into reality. An unachieved potential is effectively the same thing as having no potential value at all. Conversely, those who are very willing to add to my life but cannot actually do so in meaningful ways don’t make attractive options either. Simply put, eager but incompetent individuals wouldn’t make good hires for a job, but neither would competent yet absent ones.
“I could help you pay down your crippling debt. Won’t do it, though”
With this understanding of association value, there is only one piece left to add to equation: the zero-sum nature of friendship. Friendship is a relative term; it means that someone values me more than they value others. If someone is a better friend to me, it means they are a worse friend to others; they would value my welfare over the welfare of others and, if a choice had to be made, would aid me rather than someone else. Having friends is also useful in the adaptive sense of the word: they help provide access to desirable mates, protection, provisioning, and can even help you exploit others if you’re on the aggressive side of things. Putting all these pieces together, we end up with the following idea: people generally want access to the best friends possible. What makes a good friend is a combination of their ability and willingness to invest in you over others. However, their willingness to do so depends in turn on your association value to them: how willing and able you are to add things to their lives. If you aren’t able to help them out – now or in the future – why would they want to invest resources into benefiting you when they could instead put those resources into others who could?
Now we can finally return to the matter of self-improvement. By increasing your association value through various forms of self-improvement (e.g., making yourself more physically attractive and stronger through exercise, improving your income by moving forward in your career, learning new things, etc) you make yourself a more appealing friend to others. Crucially, this includes both existing friends and higher-status individuals who might not have been willing to invest in you prior to your ability to add value to their life materializing. In other words, as your value as an associate rises, unless the value of your existing associates rises in turn, it is quite possible that you can now do better than them socially, so to speak. If you have more appealing social prospects, then, you might begin to neglect or break-off existing contacts in favor of newer, more-profitable friendships or mates. It is likely that your existing contacts understand this – implicitly or otherwise – and might seek to discourage you from improving your life, or preemptively break-off contact with you if you do, under the assumptions you will do likewise to them in the future. After all, if you’re moving on eventually they would be better off building new connections sooner, rather than later. They don’t want to invest in failing relationships anymore than you do.
In turn, those who are thinking about self-improvement might actually decide against pursuing their goals not necessarily because they wouldn’t be able to achieve them, but because they’re afraid that their existing friends might abandon them, or even that they themselves might be the ones who do the abandoning. Ironically, improving yourself can sometimes make you look like a worse social prospect.
To put that in a simple example, we could consider the world of fitness. The classic trope of weak high-schooler being bullied by the strong, jock type has been ingrained in many stories in our culture. For those doing the bullying, their targets don’t offer them much socially (their association value to others is low, while the bully’s is high) and they are unable to effectively defend themselves, making exploitation appear as an attractive option. In turn, those who are the targets of this bullying are, in some sense, wary of adopting some of the self-improvement behaviors that the jocks engage in, such as working out, because they either don’t feel they can effectively compete against the jocks in that realm (e.g., they wouldn’t be able to get as strong, so why bother getting stronger) or because they worry that improving their association value by working out will lead to them adopting a similar pattern of behavior to those they already dislike, resulting in their losing value to their current friends (usually those of similar, but relatively-low association value). The movie Mean Girls is an example of this dynamic struggle in a different domain.
So many years later, and “Fetch” still never happened…
This line of thought has, as far as I can tell, also been leveraged (again, consciously or otherwise) by one brand within the fitness community: Planet Fitness. Last I heard an advertisement for their company on the radio, their slogan appeared to be, “we’re not a gym; we’re planet fitness.” An odd statement to be sure, because they are a gym, so what are we to make of it? Presumably that they are in some important respects different from their competition. How are they different from other gyms? The “About” section on their website lays their differences out in true, ironic form:
“Make yourself comfy. Because we’re Judgement Free…you deserve a little cred just for being here. We believe no one should ever feel Gymtimidated by Lunky behavior and that everyone should feel at ease in our gyms, no matter what his or her workout goals are…We’re fiercely protective of our Planet and the rights of our members to feel like they belong. So we create an environment where you can relax, go at your own pace and just do your own thing without ever having to worry about being judged.”
This marketing is fairly transparent pandering to those who currently do not feel they can compete with those who are very fit or are worried about becoming a “lunk” themselves (they even have an alarm in the gym designed to bet set off if someone is making too much noise while lifting, or wearing the wrong outfit). However, in doing so, they devalue those who are successful or passionate in their pursuits of self-improvement. While I have never seen a gym more obsessed with judging their would-be members than Planet Fitness, so long as that judgment is pointed at the right targets, they try to appeal (presumably effectively) to certain portions of the population untapped by other gyms. Planet Fitness wants to be your friend; not the friend of those jerks who make you feel bad.
There is value in not letting success go to one’s head; no one wants a fair-weather friend who will leave the moment it’s expedient. Such an attitude undermines loyalty. The converse, however, is that using that as an excuse to avoid (or condemn) self-improvement will make you and others worse-off in the long term. A better solution to this dilemma is to improve yourself so you can improve those who matter the most to you, hoping they reciprocate in turn (or improve together for even better success).