By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski
While waiting for the philharmonic orchestra to begin in the concert hall, you observe the people around you and wonder, “What made them come to this place?” The love of music? Snobbery? Conformism — because other friends do this? Or, maybe there are other, deeper motives? Similar questions arise when we think about what drives people to participate in pop culture and consume its products. Do they simply enjoy it? Scientists’ answers to this question can be surprising. For example, one study suggests that we consume pop culture because we suffer psychological ill effects from feeling out of the loop.
But what drives people to become cultural omnivores, those who consume both “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture? Hanna Shin and Nara Youn from Hongik University in Seoul recently investigated this question in a paper in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
Cultural omnivorousness is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the first half of the 20th century, participation in highbrow or lowbrow culture was clearly associated with social and economic status. Opera, symphony orchestra, and painting exhibitions are places traditionally included in highbrow culture. Street performances and graffiti are considered to be products of lowbrow culture. The former are usually credited with greater intellectual sophistication and artistic values, while the latter are often considered to be more authentic and of higher intrinsic motivation.
Shin and Youn wondered whether personality factors such as narcissism, self-esteem, and feelings of authenticity could explain how likely someone is to be a cultural omnivore. To find out, they conducted two studies. In the first, they tested 178 undergraduate students, asking them to complete the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and a measure of self-esteem, as well as a scale that measured their distinction-seeking drive: that is, the desire to stand out. Participants were also asked to indicate their intentions to participate in highbrow and lowbrow cultural activities (e.g. “visiting art galleries” and “going to pop concerts”, respectively).
The results showed that participants who scored high in narcissism and also had low self-esteem tended to be cultural omnivores. These “insecure narcissists” seemed to be driven to consume both high- and lowbrow culture because of their desire to distinguish themselves from others.
In the second study, Shin and Youn explored more specific motivations for insecure narcissists’ cultural omnivorousness. The researchers created two biographies of a fictional artist: in the highbrow condition, the biography stated that the artist’s paintings had been displayed in major museums around the world, while in the lowbrow condition it stated the paintings were kept by family and later discovered by a collector. One hundred and forty-four undergraduate students were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions and completed scales of personality. After they had reviewed the applicable biography and viewed two examples of the artist’s paintings, they rated the paintings as highbrow or lowbrow, and indicated how likely they would be to visit or recommend an exhibition of the artist’s work. Finally, they completed scales of status-seeking motivations.
The results suggested that insecure narcissists had different reasons for consuming highbrow and lowbrow art. When they believed the paintings were highbrow, their intention to visit or recommend the exhibition seemed to be driven by a desire to consume status-seeking products . But when they believed the paintings were lowbrow, their intention to consume the art was fuelled instead by a desire to signal self-integrity.
The research adds much to the understanding of the motives for one’s participation in culture, going beyond the narrow focus on economic status. The results suggest at least one psychological mechanism underlying cultural omnivorousness: a combination of narcissism and psychological insecurity, which is related to a drive to signal both status and self-integrity.
But it also leaves many questions to be answered. How valid is the division between highbrow and lowbrow contemporary culture: is the appearance of cultural omnivores not the result of blurring the boundaries between these two types of cultures? Does a laboratory experiment reflect the complexity of motives that push us to participate in culture? Finally, are the examined motives and personality traits the most important? There is certainly still much to be done in this research area, and studies that include more psychological variables and factors could definitely enrich our understanding of this phenomenon.
Post written by Dr Tomasz Witkowski for the BPS Research Digest. Tomasz is a psychologist and science writer who specialises in debunking pseudoscience in the field of psychology, psychotherapy and diagnosis. He has published over a dozen books, dozens of scientific papers and over 200 popular articles (some of them in Skeptical Inquirer). His new book Shaping Psychology which is a unique collection of in-depth conversations with the most influential psychologists working today will be published this year by Palgrave Macmillan. He blogs at Forbidden Psychology.
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