My conversation with Cambridge scholar and Substacker Rob Henderson
In the fall of 2015, my guest on today’s podcast had just arrived at Yale. He was an Air Force veteran and a former foster child. So, when a crisis erupted over campus “safety” and emails about Halloween costumes, he was a bit perplexed — and it became a formative moment in his academic career.
Rob Henderson is a PhD student in Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and a rising academic star. He writes a popular newsletter on human nature, psychology, and social class at Substack, and has been published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He’s also just written his first book, out later this year. But he’s perhaps best known for coining the term luxury beliefs.
Rob Henderson is here to talk about these luxury beliefs, as well as the sex recession and the state of the mating game — today on Lean Out.
TH: Rob, welcome to Lean Out.
RH: Thanks, Tara. It’s great to be here.
TH: I’m excited to speak with you about your concept of luxury beliefs, which I discovered about a year ago. It’s one of the most helpful ideas I’ve come across for understanding the moment that we’re in. But before we get to that, I’d like to talk a bit about your background, and how it’s informed your thinking and your scholarship. Give us a snapshot of your backstory.
RH: Right now, I’m in my final year of my PhD, here at Cambridge in England. Before this, I did my undergrad at Yale studying psychology. But before I entered these universities, my life was a lot different. I was born into poverty. My mother was addicted to drugs. I never knew my father and neither did she. As a result of my mother’s addiction, I was placed into foster care when I was three years old. We were in Los Angeles. I bounced around different foster homes, until, a couple months before my eighth birthday, I was adopted by a family. We settled in a dusty working-class town in Northern California called Red Bluff.
My adoptive father was a truck driver, and my adoptive mother was an assistant social worker. I had a mother and a father and my adoptive sister. So, I had this stable family for a couple of years. But then my adoptive parents divorced and my adoptive father, who was angry at my adoptive mother for leaving him, subsequently severed ties with me as a way to get revenge on her. This was really heartbreaking for me.
We moved into a duplex in this rundown part of Red Bluff, and I would watch my sister go to stay with her dad every other week, and I couldn’t go. This was really hard. So from the point I was nine, I was getting involved in all kinds of mischief and trouble with my friends. I was smoking weed, smoking cigarettes, taking pills. I wrote a story for The New York Post about how my friends and I set one of our friend's houses on fire. Vandalizing buildings, fighting — it got really bad. And then later, once we got a little bit older, drinking and driving, and all kinds of recklessness.
There’s a lot more to this story, but I’ll fast forward a bit. When I was 17, I was about to graduate from high school, and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere in my life. I was seeing the trajectory that I was on was not good. On the advice of a couple of different people, including one of my high school teachers, I decided to enlist. I joined the Air Force and spent a few years serving. That helped me to redirect my life trajectory. That’s how I ended up going to college on the G.I. Bill and landing where I am today. That’s the very short version of my life.
TH: It’s quite a story, and I know you are writing a book about it … I want to talk about the moment that you arrived at Yale. It was 2015; the tide was just starting to turn on elite campuses. There were explosive protests that fall over the Erika Christakis Halloween email. Tell people what that controversy was about and how you digested that — given the story that you just told us .
RH: I mean, it was bewildering. I was discharged from the military in August. I started class at Yale my first semester in September. And then in October, that infamous Halloween email came out. The email sparked this very intense student eruption, and all these protests, and the calling for Erika Christakis to be fired, and calling her a bigot and a racist. And how the university was somehow responsible for these students feeling unsafe. I was just totally confused by all of it.
I couldn’t understand how these students — many or most of whom were affluent, from well-to-do families — they said that this email made them feel unsafe, or that it put them in danger, or harmed them in some way. Words like danger and safety, that just meant something different to me when I was living in foster homes, and when I was in the military. It was confusing to me. I would ask questions about what was so offensive about this email and students would respond with vitriol, just for the fact that I would even ask the question. Even when I would explain my background, they would just shut down; they wouldn’t accept that someone couldn’t understand the moral transgression.
There was one female student who said I was too privileged to understand why that email was so hurtful. Her family is from very wealthy zip code in the U.S. She went to a very expensive private school. It took me a while to understand the intellectual acrobatics involved in her saying something like that. At the time, I just walked away confused.
The whole experience was perplexing for me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. That was my introduction to elite campus culture, and it has lingered ever since. It was by far the most formative experience I had at Yale — more than any classes, or any readings, or any other interactions.
TH: One of the things I find bizarre, watching this Great Awokening unfold, is that, from a class perspective, you see the complete erasure of the workers in elite spaces.
RH: Yale is in New Haven, which is a very poor, disproportionately Black city. The students didn’t seem to care at all about what was going on outside of the student body and the faculty. When it came to the workers on campus, they were just totally overlooked. And then off campus too. So, I had an apartment in downtown New Haven, and I’d walk to and from my apartment to class. I had to walk through a lot of poverty and addiction and homelessness and mental illness. It was very sobering.
I’d walk through and have memories of living in a car with my mom when I was a little kid and watching her shoot up and get high. Then I’d see the university, and how fortunate the inhabitants were. Yet they all seemed to feel put upon in some way.
Small things irritated me, like the student income contribution; some of them apparently had to work for 10 hours a week, in a library or helping to serve food in a dining hall. Most college students have to work. My sister went to college in California, and she worked part-time in a coffee shop. It never occurred to me, or to her, that this was a problem.
If you were to ask [these students] point blank, “Is there anything wrong with doing this kind of work? Is it respectable work?” They would say, “Of course.” But the impression I got was that they felt this intense humiliation at having to do this kind of work themselves.
TH: I want to ask you about moving between these two worlds. I’ve been a journalist 20 years and I’ve interviewed a lot of people at this point. Very few people have that experience of moving between these two poles. I’m very curious about that experience — and how it’s shaped you.
RH: It’s interesting. A lot of social scientists study working class communities as though they are anthropologists, going into this other world and trying to understand the culture and habits. They seldom turn those tools of analysis around on themselves … I was a student on campus, and I would observe these things and recognize, “Oh yeah, there’s different vocabulary here.” It was a difficult adjustment at first.
My second semester, I tried to join this humour magazine on campus, and we were brainstorming headlines for that month’s issue. The theme of the issue was puberty. So we had to come up with humorous headlines about puberty. I came up with “Area male discovers porn goldmine in his front right pocket.” I was just tossing this idea out there and the student editor looked at me and raised an eyebrow. He was like, “Why does it have to be gendered?” That lingered with me. Like, what does “gendered” mean? I’d never heard it used as an adjective. I was realizing, “This is a different world.”
In the military, they like explicitly tell you — they give you a guidebook when you're in basic training. It’s not like that at elite universities; you have to pick it up through osmosis. Most of these students had been in similar environments their entire lives. So, it was definitely a period of adjustment.
TH: Speaking of which, let’s talk now about luxury beliefs. For our listeners, what is that?
RH: I define luxury beliefs as ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. I'll give an example of this. A couple years ago now, I was having this conversation with a former classmate of mine from Yale. [She was] saying, “I think monogamy and marriage are outdated. We need to move on, we need to evolve beyond this. These are oppressive patriarchal institutions.”
So, I asked her, how were you raised? How did you grow up? And she said, “Well, you know, I was raised by a mom and a dad in this typical conventional family.” Then I asked, what do you plan to do? What do you want to do in terms of your relationship? And she said, “I’ll probably get married and have kids and do what my parents did.” I asked her, well, then, what are you talking about? She said, “What I mean is that in general for society I think it’s outdated. It shouldn’t have to be for everyone.” So on the one hand, she was raised by married parents in this stable family, and she’s going do it for herself. But then she’s cultivating, and broadcasting, this belief that other people shouldn’t do it and it’s outdated and we need to move past it.
In the past, the elites demonstrated their upper-class status through luxury goods, through their dress and appearance. My claim is that now people do it through their luxury beliefs. These are unusual, or novel, or bizarre ideas that are often at odds with conventional opinion. If there’s a belief that’s widely held by ordinary people — like marriage is probably a good thing and stability for children is probably a good thing — then a way to distinguish yourself as a member of the upper class is to hold a belief that’s against that. It signals, “I’m a sophisticated member of the educated class.”
There are examples of vocabulary too, like cisgender and heteronormative and gendered. Regular people who work for a living and have jobs where they can’t scroll Twitter all day, they don’t have time to keep up on the latest fashionable lexicon and viewpoints.
This concept was informed by my readings of Pierre Bourdieu, and Thorstein Veblen, who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class. And then, more recent research from social psychology. It helped me to understand the intense status anxiety I was seeing on campus. From my perspective, I got to Yale and I was like, “I made it, I don’t have to worry anymore. I worked so hard and struggled so much in my life and now I’m probably going to be okay.” But all around me, students were constantly stressed out about getting to law school or medical school. Or getting that prestigious internship or their dream job. There was just this sort of restlessness and anxiety.
TH: So interesting. You can see luxury beliefs throughout the woke movement. I can think of a lot of examples, Defund the Police being one of them.
RH: Defund the Police was a huge one. You know, I coined that term luxury beliefs in 2019. I had no idea that within a year, the most powerful example of a luxury belief would arise.
It was very easy for me to dig into survey data. On YouGov, they administered a poll asking how supportive Americans were of defunding the police and they broke it down by income. The Americans in the highest income category were the most supportive of defunding the police, and the people in the lowest income category were least supportive. The people who want to defund the police are the wealthiest, because they can afford private security and bodyguards, and to live in a gated community. They can afford this luxury belief. This was an example of inflicting cost on the lower classes, because rates of violent crime and homicide and burglary, which disproportionately affect the poor, have increased. It’s actually the poor who are suffering the most from this.
TH: I want to come back to the first luxury belief — the state of marriage. I know you’ve talked about this quite a bit. Elite marriages have held steady, but working-class marriage has completely collapsed. We also know that there is a sex recession happening and marriage is being delayed. We just saw Christine Emba writing in The New York Times, this evocative piece based off her book, Rethinking Sex, saying that we have no rules anymore, and that this is a problem. When you think of all of those trends — what’s your take on the status of things between men and women right now?
RH: It’s a tough question. There was an article in The Washington Post showing that rates of sexlessness among young adults has increased — and for men it’s increased much more than for women. It seems like men in general, young men, are dropping out of the dating market, out of the marriage market, and having a more difficult time.
Everyone has an opinion about why this is. So much happened: social media, dating apps, smartphones. All those things are intertwined to some degree, but I think dating apps are having a major role to play here, for a why there’s this sort of asymmetry, but also why, in general, rates of sexlessness have climbed.
TH: In my lifetime, I’ve seen dating change drastically, and with it, the collapse of norms. With the dating apps in particular, they have a business incentive for you not to find a monogamous relationship and get off the apps. That’s the first thing. The second thing is how there’s a small group of the men doing most of the dating on these apps. That is skewing relationships. Walk me through what’s happening here.
RH: Yeah, so I’ve looked at some academic research on the apps; it’s a small but growing field and it’s really interesting. There was a study recently showing the swipe rates on Tinder. Men swipe right on about 60 percent of the women’s profiles they see. Whereas for women, they only swipe on about 4 percent of the male profiles they see. This is a classic principle of evolutionary psychology — that women are much more selective in who they’re willing to date and enter romantic partnership with. In the long run this is creating strange dynamics where small numbers of men are getting tons and tons of matches.
I had a friend. He’s in a relationship now, but he accumulated more than 20,000 matches across the dating apps. He was a very busy man; it was like a part-time job for him. But then I have other friends. It’s interesting; they aren’t super unattractive. A lot of it is your ability to take good photos and invest your time, and there’s just a whole strategy around improving your likelihood of getting matches. So even though they weren’t that much worse looking than my friend who was very successful, they would only get a handful of matches a week. It would slowly trickle in, and oftentimes it wouldn’t go well, or the dates went nowhere. That is the male experience on the apps. The average guy on any of the apps is just not getting that much attention.
This isn’t to say that women are having the best time of their lives on these apps. A lot of them are having the opposite problem, where they’re getting flooded with attention. I’ve had female friends who have shown me, “Look at all these guys sending me all these horrible messages or being disgusting.” So for them, there’s this filtering problem. How do you know which of these guys is actually worth your time?
Often the men, they experience rejection up front, where it’s hard for them to get matches. They maybe have a date, and the girls aren’t interested in them. For women, often what seems to happen is they will be interested in a guy, and maybe they’ll sleep with him, or have a few good dates with him. And then he just vanishes. Because guys who have lots of options often will vanish, because they have those options.
I think it’s cultivating this hostility on both sides. After a couple of negative interactions, they draw sweeping generalizations from them. And then I think they kind of withdraw and stop being as interested in going out on dates.
TH: I wonder, too, about the conversation around gender and how that plays into it. If we’re saying that there’s no such thing as a man or a woman, how do we talk about the state of things between men and women right now? That gets really tricky.
RH: Yeah. That’s an interesting point. It’s weird. No one will explicitly acknowledge that gender roles exist, and certainly won’t acknowledge that they’re important. But we behave as though they are. The whole ritual around dating is still heavily gendered, to use a term I learned at Yale. But people don’t want to acknowledge it. They don’t want to talk about it. I think this is also adding to the confusion and the complexities.
TH: It’s such a strange time on so many different fronts. I wanted to ask you about is about politics and the right/left divide. Right now, to talk about both things like family formation and what it means to be working class, you need to go to conservative writers. What is happening in this scrambling of the left and the right?
RH: That’s an interesting question. My adoptive mom, at least for a portion of my childhood, she entered a relationship with a woman. So, she and her partner raised me for a few years together. They were working class Democrats. But they wouldn’t recognize progressive liberalism on elite college campuses. I mean, it’s really fun for me to go home and tell my family terms that I’m learning, or videos from campus, you know, what’s going on at these elite schools. My mom just doesn’t understand it … But yeah, like you said, it’s increasingly shifting, and there’s this sort of realignment going on. The data I saw in 2020 was that like 14 of the 15 poorest counties in the U.S. voted for Trump. And something like nine out of 10 of the wealthiest ones voted for Biden. Very strange thing happening here.
A lot of the affluent people are broadcasting these luxury beliefs, trying to impress one another, trying to obtain status within their own peer group. And these beliefs sort of morph, and spiral into strange ways that would be unrecognizable to a lot of people who haven’t spent a lot of time on elite campuses. It seems like people who are less progressive in their views are being sort of turned off by that.
It sort of happened with me. My own views were center, maybe center-right, when I got on campus. But then when I saw what happened, it solidified my own views. My thinking was, “Whatever that is, I can’t be associated with it.” I’ve heard similar stories from other students as well on campus who come from more working-class backgrounds.
TH: So many people are feeling politically homeless. Where do you think this all goes from here, in terms of the arc of the Great Awokening? Do you think we’re getting to the end of this?
RH: I just did this panel discussion with Musa al-Gharbi. He’s a sociologist from Columbia, and he says we’re almost at the end. I hope he’s right.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.
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