We haven’t addressed this question empirically, but we do find that people who think that if you work hard, you can make it to the top seem to be more likely to think that the person who is busy is higher in status. So if people are working all the time, they probably would know how to decode these signals from others, so the answer is probably yes.
I think another interesting aspect that we don’t really look at in our research is whether this operates in very workaholic environments. For example, I think that if you go to banking or consulting, in which the workload is heavy for everybody, showing that you’re even capable of having leisure time may signal that you’re actually really, really good, because the amount of work is high for everybody. But this is a little meta.
Pinsker: It’s the reversal of the reversal of Veblen.
Bellezza: Exactly. In Silicon Valley, apparently, I’ve heard that actually it’s not very fashionable to show that you’re working all the time, even if you are. So maybe there, just because they're entrepreneurs working all the time, it’s taken for granted that you’re working all the time. It’s actually that if you have time to go for a hike or on a bike ride, you’re cooler.
Pinsker: All of these dynamics we’ve been talking about have been things you’ve found while researching American culture. Can you talk about what you found when you compared Americans’ opinions to Italians’? And also, why you picked Italians to compare to?
Bellezza: We did a lot of research on different cultures and specifically the extent to which work and leisure matter and are central to the identity of the people. We thought that the U.S. is really representative of a society in which work is really praised and the Protestant work ethic is really, really strong—even the extent to which in the U.S. people don't even have the right to have paid holidays. And we wanted to compare this to a culture in which leisure time and what you do when you're not working is as central as work. Countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, and to some extent France, I think are really representative of this. And then, narrowing it down from there, I’m Italian and it was very easy to translate the surveys. [laughs]
So we showed Americans and Italians a vignette in which we describe a person who is either working all the time or is conducting a leisurely lifestyle, and they came to different conclusions about status. The Italians, as soon as you tell them that someone is not working as much, they immediately think the person is rich. But in the U.S., they think, “Oh, this person probably cannot work. There must be something wrong, and they're going to go back to work as soon as they can.”
In one country, we see precisely what Veblen was predicting, and in the other country we see the opposite. I think it’s very interesting that, when we're comparing Italy with the U.S., we’re actually looking at two developed economies. So to get to Americans’ busyness, what needs to be in place on top of the condition of there being a sophisticated market for human capital is a culture that values work and sees that as an essential element of identity.