Do you get what you seem to pay for?

Here’s a question that came up on my FB feed this morning:
True or false? You get what you pay for.

My answer:

It depends.

You may pay a lot for something that’s ostensibly of very high quality. But, in reality, it’s no better than some less expensive alternative.

Here are two examples: a super expensive watch, or a gold plated toilet seat.

Just because you pay a lot for these items doesn’t necessarily mean that they are functionally better than less expensive items that the masses can afford.

In these cases, the right question might be: What are you really paying for?

Sometimes, you want a good to be expensive and/or rare. If everyone could afford it, then it would lose its value to you. In these cases, you’re paying for status, not the good itself.

If there were some technical way to make some seemingly rare or expensive item freely available to the masses, then it would lose its status-appeal to those who want to buy status.

For example, this may be true of attending live lectures at super-expensive colleges. Those lectures could be recorded and provided for free to the masses via YouTube, but then they would lose their snob appeal.


Positional goods are goods that project exclusivity and distinguish their owners from others by placing them into a select or favored group. Positional goods derive their value by catering to a select group. Positional goods would lose market share and value if they attempted to cater to the masses. – Wikipedia

Conspicuous consumption is the purchase of goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying one’s wealth. Conspicuous consumption is a means to show one’s social status, especially when publicly displayed goods and services are too expensive for other members of a person’s class. – Wikipedia

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