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Keeping up with the…Hermit Crabs?

I recently read an article explaining the curious behavior of why hermit crabs seek new shells.  If a hermit crab comes across a new shell, it will quickly evaluate the shell and determine if it is either larger or in better condition than its current shell.  If the crab likes what it sees, it will abandon its shell and take on the new one.  This is referred to as a “vacancy chain” – an organized method of exchanging a more desirable possession abandoned by another individual.  This neurologically simple creature exhibits a complex social behavior that is familiar to us humans, like the idiom “Keeping up with the Joneses”.

What this suggests is that the behavior of constantly seeking improvement of our own material possessions might not be only a learned behavior, but biological one instead.  I was introduced to generational differences by a book called, “When Generations Collide”.  It discussed the major differences between generations and even theorized how common generational behaviors were formed.  If you were a Boomer, the message was:  compete to stand out.  With so many people at the same age, Boomers had to constantly search for that “new shell”…that higher salary, better job, or bigger house.  Millennials are similarly quoted in articles as wanting to become rich and famous.  In fact, the historic idiom has taken a new turn in recent years with the TV show “Keeping up with the Kardashians”.  It seems the pursuit of material possessions has taken a new face with the current Millennial generation.

Is this really what life has come to?  The pursuit of more and more material possessions?  Utility Maximization is the neoclassical theory of consumption that states that people want to consume more and more.  But what about the hermit crabs?  The necessity to survive leads the little hermit crab to seek a better home and more secure life.  Replacing that old beat up shell for a newly found one is an instinct to survive.  The “vacancy chain” suggests that this behavior is more than purely social, it’s also biological.  Our constant consumption, or searching for that better “shell”, might be more natural than we care to admit.

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