23 Jan 2015

A Dreamy Argument

Bryan Caplan 16 Comments

It’s the age-old debate: Do people wear clothes for functionality (such as staying warm or protecting feet), or do they wear clothes for style?

A lot of people think the answer is “both,” but those people are no fun. I like to make it sound like I really believe it is nothing but style, except if you challenge me with obvious counterarguments then I’ll say, “Well duh, obviously I wasn’t denying that.”

Anyway, if the critics are right and we really wear clothes because they serve an actual pragmatic function, then why is it common for people to dream about being naked and horribly embarrassed in front of a crowd? Nobody ever has a nightmare about being naked in the tundra, all alone, and then freezing to death.

This post inspired by Bryan Caplan.

16 Responses to “A Dreamy Argument”

  1. David R. Henderson says:

    Obvious answer, unless I’m missing your point: the key is the “naked” part. One of the pragmatic functions that clothing serves is hiding our privates from others. Notice that people don’t have a nightmare about being in front of a crowd while wearing polyester pants.

    • Honey, where are my pants? says:

      They also don’t have nightmares about having a degree in art history.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      David sorry if you got this, but just in case: I’m parodying Bryan’s argument.

  2. Greg Morin says:

    I suspect the fear of embarrassment (caused by public nakedness) has more to do with a fear of being dramatically different, so much so that one stands out in a very obvious way. For example people commonly express mild phobias of not wanting to show up for some social event mis-dressed, that is, being way over dressed or under dressed and thus sticking out. We want to be sure we’re doing what everyone else is doing. Some people like to stand out and get attention but I think most prefer to somewhat blend in. Being naked in a crowd of dressed people would be the most extreme example of “being under dressed” but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have had “nightmares” about showing up somewhere wearing the wrong dress or what have you.

    I suspect this origin of this bias (conforming to the group’s collective appearance) is evolutionary in nature insofar as those of the species that that didn’t care about standing out from the group were more easily picked off, and hence did not pass down their genes. All things being equal, if every member of the group is identical in appearance you decrease your odds of being the one picked out by a potential predator to simply 1/x (where x = size of group) from 1/x-y where y = count of all identical members)

    • Raja says:

      Based on that logic we should be mainly comfortable going to a nudist colony or beach as we won’t stand out amongst the naked. I suspect it’s not the case.

      • Greg Morin says:

        No, what I stated would not imply a particular preference for group nudity vs any other arbitrary level of clothing state.

        What I am saying is that given the prevailing state of the group one is currently amongst, one prefers to be more closely aligned to that group so as to not stand out. So if one _were_ at a nudist colony and were the only one fully clothed I suspect one might in fact feel a bit out of place (I don’t know though, I’ve never actually attempted this!). That of course does not somehow imply that all people everywhere would prefer to be at a nudist colony anymore than the fact that feeling more comfortable wearing a tux at a formal dinner implies everyone would prefer to wear a tux all the time.

  3. Robert Fellner says:

    I like Greg’s thoughts on this!

  4. Adam says:

    ‘And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.’ Genesis 2:25
    Taboo seems to be related to the potential arousal of lust created by nudity. When people were perfect (before the Fall) they did not have this temptation – after the fall they needed clothes to control themselves. Or perhaps more broadly – since the Fall we can’t really show true selves to others.

  5. Matt M says:

    I’d guess the majority of people who have dreams of being naked in front of a crowd do so the night before they know they have to give a speech or presentation in front of a crowd. The dream is a reaction to the stress of an anticipated event. It’s a more common dream because the event is more common.

    On the other hand, if you were say, about to go on a solo expedition into the Alaskan wilderness, I imagine you might have several dreams about being stranded without needed supplies (clothing or otherwise).

  6. Major.Freedom says:

    Depends. I’m sure the tribesmen who live virtually naked don’t have nightmares about being naked in front of others.

    The people who have nightmares are those who were born into a culture, influenced by religion, to be at least embarrassed about sex, the naked human body, and earthly pleasures. But that is not as strong anymore which is why there are many who aren’t embarrassed. Repression or free expression.

    I am sure there are Eskimos who wear clothes predominantly for functionality, with style as a smaller factor.

    Some ancient Egyptians wore clothes predominantly for style.

    So yeah, it depends. No one monistic answer. That’s still fun to me.

    • Zack says:

      I think those tribesmen have nightmares about being fully clothed in front of others.

    • Z says:

      That’s probably true. As you correctly point out, our views and emotions towards most all subjects, such as wearing clothes, nudity, lust, etc, are just a product of our genetic data interacting with the environment. None of these views, whether religious or secular, are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. They just exist. You may prefer free expression, but others prefer repression. Same as some people prefer vanilla ice cream, while others prefer the chocolate version.

  7. Grane Peer says:

    If Bob Murphy and I were locked in the bathroom of a Greyhound bus for 4 hours driving through Arizona I feel confident we would find our clothes VERY functional. Adding some modicum of comfort in an uncomfortable situation. Now if either of us found ourselves in the same situation but with the three Brittany’s…

  8. Harold says:

    Perhaps we should wear sheepskins.

    If dreams are sometimes rooted in subconscious concerns- expressions of anxiety – why should two of the most common be appearing naked in public and being about to fail an exam or course? If clothes are only to make us acceptable in public, and a diploma is only to make us acceptable in employment, then both could be seen as expressions of a similar anxiety.

  9. RJ Miller says:


    “I like to make it sound like I really believe it is nothing but style…”

    A more accurate analogy to Caplan’s argument would be to say something along the lines of, “I believe clothing is a matter of both functionality and style but the functionality part can be achieved in a much more efficient manner than it currently is.”

    Yes, you can get a degree after getting an education that is job-related, but the functional element outside of signalling can be done far cheaper and effectively than it currently is.

    Caplan never said there’s *nothing* about college education that is beneficial in the workplace (he’s mentioned time and time again that you can benefit from what a University has to offer simply by attending lectures – but you won’t have any proof you were an actual student there). He’s merely pointing out that the cost of delivering the education itself (specifically all things job-related) is absurd.

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