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In the early 1990s, you could tell a rich person by whether they bought Grey Poupon. Now, it’s an iPhone.

Man holding two iPhones
Reuters/Issei Kato
Status symbols.
  • Dan Kopf
By Dan Kopf

Data editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The US is so polarized that people hardly live in the same country any more. Beyond differing political views, they don’t watch the same TV shows, buy the same brands, or read the same media.


Wrong, and there is research to prove it. University of Chicago economists Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica have produced a deeply researched study on whether people in the US have diverged culturally over the past half century. They haven’t, really.

Using survey data on the brands Americans buy, the beliefs they hold, the movies and TV they watch, and the ways they spend their time, the researchers tested how well they can predict someone’s income, race, and political views (pdf). Specifically, they were interested in whether it is easier to use this data to make predictions today than it was in decades past. If it is easier, they say, it means that Americans of different socioeconomic groups have grown further apart when it comes to how they experience the world.

Bertrand and Kamenica find that Americans are quite different, but that gulf is not widening. Knowing the TV shows someone watches or the shampoo they prefer tells you no more about their income or race than it used to. One exception is that cultural beliefs and attitudes—like whether premarital sex is wrong or whether the US is spending enough on defense—now better predict someone’s politics than in the past.

It’s significant and topical research, to be sure, but it’s also one of the more fun economics papers you will read. Beyond the usual methodological details, the authors have listed the products, opinions, and media that best predict someone’s background. It is funny, surprising, and sometimes sad. Here are some of our favorite nuggets from the research…

💰 Watching these TV shows was the most predictive of a high income in 2016*

TV shows/eventsPercent accuracy**
The Super Bowl57.1
Love It Or List It55.9
Property Brothers55.7
House Hunters55.5
The Academy Awards55.3
NCAA Men’s Final Four54.9
Flip or Flop54.9
The Masters54.8
Saturday Night Live Specials54.3
The Grammy Awards53.9

*High income is defined as being in the top 25% of Americans. For this analysis, the researchers only tried to predict if someone was in the top 25% or bottom 25%—those in the middle 50% were left out.

** In the this table and the ones following, percent accuracy represents the accuracy with which you could predict someone belonging to a group only knowing this one piece of information and nothing else.

💰 Using these brands was the most predictive of a high income in 1992 and 2016

1992Percent accuracy2016Percent accuracy
Grey Poupon Dijon mustard62.2iPhone69.1
Kodak film61.6iPad66.9
Thomas’s English muffin61.5Verizon Wireless61
Cascade-Lemon dish detergent59.0Android phone59.5
Scotch Magic tape58.7Kikkoman soy sauce59
Cut-Rite waxed paper57.7HP printer/fax machine58.2
Philadelphia cream cheese57.7AT&T cellular network58.1
Kikkoman soy sauce57.5Samsung TV set58
Hellmann’s mayonnaise57.4Cascade Complete dish detergent57.6
Sylvania TV set57.4Ziploc plastic bags57.5

🙋‍♂️ Seeing or not seeing these movies was the most predictive of being male in 1998, 2007, and 2016

1998Percent accuracy2007Percent accuracy2016Percent accuracy
Didn’t see First Wives Club56.0Saw King Kong52.4Saw John Wick52.7
Didn’t see The Mirror Has Two Faces54.0Saw Transporter 252.3Saw Interstellar52.6
Didn’t see The Preacher’s Wife53.7Saw Didn’t see In Her Shoes52.3Saw Fury52.2
Didn’t see Dalmatians53.6Saw Underworld: Evolution52.1Didn’t see Gone Girl51.9
Didn’t see One Fine Day53.4Saw X-Men: The Last Stand51.9Didn’t see Annie51.9
Didn’t see My Best Friend’s Wedding53.0Saw The Legend of Zorro51.8Saw The Hobbit51.8
Didn’t see Jerry Maguire53.0Saw A History of Violence51..7Saw Guardian of the Galaxy51.8
Didn’t see Fly Away Home53.0Saw Firewall51.7Saw The Equalizer51.7
Didn’t see The English Patient52.0Saw Mission Impossible 351.6Didn’t see Into the Woods51.7
Didn’t see Michael52.0Didn’t see The Family Stone51.6Saw Mad Max51.5

🙋‍♂️ These cultural traits, actions, or beliefs were the most predictive of being male in 2016

Cultural trait, action, or beliefPercent accuracy
Seen X-rated movie in last year61.8
Not afraid to walk at night60.2
Porn should not be illegal to all57.9
Too little spending on space exploration57.8
Not confident in banks57
Trusts people57.5
Approve of police striking citizens55.8
Spending on health care is adequate55.6
Own pistol/revolver in home55.4
Favor gun permits55.4

👨🏻 These TV shows and brands were the most predictive of being white in 2016

TV ShowsPercent accuracyBrandsPercent accuracy
Saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer55.8Verizon Wireless60.2
Saw Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade55.6Thomas’ English muffin58.6
Saw American Pickers55.5Shout laundry pre-treatment56.8
Saw The Big Bang Theory54.8Sweet Baby Ray’s barbeque sauce56.5
Saw How the Grinch Stole Christmas54.6Vlasic pickles56.4
Saw Saturday Night Live Specials54.6Arm & Hammer baking soda56
Saw Dick Clark’s New Year Rockin’ Eve54.3Scotch transparent tape55.9
Saw Charlie Brown Specials54.2French’s Classic Yellow mustard55.8
Didn’t see the NBA All Star Game54.2Windex glass/sruface cleaner55.8
Saw the Kentucky Derby54.1Stove top stuffing mix55.8

⬅ These magazines or cultural actions were the most predictive of being liberal in 2009

MagazinePercent accuracyActionsPercent accuracy
Read Vanity Fair54.9Not own a fishing rod56.9
Read Rolling Stone54.6Not own fishing lures/hooks56.8
Read Vogue54.0Not own a fishing reel56.7
Read The New Yorker53.8Own any vehicle56.5
Didn’t read Reader’s Digest53.0Didn’t use frozen bread/dough56.3
Didn’t read Field & Stream52.9Drank any alcoholic beverage56.2
Read Time52.9Bought a novel56.2
Read People52.8Didn’t use ranch salad dressing56.2
Read Glamour52.7Didn’t use disposable plates56
Read O, The Oprah Magazine52.7Not own other fishing equipments55.8

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