More Talk About Why We Don’t Wear Hats Anymore

(Photo: davidd)

(Photo: davidd)

From Babak Givi, an assistant professor at NYU’s Dept. of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery:

Dear Freakonomicers,

I am writing in regards to your January 9th podcast ["Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions"] and the question about hats. Why people used to wear hats? Stephen made a comment about religious roots of hats and Steven talked about fashion.

I am sure there are links with both, but I would like to note that for the most of the human history, hats were protective garments. We are not spending as much time as we used to out in the open environment. If you spend most of the time outside, you will soon realize that similar to the rest of your body, you have to protect your head from the sun, wind, rain, or snow; but most importantly from the sun. Even now, when we spend most of our time inside our manmade structures, skin cancers are the most common type of cancer in humans. Furthermore, the most common area for developing skin cancers is head and neck, which happens to be the most exposed area of human body, as long as you are not a strict nudist. The effects of ultraviolet rays on developing skin cancers is beyond doubt.  Lightly pigmented skins are extremely sensitive to the sun and with enough exposure most people will develop skin cancers. Hats, similar to the rest of clothing items, protect our skin. In addition, less sunlight will delay development and progression of cataracts (point for wide brim hats). I think our ancestors had developed the habit of wearing hats out of necessity not fashion or religion. But of course through the millennia, we start adding religious, fashion, and symbolic meanings to wearing hats.

Interestingly, people who don’t have much sun exposure and suddenly have an intense exposure for a few hours are more at risk for developing skin cancers. Thus, I would recommend that Dr. Levitt consider wearing a hat when he is playing a game of golf on a sunny day. It’s not fashion, it’s not religion, it’s a health precaution.

Thanks, Dr. Givi — good point.

One more point unrelated to this e-mail but having to do with our FAQ episodesBecause they are primarily just “mailbag” episodes — Levitt and I trying to respond to listener questions — they are inherently much less researched and complete than a typical Freakonomics Radio. They are more like a call-in talk show than, say, a news magazine. That said, we inevitably fail to frame certain questions as they should be framed.

A good example is our discussion of the U.S. Postal Service in the same episode that Dr. Givi wrote to us about. We talked about a number of ways the USPS could improve itself — but, as many of you pointed out in e-mails, the USPS is severely limited by its federal commission. So some of the improvements and changes we suggested are simply not allowed as the USPS is currently configured.

It’s a tradeoff, I guess — we put out these casual Q&A’s once in a while, which seem to have a certain value; but they are necessarily not the same type of reporting and analysis as the standard episodes (which, surely, also make omissions and mistakes now and again, though they are more preventable in this context). It’s a tradeoff I am happy to live with — are you?

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  1. Wim ten Brink says:

    I actually have a hat (a Fedora) and I do wear it when I’m outside! So yes, Great advise!

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  2. Pat McGee says:

    Now that you explicitly point out the difference in research, I can see it. Before that, I just saw that you sometimes were right on the mark, sometimes way off. And I learned to take everything with a grain of salt.

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  3. wearer of many hats says:

    I will never forget one experience I had going to see Shari Lewis do her Lambchop and Chop sticks thing at a department store. I was around 3-4 at the time. Forgot where but we ended up in the hat department and my cousin and I ended up trying on all the hats and wigs. It was hysterical and we could not stop laughing. Wrote this add for my husband not that long ago about wearing many hats following that Russian fairy tale. Guess there is some truth to it.

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  4. Shane L says:

    Good point by Babak. I’m guessing also that in times past when people spent a lot of time out of doors and needed hats to protect themselves from sun, rain, heat or cold, they were probably less likely to take their hats off publicly? I ask because in modern times I imagine people don’t wear hats because they don’t like their hair becoming disheveled. If you never take your hat off and there is no social expectation for you to do so, you needn’t worry about messy hair. If, though, you expect to be hatless on arrival at work or socialising, you may be concerned about the state of your hat-disheveled head!

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    • Kate says:

      This is why gentlemen also carry combs in their pocket. :)

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    • James says:

      There’s another thing: at various points in history/culture, it was the fashion to basically glue hair in place with products ranging from animal manure to Brylcreem to various styling gels. The extreme might be the 18th century periwig. (With a hat worn atop it!) But with hair so glued, disheveled hair would not seem to be much of a problem.

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      • Shane L says:

        That reminds me, a dead body was found preserved in a peat bog in Ireland, dating from between 392 BC and 201 BC, with “gel” in his hair:

        “… his hair was spiked with pine resin (a very early form of hair gel). Furthermore, the trees from which the resin was sourced only grow in Spain and south-west France, indicating the presence of long distance trade routes.”
        http://irisharchaeology.ie/2011/08/irish-bog-bodies-recent-discoveries/

        People went a long way to look after their hairdos in ancient times, it seems!

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  5. Quinton says:

    Love the FAQs (assuming it was a non-rhetorical question)

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  6. Enter your name... says:

    I especially liked this question about hats.

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  7. Pharrell Williams says:

    I don’t understand this post.

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    • Pharrell Williams says:

      Seriously? You guys didn’t see me at the Grammys with my ridiculous Smokey the Bear/Arby’s hat?

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  8. Nelson says:

    As a mature male with Irish roots and typical male pattern baldness, I can personally underscore the simple physical protection of a good hat. Living in Utah without my old full head of hair now makes grabbing a hat before going outside in either the summer or winter essential to my comfort and well being. Fashion and social considerations take a distant second place to simple personal comfort.

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