Evolutionary psychologist Miller (The Mating Mind) examines conspicuous consumption in order to further his (not entirely complementary) goals-to rectify marketing's poor understanding of human spending behavior and critique consumerist culture. According to the author, our purchases are powerful indicators of our personality and are used to lure in suitable mates and friends. The book defends the current psychological view of personality as varying along six axes: intelligence, openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extroversion. While there is significant support for the author's contention that variation in these basic categories reflect genetic inheritance, preferences for each of them vary from society to society, from historical moment to moment and even within individual lives (e.g., conscientiousness tends to increase over the course of our lives as mating strategies shift from attracting short-term partners to maintaining long-term relationships). Miller is an engaging writer, even if his attempts at humor fall flat. What remains troubling is his failure to account for how a full range of traits can coexist in the same cultural environment and continue to be perpetuated across generations. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviorby Geoffrey Miller
A leading evolutionary psychologist probes the unconscious instincts behind American consumer culture
Illuminating the hidden reasons for why we buy what we do, Spent applies evolutionary psychology to the sensual wonderland of marketing and perceived status that is American consumer culture. Geoffrey Miller starts with the theory that we purchase/i>/b>… See more details below
A leading evolutionary psychologist probes the unconscious instincts behind American consumer culture
Illuminating the hidden reasons for why we buy what we do, Spent applies evolutionary psychology to the sensual wonderland of marketing and perceived status that is American consumer culture. Geoffrey Miller starts with the theory that we purchase things to advertise ourselves to others, and then examines other factors that dictate what we spend money on. With humor and insight, Miller analyzes an array of product choices and deciphers what our decisions say about ourselves, giving us access to a new way of understanding-and improving-our behaviors to become happier consumers.
Evolutionary psychologist Miller (The Mating Mind) digs deep into the primal past of humankind to discover the roots of...modern marketing? Actually, his focus is more on the makings of modern consumer culture-of which marketing is, he argues, a dominant force. Since evolutionary psychology seeks to examine how natural selection acts on psychological and mental traits, Miller applies this knowledge to help us understand what actually motivates us to buy. He pokes fun at popular culture and at the things we buy and flaunt to inflate our self-esteem and try to make ourselves more attractive. Personality research can inform the study of consumer behavior, and Miller shows us how having a better understanding of our own personalities will help us avoid the pitfalls of runaway consumerism. After all, millions of years of evolution have honed humans' natural abilities to win friends and mates, so why resort to expensive and ridiculous substitutes for our true identities and personalities? For both lay readers and academics, reading this book should be considered time well "spent."
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Read an Excerpt
Darwin Goes to the Mall
Consumerist capitalism: it is what it is, and we shouldn’t pretendotherwise.
But what is it, really? Consumerism is hard to describe when it’sthe ocean and we’re the plankton.
Faced with the unfathomable, we could start by asking some freshquestions. Here’s one: Why would the world’s most intelligent primatebuy a Hummer H1 Alpha sport- utility vehicle for $139,771? It is not apractical mode of transport. It seats only four, needs fifty- one feet inwhich to turn around, burns a gallon of gas every ten miles, dawdlesfrom 0 to 60 mph in 13.5 seconds, and has poor reliability, accordingto Consumer Reports. Yet, some people have felt the need to buy it— asthe Hummer ads say, “Need is a very subjective word.”
Although common sense says we buy things because we think we’llenjoy owning and using them, research shows that the pleasures ofacquisition are usually short- lived at best. So why do we keep ourselveson the consumerist treadmill— working, buying, aspiring? Biology offers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groupsin which image and status were all- important, not only for survival,but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children.Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to makean impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunkof matter—a fact that renders “materialism” a profoundly misleadingterm for much of consumption. Many products are signals first andmaterial objects second. Our vast social- primate brains evolved to pursueone central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others. Buyingimpressive products in a money- based economy is just the most recentway to fulfill that goal.
Many bright thinkers have tried to understand modern consumerismby framing it in a historical context, asking, for example: Howdid we go from showing off our status with purple- bordered togas inancient Rome to showing it off with Franck Muller watches in modernManhattan? How did we go from the 1908 black Model- T Fordto the 2006 “Flame Red Pearl” Hummer? How did we go from eatingcanned tuna (about $4 per pound) to eating magical plankton(“marine phytoplankton, the ultimate nutrogenomic, superchargedwith high- vibration crystal scalar energy healing frequencies”— $168for fifty grams, or $1,525 per pound, from Ascendedhealth.com) as aluxury food?
This book takes a different approach from that of historical analysis.It frames consumerism in an evolutionary context, and thusaddresses changes across much longer spans of time. How did we gofrom being small- brained semisocial primates 4 million years ago tobeing the big- brained hypersocial humans we are today? At the sametime it addresses differences across species. Why do we pay so muchfor plankton, the most common form of biomass on the planet? Bluewhales eat four tons of it per day, which would cost $12.2 million perday (plus shipping) from Ascendedhealth.com, if they wanted the“nutrogenomic supercharging.”
To understand consumerist capitalism, it might help to begin byconsidering our lives today as our prehistoric ancestors might viewthem. What would they think of us? Compared with their easygoingclannish ways, our frenetic status seeking and product hunting wouldlook bewildering indeed. Our society would seem noisy, perplexing,and maybe psychotic. To see just how psychotic, let’s perform athought experiment— something exotic, with time travel and lasers.
From Cro-Magnons to Consumers
This is your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go back thirtythousand years in a time machine. Meet some clever Cro-Magnonsin prehistoric France. (We’ll assume that you’ll be able to speak their language, somehow.) Explain our modern system of consumerist capitalismto them. Find out what they think of it. Would the prospect ofever- greater prosperity, leisure, and knowledge motivate them to inventagriculture, animal husbandry, walled towns, money, social classes,and conspicuous consumption? Or would they prefer to stagnate attheir Aurignacian level of culture, knapping flint and painting caves? Suppose you agree to this mission, and go back in your time machine.You find some Cro-Mags one evening, and get their attention by passingout a dozen laser pointers for them to play around with. After an hourthey settle down, and you give your pitch, explaining that our cultureoffers a vast cornucopia of goods and services for showing off one’s personalqualities in ten thousand new ways to millions of strangers. Oneacquires these displays of personal merit by “buying” them with “money”earned through “skilled labor.” You promise that if they persist with theirflint- knapping obsession, then in just a few millennia their descendantswill be able to enjoy sophisticated cultural innovations, such as colonicirrigation and YouTube.
Your talk goes well, and it’s time to gauge their reaction. You takesome questions from the audience. One of the dominant adult males,Gérard, has been hooting with enthusiasm, and seems to get the idea.But Gérard has some concerns— most sound outrageously sexist toyour modern ears, but since they are expressed with genuine curiosity,in the spirit of scientific objectivity you feel obliged to answer themhonestly. Gérard inquires:
So, Man-from-Future, with this money stuff, I could buy twentybright young women willing to bear my children?
You: No, Gérard. Since the abolition of slavery, we can’t offer genuinereproductive success in the form of fertile mates for sale. Thereare prostitutes, but they tend to use contraception.
Gérard: Well, I shall have to seduce the women so they want tobreed with me. Can I buy more intelligence and charisma, betterabilities to tell stories and jokes, more height and muscularity?
You: No, but you can buy self- help books that have some placeboeffect, and some steroids that increase both muscle mass and irritabilityby 30 percent.
Gérard: OK, I will be patient and wait for my sexual rivals to die.Can I buy another hundred years of life?
You: No, but with amazing modern health care, your expected lifespan can increase from seventy years to seventy- eight years.
Gérard: These no- answers anger me, and I feel aggressive. Can Ibuy advanced weaponry to kill my rivals, especially that bastardSerge, and the men of other kin groups and clans, so I can stealtheir women?
You: Yes. One effective choice would be the Auto Assault- 12 shotgun,which can fire five high- explosive fragmenting antipersonnelrounds per second. Oh— but I guess then the rivals and other kingroups and clans would probably buy them, too.
Gérard: So, we’d end up at just another level of clan- versus- clandétente. And there would be more lethal fights among hotheadedmale teens within our clan. Then I shall be content with my currentmate, Giselle— can I buy her undying devotion, and multipleorgasms so she never cheats on me?
You: Well, actually, lovers still cheat under capitalism; paternityuncertainty persists.
Gérard: What about Giselle’s mother and sister— can I buy themkinder personalities, so they are less critical of my foibles?
You: Sadly, no.
Then Giselle, Gérard’s savvy mate, interrupts with a few questions ofher own, which you answer with ever- increasing dismay:
Giselle: Man- from- Future, can I buy a handsome, high- status,charming lover who will never ignore me, beat me, or leave me?
You: No, Giselle, but we can offer romance novels that describe fictionaladventures with such lovers.
Giselle: Can I buy more sisters, who will care for my younger children as they would their own, when I am away gatheringgooseberries?
You: No, child- care employees tend to be underpaid, overwhelmed,miseducated girls who care more about text messaging theirfriends than looking after the children of strangers.
Giselle: How about our teenage children— Justine and Phillipe? Can I buy their respect and obedience, and the taste to choosegood mates?
You: No, marketers will brainwash them to ignore your social wisdomand to have sex with anyone wearing Hollister- branded clothingor drinking Mountain Dew AMP Energy Overdrive.
Giselle: Zut, alors! Mange de la merde et meurs! This money stuffsounds useless. Can I at least buy a mammoth carcass that neverrots?
Finally, you see an opening, and you start explaining about Sub- Zerofreezers— but then you remember that there is not yet an Electricitéde France with fifty- nine nuclear reactors to supply freezer power, andyou falter.
Giselle and Gérard are by now giving you looks of withering contempt.The rest of your audience is restless and skeptical; some eventry to set you on fire with their laser pointers. You try to rekindle theirinterest by explaining all the camping conveniences that consumerismoffers for the upwardly mobile Cro-Mag: sunglasses, steel knives,backpacks, and trail- running shoes that last several months, with coolswooshes on the sides.
The audience perks up a bit, and Giselle’s mother, Juliette, asks,“So, what’s the catch? What would we have to do to get these knivesand shoes?” You explain, “All you have to do is sit in classrooms everyday for sixteen years to learn counterintuitive skills, and then work andcommute fifty hours a week for forty years in tedious jobs for amoralcorporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decentchild care, sense of community, political empowerment, or contact with nature. Oh, and you’ll have to take special medicines to avoidsuicidal despair, and to avoid having more than two children. It’s not sobad, really. The shoe swooshes are pretty cool.” Juliette, the respectedCro-Magnon matriarch, looks you straight in the eye and asks, withinfinite pity, “Are you out of your mind?”
Contrasts and Choices
This thought experiment has, I hope, shaken your faith that humanityhas ridden a one- way escalator of ever- increasing progress and evergreaterhappiness since the Aurignacian. True, modern life can be awondrous glee-glutted Funky Town for the wealthiest .01 percent ofpeople on the planet. However, a fairer assessment would contrast thelifeways of an average prehistoric human and the lifestyle of an averagemodern human.
Consider the average Cro-Magnon of thirty thousand years ago.She is a healthy thirty- year- old mother of three, living in a close- knitclan of family and friends. She works only twenty hours a week gatheringorganic fruits and vegetables and flirting with guys who willgive her free- range meat. She spends most of her day gossiping withfriends, breast- feeding her newest baby, and watching her kids playwith their cousins. Most evenings she enjoys storytelling, grooming,dancing, drumming, and singing with people she knows, likes, andtrusts. Although she is only averagely intelligent, attractive, and interesting,most of her clan mates are too, so they get along just fine. Herboyfriend is also only average, but they often have great sex, sincemales have evolved wonderful new forms of foreplay: conversation,humor, creativity, and kindness. (About once a month, she hooks upsecretly with her enigmatic lover, Serge, who has eleven confirmedNeanderthal kills, but whose touch is like warm rain on Alpine flowers.)Every morning she wakes gently to the sun rising over the sixthousand acres of verdant French Riviera coast that her clan holds. Itrejuvenates her. Since the mortality rate is very low after infancy, shecan look forward to another forty years of life, during which she willgrow ever more valued as a woman of wisdom and status.
Now consider the average American worker in the twenty- first century.She is a single thirty- year- old cashier, who drives a Ford Focusand lives in Rochester. She is averagely intelligent (IQ 100), havinggotten Cs in a few classes before dropping out of the local communitycollege. She now has this job in retail, working forty hours a week atthe Piercing Pagoda in EastView Mall, fifty miles from her parentsand siblings. She is just averagely attractive and interesting, so she hasa few friends, but no steady boyfriend. She has to take Ortho Tri-Cyclen pills to avoid getting pregnant from her tipsy sexual encounterswith strangers who rarely return her phone calls. Her emotional stabilityis only average, and because Rochester is dark all winter, she takesProzac to avoid suicidal despair. Every evening she watches TV alone.Every night she fantasizes about being loved by Johnny Depp andbeing friends with Gwen Stefani. Every morning she awakens to thealarm clock next to the fake Chinese rubber plant in her six- hundredsquare-foot apartment. It wears her out. Thanks to modern medicine,she can look forward to another forty- five years of life, during whichshe will become ever less valued as an obsolete health- care burden. Atleast she has an iPod.
By envisioning our current lives through our ancestors’ eyes, wecan see more clearly what we have given up, and what we have gained,from developing this thing called “civilization,” which nowadays meansconsumerist capitalism. We can also better distinguish what is trulynatural about our lives from what is historically accidental, culturallyarbitrary, or politically oppressive.
Consumerist capitalism, as humans practice it in any particularculture, is not a natural or inevitable outcome of human evolution,given a certain level of technological sophistication. An evolutionarypsychologyanalysis of consumerism is accordingly not a way of givingscience’s seal of approval to consumerism, nor is it a way of morallyjustifying consumerism as the highest possible stage of bioculturalprogress. Many thinkers have tried to “naturalize” consumerism in thatway, including most social Darwinists, Austrian School economists(Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard), ChicagoSchool economists (George Stigler, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker),Darwinian libertarians, globalization advocates, management gurus,and marketers. Their model (which I call the Wrong ConservativeModel, because I think it’s wrong, and because it’s usually advocatedby political conservatives) is:
human nature + free markets = consumerist capitalism
Against such attempts to “naturalize” consumerism, others haverejected any concept of “human nature” and any connection betweenbiology and economics. These bio- skeptics include most Marxists,anarchists, hippies, utopians, New Age sentimentalists, gender feminists,cultural anthropologists, sociologists, postmodernists, and antiglobalizationactivists. For now, suffice it to say that such radicalspropose the Wrong Radical Model, which is basically:
the blank slate + oppressive institutions + invidious ideologies =consumerist capitalism
Here, the “blank slate” means a human baby’s big brain, allegedlyborn without any evolved instincts, preferences, or adaptations, yetcapable of learning anything. (Steven Pinker trenchantly critiqued thepossibility of such a brain in his book The Blank Slate.) The “oppressiveinstitutions” are usually taken to be governments, corporations,schools, and media, as they inevitably represent the interests of someruling class. The “invidious ideologies” are usually assumed to includereligion, patriarchy, conformism, elitism, ethnocentrism, and mainstreameconomics. The Wrong Radical Model also usually assumesthat Darwinism was invented as a justification for Victorian- era capitalism,including classism, colonialism, sexism, and racism— and if it’spart of the problem, it can’t be part of the solution.
As an alternative to the Wrong Conservative Model (consumerismas natural) and the Wrong Radical Model (consumerism as culturaloppression), this book proposes something a bit more complicated but,I hope, more accurate. I call it the Sensible Model, because I thinkit’s pretty reasonable, given what science has discovered so far aboutpeople and societies. It goes like this:
human instincts for trying unconsciously to display certaindesirable personal traits
+ current social norms for displaying those mental traits throughcertain kinds of credentials, jobs, goods, and services
+ current technological abilities and constraints
+ certain social institutions and ideologies
+ historical accident and cultural inertia
= early twenty- first- century consumerist capitalism
This more complex (but still vastly oversimplified) model does not just“denaturalize” consumerism. It also identifies specific things we couldchange about society by changing our social norms, institutions, ideologies,cultures, and technologies. The last third of this book suggestssome possible ways to reengineer consumerist capitalism based on theSensible Model.
These suggested changes will not aim to restore Cro-Magnon livingconditions, which would be neither possible nor desirable for modernhumans. There are 6.7 billion people on earth, and we can’t allgo back to living as hunter- gatherers. The notion of returning to anidealized paradise of simple, gentle, small- group living has been advocatedby diverse visionaries throughout history: Buddha, Laozi, Epicurus,Thoreau, Engels, Gandhi, Margaret Mead, and the Unabomber.Often these visionaries attract followers, who form religions, politicalmovements, or whole cultures: Taoists, Shakers, Luddites, Marxists,anarchists, hippies, and Emo kids. Even mainstream “bourgeois bohemians”support sustainability, voluntary simplicity, intentional living,organic farming, and corporate social responsibility, and try to smugglesome aspects of eco- communo- primitivism into their gated communities,insofar as local zoning permits them.
Yet each of these individuals and groups has exaggerated both thepros of primitive life and the cons of modern life. Each intuits correctlythat a Cro-Magnon lifestyle was a more natural environmentfor the human body, mind, family, and clan. Yet at the same time,each forgets that, stripped of romantic idealization, Cro-Magnon lifewas also ignorant, insular, violent, and unimaginably boring. I wouldnot want to live without civilization’s key inventions— trade, currency,literacy, medicine, books, bicycles, films, duct tape, shipping containers,and computers. Unlike many malcontents, I consider the threebest inventions of all time to be money, markets, and media. Each hasradically increased the social and material benefits of peaceful humancooperation. But together they don’t necessarily add up to consumeristcapitalism in its current forms.
Fortunately, we are not forced to make an either- or choice between(1) eco- communo- primitivism as it might function in some elusiveutopia, and (2) consumerist capitalism as it happens to have metastasizedso far in some human societies. The Sensible Model suggeststhat there are many alternatives, and I think some of them combinethe best natural features of prehistoric life and the best inventions ofmodern life.
Mamas, Don’t Let Your BabiesGrow Up to Be Marketing Consultants
Cro-Magnons aside, modern society also looks bewildering to children.They are born with paleo brains, built from paleo genes, expectinga paleo world: a close- knit social environment of kin- basedhunter- gatherer clans. Children are wired to learn and play the normalgame of life for which they evolved: be cute, grow up, find food,make friends, care for kin, avoid dangers, fight some enemies, findsome mates, raise some kids, grow old and wise, die. Instead, they facea bizarre new world of frustrating duties and counterintuitive ideas: sitstill, learn math, find a job, move away from friends, ignore kin, drivecars, leave kids in day care, and grow burdensome in old age.
Children face this new world with minimal guidance. Their parentsgo away all day to make money, to buy things, to look good and special,and to attract extra attention from other men and women, despitehaving mated and reproduced already. Their parents can’t explain whythey pretend that they’re still in the mating market if they don’t actuallywant a divorce and custody battle. Their high school teachers can’tmake sense of the consumerist world for them either, and their collegeprofessors can only suggest reading perplexing rants from postmodernFrench sociologists, such as Jean Baudrillard. So, almost everyonegrows up confused, passes through life confused, and dies confused.Only a few children do ever gain an intuitive grasp of consumerism’sprinciples, and these typically grow up to be marketing consultants.They learn that people in general are motivated, at leastunconsciously, to flaunt and fake their personal merits and virtues toone another. They realize that modern consumers in particular striveto be self- marketing minds, feeding one another hyperbole about howhealthy, clever, and popular they are, through the goods and servicesthey consume. Marketing consultants build careers around the postmoderninsight: at its heart consumerist capitalism is not “materialistic,”but “semiotic.” It concerns mainly the psychological world ofsigns, symbols, images, and brands, not the physical world of tangiblecommodities. Marketers understand that they are selling the sizzle,not the steak, because a premium brand of sizzle yields a high marginof profit, whereas a steak is just a low- margin commodity that anybutcher could sell.
However, even the cleverest marketers still don’t fully understandwhich merits and virtues consumers are really trying to display throughtheir consumption decisions. They don’t really understand the contentof the signals that people send to one another. Typically, marketersget some formal education in outdated consumer psychology research,then they get real jobs at real companies and realize that their formaltraining is mostly useless in selling real products. In response, theystrive to develop an intuitive understanding of consumer behavior andmarketing strategies through years of trial- and- error learning, plus theoccasional book by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell. They lack thehuge practical benefits of having a coherent evidence- based theoryabout consumer behavior, and this limits their success rate.
In particular, most marketers still use simplistic models of humannature that remain uninformed by the past twenty years of research onhuman nature— research by evolutionary anthropologists, evolutionarybiologists, and evolutionary psychologists. Marketers still believethat premium products are bought to display wealth, status, and taste,and they miss the deeper mental traits that people are actually wiredto display— traits such as kindness, intelligence, and creativity. Theydon’t put consumption in its evolutionary context, or trace its prehistoricroots, or understand its adaptive functions. As a result, they don’thave access to a good map of the human mind, or of this brave newsemiotic world in which it dwells. What marketers need is Darwin.
Yet Darwin, in turn, needs to take a break from fieldwork and visitthe mall. The Darwinian science of human nature needs to shift someattention from Pleistocene evolution to twenty- first- century consumerbehavior. We need to understand in much deeper ways how peopleflaunt and fake their biological fitness— their prospects for survivaland reproduction— to one another. We need to understand the specific facets of fitness— the most important physical and psychologicaltraits— that people strive to display through their “fitness indicators,”including most of the products they buy.
Fitness indicators are signals of one individual’s traits and qualitiesthat are perceivable by other individuals. Almost every animal specieshas its own fitness indicators to attract mates, intimidate rivals, deterpredators, and solicit help from parents and kin. Male guppies growflaglike tails, male lions sport luxuriant manes, male nightingales learnsongs, male bowerbirds build bowers, humans of both sexes acquireluxury goods. In each case, the fitness indicators are advertising fundamentalbiological traits such as good genes, good health, and goodsocial intelligence.
The animals that possess them are not consciously aware that thesetraits evolved to advertise their fitness. They just have the genes andinstincts for displaying them, and evolution itself keeps track of thesurvival, social, and sexual benefits of doing so. We humans may nothave much more conscious insight into the biological functions of ourfitness indicators than guppies have into the functions of their flagliketails. Indeed, we often buy products that increase our apparent fitness(health, beauty, fertility, intelligence) at the cost of real biological fitness(reproduction)— for example, Ortho Tri- Cyclen birth control pillsmake women’s skin look more attractive by reducing acne, but it lowersreproductive success by eliminating ovulation. Our brains did notevolve to pursue reproductive success consciously, but to pursue thecues, experiences, people, and things that typically led to reproductivesuccess under ancestral conditions.
Successful reproduction requires males and females to follow differentsexual strategies, and to display their fitness indicators to differentaudiences. Across virtually all animal species, males displaymostly to attract female mates, and less often to intimidate male sexualrivals. It is easy to see the functional connection between peacocktails and Porsches, and many recent studies have confirmed that menincrease the conspicuousness of their consumption when they aremost interested in mating. The situation is more complex for females.
Female animals of most species gain little benefit from displaying fitnessindicators to either sex, except in species where females competefor resources and mates, or where males are selective about theirmates. Among the highly social great apes, for example, female statushierarchies are important in predicting female access to food, sofemale apes often compete for status by displaying fitness indicators toone another— such as their size, health, assertiveness, and popularityduring mutual grooming. Such female- versus- female status competitionprobably likewise accounts for most conspicuous consumption byhuman females, especially for products such as Prada handbags andManolo Blahnik shoes, which straight males rarely notice. Humansare even more distinctive in that males are fairly choosy about thefemales with whom they form long- term relationships, which meansthat females also compete to attract the higher- quality males. Sadly,the evidence so far suggests that men pay very little attention to suchconspicuous consumption by women.
Unlike other animals, humans have evolved unique abilities toinvent, make, display, and imitate new kinds of fitness indicators.These new indicators evolve at the cultural rather than genetic level,and they include many of the credentials, jobs, goods, and servicesthat are typical in modern economies. Juvenile humans have an insatiablethirst to learn about culture- specific indicators, gossiping endlesslyabout what is “cool,” “hot,” “phat,” “rad,” or “wicked.” In otherwords, they are trying to discern “Which products would display mytraits, tastes, and skills most effectively, given the current display tacticsfavored by my peer group, especially its more socially and sexuallyattractive members?” If local status depends on memorizing longerpassages of the Torah or Qur’an than others can, young people willlearn to do that; if it depends on getting higher “interestingness” scoreson one’s Flickr- posted photos, or a higher friend- count on Facebook,or higher “hotness” ratings on Hotornot.com, they will opt for thoseinstead. Just as toddlers have special brain systems that evolved tolearn whatever language is spoken locally, teens seem to have evolvedsimilar systems to learn whatever culture- specific fitness indicatorsare favored in their local eco- niche, social niche, or market niche. Weare not just intuitive linguists; we are also intuitive status- ticians. Ineach case, evolution has crafted our innate ability to acquire culturallymodulated communication skills.
In humans, fitness indicators are unlikely to have evolved toadvertise monetary wealth, career- based status, or avant- garde taste,because these phenomena arose quite recently on the evolutionarytimescale, within the past ten thousand years. Rather, the key traitsthat we strive to display are the stable traits that differ most betweenindividuals and that most strongly predict our social abilities and preferences.
These include physical traits, such as health, fertility, andbeauty; personality traits, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness,and openness to novelty; and cognitive traits, such as general intelligence.These are the biological virtues that people try to broadcast,with the unconscious function of attracting respect, love, and supportfrom friends, mates, and allies. Displaying such traits is the key “latentmotive” that marketers strive to comprehend. While consumers dostrive semi consciously to show off their wealth, status, and taste, I’llargue that they do so largely in order to reveal these more fundamentalbiological virtues. Certainly, money can function as a form of “liquidfitness,” but largely as a means of acquiring more conspicuous fitnessindicators. And while consumers do rely more on emotions than onreason in deciding what to buy, human emotions cannot be describedclearly without understanding their evolutionary origins and functions.Until marketers and consumers understand these principles deeply, invivid Technicolor detail, and with a bittersweet ambivalence about thehuman condition, we will have little hope of improving and enlighteningsociety.
Description and Prescription
This book has two main aims. The first is to describe our humanculture as it is, within a biological context. The second is to suggestsome ways that we could change our human culture so it more happilycombines the best features of prehistoric social life and moderntechnology.
Inevitably, my descriptions and prescriptions will get mixedtogether in the course of my discussion. They will interlace at everyscale, from recurring book themes down to specific product examples,as I shift between considering facts and values. Such promiscuoushybridizations of “is” and “ought” often provoke outrage among thesuperhumanly rational philosophers of science and morality, who preferthat behavioral scientists restrict themselves to objective reportageand leave the preaching to them, or to their religious counterparts.
Too bad. There is a distinguished tradition of gaining new prescriptiveinsights into one’s society through new ways of describing its follies andinjustices— a tradition that includes such names as John Locke, MaryWollstonecraft, Daniel Defoe, William Wilberforce, Henry DavidThoreau, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Margaret Sanger, Thorstein Veblen,John Kenneth Galbraith, Alfred Kinsey, Germaine Greer, and PeterSinger. I hope to scramble along like a dormouse in their footsteps
If my descriptive analysis proves accurate, it should be useful todifferent readerships with conflicting agendas. It should give marketersnew ways to exploit consumer preferences and make more money.It should also give consumers new ways to resist marketer influenceand save money. It may give conservatives new ways to justify someaspects of the status quo, given the ubiquity of conspicuous displaythroughout nature. It may also give progressives new ways to underminethat status quo, given the colossal inefficiency of conspicuousconsumption as a form of trait display. While I can’t control who readsthis book, what insights they derive from it, or how they apply thoseinsights in their lives and livelihoods, I can hope that a more accurateview of human nature and consumerist culture leads to more intelligentdebate about all its relevant issues.
Like most reasonable people, I feel deep ambivalence about marketingand consumerism. Their power is awe- inspiring. Like gods, they inspireboth worshipful submission and mortal terror. Consumerist capitalismproduces almost everything that is distinctively exciting about modernlife and almost everything that is appalling about it. Most people likeclothing, shelter, safety, education, medicine, and travel, and wouldmiss them if they lived in an eco- communo- primitivist utopia. Mostpeople dislike exploitation, workaholism, runaway debt, pollution, themilitary- industrial complex, cartels, corruption, alienation, and massdepression, and would not miss them. Then there are personal tastes.The things I find most exciting about consumerist capitalism include:
almond croissants, Tori Amos concerts, skiing at Telluride, housesdesigned by Bart Prince, the BMW 550i, Provigil, iPods full of Outkastand Radiohead songs, and the Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard onwhich I’m typing. The things I find most appalling: Las Vegas, theMall of America, fast food, cable television, Hummers, and overpricedphytoplankton. Then there are the things that seem both exciting andappalling: frappuccinos, business schools, In Style magazine, Glockhandguns, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, Dubai airport duty-free shops,Diet Code Red Mountain Dew, the contemporary art market, andBangkok. You can draw up your own lists, and contemplate your ownsources of consumerist ambivalence.
Unfortunately, most writing about consumerism shows either purelove or pure hate, with no balance or nuance. On the one hand, wehave pro- consumerism advocacy: the World Trade Organization, WorldBank, and World Economic Forum; the Economist and the Wall StreetJournal; marketers, corporate lobbyists, and libertarians. On the otherhand, we have anticonsumerism activism: Greenpeace, Earth First,Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Adbusters magazine, the New Urbanism, voluntarysimplicity, the Slow Food movement, the Fair Trade movement,Buy Nothing Day, and True Cost Economics.
The extremism in either case is . . . extreme. Both sides have beenshouting past each other for decades. My goal here is not to conduct acost- benefit analysis of consumerism, or to reach some simplistic goodversus bad judgment. Rather, my hope is that by grounding our understandingof consumerism in the biological realities of human natureand individual differences, pro- consumerism and anti- consumerismadvocates can find a higher, closer, common ground. It’s not enoughto recognize that both sides have some good points and good intentions.We need to step back from the contemporary debate and reassessit from the broadest, deepest possible perspective— not only froma cross- cultural, historical perspective, but also from a cross- species,evolutionary perspective.
Meet the Author
Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist and author of The Mating Mind. He was educated at Columbia and Stanford and is associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, daughter and many products.
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