A leading evolutionary psychologist probes the hidden instincts behind our working, shopping, and spending Evolutionary psychology-the compelling science of human nature-has clarified the prehistoric origins of human behavior and influenced many fields ranging from economics to personal relationships. In "Spent" Geoffrey Miller applies this revolutionary science's principles to a new domain: the sensual wonderland of marketing and status seeking that we call American consumer culture. Starting with the basic notion that the goods and services we buy unconsciously advertise our biological potential as mates and friends, Miller examines the hidden factors that dictate our choices in everything from lipstick to cars, from the magazines we read to the music we listen to. 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. Like "Freakonomics" or "The Tipping Point, Spent" is a bold and revelatory book that illuminates the unseen logic behind the chaos of consumerism and suggests new ways we can become happier consumers and more responsible citizens.
Geoffrey F. Miller, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of New Mexico, is an American evolutionary psychologist, and author of four books.
He's interested in psychology, polyamory, politics, Effective Altruism, existential risk, AI, animal welfare, and science fiction.
Miller is a 1987 graduate of Columbia University, where he earned a BA in biology and psychology. He received his PhD in cognitive psychology from Stanford University in 1993 under the guidance of Roger N. Shepard. He was a postdoctoral researcher in the evolutionary and adaptive systems group in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex, UK (1992–94); Research Scientist at the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition, Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research, Munich, Germany (1995–96); Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution, University College London (1996–2000); he has worked at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, since 2001, where he is now Associate Professor. In 2009, he was Visiting Scientist, Genetic Epidemiology Group, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane, Australia.
Miller pulls together an acutely relevant array of information from a range of fields (e.g. psychology, primate evolution, economics, marketing), distilling concepts to their essence in elegant prose in support of his arguments.
My favourite section: a description of correlations between risk of exposure to parasites from outgroups, vulnerability of the immune system, and tendency to be more or less open to contact with unfamiliar people and cultures.
Some points that pop out in his writing: He repeatedly downplays the value of tertiary education- particularly if the degree comes from a prestigious university- to the extent that he sometimes comes across as disdainful rather than apologetic.
He takes a refreshingly optimistic and sympathetic view of youth culture, pointing out that 'young people have always shown an uncanny knack for allocating their time and energy to emerging new modes of trait display that bring them the highest social and sexual payoffs,' and that mobile phones, social networking, and MMOGs are 'awesomely efficient ways to short-circuit consumerist conventions of trait display.'
While I generally find a surplus of well-phrased insights to agree wholeheartedly with, there are places where he could have qualified his statements a little more, thereby making them supremely palatable, rather than the sort of exaggerated-for-effect claims with clear limitations in scope for which one has to make excuses, in defence of otherwise great concepts.
I agreed with the notion that certain key personality traits can be identified and combined in various ways to accurately characterise a whole spectrum of behavioural tendencies, and that it's convenient to allude to this well-selected handful of reasonably distinct, easily-identifiable traits under many circumstances. But remain unimpressed by the claim that this provides a sufficiently detailed and descriptive skeletal framework, and that attempts to examine traits at finer levels of resolution are pointless- on the contrary, attention to detail and development of more-precise terminology yield valuable insight- especially since we often have the tendency to split hairs and amplify differences between individuals.
Other minor gripe: the book states on the back cover that it was published under a different title in the hardback edition. So throughout, Must Have keeps referring (unnecessarily distractingly) to itself as Spent, which seems a rather silly oversight.
The trouble is not that marketing promotes materialism. Quite the opposite. It promotes a narcissistic pseudospiritualism based on subjective pleasure, social status, romance, and lifestyle, as a product's mental associations become more important than its actual physical qualities. This is the whole point of advertising and branding- to create associations between a product and the aspirations of the consumer, so the product seems to be worth more to the consumer than its mere physical form could possibly warrant. Marketing actually avoids materialism at all costs, for if consumers comparison shopped solely on the basis of objective material features and costs, the products themselves would be reduced to commodities- and commodities cannot be sold for serious profits in a competitive market.
Personal taste should not just attract like-minded individuals; it should also repulse differently-minded ones.
We humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviours such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product…Consumerism has become our most potent ideology because it so contemptuously dismisses our natural human modes of trait display, and it keeps us too busy- working, shopping, and product displaying- to remember what we can signal without all the products.
Consumerism actually promotes two big lies. One is that above-average products can compensate for below-average traits when one is trying to build serious long-term relationships with mates, friends, or family.
A second big lie that consumerism promotes is that products offer cooler, more impressive ways to display our desirable traits than any natural behaviour could provide…Advertising must therefore play a coy and subtle game with the consumer: while it must hint at the signalling functions of conspicuous consumption, it must never make quantitative claims about the relative signalling efficiency of different products, or of artificial products versus natural human behaviours. Such explicit claims about a product's trait-signalling power could be proven false all too easily. For example, sports car ads aimed at single males must imply that driving the car will result in the males' attracting more attention from beautiful women. But the ads must not make that claim explicitly, because it would be too easy for advertising regulators or rival manufacturers to demonstrate empirically that the sports car's drivers do not enjoy a sufficient increase in attention to justify its price premium, and that a better sense of humour would increase female attention far more effectively than excess horsepower.
Given two possible spouses of equal apparent quality, we generally prefer the one who comes from a higher-quality family, meaning a family full of more successful and desirable blood relatives. Those relatives carry some of the same genes as the potential mate, so we assess them unconsciously as a genetic guarantee of the mate's true quality.
The ad viewer himself need not believe that the brand has any logical or statistical link to the aspirational trait he wants to display. He must simply believe that other ad viewers from his social circle will perceive such a link.
People who are high on a personality trait called self-monitoring are especially prone to monitor and shift their displayed personality as a function of their social environment.
The outdated Myers-Briggs dichotomies (feeling versus thinking; judging versus perceiving) just can't work if the underlying traits are normally distributed.
Even for commercialised transhumanist products that offer nothing more than a placebo effect, early adopters will acquire and display them mainly as indicators of intelligence and openness. It won't matter whether the first ten-terabyte nanoneural implant actual does make the customer smarter; as long as the implant is expensive, exclusive, well marketed, and clearly branded, it will sell as a costly, conspicuous, limited-reliability signal of high intelligence.
Some exciting new research shows that a surprising environmental factor- the risk of parasitic infection (or "parasite load")- predicts lower openness, lower extraversion, lower individualism, and lower liberalism across individuals and societies.
The immune system's learned parasite resistance is highly localised. People from other kin groups, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, or races- even if they live just a few miles away- may host other varieties of parasites that evolved slightly different ways of being transmitted to hosts, infecting them, and making them sick. Thus, any interaction with outsiders brings a high risk of acquiring a new kind of parasite that may be especially hard for one's locally adapted immune system to fight off. The higher the parasite load- the greater the number, variety, and severity of parasites surrounding one's local group- the higher the risk is and the more cautious people should be about strangers. In other words, people in high-parasite regions will benefit from being more xenophobic and ethnocentric.
Conspicuous displays of immune system strength are fairly common across cultures. Especially in areas with high parasite loads, many tribal people open their skin to infection when they are young adults, through scarification or tattooing or forced genital mutilation, to show that their immune systems are strong enough to survive the wounds.
Potential mates and friends may not consciously understand the connection between costly signalling theory, microscopic particles, scarification using unsterilised tools, and individual differences in the number and efficiency of the lymphocytes that constitute the adaptive immune system. However, they can unconsciously assess that you would not be looking healthy or energetic after having endured so many cuts if you were weak and sickly.
The phenomenon of "cutting" among American teenagers baffles parents and doctors, but may be an example of this sort of ritual scarification.
Certain extreme ideas may present minimal danger to those with strong antipsychosis defences, who can therefore afford to act highly open. But those same ideas may present genuine dangers to those with weaker defences, who must minimise their openness.
Cultural disgust to bizarre new ideas protects low-openness people not only from psychosis, but from maladaptive memes.
Formal law, police, courts, and jails have never sufficed to sustain a collective quality of life worth living. Indeed you don't need written constitutions, corporate mission statements, or personal catechisms if you have a genuine culture- a set of informal behavioural norms- that is tacitly understood and enforced by most people in a society.
We put too much of ourselves into our product facades, spinning too much mass to our outer edges where we hope it is both publicly visible and instantly loveable. One problem with this strategy is that it leaves too much blank space in the middle, so there's not much of ourselves left for lovers or friends to discover in the longer term. This could be called the centrifugal-soul effect: runaway consumerism leaves us feeling superficial and empty, because we project ourselves outward to observers too promiscuously and desperately. We forget the virtues of restraint, reticence, and dignity.
Buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers no narrative value- no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product's design, provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer.
When you point out that consumerism is a really inefficient way to advertise personal traits, you can praise someone's traits and tickle their vanity even as you're cluster bombing the central ideology around which they've organised their education, career, leisure, identity, status seeking, and mating strategy. As well-trained consumer narcissists, we are such insecure, praise-starved flattery sluts that a little social validation goes a long way. A friend or lover can imply that we have wasted our lives chasing consumerist dreamworlds and status mirages, as long as he or she reassures us that we still appear intelligent, attractive, and virtuous. (Don't forget to mention that, or people will cry.)
I can't help wondering how many of the recommended books the authors has read. More specifically, I wonder if it's possible for one person to have read them all, amidst all other commitments in life.
The handful that I've read, and also fully recommend:
The Natural History of the Rich Collapse The Search Deluxe The Ethical Brain The Singularity is Near Common Wealth
Tanımayanlar için yazayım Miller alanında çok büyük ses getirmiş bir evrimsel psikologdur. Richard Dawkins gibi evrim bilimcilerin kitaplarında göndermeler yaptığı eserlere sahiptir. Evrimsel psikoloji çok yeni bir bilim olsa da uzun yıllar görmezden gelinmiş insan davranışları, karşı cinsle olan ilişkiler ve statü gösterme içgüdüleri gibi eylemlerin insan beynindeki evrimsel kökenlerini açıklayan bir bilim dalıdır. Yazarın ilk kitabı olan Sevişen Beyin'i okuyup çok beğenmiştim. Hatta NTV yayınlarının çıkardığı okunabilir ender kitaplardan biri olarak herkese tavsiye ederim. Yazar bu eserinde ise insanların bilinçsizce yaptıkları gösterişçi harcamaların, lüks tutkusunun ve kapitalizmin modern insana dayattığı en büyük hastalık olan tüketim yarışının evrimsel kökenlerine inip bugün neden aynı kalitede olan 2 üründen lüks markalı olanına neden diğerinin 10 katı para ödemek istediğimizin bilinç altındaki nedenlerini irdeliyor. Bunu yaparken de tüketim çılgınlığını doğal bir refleks olarak değil psikolojimize markalar tarafından zorla kabul ettirilmiş sakınılması gereken bir bilinçsizlik olarak anlatıyor. Her gün dünyanın her yerinde markaların psikolojimize zorla sokmaya çalıştığı gerçekle alakası olmayan reklamlarına maruz kalıyoruz. Kendimizi daha zeki, daha genç, daha çekici hissetmek için ihtiyacımız olmayan ürünlere tonla para yatırıyoruz. Statü göstergesi bir ürünü almanın hazzı ne yazık ki çok kısa sürmesine ve 1 yıl içinde bilinçli bir şekilde demode olmasına rağmen çılgınca alışveriş tutkumuzdan vazgeçemiyoruz. Miller bu davranışların evrimsel psikolojik kökenini açıklayıp bizi biraz daha mantıklı ve kontrollü davranmaya davet ediyor. Kitapta çok tepki çekecek bazı yeni tavsiyelerde bulunuyor. Yazarın görüşlerinin tümüne katılmak zorunda olmasak da günümüz insanı için oldukça faydalı bilgiler verdiği kesin.
"Conspicuous consumerism is neither natural nor inevitable, but just one possible mode of human trait display."
This was a great, multidisciplinary critique of modern consumerism.
Miller analyzes and criticizes our tendency to display our personality traits through consumption, rather than through face-to-face interaction. He argues that our efforts to impress others through education, work, and bling are often misguided, because as social animals we can quickly spot where these signals are redundant or misleading.
Miller's writing is equal parts mean, hilarious, and insightful—he combines insights from evolutionary psychology, classical economics, Marxism, and postmodernism which makes for a unique synthesis. If Karl Marx, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Dawkins had a baby, it might write a book like this one.
The book starts by explaining why consumerism is both good and bad, then goes into the need for an evolutionary lens when looking at consumerism and marketing. Miller spends much of the book exploring how consumption patterns relate to the Central Six personality traits (intelligence, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, stability/neuroticism). And he closes with some tips on how to create better social norms—and a plug for a consumption tax rather than our current income tax—that could help us escape today's rampant consumerism.
"Consumerist capitalism produces almost everything that is distinctively exciting about modern life and almost everything that is appalling about it."
"Consumerism's dirty little secret is that we do a rather good job of assessing such traits through ordinary human conversation, such that the trait-displaying goods and services we work so hard to buy are largely redundant, and sometimes counterproductive. ... The whole edifice of consumer narcissism rests on the questionable premise that other people actually notice and care about the products that we buy and display."
"We already have everything we could possibly need to impress our fellow humans, yet every major human ideology conspires to make us forget this fact—because every ideology seeks power by convincing us that we need something beyond our naked bodies and minds to be socially acceptable and sexually attractive."
"Modern consumers are like children doing spin art: we pour our favorite colors all over a fast-spinning life-style, fling pigment in all directions, and hope that some will stick to observers long enough for them to notice our composition. ... We put too much of ourselves into our product facades, spinning too much mass to our outer edges where we hope it is both publicly visible and instantly lovable. One problem with this strategy is that it leaves too much blank space in the middle, so there's not much of ourselves left for lovers or friends to discover in the longer term. This could be called the centrifugal-soul effect: runaway consumerism leaves us feeling superficial and empty, because we project ourselves outward to observes too promiscuously and desperately."
"Face-to-face discussions of consumerism can often go more smoothly than confrontations about topics like racism, sexism, or homophobia. This is because when you point out that consumerism is a really inefficient way to advertise personal traits, you can praise someone's traits and tickle their vanity even as you're cluster bombing the central ideology around which they've organized their education, career, leisure, identity, status seeking, and mating strategy. As well-trained consumer narcissists, we are such insecure, praise-starved flattery sluts that a little social validation goes a long way. A friend or lover can imply that we have wasted our lives chasing consumerist dreamworlds and status mirages, as long as he or she reassures us that we still appear intelligent, attractive, and virtuous. (Don't forget to mention that, or people will cry.)"
When you give a man a screwdriver, he thinks that all the world's problems can be fixed by screwing around. That's essentially what's happened to Geoffrey Miller.
Don't get me wrong. This is an excellent book, for the first half. It covers fitness indicators and how we're using consumerism as a modern way to express them. It covers psychology's current obsession with personality traits and how they fit neatly with our consumer behaviour. So far so good - I mean how rarely does scientific models fail to describe the world? You'd have to really suck at science to fuck that up. And Geoffrey Miller doesn't. He lives up to his reputation.
Where he fails is where most men and women of science fail. That is applying the theory to the real world and making predictions and policy decisions. He goes on about marketing for the six personality traits, preaches on how to avoid consumerism, builds up an agenda to tax consumerism, and encourages people to live in racially segregated communities to build up community spirit. Midlife crisis much? Maybe, I dunno. He sure builds up a strong case for it.
Maybe I'm an optimist, but I'd like to see an evolutionary psychology book for once that takes into account the human condition and tells us how to exploit it and be better than it. We're not supposed to be bogged down by Human nature. We're supposed to rise above it. Isn't that what humanity has achieved in the past few centuries? The study of evolution is the study of our past. If we let our past dictate our future, who are we but prisoners of our own past lives?
Anyone up to the challenge? Matt Ridley, are you listening?
Haven't finished this yet, but I love it. One of those books that when you're reading it, "explains everything." In this case, status seeking consumerism. Take two: OK, I should have waited before reviewing. It's definitely an entertaining book that will hold your interest, but it gets more than a bit nutty as it progresses. I strongly agree with the central thesis: there are more effective was to signal our fitness (intelligence, agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc.) than by consuming mass produced products and services. I even agree that a major driver of consumerism is a narcissistic need to display. But evo-psyche has it's own set of blinkers, to which Miller is not immune, despite his appealing and self-deprecating narrative voice. I don't believe that human personality can be reduced to 6 traits, for example. Still, a good, thought provoking read. I think he asks the right questions, but I'm not so sure about his answers.
This book hooked me from its name alone: not only is the pun on its subtitle of Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior exactly my sense of humor, those subjects are right up my alley. Miller's thesis is that much of modern conspicuous consumption is a waste, and not just in the environmental sense. In his view, much of what we buy as signaling and trait display devices are also a waste in evolutionary terms, because human beings are already extremely good at figuring out who they want to have sex with, and most purchases don't actually add much value to the whole mating determination process. Proving that takes him through evolutionary psychology, the economics of consumption, product marketing and consumer behavior, signaling theory, the relationship between technological progress and human nature, the quantification of personality types, how shared qualities like musical taste relate to sexual attraction, and the politics of conservation. He's really funny and well-read, with a keen eye for how our endless quests to spread our genes manifest themselves in our product purchases, with plenty of references not only to recent scientific research, but also to relevant pop culture like The Sims.
Miller opens the book by asking the modern reader to pretend that they're explaining the logic of consumer capitalism to a Cro-Magnon, playing on the absurdity of the work-buy-consume paradigm of the modern industrialized nations by having the Cro-Magnons ask what exactly all the goods and services our lives revolve around are useful for in evolutionary terms, like maximizing mammoth hunts, aiding berry foraging, acquiring more mates, and so on. To no one's surprise, they're not much use directly, but this is not just a recapitulation of Naomi Klein's thesis in No Logo that brands have hijacked our lives. So many pages have been written about consumer capitalism that a reasonable person might be forgiven for their lack of enthusiasm at yet another political screed, since the takes write themselves: either consumer capitalism is a rot, a sickness, a spiritual disease; or we live in the best of all possible mall worlds and the haters who don't like it are just jealous losers. Likewise with evolutionary psychology, surely one of the world's most misunderstood disciplines: either it's the key to explaining just about every nuance of human behavior, or else it's a tendentious mishmash of backwards reasoning and just-so stories. Yet who would disagree with this amusing summary?:
"Animal bodies and behaviors evolve largely as advertisements for their genes. Male humans evolved potent new sales tactics - verbal courtship, rhythmic music, gentle foreplay, prolonged copulation - for seducing skeptical female customers into accepting free trials of their fastest-moving consumer goods (sperm). Female humans evolved potent new tactics of relationship marketing to build long-term loyalty among their highest-value male customers, and to promote continued male investment in their new subsidiaries (children)."
However, as an evolutionary psychologist, his aim is to cut through relativistic and unscientific descriptions of our shopping trips. As he says, "Consumerist capitalism, as humans practice it in any particular culture, is not a natural or inevitable outcome of human evolution, given a certain level of technological sophistication. An evolutionary-psychology analysis of consumerism is accordingly not a way of giving science's seal of approval to consumerism, nor is it a way of morally justifying consumerism as the highest possible stage of biocultural progress." This is important, because even though much consumption closely resembles narcissism ("Narcissists tend to alternate between public status seeking and private pleasure seeking"), and he has a really funny chart attempting to quantify narcissism by calculating the cost per pound of items ranging from tap water ($0.0000633/lb) to a Victoria's Secret bra ($240/lb) to a porn DVD ($1,510/lb) to a human egg ($4.5 trillion/lb), just saying "people buy things to show themselves off" needs a bit more explanation. I was really cheered by seeing that I'm not the only one who has trouble appreciating what the people around me have spent so much time and effort on:
"Seriously, can you remember anything specific worn by your spouse or best friend the day before yesterday? Can you remember what kind of watch your boss wears? The brand of your nearest neighbor's dining room table? The face of the last person you saw driving a Ferrari? Probably not, unless you have the obsessive consumer fetishism of American Psycho's protagonist.... The net result could be called the fundamental consumerist delusion - that other people care more about the artificial products you display through consumerist spending than about the natural traits you display through normal conversation, cooperation, and cuddling."
He posits three different models of consumption, with the first two being mostly-accurate caricatures of the way many people look at capitalism:
- Wrong Conservative Model: human nature + free markets = consumerist capitalism (the hardcore libertarian model that includes Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and modern Republicans) - Wrong Radical Model: the blank slate + oppressive institutions + invidious ideologies = consumerist capitalism (the "blank slate" model criticized by Steven Pinker that includes Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Rose, and Richard Lewontin) - Sensible Model: human instincts for trying unconsciously to display certain desirable personal traits + current social norms for displaying those mental traits through certain 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
The "Sensible Model" that he champions has a lot of moving parts, and he discusses how his model compares to other, more well-known models that have been used to explain how humans go about satisfying their desires. One of the big ones is Maslow's hierarchy, which he has issues with to the extent that it "mixes innate drives (breathing, eating, seeking status, acquiring knowledge) and learned concerns (seeking financial security, self-esteem, and increased intelligence). It does not 'cut nature at the joints' in terms of the key selection pressures that shaped human behavior: survival and reproduction." I've had similar thoughts before; the basic insight that some human needs are more fundamental than others is hard to argue with, but for any theory to attain at least the veneer of science, the devil is in the details. Miller's framework makes a lot more sense, or at least it's more clearly grounded in the behaviors which seem more fundamental. When it comes to our desires as consumers, it usually all comes back to sex appeal:
"The most desirable traits are not wealth, status, and taste - these are just vague pseudo-traits that are achieved and displayed in widely different ways across different cultures, and ones that do not show very high stability within individual lives, or very high heritability across generations. They exist at the wrong level of description to be scientifically useful in connecting consumer psychology to evolutionary psychology. Rather, the most desirable traits are universal, stable, heritable traits closely related to biological fitness - traits like physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality."
Physical attractiveness is easy for people to assess, no matter the particulars of cultural standards, but much of the middle part of the book is devoted to the more difficult task of explaining how we unconsciously demonstrate aspects of our personalities and seek like-minded others through our purchases, in a more consumerist version of Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. He models this with the Central Six, abbreviated GOCASE: general intelligence plus the Big Five of openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extroversion. I've always been fascinated by personality tests, from the semi-respectable like MMPI or Myers-Briggs to the absurd like astrology. Much like with Maslow's hierarchy, nearly all of them seem like they're capturing something "true-ish" about ourselves, but the fact that there are dozens, maybe hundreds of incompatible measures out there makes Clickhole's parodies like "Are You an Introvert, an Extrovert, or a Sea Monster?" or "Which Blade of Grass Are You?" probably the best ones out there. However, the GOCASE framework explains a great deal across many domains, and most importantly, is stable and consistent enough to be the gold standard for psychologists trying to measure real aspects of our personalities. It's the distinct permutations of those six factors which make up the variety of people that we see in the world.
And it's often highly specific combinations that we're seeking in our partners, even if we couldn't consciously articulate what, exactly. Some people like high agreeableness (if you see your partner as a refuge from the world), some like low agreeableness (if you want someone who will challenge you), some like it in between. Some people aren't too picky (especially if you score poorly on the G factor), while others demand such exotic configurations of the Central Six that it takes them a while to find a partner. Anyone who's read Matt Ridley's The Red Queen or merely done some dating knows that the endless sexual arms race of signaling/counter-signaling/fake-signaling involves a frustrating amount of discerning signal from noise, even in matters of taste: "Personal taste should not just attract like-minded individuals; it should also repulse differently minded ones. To be effective, it must be a high-risk, high-gain form of taste signaling, rather than a meek nod to the least common denominator." Or, in another interesting passage where he compares attempts to maintain the glamour of diamonds in the face of alternatives like zirconia:
"Advances in gem production raise the possibility that in biological evolution, too, traits that began as fake alternatives to certain signals of quality may have evolved to be more useful and even more desirable than the original traits ever were. For example, verbal humor may have originated as a way for subordinate youths to imitate and mock older, more physically dominant sexual rivals - until eventually, humor became even more attractive than dominance, just as Moissanite achieved higher brilliance and fire than diamonds."
Some signals are unquestionably better than others, at least for most people. For example, one of the best ways to make a connection with someone you're attracted to is to discuss your shared aesthetic tastes, especially music. How is it that having a similar music phase in middle school or a shared guilty pleasure make you want to have offspring with someone? A big part of it is the subconscious recognition of which personality traits that the bands embody - everyone knows that a punk is different from a pop fan, a metalhead from a classical aficionado, a folkie from a country lover, and so on - but few are willing to say outright that your playlists are your personality type, or are able to explain why exactly finding some with the same reaction to the same artist means so much to them. Miller runs with that idea, for example arguing that a minor taste for the avant-garde is a good indicator of openness, but that too much might be a warning sign: "An individual with a longstanding appreciation of Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) is therefore a safer bet than one with a newly acquired enthusiasm for Inland Empire (2006)." (Remember that the book was published in 2008; insert your favorite cutting edge "safe weird" vs "weird weird" examples here).
Less controversial is the idea that your taste in something like pets can show off something about you, as someone with a big active breed of dog is more likely to have the high conscientiousness required to keep up with the necessary feeding, walking, and exercising than someone with a tiny toy dog, with the obvious implications for potential willingness to expend time and energy on children. And as attributes like conscientiousness becomes ever more important in the modern world, ways of displaying and measuring it will be more important in turn: "School, work, and credit - three pillars of consumer capitalism - are also, not coincidentally, the most reliable and conspicuous indicators of conscientiousness. All other consumer purchasing depends on these three pillars, so they are fundamental to conspicuous consumption." Seen in that light, the fact that much of what we buy and consume serves to signal to potential mates that we're the type of person that they'd really like to have sex with makes perfect sense.
However, much of what we buy seems to offer limited value for our money. Some of the funniest parts of the book are where Miller skewers how our attempts to flaunt ourselves go awry. For example, how much benefit do guys trying to impress babes really get out of status objects like sports cars?
"Even if male Corvette drivers do manage to attract a little extra female attention, the math doesn't work out very well for them. Suppose a male driver enjoys an average of one extra short-term mating per year attributable to his choice of car. The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 ($70,000) has a $50,000 price premium over the comparable-size Chevrolet Malibu sedan ($20,000), and both cars are designed to become obsolete in about five years. Rational car-buyers could then calculate that the Corvette’s price premium of $50,000 yields an expected five extra sexual encounters during its five-year product life, or $10,000 per encounter. By contrast, a typical encounter with a professional sex worker costs about $200, or fifty times less. Instead of paying the Corvette's price premium, which might yield one encounter per year, the driver could just buy the Malibu and, with the cash he saved, have one encounter per week. The prospective male Corvette-buyer must accordingly either be wildly overoptimistic about the car's attractiveness to women, or be very bad at math, or strongly prefer sexual encounters with amateurs rather than professionals."
We're also bad at math when it comes to our health, in a way that reminds me of the cartoonish catering towards our basest desires in the movie Idiocracy:
"For example, Costco sells M&M candies in sixty-four-ounce bags for about $8. I like M&Ms, so that seems like a great impulse purchase if I think I deserve a treat. However, at 142 calories per ounce, that bag contains about 9,000 calories of milk chocolate, which, knowing myself, I would eventually eat. An intensive aerobics class burns only 500 calories an hour, so it would take eighteen hours of aerobic lessons, at $10 per hour, to counteract the fat gain. So, rationally, I should be willing to pay about $180 to the Costco cashier - or my wife, or anyone - to restrain me from buying the $8 bag of M&M's."
Are there acid tests for personality traits?
"For example, it may be hard to judge a daughter's boyfriend's agreeableness (kindness, warmth, generosity) if we meet him in a quiet, air-conditioned steak house. Much better to invite him over for a midsummer extended-family barbecue at which he is in encouraged to drink several beers, and then assaulted chaotically on all sides by children, dogs, footballs, and stinging insects. If, under these more difficult, disinhibited, and diagnostic conditions, he becomes irritable to the point of throwing the footballs at the dogs and squirting mustard at the children, we know his agreeableness level is rather low (and that he might have a short temper with our daughter's future babies). Conversely, if he remains calm, cheerful, and helpful as the sweat rolls down his beer-flushed, mosquito-stung, dog-licked face, we know his agreeableness level is rather high. The cultural evolution of such occasions for accurate personality assessment may explain why major social rituals (dates, job interviews, parties, banquets, holidays, weddings, honeymoons) entail such long durations, high stress levels, and disinhibiting drugs such as alcohol. These conditions bring out both the best and the worst in us."
And what do pickup lines sound like when stripped down to their bare essentials?
"If I say on a second date that 'the sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term,' I am basically saying 'my SAT scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my IQ is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability, and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.' The information content is the same, but while the former sounds poetic, the latter sounds boorish."
I could go on and on. Miller's conclusion is that to stop such senseless waste, we not only have to recognize it for what it is, but also agree collectively to take concrete political action. Some suggestions are radical enough to be right out of science fiction, like the "trait tattoos" that would encode your Central Six measurements visibly, thus completely removing the need for most conspicuous consumption since at a glance you would be able to see who's compatible with you: "Mass social transparency sounds frightening and embarrassing, but it is what humans have been striving for ever since the prehistoric development of gossip, reputation, 'face', and status symbols. It would allow at least some rational people, some of the time, to choose their friends, mates, co-workers, and neighbors more quickly and accurately." The Gattaca-type incentives for people to fake their tattoos are obvious, yet the idea is worth some thought. More politically respectable, at least in some regards, is the idea of more consumption taxes. The politics of this are extremely tricky - the FairTax as currently proposed is primarily supported by libertarians opposed to income taxes, the bullet tax he proposes to solve the negative externalities of gun crimes would be absolutely opposed by conservatives, while it's mainly liberals who seem to support soda taxes to combat obesity - yet the logic behind the idea of taxing the hell out of grotesque status symbols like megayachts seems mostly unimpeachable. There are five main reasons he presents for consumption taxes, none of them illogical or unsupported by empirical evidence:
First, people would reduce, reuse, and recycle more; Second, the consumption tax would also create incentives for people to buy longer-lasting goods that have a higher resale value in the secondary market; Third, the consumption tax would encourage people to buy products that consume less energy and matter to operate; Fourth, the consumption tax would promote social capital and neighborly camaraderie; Finally, the consumption tax would increase savings, investment, and charity
As a popular social science work, this one earns its place among the top tier by being carefully argued, well-sourced, provocative, and well-written. Evolutionary psychology is still in its infancy as a discipline, yet Miller's explanation of how it relates to consumer capitalism is both intuitively true as well as widely applicable. I can't believe I found an author with something actually new to say about the endless "do opposites really attract, or do birds of a feather really flock together?" debate.
Pro: The concept of "Central Six" is crucial to learn for any individual. Especially people who work closely with human beings and need to understand talent and behaviour. Intelligence and the Big Five personality traits is the alpha-omega in psychology and the basis for all scientific psychology. Miller does explain how these things are the things you have to look at to understand consumer behaviour, and he is correct. Personality and intelligence can predict a lot of variation in behaviour in human beings. While the rest of human variation in behaviour seems to be unpredictable. And evolutionary psychology and its sexual behaviour theories can explain the universal traits in human beings that make up our spending behaviour overall. It all makes scientific sense and Miller is again on the forefront of psychology and economics!
Con: While his book, The Mating Mind, is one of the best philosophy books ever written this book is not. I have a hard time understanding what this book is? Is it psychology, philosophy or a personal manifesto? In the end it is all 3 things combined. And as the points made in the book are not always referenced in the text itself I had a hard time understanding when a random idea was presented and when a well-known and accepted theory was presented. The science and studies explained were great, the philosophical ideas were hit and miss and some of them seemed to be just there to provoke the reader. A lot of the book was also written for people new to evolutionary psychology - so maybe laymen would enjoy it much more than me? For example, the first 70 pages were at a high school level and didn't really contain anything deep. The book also had a lot of examples about Miller and consumers buying expensive houses and cars, which I don't do either. It doesn't mean that I didn't take a lot of great things with me from this book. But I also found it... creepy, a creepy but intelligent manifesto from a rich man written for rich over-consuming laymen who want to sound smart. I would love to see Central Six used again in other books too - with references and study after study.
_Spent_ offers a valuable opportunity to escape from consumerism craziness and get back in touch with our evolutionary roots. Geoffrey Miller does an amazing job in showing how consumer capitalism preys on our evolutionary drives for displaying fitness indicators and chasing fitness cues, but it ultimately results in our flaunting traits that are often redundant, misleading, useless, or counterproductive. Under the spell of runaway consumerism, we get distracted from the truth that "we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product." Highly entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking, _Spent_ is one of those books that stays with you long after you've read the last word.
White cover with clever photo, single word title, copycat publishing. A frustrating combination of screed (deriding conspicuous consumption), analysis (we advertise our biological selves by buying what we buy), and business journalism (summarizing current marketing trends). Some chapters are well reasoned and organized, and at least one (Chapter 9) is quite entertaining. Geoffrey Miller writes well when he's on, and clearly knows the field of evolutionary biology. Overall, however, one gets the impression that the book was hastily assembled and poorly edited. Though I wish he had dug a little deeper and taken a little more care in developing his argument, this is still a book that anyone interested in 'marketing' should dip into.
There are a few aspects of the book which I found annoying: it is verbose, the author talks about himself far too often, he is not always fair to those who hold opinions different from his (although his mean jokes are funny most times). But in the end these downsides are not so important. Miller made his point and quite convincingly, too. As a result, I feel that I now know more about marketing and why it works. For example, all those glamorous Gucci/DG/Versace ads with contemptuous models lying in piles which seemingly do not fit in a weekly newspaper make sense now. They are there to remind common people like me that G/DG/V is something I probably cannot afford. This is in turn crucial to maintain their signaling power so that a prospective buyer can be sure that everyone knows how expensive this stuff is. This is actually the main message from the book -- people buy stuff to signal one (or a combination) of a very few traits which happened to be important throughout human evolution. I also enjoyed the final chapter on alternative taxation systems but I lack economic background to judge how feasible Miller's plan is. Finally, Spent is not an introduction to evolutionary psychology, although the field is praised by Miller in a few chapters and claimed to be unjustly ignored, so one could expect more information about it. Also the psychology / philosophical discussions are very lightweight but they would make the book less agreeable for an average reader.
An incredibly thought provoking book. Written by an evolutionary psychologist, it is also highly controversial. Whether left-wing, write-wing, God-denying or God-fearing, you will find some parts, if not the whole thing, offensive (perhaps even heretical..to both liberals and conservatives). Yet, I highly recommend it as its evolutionary perspective on consumerism is probably vastly different than anything you have ever read or heard.
The basic idea is that runaway consumerism is simply a recent expression of millions of years of evolutionary trait display (fitness indicators to optimize survival and reproduction). Even though I believe there is more that drives humanity than survival and reproduction (even after reading this book), Miller's explanation of modern human behavior, specifically consumerism, in evolutionary terms, has certainly given me pause and made me wonder if evolution plays a far larger role in shaping the world than I had previously imagined. I suspect I will be thinking about this book for a long, long time.
But I also agree with another review of this book that I saw: "When you give a man a screwdriver, he thinks that all the world's problems can be fixed by screwing around. That's essentially what's happened to Geoffrey Miller." His perspective, while unique and fascinating, is terribly narrow. Even so, I recommend it to everyone.
Love this book - he has a bunch of great ideas and ties them all together well - a bit dry in parts, but stick with it and it's worth it at the end when he finishes with his thoughts on a consumption tax. LOVE IT!
fascinating take on behavioral psychology, marketing, evolution, sexuality/procreation, how and why we buy things, and how theory of sexual selection factors into our thinking. (also see previous book "The Mating Mind" for much of the theory behind this lab work...)
Geoffrey Miller knows what drives human behavior and he’s tired of your shit.
In this book he lays it out on the false reductionism of popular business / marketing / social psychology books while singing a paean to a more truthful biodeterminist reductionism based on the time-tested Big Five model of personality. The central thesis is that rampant consumerism is a byproduct of societal-level mismanagement of our finely-tuned evolutionary impulses. We’ve outsmarted ourselves.
For various reasons, I’m a fan of figuring out an author’s ideological underpinnings. Geoffrey Miller, a trained researcher with a Stanford Ph.D., is an intellectual omnivore both in terms of content and medium – from econometrics to primatology, from academic journals to video games, from Steven Pinker to Jean Baudrillard… Miller holds curiosity as a virtue (he would call this high openness) and is able to draw data (statistical and anecdotal) across dissimilar fields to form theoretically sound conclusions.
If you find that interesting, get this book. If you’ve ever asked questions like:
- What do the products I buy say about me? - Do the products I buy really say anything about me? - What have I been led to think I want, versus: what do I really want? - Is evolutionary psychology a conservative sham? - What would Karl Marx have thought of The Sims?
This book is definitely for you.
The reason this gets four instead of five stars is that Miller’s at-times irreverent, at-times hilarious voice at times finds itself being those things at the wrong times. He has some clear ideological biases in terms of taste, culture, and lifestyle, and though he recognizes that other people differ from him – sometimes profoundly – he derides their preferences using adjectives with negative connotations and expects readers to be in line through all of it; Miller would do well to observe Miller’s Law (by a different G. Miller) in practice as well as theory. Which goes: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”
“Aspirants must act like obsessive brainiacs at work, and then switch personalities 180 degrees to act like sensual, eco-minded slackers at home… The commute becomes an existential transition zone between one false persona and its opposite.” [p.257]
“A bag of Smartfood popcorn, once opened, cannot be put aside by any normal human until it is fully consumed, so it provides an opportunity to display one’s intelligence in avoiding salt-induced hypertension by not opening the bag in the first place.” [p.203]
So apparently in the broad scheme of things most of what we're doing works towards getting laid.
Or at least provides the deep-seeded reason for it. I doubt most presidents, on their high-level thinking, do so in pursuit of getting a whole lot of ladies.
Geoffrey Miller's book makes plenty of interesting arguments from the evolutionary psychologist standpoint about how the human drive to display our traits gets filtered far too readily through conspicuous consumption. He makes plenty of interesting arguments about how advertising could be more effective if it harness the six traits that all human beings can be broken down into.
It's compelling stuff, though in practice I fear its use would turn advertising into even more of a manipulative nightmare than it already is.
The strangeness comes in the latter part of the book, where Miller tries to address how we can fix our culture of conspicuous consumption both on an individual level and a cultural level.
On an individual level his advice has a more sensible lean to it, with suggestions on how to purchase more intelligently and with greater responsibility, noting how trait displays can work better on a budget.
However, on the macro level his advice comes off as unrealistic or outright ridiculous. Suggesting a consumption tax based on the responsibility of the purchased good sounds nice in theory, but it would require a massive effort, which he admits, but he does not seem concerned about who would do the deciding, how often it would be revised, and seems not at all concerned about the interests who might corrupt this method. So many corporations with heavy interests in Washington would find a thousand ways to game that system.
His other suggestion I found to border on irresponsible. He suggests we remove most of the laws that prevent discrimination and provide equal housing prevent groups from forming living environments based around a specific culture. While it sounds nice in theory, in practice it would just mean anyone not favored by a society would have the worst options in where to live. It's one of those odd libertarian notions that doesn't account for the corrupt or the petty. It's like saying we don't need handicap accessibility laws because good stores would do it anyway. If that was true, they wouldn't have needed a law in the first place. When businesses didn't have to, they didn't.
Fun reading, but his bright future doesn't seem to acknowledge some ugly realities.
I originally picked this up because I was going through a kick of reading books about different aspects sexuality - this book, however, is more about evolutionary psychology and consumerism (and to a lesser extent, marketing), than it is about sexuality.
Despite this, I kept reading it, because the author does have some interesting ideas, even if they're presented in a style I found myself needing to take in fairly small doses at a single reading session.
Basically, the field of Evolutionary Psychology looks at psychology in terms of the evolutionary triggers that caused us to develop certain psychological traits (and yes, it's heavy on trait psychology). I don't find any of the actual individual premises particularly challenging at their roots, but I did find the intense cynicsm and constant snark and smugness with thich they were presented, especially when combined with the judgementality of pretty much anyone who didn't share the author's snide comments about what was and wasn't scientifically reasonable, a tad much in too large an amounts.
I also have a gut issue with psychological theories that claim to address every instance of absolutely everything that relates to behaviour or motivation; and can twist and colour any particular instance to fit underneath their umbrella. Perhaps it's just that I personally dislike the implication that I'm being told "You may think within yourself that you did X thing for Y reason, but I know better than you that you really did it because of Z, and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING you can tell me is going to convince me to allow for the possibility that I might be wrong." Especially when it's stated with this level of smugness.
So did I find the book interesting? Absolutely, and it's given me some new ways of thinking about and understanding some of my own behaviours and motivations that make a lot of sense to me. Did I enjoy it though? I'd have to say "No" there. While the snark, smugness and snide digs were actually kind of fun (in an uncomfortable, "schadenfreude" way) in places, it really got too much very quickly, and I think the book would have been a much better read without it. Of course, that may just be a clash of personal styles, so if you enjoy schadenfreude, snideness and psychology, this may well be the book for you.
A truly astonishing book. Miller dives deep into our collective unconscious trigger mechanisms, our seemingly odd (human) behavioural quirks, to surface with a novel concept of interpreting what drives the present (not just American) consumer culture. Importantly, he does so with empathy, humour, and irony - making this an entertaining as well as rewarding read. More importantly, where many books of this genre fall down (never mind their lack of deep or novel well researched insights) - while usually delivering a diagnosis of the ills, failing to offer a cure - he presents insightful ideas for addressing our failures. Most importantly, he offers suggestions of how to healthily channel our desires and (signalling) activities, to make a better world, both bottom-up and top-down, with policy recommendations you would expect from economists. A must-read!
Family, Friends, and Sex If South Park had an evolutionary psychologist as a character it would be Geoffrey Miller, professor at the University of New Mexico, and author of Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. Miller uses his irreverent writing style to explain global consumer culture through the application of the science of human nature. This is a particularly good book for marketers as it uses up-to-date science to explain why we, as humans, buy, and why we are often trapped by the allure of consumerism. He bases his argument on the notion that our needs and wants are driven by a psychological (or perhaps biological) predisposition to behave in a manner that signals our physical and mental fitness, and thereby, increases our likelihood of finding mating opportunities and receiving social support from friends and family. Marketers will find this approach satisfying as Miller points out that we have been relying on an outdated model for understanding what drives consumers to want and buy things-namely Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. Spent’s model suggests that humans display conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision, and conspicuous reputation to signal mating and social fitness. (You’ll have to read the book for specifics.) Fitness indicators manifest themselves through general intelligence and five personality factors. (If you are familiar with the NEO Personality Inventory, you’ll recognize these factors.) When applied to market segmentation, message creation, and media selection, it is my belief that marketers will find this approach more profitable and more socially responsible than the conventional “marketing as a business process” method. From a literary point of view, most will find this book an easy read. Miller’s writing is in the pop-intellectual style made fashionable by Gladwell, but the academician occasionally bleeds through. He offers a fair amount of social commentary which is often arguable, but always well thought out and provocative.
The author blends personal observation, conjecture, and actual research into a rambling narrative about consumerism. Between taking pot shots at other research and offering little evidence of why his perspective is preferred it was hard to appreciate many of the points trying to be made. The last fews chapters offer a more expansive view of how society might change its behavior, compared to other books about consumerism that I've read, but I found the material out of place and instead wished for a more cohesive summary of the book's themes.
I really enjoyed this book. I am very interested in consumer behavior and human behavior in general, and this book detailed how and why we do things the way we do. I thought it was fascinating and learned a lot from his real life examples. I am actually going to read through the book again and take a few notes about things that really got my attention.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in human behavior and/or perspectives on life, living and culture.
I loathed the author more than I thought possible - unabashedly pretentious and arrogant - BUT, thought a lot of his ideas were interesting. I'm with him on reducing consumption, and the six personality traits he outlined keep coming up mentally as I interact with different people ("Oh, she's high openness" or "Asshole! Low agreeability!").
I'm miffed I didn't finish BEFORE book club; I would've had a lot more to say.
A good start for evolutionary consumerism. I had heard of ‘peacocking’ but Miller goes much deeper on this idea and others. He also provides four chapters of detailed analysis of how certain traits are displayed. This book felt 20% too long, a thinned out version would be nice but good ideas are throughout. This was suggested by Tyler Cowen and Rory Sutherland.
* Pazarlama ve lansman modern kültürde kaçınılmaz olarak ihtiyaçları geri planda tutarak arzularımızın ve isteklerimizin ihtiyaçlarımızın önüne geçmesine sebebiyet verir. Tüketim başlı başına kapitalizmin katedralidir. Kapitalizmin kendini anlamlandırdığı, soluk getirdiği, varlığını sürdürdüğü önemli alanlardandır.
** Tüketimin psikolojik olarak incelendiği eserde ilk bölümde tüketimin anlaşılması tarihsel pratiklerine bakılarak mümkün olacağını vurgulamıştır. Zenginlik ve tüketim sığ bir anlam tabakası olmaktan ziyade güç ve gösterişin, statünün simgesidir. Hangi restorantta yemek yediğimiz, hangi parfümü kullandığımız, hangi marka ayakkabı, çanta, pantolon giydiğimiz statünün özerk simgeleridir.
*** Bir meta veya araç satın alırken gerçekten ihtiyacımız olduğu için mi yoksa bize dayattırılan hegomonya ve modern kültürün pazarlama taktikleri sonucu mu alıyoruz? Reklamlarla insan zihni bulandırılarak gerçekte ihtiyacımızdan çok, tüketim odaklı insanlar haline geliyoruz. Nike marka ayakkabı, rolex saatler, Mıcheal kors çanta...
**** Tüketim ve kapitalizm ilişkisinde bir geridönüşüm mevcuttur. Paul Auster'in ifade ettiği gibi "Hafta sonu tatilleri, çalışanların dinlenebilmeleri için değil; kazandıklarını kapitalizme iade edebilmeleri için vardır." Bu anlamda her tüketim nesnesi bizi bir statünün içine yuvarlarken diğer yandan nelerden vazgeçtiğimizinde bir diğer resmini ifade eder.
A must read for anyone, not just marketers. It’s grounded in the Big Five personality traits (+ a sixth) and assesses consumer culture and human nature through the lens of costly signaling and mating drive. Insights are all over the place, I got tired of highlighting. Chapter 15 is essentially an “Advertising Antidote” and could even save you some $...
You can probably skip the last chapter (Ch. 17) which deals with a proposed shift from income to consumption tax.
Pg 21: “A deeper understanding of human nature helps everybody, whether we are consumers trying to live a more fulfilling life, or marketers trying to increase brand recognition and market share, or scientists trying to understand the world, or activists trying to improve society”
Pg 304: "As usual, an evolutionary perspective makes our current social concerns look smaller, more transient, and more solvable. It lets us see more clearly what is constant in human nature (the main traits that vary across people, the drive to show off these traits to others, and the drive to assess these traits), and what is variable across time and culture (verbal labels for the main traits, particular modes of trait display and trait assessment, particular forms of status and economic interchange). It reminds us that what we call 'reality' today is already 90 percent social convention—our heads are already stuck most of the way up our own culture, most of the time."
Eu nunca (nunca!) largo a leitura de um livro pela metade, mas essa foi a primeira vez que isso aconteceu. Escrita enfadonha e demasiadamente confusa para a mensagem simples que comunica, além de extremamente repetitiva em certos trechos. Foi um sofrimento chegar até a página 250.
A favorite among the books I've read in the last 2-3 years. Highly highly recommended.
My quoted passages from reading the book:
* On life now and then:
* "Consider the average Cro-Magnon a 30000 years ago. She's a healthy 30 year old Mother 3, living in a close-knit clan of family and friends. She works only 20 hours a week at an organic fruits and vegetables and flirting with guys who will give her free-range meat. She spends most of her gag gossiping with friends, breastfeeding her name is baby, and watching your kids play with her cousins. Most evenings she enjoys storytelling, grooming, dancing, drumming, and seeing the people she knows, likes, and Trust... Since the mortality rate is very low after infancy, she can look forward to another 40 years of life, during which she will grow ever more valued as a woman of wisdom and status. Now consider the average American worker in the 21st century. She's a 30 year old cashier who drives a Ford Focus and lives in Rochester. She's averagely intelligent with an IQ of a hundred, haven't gotten season a few classes before dropping out of the local community college. She now has his job in retail, working 40 hours a week at the Piercing Pagoda in East View Mall, 50 miles from her parents and siblings. She is just averagely attractive and interesting, so he has a few friends, but no steady boyfriend... Her emotional stability is only average, and because Rochester is dark all winter, she takes Prozac to avoid suicidal to spare.... At least she has an iPad." (7)
**He's not (!) Conservative or post-Modernist or a radical * "Many thinkers have try to quote natural eyes close quote consumerism in that way, including most social darwinists, Austrian School economist's like Ludwig von mises, Frederick Hayek, and Mary Roth board, Chicago school economist's like George Stigler, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, darwinian Libertarians, globalization Advocates, management gurus, and marketers. They're model, which I call the wrong conservative model, because I think it's wrong, and because it's usually Advocates by political conservatives is: human nature plus free markets equals consumerist capitalism." (8) * "The blank slate + oppressive institutions + invidious ideologies = consumerist Capitalism" (8)
* Sensible Model is: * "Human instincts for trying unconsciously to display certain desirable personal traits + current social norms for displaying those traits through credentials, jobs, goods, and services + current technological abilities and constraints + certain social institutions and ideologies + historical accident and cultural inertia = early 21st century consumerist Capitalism" (9) * Lol @ "the notion of returning to an idyllic Paradise of simple, gentle, small group living has been advocated by diverse Visionaries throughout history: Buddha, Laozi, Epicurious, Thoreau, Engles, Gandhi, Margaret Mead, and the Unabomber. Often these Visionaries attract followers, who form religions political movements, or whole cultures" (9) * "Even mainstream bourgeois Bohemians support sustainability, voluntary Simplicity, intentional living, organic farming, and corporate social responsibility, and try to smuggle some aspects of Eco-Communo- primitivism into their gated communities, insofar as local zoning permits them." (10)
On Aesthetic taste: * "Conspicuosly displayed aesthetic taste is a convenient, visible way for people to display their deeper personality traits" (74) * "Christianity can repulse atheist intellectuals like me by hanging black-velvet Jesus paintings on their walls, just as Van Helsing repelled vampires with garlic. " (75) * "The whole edifice of consumer narcissism rests on the questionable premise that other people actually notice and care about the products that we buy and display....decades of social psychology research suggests that we automatically notice only a few basic traits when w see people: their size, shape, age, sex, race, familiarity relatedness, and attractiveness We also notice special states of physiology....sleep, injury, sickness, pregnancy... emotion....anger, fear, disgust, sadness, elation. " (76) * hardest to signal stuff most important: "very difficult to buy goods or services that notably alter one's apparent age, sex, or race....oral herpes, basic emotions" (77)
* People perception
* "recent research on 'person perception' suggests that we are really rather good at judging other people's intelligence, sanity, and personality from just a few minutes of observing their behavior or talking with them....higher for more visible traits like extraversion and lower for more internal traits like neuroticism...higher when we judge a person behaving in a free, unscripted situation that allows individual differences to reveal themselves (as when chatting at a party or living in a small-scale hunter-gatherer group) than in a situation highly structured by social norms that suppress individual differences....more reliable information when the persons in question believe they are alone, and are not constructing a false persona for public approval. " (79) * some social rituals may be a way to test those personality features: "The cultural evolution of such occasions for accurate personality assessment may explain why major social rituals (dates, job interviews, parties, banquets, holidays, weddings, honeymoons) entail such long durations, high stress levels, and disinhibiting drugs such as alcohol. These conditions bring out both the best and the worst in us. " (80) * "Many mental disorders are also rather easy to detect within a few minutes....major depression tend to slump and look sad; they speak softly, slowly and monotonously....with schizophrenia tend to be unwashed, ungroomed and dressed in too many layers of clothing....only a few mental disorders are really hard to identify...psychopathy, specific phobias, sexual disorders and dysfunctions, and some addictions. When it comes to judging people's sanity, most experienced adults are rather accurate. (80) * Teenagers Mate choice: "this explains why the dating choices made by teenagers have always seemed appalingly stupid to their parents. Teenagers are overly influenced by the traits that are easiest to assess (physical attractiveness and status among peers)....Why was evolution so remiss in failing to arm human teenagers ...second answer is that teenagers reach puberty far earlier today than they did under prehistoric conditions...thrid answer might be that that parents always had a fairly heavy influence on mate choices made by their teenage offspring so evolution focused on shaping the parents' preferences rather than the teens. " (81) * Blank Slate=GOOD for consumerism
* "the blank-slate model of human nature, far from challenging the principles of consumerist capitalism, forms consumerism's ideological bedrock. It makes the trait-perception wisdom of older generations seem outdated and irrelevant, and makes the trait-display aspirations of younger generations seem to require buying the appropriate goods and services, while allowing them to pretend that they live in a brave new post-trait world. Most importantly, it undermines everyone's confidence that their traits are real enough and visible enough to be appreciated without being amplified and externalized by careerism and consumerism." (83) * Miller ♥ evolution
* "We already have everything we could possibly need to impress our fellow humans, yet every major human ideology seeks power by convincing us that we need something beyond our naked bodies and minds to be socially acceptable and sexually attractive. " (84) * Miller doesn't ♥ consumerism
* "Consumerism actually promotes two big lies. One is that above-average products can compensate for below-average traits when one is trying to build serious long-term relationships with mates, friends, or family....Trait-enhancing products can fool some of the people in the short term, but they can't fool any of the people in the long term. This is why newlyweds are more often disappointed than delighted to discover their spouse's true character during stressful foreign honeymoons. A second big lie that consumerism promotes is that products offer cooler, more impressive ways to display our desirable traits than any natural behavior could provide....assumes that better products are more effective signals. " (85) * "In that naturally social state of mind-- a state plausibly typical of our ancestors' every waking hour-- the fundamental consumerist delusion that products and brands matter, that they constitute a reasonable set of life aspirations, seems autistic, infantile, inhuman, and existentially toxic. " (89) * Costly signalling and faking
* "Rembrandt painted about 700 pictures, of which only 3000 are still in existence...Uncannily, Rembrandts continue to proliferate like rabbits, long after his death. " (96) * Advertising as a way to reach viewers of products, not just consumers:
* "most BMW ads are not really aimed so much at potential BMW buyers as they are at potential BMW coveters, to induce respect for the tiny minority who can afford the cars. " (99) * Costly signaling by offspring to parents and selective/discriminatory affection/aid given by parents in return:
* "discriminative parental solicitude....parents tend to neglect or even kill young animals that display conspicuous cues of genetic in breeding, birth defects, stunted growth, poor health, or behavioral incompetence. Perhaps this is why human children try to display their physical and mental competencies by doing difficult things while screeching 'Hey Mom, look what I can do!' They evolved to act as if they knew that such displays may be rewarded by fitness-promoting forms of parental investment....Down Syndrome, autism or congenital blindness for example-- are subject to much higher rates of parental abuse, neglect, and homicide. " (100) * "healthiest, most attractive individuals in an extended-family clan tend to elicit the greatest attention and fondness from their relatives....family reunions can be seen as periodic rituals for mutual quality displays among genetic relatives....poor families may have public-park barbecues while rich families congregate at estates in Kennebunkport or Balmoral, but in each case, similar social functions are served. " (101) * "These four modes of signaling often overlap: the same traits that show off one's physical and mental health to parents and kin can also attract friends and mates. Beauty and sanity are broadly valued." (102) * LOL:
* "Some folds consider it blindingly obvious that most human economic behavior is driven by status seeking, social signaling and sexual solicitation. These include most Marxists, marketers, working-class fundamentalists, and divorced women." (106) * Life history interacts with signalling
* "there will be a gradual reduction in the correlations between apparent body size and actual genetic quality, bodily condition, and age....Empirical tests of life history theory suggest that such evolutionary realloctions of genergy fom one growth pattern to another growth pattern are rather easy to achieve." (113) * Systems that work:
* "the whole system relies on a complex balance of power and interest between honest badge wearers, cheats, police, police admirers, and polices groupies. If a population gets the balance right, badges can be extremely reliable, efficient, and cheap as signals of fitness, or status, or anything else. But if individuals forget to reward badge checkers and cheater punishers with extra social status, friendship, and mating opportunities, the system can easily break down. " (117) * Cosmetics:
* "Cosmetic choices are much less culturally arbitrary than they appear at girst glance...Ancient Egyptians may have used kohl rather than liquid eyeliner to increase apparent eye size, red ochre rather than blush to increase cheek redness....sought to increase rather than decrease the facial cues of estrogenization, yougthful sexual maturity and fertility. " (137) * Fashion moves from physical display to personality display
* "Intelligent adults eventually realize all this, at some level. They stop fooling themselves that body-display products actually increase physical attractivness, and learn instead that maintaining one's physical appearance is an effective way to broadcasting one-s personality traits. The consistent, skillful use of cosmmetics, razors, hair products, and fashion advertises one's intelligence, mental health, conscientiousness, and self-esteem. " (139) * LOL:
* "Ever since humans invented boy ornamentation at least a hundred thousand years ago, however, we have been able to transform our bodies in ever more dramatic ways. Tribal peoples wear animal masks; British civil sevants cross-dress; children play dress-up; the Florida elderly don toddler-bright colors. " (143) * Central Six traits:
* "G is for general intelligence...higher average success in every domain of life...avoiding many misfortunes, such as car accidents, jail, drug addiction, STD's, divorce, and jury duty....one of the most sexually attractive traits in every culture studied, for both sexes." (145)
* stuff that advertises high G:
* "talk nerdy to me...PBS mind in a Fox News world...don't say ironic when you mean coincidental...if it fits on a bumper sticker, it's not a philosophy..." (145) * stuff that advertises low G:
* "Mommy says I'm special....collige..TV is gooder than books...hung like Einstein and smart as a horse" (146) * conscientiousness, agreeablness, stability, and extraversion: "genetically heritable, stable across life and universal across cultures"
* openess: "want to shine on like crazy diamonds...low on openess tend to seek simplicity and predictability....High-O people tend to join strange new start-up cults, whereas low-O people tend to follow the same-old better-established cults that their grandparents followed, which constitute the various organized religions....correlates positively (but modestly) with intgelligence, but also with certain types of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder and mild schizophrenia." (146)
* bumper stickers for high O:
* "question reality...legalize freedom...my karma ran over your dogma....sorry I missed church. I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian....I like sloppy and weird" (147) * low O:
* "live it up, Sinner....shut up, hippie...Welcome to America. We speak English. Learn it or leave....Stereotypes make life easier. " (147) * Conscientiousness
* "build strong guanxi-- a strong, reliable social network....predicts effective contraception use, it is strongly disfavored by natural selection in the natural world....shades over into obsessive-compulsive disorder " (148) * bumper stickers for high C:
* "Jesus would have used his turn signals....today is the tomorrow you forgot to plan for yesterday" * low C:
* "live every second as if your ass is on fire" (148) * Agreeableness: "warmth, kindness, sympathy, empathy, trust, compliance....tend to seek harmony, adapt to other's needs....low agreeableness to seek glory or notoriety, pursue their own needs, and express their opinions forcefully. " (149)
* "low agreeableness, even more than low conscientiousness is related to the externalizing dimension of mental illness....agreeableness tends to increase from early adulthood to middle adulthood" (150) * "low agreeableness bad boys and girls can be more sexually attractive than nice boys and girls, at least for short-term mating, since they are perceived as more assertive, self-confident, exciting, and cocky" (150) * Stability * Extraversion * Big Six has some analogy in many other species though often with some minor modification/combination
* "Are they interesting or boring' reliable or flaky; are they nice or nasty? ; are they sane or crazy?; are they dominant or submissive? " (158) * Self-monitoring? Is it a seperate facet?
* "People who are high on a personality trait called self-monitoring are especially prone to monitor and shift their displayed personality as a function of their social environment. " (161) * Emotions as temporary modifications of personality is an interesting idea: anger=temporary lowered agreeableness; love=higher energy and openness *
* Consequences of Big Six for marketers:"If so, it will almost always be more effective to measure the Central Six directly rather than relying on traditional market segmentation categories to predict behavior. " (165) * Big Six is mostly uncorrelated with each other: intelligence and openness to experience are modestly positively correlated. * LOL:
* "plenty of open-minded novelty seekers who love strange ideas and experiences, but who are not very bright. They constitute the market for fantasy novels, self-help books, nutraceuticals, facial piercings, music by Enya, degrees in nonevolutionary pscyhology, and every product labeled 'homeopathic'....makes them an extremely profitable market segment. " (166) * LOL:
* "this [getting bored with how solidly established IQ is] is a danger of attending too many meetings of the International Society for Intelligence Research: one hears talk after talk about how good old-fashioned measures of good old-fashioned general intelligence predict yet another aspect of human behavior better than any other construct. " (184) * Marketers are not accurate:
* "marketeers like to measure individual differences in very domain-specific ways that require arcane knowledge...measure 'individiualism versus collectivism'....'gender-role conformity'...internal locus of control is quite similar to the surgency facet of extraversion, and 'masculinity' often means little more than low agreeableness, low conscientiousness, and high stability. " (185) * "social, sexual, and career incentives for individual marketers to be exciting, trendy, and cool are often poorly aligned with the financial interests of a firm's shareholders. " (185) * IQ > all
* "irony about general intelligence is that ordinary folks of average inteligence recognize its variance across people, its generality across domains, and its importance in life. Yet educated elites meanwhile often remain implacably opposed to the very concept of general intelligence, and deny its variance, generality, and importance. " (187) * "I have met theoretical physicists who claimed that any human could understand superstring theory and quantum mechanics if only he or she was given the right educational opportunities. Of course, such scientists talk only with other physicists with IQs above 140 and seem to forget that their janitors barbers, and car mechanics are in fact real humans. " (188) * IQ is analogous to beauty and health - latent variable that emerges as the result of many other systems/factors * "correlates positively with: brain size....size of specific cortical areas....speed of performing basic sensory-motor tasks....speed with which nerve fibers carry impulses through the arms and legs...height...physical symmetry of the face and body...physical health...longevity..semen quality....mental health...romantic attractiveness (at least for long-term relationships)" (189) * "higher its g-loading, the more highly correlated its scores with bod body symmetry" (190)
* On elite schools: "Is it an accident that researchers at the most expensive, elite IQ-screening universities tend to be most skeptical of IQ tests?....universities offer a costly, slow, unreliable intelligence indicating product that competes directly with cheap, fast, more-reliable IQ tests....one must demonstrate a decent level of conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness in one's coursework.....above all....SAT scores and high
A fascinating look at evolutionary psychology and how it applies to modern consumer culture in all these subtle little ways that I've always been somewhat aware of but never necessarily fully grasped. It applied big 6 signaling theory to things well beyond designer clothing or luxury cars and also things like electronics and educational credentials, which definitely resonated with me on a somewhat personal level when reflecting on my younger self. :/ The policy prescriptions at the end, with a very heavy emphasis on Pigovian taxes to discourage conspicuous consumption really stuck out to me and while I'm not too sure how implementing these things would look like in the concrete, it does make sense to me now why the author seems so keen on blockchain/crypto technologies on Twitter.
As with any popular non-fiction, I think it felt a little hand-wavy at times in the way it glossed over a lot of the examples it used as and probably exaggerated the signaling aspect to some degree but hey that's an issue with the medium not necessarily the author right?
Thoroughly enjoyable and impressively original despite taking as its topic someting covered by countless other writers over the years, evolutionary psychologist Miller focuses on the large body of purchasing behavior aimed at signaling our good qualities to others, whatever their putative value of filling some want or need. Contending that such consumption-based attempts to impress others are both less effective than authentic interpersonal interaction at exhibiting personal qualities and harmful in their own right (environmentally, psychologically, financially), he disclaims that “you’ll be most comfortable with my arguments if you fully accept yourself as a fitness-flaunting consumer narcissist who has been deluded, throughout your whole life, into irrational spending habits by advertising euphemisms and peer pressure” (p. 105-106). Starting off with an imaginary conversation where a modern consumer might try to convince a Cro-Magnon of how great life under modern capitalism is compared to their primitive way of life – and failing to persuade – the book adumbrates a ‘Sensible Model’ of consumerism. Positioned against the ‘Wrong Radical Model’ (consumerism as an oppressive system generated by powerful interests and forced on blank-slate people through social learning) and the ‘Wrong Conversative Model’ (consumer capitalism results from human nature and basic freedom, making it the best means of advancement available), this model has the natural human desire to display traits and seek status + current social norms & historical accident yielding the consumerist free-market that exists today. After explaining costly signaling theory and relating this to how people engage in consumption-based impression management, the book goes on to highlight some of the traits that people hope to signal and how these allow for firmer understanding of purchase decisions than the murky stuff of marketing theories. Intelligence. Powerfully positively correlated with many aspects of general health and life chances across numerous domains, IQ cannot often be discussed openly so people endeavor to show off theirs through: credentialism, IQ-mimicking test scores (e.g., SAT), ascension through meritocratic hierarchies, keeping up with news and other complex fast-changing fields, in-depth discussion of arcane technical specifications of new tech purchases, and playing strategy games. Openness. The conceptual opposite of disgust, this trait is marked by things like novelty-seeking curiosity, being easily bored, craving different experiences, and perhaps a taste for the bizarre or unexpected rather than the traditional or mundane. People wanting to display this trait, with its accompanying playfulness, receptivity to the world and flexibility might take up fad or fashionable, but dangerous practices like extreme sports, tattooing, piercing, mind-altering drugs, or cutting. People high in this trait are highly profitable for companies because they yearn to be ‘early adopters’ of new technologies and like to follow fashions or be on the cutting edge in domains relevant to them. Brands make good use of planned obsolescence with high-openness customers, regularly pushing out new models that are only slight improvements over old ones, but appealing to “the young, hip, and urban” (p. 223) restlessness. Conscientiousness. Planning, reliability, organization, and inhibitory self-control are not particularly sexy qualities and cut against modern marketing to youthful spontaneity and impulsiveness, so this trait correlated with maturity is resultingly de-valued, portrayed as old-fogey “rigidity, archaism… and uncoolness” (p. 225). High levels of this trait would only have become adaptive relatively recently in our evolutionary past, with the shift to agriculture and need to raise and care for animals. The many high maintenance and labor-intensive products like delicate or glossy household surfaces (solid wood floors, marble counters, antique furniture, shiny cars), finicky hair styles, collector’s items, as well as pets and plants requiring constant grooming act as badges of our ability to keep up with things, as does a good credit score and job. In fact, “school, work, and credit – three pillars of consumer capitalism – are also, not coincidentally, the most reliable and conspicuous indicators of conscientiousness” (p. 239). Agreeableness. Trustworthiness, compassion, empathy, and kindness are valued by most people, so the importance of signaling our possession of these rather than aggressiveness orneriness drives our pursuit of indicators of our political or religious conformity to the expectations of those we care about by following the ideological crusades of the day and ‘saying all the right things’ – though Miller does not adduce many specific product categories that play on this. To combat the mass consumerism fed by our yearning to show off/exaggerate our best features through product placement, Miller has some quite interesting ideas. Noting that every time the government declares a war on something it produces major unintended consequences and seems to spawn bureaucracies that artificially extend the problem that their budgets depend on going after, he opts for private-sector action. One of the pillars of his program is to, essentially, be more judgmental: to air our disapproval of those in our circle who exhibit conspicuous consumption and to communicate without being preachy that we actually get what each other are about through face-to-face interaction just fine, no high-dollar artificial signals required. Because informal praise and blame on the person-to-person level are more effective that official messaging, we should aim to create situated communities of people with similar norms, the better to mutually aid and self-police, something possible only when everybody is on more-or-less the same page. When everyone subscribes to different values, Miller argues, then the only basis remaining for status competition is conspicuous consumption, the results of which are the cargo cults everywhere in evidence. More obvious ideas include buying used from thrift stores, renting instead of buying, fixing what we already have, commissioning custom pieces from local craftspeople, and so on. Finally, taxing consumption rather than income would incentivize saving, productivity, and investment, while disincentivizing conspicuous, wasteful displays of luxury goods There is much to agree with in the author’s analysis of the problem and in his proposed solutions. Particularly striking was his explanation of the ‘centrifugal soul effect’ (ch. 14), whereby people are induced to make so much of themselves public, to put so much of themselves ‘out there’, that little is left for their intimates to discover over time during the slow-burn of real relationships. Moreover, as Lee Jussim (2017) at Rutgers University and others have shown, and contra some of the wilder claims of the unconscious and cognitive bias researchers, people’s first-hand appraisals of others are generally pretty accurate, so no one is likely to be fooled by your purchase-based preening His appreciation of the limits of official policy is refreshing, as when he notes that “informal norms must do 99 percent of the daily work of shaping human behavior” cheekily pointing out that this “has been clearly understood by every sane adult in every functioning society for thousands of years; Euro-American academic subcultures of the late twentieth [a d early twenty-first] century are the singular exception.” (p. 292) Connections to other works were gratifying to find. By elaborating on how corporations prey upon our novelty-bias and need for social recognition to hawk their wares this book called to mind Dierdre Barrett’s (2010) Supernormal Stimuli. In frequently playing on the theme of being ‘strangers to ourselves’ in our consumption motivations, or that we ‘can’t handle the truth’ of our aims – “the true emotions and aspirations behind such purchases must not be revealed, least we realize that we’re trying to buy things that can’t be bought – or that aren’t worth the price” (p. 105) – meanwhile, I was reminded of The Elephant in the Brain (Simler & Hanson, 2018). In any book there is room for improvement. Normally, the lack of specific citations would have annoyed, but Miller provides ample ‘further reading’ references. More substantively, he hints at, but unfortunately does not elaborate on the potentially dangerous sedative effect of modern comforts in progressively dulling resistance to the perpetuation of harmful systems: “when poor, hungry people see megayachts and other conspicuous waste, they tend to get upset, and they either demand socialist revolution (in the nineteenth century), or better antidepressants (in the twenty-first)” (p. 121). With it’s Dave Barry-esque humor, surprisingly detailed and plausible-sounding thought experiments, well-informed speculations, and tone of punchy fun where jaded cynicism could easily have overtaken, Spent is an effective, high-fidelity signal of it’s author’s creativity and breadth. Highly recommended!
Jussim, L. (2017). Précis of Social perception and social reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40, 1-65.
Simler, K. & Hanson, R. (2018). The elephant in the brain: Hidden motives in everyday life. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.