By now it should be clear 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. In other words, you’ll probably feel uneasy for much of the time you’re reading it.
That line comes about 100 pages into the book. I stumbled on it when I was flipping through and it’s the passage that convinced me to take it from the library. Geoffrey Miller’s book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior turned out to be very good. If I could just block-quote the entire thing right here, I probably would.
You get a sense of the tone from the quote above. It’s fairly conversational. There’s a counter-cultural bent to it that comes across as more detached and bemused, rather than left-wing-ish panic or conservative haughtiness. He picks on both perspectives fairly evenly. Some of it I found genuinely funny, some was awkward funny (“Mobile phones are already becoming too Lilliputian for adult males to use without feeling like a palsy-pawed giant ground sloth.”). Most of it offered plenty of brain-tweaking “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments. The book got quite a collection of dog-ears by the time I got through with it.
He starts out with a discussion of the “Big Five” personality traits, explaining what they are and how he’ll be using them to guide the discussion. The discussion at hand hinges around the idea of signaling: basically, how we inform others (and exaggerate) our worthy traits and minimize the appearance of less worthy traits. We signal in really primitive ways based on evolutionary learning (e.g. nice, white teeth = healthy) and in really modern ways, such as conspicuous consumption (e.g. nice, white teeth covered with a grill = wealthy).
Anyway, as you make it to page 75, he lists a few reasonable assumptions for the rest of the book:
- We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.
- We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.
- Over the past few million years, we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.
- Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies.
And a few pages later, he brings the connection with consumerism and marketing, and hints and hints at the anti-consumerist arguments that he’ll get into later in the book:
Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood. The truth that must be forgotten is 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.
The next bit ranges into a really interesting discussion on the three basic ways we signal: conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision, or conspicuous reputation. Conspicuous waste is fairly self-explanatory: gigantic cars, 30oz steaks, liquid-cooled gaming PCs. Conspicuously precise products rely on refinement, intricacy, low tolerances for error: luxury cars, fine sushi, Apple products. Conspicuous reputation is about envy or facade. Miller mentions BMWs and well-regarded postal codes in this category. Those aren’t perfect examples, and the categories can bleed, but you get the idea.
In one great leveling passage, he writes:
Each signaling principle has its distinctive pros and cons from the viewpoint of the signaler, the audience, and the population and ecology at large. These distinctions are significant but often overlooked. For example, socialist and environmentalist critiques of runaway consumerism apply most forcibly to cruder forms of conspicuous waste, which sequester matter and energy for the rich at the expense of the poor, and which impose the largest ecological footprint (resource and energy requirements). It is much harder to raise socioecological objections to an iPod nano than to an H1 Hummer. Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (“the finer things in life”) over conspicuous waste (“the crass and the vulgar”).
Later parts brought to mind the idea of social objects: “As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient to buy new, branded, mass-produced products from stores at the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The product comes into one’s life naked and mute, without any social context, memorable circumstances, or narrative value.” It’s not just what you have, but how you earned it and how it brings you closer to those you love.
And I just love this one bit, about 3/4 through the book. He’s spent a couple sentences talking about buying a Toyota Camry or a comparable Lexus. Both are made by the same mother company to similar quality levels:
If you must have the Lexus, that’s OK, as long as you consciously accept two things: (1) apart from its higher mass, you are paying an extra $40,000 for the Lexus badge, and (2) everyone who sees you driving the Lexus, and who has read this book, will assume that you could think of nothing in the world more creative, kind, or conscientious to do with $40,000.
Zing! Boom! That’s something to think on.
The last 10% or so of the book wasn’t as good the beginning. It got more prescriptive than descriptive, and it just wasn’t as interesting. But man, that first 90% was so worth it.
- Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias is obsessed with signaling, and he has a nice series of posts about the book.
- Bryan Caplan at EconLog has a couple posts and criticism of the book.
- A couple bits from Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.
- Steve Sailer quotes Geoffrey Miller’s long passage on IQ and hypocrisy in academia