Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

by on April 29, 2009 at 7:02 am in Books, Science | Permalink

That's the new book by Geoffrey Miller, of The Mating Mind fame.  The exposition is a bit of a sprawling mess but the best pages of content are fascinating.  I recommend it and I am glad that I started reading it the moment I got my hands on it.

The core thesis is the Veblenesque point that marketing plays upon our weaknesses as evolved, biological creatures, obsessed with signaling:

From my perspective as an evolutionary psychologist, this is how consumerist capitalism really works: it makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits.  It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits.  It confuses us about the traits we are trying to display by harping on vague terms at the wrong levels of description (wealth, status, taste), and by obfuscating the most stable, heritable, and predictive traits discovered by individual differences research.  It hints coyly at the possible status and sexual payoffs for buying and displaying premium products, but refuses to make such claims explicit, lest consumer watchdogs find those claims empirically false, and lest significant others get upset by the personal motives they reveal.  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.

I very much agree.  Miller also tells us that we can do better and offers us some (non-regulatory) proposals for lowering the cost of our signaling.  (Don't buy a luxury car!)  Would it be cheaper and more effective to wear credible, verifiable tattoos of our personality types from the six-factor model?

I'll be considering more from this book soon.

1 Gerard O'Neill April 29, 2009 at 8:44 am

The problem I have with this line of reasoning (‘marketing made me do it’) is that years and years of experience working in market research with advertisers and their agencies shows me that people aren’t sheep (mores the pity 🙂 Worse consumers nowadays get the fact that advertisers are using sex to ‘trick’ them into buying their products. Reflective consumers – the bane of marketers lives.

In fact, comedy tends to work better in advertising: but I guess that’s just displaying good parenting skills to potential mates or something?

2 Sean April 29, 2009 at 9:34 am

I’m with the first commenter, it makes “the public” far more stupid than we are. I think advertising is more like a coordination game, or a signaling game within a signaling game. Of course people like to signal status and other characteristics like mad. But we have many high-end options with which to do so. The advertisers are saying “coordinate on us to do your signaling, we have the power and panache to be a dominant signal for a long time, your expensive signal won’t be worthless tomorrow if you buy from us.” The critical difference between this model and the one proposed by the author is that consumers are self-aware.

Now, another layer is that the author suggests that we signal the wrong things. That is an interesting hypothesis. I know some wealthy people who don’t think status is very important, but signal it to increase their likelihood of sexual encounters with people who think it is. But are the receivers dumb like the consumers in the author’s story, or do they too realize that status is a proxy for something else, essentially a sunspot used to coordinate matches. Individuals can be very stupid, but your bullshit detector should be on high alert any time someone tells you that everyone is stupid, or that almost everyone is stupid except for a few elites (who the story-teller is sufficiently smart to have identified).

3 Luis Enrique April 29, 2009 at 10:00 am

Who are these people buying consumer goods to show off? What are the consumer goods that we are allegedly buying to do all this signaling? I don’t recognise this behaviour in the people I know.

4 raivo pommer-www.google.fi April 29, 2009 at 10:12 am

Die schlimmste Rezession droht Irland
“Immerhin sind wir nicht Simbabwe” – ein schwacher Trost fĂŒr rund vier Millionen Iren, denen eine Arbeitslosenquote von 16,8 Prozent sowie eine explodierende Staatsverschuldung droht. Experten zufolge sind die Aussichten fĂŒr den ehemaligen “keltischen Tiger” deutlich schlechter als fĂŒr andere IndustrielĂ€nder.
Irland sĂ€uft ab: Die PfĂŒtzen auf dem Golfplatz von Kildare stehen stellvertretend fĂŒr den Zukunft der ganzen Insel.

Irland sĂ€uft ab: Die PfĂŒtzen auf dem Golfplatz von Kildare stehen stellvertretend fĂŒr den Zukunft der ganzen Insel. Foto: Julien Behal/dpa

Dublin –

Irland droht nach Ansicht von Ökonomen die heftigste Rezession der IndustrielĂ€nder. Die Wirtschaft werde zwischen 2008 und 2010 voraussichtlich um 11,6 Prozent schrumpfen, sagten die Experten des Wirtschafts- und Sozialforschungsinstitut (ESRI) am Mittwoch in Dublin voraus.

Das wÀre doppelt so schlimm wie zunÀchst gedacht und schneller als in jedem anderen Industrieland. Die Experten gehen von einer Arbeitslosenquote von 13,2 Prozent in diesem und 16,8 Prozent im kommenden Jahr aus.

Beide Werte sind höher als von der Regierung prognostiziert. Die Brutto-Staatsverschuldung werde sich 2010 auf 70 Prozent des Bruttoinlandsprodukts erhöhen, hieß es.

5 Michael Foody April 29, 2009 at 10:14 am

I wear wool blankets instead of clothes. In the summer I use cotton sheets. I wear underwear too but mostly to avoid indecency charges. I also have some rope that I use to hold my blankets in place. It is difficult for me to ride a bicycle.

I drink out of used tin cans, I have found that you get used to it quickly and only cut your lips when you are a rookie. I enjoy the autumn because I can sleep on a pile of leaves which is pretty decadent. Around my neck I have a necklace made of dental floss, attached to it is a laminated cashier’s cheque in the amount of $758,456. If I spy a beautiful women I will clear my throat and slyly play with my necklace. I will propose a roll in the hay, she will have no idea how literally she should take this advance.

6 Zamfir April 29, 2009 at 10:39 am

You’ve never had a woman in your office get engaged and come in sporting a 4 carat rock have you?

But a very small fraction of advertisement is for 4 carat rocks, and a lot is for beer.

From what I understand, advertising is more designed to transfer a feeling that a product “belongs to you”, is the kind of thing with the kind of emotions that you, personally, like. A bit as if the product is going to be your friend. Status can be one aspect, but there are so many other aspects.

And a lot of advertisement simply says: we are cheap, but in a way that doesn’t hurt quality a lot.

7 Gen. Ripper April 29, 2009 at 10:58 am

The first three commenters sound as though they have already read the book. Are you guys also getting advanced copies?

It appears to me that you are reacting to the implied threat to your personal model of the world rather than taking time to evaluate the 384 page argument that Miller is making. Should we always favor simple abstractions over potentially complicated and messy evidence?

I can’t comment on this new book because I haven’t read it yet, but The Mating Mind was filled convincing argumentation. It was also refreshingly honesty about the unresolved nature of the science, and the sometimes contradictory evidence, upon which those arguments were based.

8 Jake April 29, 2009 at 11:06 am

“The problem I have with this line of reasoning (‘marketing made me do it’) is that years and years of experience working in market research with advertisers and their agencies shows me that people aren’t sheep[.]”

Perhaps it’s possible that people are developing forms of “immunity” to marketing, which is a disease that’s advancing in lockstep with intellectual countermeasures. Consequently, marketers think of steadily more sophisticated ideas as consumers become inured to old ones.

9 Fenn April 29, 2009 at 11:33 am

Shoulda let Tyrone handle this one.

10 Sean April 29, 2009 at 11:51 am

Gen. Ripper, if you are going to describe how “consumerist capitalism really works” in one paragraph, you open yourself up to criticism when there are obvious alternative hypotheses, regardless of how well you support your description in the remaining 384 pages.

11 Epictetus April 29, 2009 at 11:54 am

Somewhat off topic: it’s a five-factor personality model, not six. The acronym is OCEAN (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism).

12 Mike Caton April 29, 2009 at 2:22 pm

In a similar vein, I made the mistake of reading a game theory book and Choosing the Right Pond simultaneously, and came out with the idea of medallions or tattoos that signify savings and credit rating. This would encourage savings in a very consumer-driven culture. Young people might not be so obsessed with cars, video games and clothes then – in particular, young men, because with the quality of the car & clothes signal degraded by the presence of the (more meaningful) credit rating and savings rate signallers.

13 Slocum April 29, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Mike Caton: Young people might not be so obsessed with cars, video games and clothes then – in particular, young men, because with the quality of the car & clothes signal degraded by the presence of the (more meaningful) credit rating and savings rate signallers.

Heh — I fear that a healthy bank-balance combined with a demonstrated frugality and un-willingness to spend liberally in order to please and impress females may…sad to say…not be what all young women are seeking.

mk: Another interesting question is “what is the logical conclusion of this ‘arms race’?” Will consumers ultimately become so sophisticated that there will be no more advertising tricks that work? Will some tricks always have some effectiveness?

I find it really odd that people continue to assume that advertising is becoming more and more effective over time when the evidence runs in the opposite direction.

The advertising business is in steep decline. Print publications that have long been advertising’s bread and butter are dying (and web advertising is not nearly as lucrative). Advertising-supported network TV has lost millions of viewers to cable channels, to DVDs, to streaming video. Big budget advertising did not prevent the rise of micro-breweries or the collapses of GM and Chrysler. Advertising is not now preventing The Paradox of Thrift. The evidence seems to indicate that most people are quite able to resist the siren songs of advertisers.

14 Craig April 30, 2009 at 12:55 am

This is the kind of reductive nonsense that discredits both biology and economics.
Maybe people consume things because they get pleasure out of them – the item in question suits their values, their taste, their sense of aesthetics. And maybe they don’t give a rat’s ass what other people think, or what “signal” they are sending.

But wait, I forgot, the gods of evolutionary biology have determined why I really do the things I do, and make the choices I make. Which must explain why all societies and cultures are so similar across time and around the world. It’s in our genes!

What nonsense.

15 raivo pommer-www.google.fi April 30, 2009 at 4:44 am

Die US-Notenbank weckt Hoffnung auf ein Ende der schwersten Rezession seit Jahrzehnten. Den Leitzins aber lÀsst sie unverÀndert.

Die US-Notenbank weckt Hoffnungen auf Licht am Ende des dĂŒsteren Konjunkturtunnels. Zwar sei die grĂ¶ĂŸte Volkswirtschaft der Welt in den vergangenen Wochen weiter geschrumpft, doch habe sich das Tempo scheinbar verlangsamt, teilte die Federal Reserve (Fed) am Mittwoch mit.

Ein Hoffnungsschimmer auch an der amerikanischen Verbraucherfront: Zwar drĂŒckten Arbeitslosigkeit, gesunkener Wohlstand und schwierige Kreditbedingungen weiterhin auf die Kauflaune. Doch gebe es bei den Verbraucherausgaben “Zeichen der Stabilisierung”, hieß es von der Fed nach der turnusgemĂ€ĂŸen Sitzung ihres Offenmarktausschusses.

Die Fed sei zuversichtlich, dass die Maßnahmen zur StĂŒtzung des Finanzsektors Wirkung zeigten und dazu beitragen, dass sich “schrittweise” wieder Wachstum einstelle. Inflationsrisiken sieht die US-Notenbank zunĂ€chst nicht am Horizont – im Gegenteil. Der Preisauftrieb könne sogar “fĂŒr einige Zeit” unterhalb der Rate bleiben, die gut fĂŒr das Wirtschaftswachstum seien.

16 Joshua Allen April 30, 2009 at 1:48 pm

I look forward to reading it. The discussion of signaling for mating purposes in “Comeuppance”, another book that Tyler recommended, was the most compelling I’ve seen so far. “Comeuppance” credibly tied signaling to free will, and also argued that falsifiable signals typically don’t count for much.

OTOH, I disagree with the premise of “Three Victorian Questions”. He takes a few anecdotes out of context to attempt to argue that human nature has changed, but I can assure you that nothing has changed. People who have children still select their mates based on characteristics they wish to be passed to offspring. If anything, we have far more understanding about which things can or cannot be passed on, and far higher skepticism of falsifiable signals, than our Victorian ancestors did.

17 Joshua Allen May 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm

More on the “Three Victorian Questions” — read this story about how Japanese still discriminate in marriage, based on an ancient caste system in which you can only tell whether someone is from a “bad family” by consulting old maps (IOW, no identifiable characteristics).

18 SONY PCG laptop battery May 18, 2009 at 8:51 am

I believe we are reacting to the paragraph which Tyler cites approvingly as the book’s ‘core thesis’. Now if this turns out not actually to be the core thesis of the book, then, yes, our comments will have been off base (with respect to the book as a whole anyway — but not with respect to the excerpt).

19 Alex March 3, 2011 at 9:56 am

People are on a shopping frenzy. I have never seen such a boom in the advertising and marketing field since the computer hit mainstream. If you want to buy clothes you click two times and you have it, offers come in your inbox, people are buying everything. Yesterday I did a search for dominios and I got tons of search results. Two years ago you wouldn’t have found half of them…

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