More on the new Geoffrey Miller book, *Spent*

by on May 3, 2009 at 6:55 am in Books, Science | Permalink

Here is a typical bit:

Sexual traits are also well predicted by the Central Six [personality traits]…The highly sociosexual, open, impulsive, and selfish tend to invest more of their time and energy in "mating effort" rather than "parenting effort": they are constantly seeking new sexual partners rather than raising the offspring from existing relationships.  On the other hand, people with "restricted" sociosexuality (the virginal, the chaste, and the happily married) have fewer sexual partners, less infidelity, lower openness, higher conscientiousness, higher agreeableness, and lower extraversion.  They invest more time and energy in parenting effort and less in mating effort.

Miller suggests also that parasite loads of various societies predict (cause?) their openness.  A "mating-primed" man is more likely to express bold taste when asked about his preference in cars.  Mostly I am skeptical of such claims (many of the studies fall apart upon inspection) but still it is worth hearing Miller out as long as you approach the cited results with some skepticism.

I liked this passage:

Some common themes emerge from these slightly whimsical suggestions.  One is that buying new, real, branded premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginable consumer, and it should be your last option.  It offers low 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.

The impish troublemaker in me — and yes I have now been Robin's colleague for over ten years — wonders if indeed that is exactly what people are signaling with those purchases.

Here is my first post on the book.

1 rejewvenatorr May 3, 2009 at 9:45 am

I would argue that buying new, real, branded premium products at full price from chain-store retailers signals that your time is much too valuable to be frittered away monitoring sales, clipping coupons, or browsing curio shops in trendy shopping meccas.

2 Slocum May 3, 2009 at 9:58 am

Stuff White People Like #187: Artisanal products with interesting provenance

So for just what fraction of the products that an ‘imaginable’ consumer like Miller uses every day, does he want ‘high narrative value’ as a feature?

– Electronics?
– Prescription drugs?
– Automobiles?
– Toothpaste? Laundry detergent?
– Wall paint? 2x4s?

Would he be happier with a locally hand-crafted computer (built, of course, from custom, one-of-a-kind artisanal chips and circuit boards) bought at a farmer’s market from a man who knows the circuit-designer personally?

But even if high narrative value is a criterion, I think he’s got the issue backwards because industrially produced products bought at chain stores have MUCH more interesting back-stories than local, hand-crafted products. Think of ‘I, Pencil’ — the story for almost anything in Walmart would be just as fascinating (the sources of the raw materials, the people who designed the product, the people who designed and made the machines used to produce the product, the business relationships and financial arrangements, the shipping and distribution, etc, etc).

When I buy a computer, I really don’t wish I could buy one that was hand-crafted by local artisans. I love the idea that it represents the combined efforts of many, many thousands of people over years and decades across many fields, all over the globe. To me, that’s way more compelling than, say, locally pressed raw Apple cider.

Dammit — branded products at chain stores are friggin’ miracles of human ingenuity and cooperation, and the unimaginative anti-consumerist, anti-globalization lefties who can’t see that that have no poetry. They walk through a Walmart sneering and blind to what’s in front of them, and what’s their ideal? Homespun. Sheesh.

3 David May 3, 2009 at 11:36 am

Slocum: “Would he be happier with a locally hand-crafted computer (built, of course, from custom, one-of-a-kind artisanal chips and circuit boards) bought at a farmer’s market from a man who knows the circuit-designer personally?…I love the idea that it represents the combined efforts of many, many thousands of people over years and decades across many fields, all over the globe. To me, that’s way more compelling than, say, locally pressed raw Apple cider.”

Funny you should mention Apple cider…Macs are the computer hardware/software equivalent of artisanal products with interesting provenance.

4 sleepy_commentator May 3, 2009 at 1:10 pm

So, in other words, higher Sociosexuality correlates positively with Extraversion*, Openness, and promiscuity, and negatively with Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, fidelity, and caregiving. (One infers little correlation with Neuroticism.) Geoffrey actually seems to be making the case against the inclusion of sociosexuality as a ‘personality trait’ in its own right. The extent of the correlations are unclear, of course, which leaves me confused as to whether he’s describing a notable clustering in the data, or illustrating the range of ‘sociosexuality’ as a metric indexed by four personality traits. A rather important question, as the result is essentially a binary polarization of the Clean and the Dirty (and gods-in-his-heaven-alls-right-with-the-world). If the latter, the most scandalous assertion is the negative correlation with caregiving. Liberal parents everywhere should drop their children off at daycare and rush to the barricades in contestation of the issue.

‘Unimaginable’ consumer is presumably a typo, although I rather like the notions of transcendental marketing epistemology it evokes. The signaling criteria here (meant to be descriptive of real trends rather than prescriptive, I hope) capture the essence of the style signaling meme as a whole: that every choice must be intentional, because every choice is judged. The contradictory irony is there, the exhortation to avoid nonconformity by avoiding conformity; what is meant, of course, is that one must strive to be a leading indicator of style, rather than a lagging indicator, and thus appear to have the power to influence others. It reminds one that where signaling meets the commodity, the most prominent concern is the exploitation of interpolative anxiety, the fear that one is not recognized by the people one wants to resemble as being authentically familiar or similar.

It’s a bit self serving, really, to use such unguardedly exhortative language. Of course unconsciousness as a consumer is a sign of mediocrity! Geoffrey just finished writing a whole book about purchase signaling, and the subject is very, very important!

Personally, I’d argue the opposite case, that unconsciousness as a consumer (in these terms) is a sign of extreme self confidence and self sufficiency. My thought is that the real reason people tend to buy “new, real, branded premium products at full price from chain-store retailers” is that they cannot afford the time. I had occasion to reflect on this recently, standing in an Office Depot (a warehouse-type chain store in North America), looking at a CD of boring sounding mini-games that was retailing for $30 and could easily be replicated for free by a bit of searching on the internet. It seemed intended as a last-minute impulse purchase for someone facing the prospect of air travel, someone who simply did not have time to search for a more satisfying or economical alternative.

What struck me most was the hidden distortion of real wage value given the absolute time commitment implicit in most high-income jobs. The time one has to find a nice-enough apartment at good value, the time one has to prepare meals, the time one has to develop authentic narrative (social) value in one’s life independent of one’s purchases; that sort of thing. Following right from that would be the distortion of real wage value if one accepts as authentic the implicit interpolative commitments of the high-income job. Not only the quality of suit, but the country club, and the golf clubs, and the quality of private school.

There was a fairly notorious quote circulating recently, someone from the financial industry asserting quite seriously that one could not live in New York on a salary of less than $75,000 per year. After we all finish mocking that, I think perhaps we should take it seriously. The statement reminds me of an article (i forget where) a few years back about a trend of high-income people in Toronto encountering problems with serious debt because of the high investment in ostentation/identity signaling required to have viable relationships with their business contacts. In such a situation, the decision to send one’s children to a private school is not a choice per se; or to the extent that it is, it is part and parcel to one’s entire ambition and identity. Thus such seemingly stupid things get said, when really what is meant is that one cannot expect to succeed in today’s financial industry without a personal income of at least $75,000.

Having mentioned ‘real wage value’, I should make an attempt to quantify it somehow, but I’m afraid I lack the frame of reference to even make an internet-quality guess about it. One might talk about it in terms of opportunity cost, but the concept seems to me a bit of a red herring, useful only insofar as one can be sure of the value of lost opportunity. (And minus the computational overhead, known in human terms as time wasted dithering.) It seems readily apparent to me that working 20 hours a week for $20/hr is far more valuable than working 40 hours a week for $10/hr. One could measure the difference in terms of productive capacity, thinking that one could hypothetically work 40 hours a week for $20/hr, or whatever the maximum work period is. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really address the competing value of ‘disposable time’, especially once one starts talking about heavy work commitments and begins to get into the disutility of sleep loss, the erosion of personal relationships… and of course the prospect of embarrassing purchasing decisions.

*I’ve capitalized the ‘Big Five’ personality traits.

P.S. My html markup shows up in the preview, but often disappears in the posted comment. Is there something I’m doing wrong?

5 Yancey Ward May 3, 2009 at 1:14 pm

From David:

Funny you should mention Apple cider…Macs are the computer hardware/software equivalent of artisanal products with interesting provenance

Damn it!! You beat me to it!

6 kebko May 3, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Slocum – Right on, man!

7 andrew May 3, 2009 at 3:14 pm

I would argue against the fact that people who buy products that are branded and are at full price are unoriginal. That’s actually exactly what my brother tells me about all of his clothes. But since all he does is shop at thrift stores, go dumpster diving, and occasionally get a tailored shirt or jacket, he has an awful wardrobe. This may not be a very good data point, but the reality is if he just looked for some buisiness casual clothes that actually fit at a JCrew or something he would have much more respect at his job at JP Morgan. Yes, he works on Wall Street and he shares this view because he has a degree in Economics from Harvard.

I think that there are so many places to buy clothing nowadays anyways, the competition for good looking clothes is so high, that a niche for cheaper, higher-fashion chains has opened up with stores such as H&M. You might as well take advantage of the market and go to an H&M or something. This high competition has also resulted in quality that generally is not offered somewhere such as Chinatown where my brother would shop. “Sure, those fake pumas and fake Adidas track jacket were cheap and thats a funny story, but you look terrible.”

Of course, this is just in the case of clothing, and I agree with the idea in terms of other things such as food and cars. You should always try new places to eat to escape from McDonalds if you have the time, or perhaps try dabbling in local specialties, and Cars are high enough an investment that it’s not “boring and conformist” if you buy a civic, necessarily.

8 Jiaming Mao May 3, 2009 at 7:10 pm

How can consumption itself be imaginative? There is no process of creation or innovation embedded in the act of consumption. If by “imaginative consumption,† Miller means that consumption should signal individuality, then the question becomes how consumption can possibly signal individuality. The act of signaling individuality by subscribing to rules like “never buy brand items† is itself an act of conformity; More importantly, the thinking that consumption can be a signal of individuality is itself a product of the consumerism culture.

9 Adam Bee May 3, 2009 at 10:46 pm

“Unimaginable”? Gah!

10 Doissy the Douchebag May 6, 2009 at 7:03 am

This is the PUA movement to a T. High numbers of alpha-wannabe douchebags that are incredibly self-centered and impulsive at the same time.

11 Anon May 17, 2009 at 7:32 pm

Doissy, it’s no coincidence that the PUA movement makes a pretense of being grounded in evolutionary psychology.

12 David Lewis June 4, 2009 at 11:50 am

Doissy the Douchebag wrote: “This is the PUA movement to a T. High numbers of alpha-wannabe douchebags that are incredibly self-centered and impulsive at the same time.”

The PUA movement helps men improve their skill with women in terms of sexually attracting them. This knowledge can be mistaught, executed poorly or used for unsavory purposes.

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