Restricted purchases as signaling, a proposal from Geoffrey Miller

by on May 1, 2009 at 7:43 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

Geoffrey Miller, in his new book Spent, suggests an intriguing but I think absurd idea:

For example, companies could sell certain products only to consumers who have a certain minimum or maximum score on one or more of the certain Central Six [personality] traits.  Hummer dealers could advertise that the "Party Animal Red Pearl" paint color is available only to customers who score in the top 5 percent for extraversion.  Customers who want to display their unusually high extraversion through that bright red color would have to electronically validate their extraversion score at the dealership before they could sign the purchase agreement.  In this way, Hummer could guarantee that Party Animal Red Pearl becomes a reliable signal of friendliness, self-confidence, and ambition.  Or Lexus could sell the "Mensa Quartz Medallic" color of the LS 460 only to customers whose validated intelligence scores are high enough for them to join Mensa International (IQ 130+ or the top one in fifty).  The more exclusive "Prometheus Glacier Pearl" color could indicate an IQ above 160 (the top one in thirty thousand) — the qualification for joining the Prometheus Society.

But why those proposals are so absurd — that is harder to answer.  What are your thoughts?  Can it be that people ought not to be seen as signaling too purposively?  Maybe, but if so, that would seem to rule out so much — too much — of the marketplace signaling which we in fact observe.

Simon May 1, 2009 at 7:59 am

How would they restrict the second hand market? Were I a member of the Prometheus Society, I could simply take the test, buy the car, and then make a profit by selling it to people who wanted to signal that they were hyper-intelligent, but, in fact, weren’t. So, I think it would basically be pointless unless they somehow restricted second hand car sales, which they couldn’t do legitimately. Thus, absurd. Unless of course people in these groups value the signalling substantially more than the profits they could make.

babar May 1, 2009 at 8:10 am

why wouldn’t a mensa stone simply indicate arrogance and pretension?

Slocum May 1, 2009 at 8:22 am

Why absurd? Mimicry for starters — anybody who wanted to could repaint to match the ‘special colors’ (or buy the vehicle secondhand) could do so. And how, really, is any of that different that putting a ‘Mensa’ sticker in your window?

Given Miller’s apparent fondness for social systems of the past (e.g. “Three Victorian Questions About Sexual Partners”) I’m little surprised that Miller doesn’t suggest bringing back ‘Sumptuary Laws’ — which are status signals that are reliable because faking them is prohibited by law.

Come to think of it, why hasn’t the left picked up on the idea of bringing Sumptuary Laws back? If they’re looking to provide a way for people to signal status without consumerism…well, there you are.

londenio May 1, 2009 at 8:28 am

They are absurd because the bundle is absurd. You can sell Lexus. You can sell (why not?) a certificate that says “This person scored X in the IQ test”. Both the Lexus and the certificate offer value to some people. Bundling these two products into one does not necessarily add extra value.

I do not need to add that the value of such certificate is equal to zero or below zero for many people.

Laserlight May 1, 2009 at 8:42 am

Not to mention how to keep track of which signal means what according to who. “Hm, her car is pink. If that’s a Toyo, she’s cute; if it’s a VW, she’s easy; if it’s a Chrylser minivan she’s a soccer mom, if it’s a Chrysler sedan she’s…wait, it’s a guy diving it. Okay, turn to page 468 of the Signalling Manual.”

lbutler May 1, 2009 at 8:49 am

Mary Kay already does this. They have that hideous off white pink looking paint (Mary Kay Pink?) they have for their top salespeople. There probably isn’t a secondary market for those cars.

david May 1, 2009 at 9:41 am

Do these cars have Corinthian leather?

capitalistimperialistpig May 1, 2009 at 9:46 am

Why absurd? How about because car dealers are in business to make money?

The signalling functions of are well served by the primary features of the products. A Hummer signals that I’ve got enough money to run this gas guzzler and will roll right over your ass if you get in my way.

By the way, most Prometheus society members ride bycycles – because that’s the most expensive transportation they can afford on their high school janitor salaries.

Christopher M May 1, 2009 at 9:51 am

Here’s why the proposal seems so awful to me. It seems to encode a vision of social interaction in which your personality is both (a) fixed, and (b) public. You have been defined, and that definition has been made known to the world; so what else is left for you but to live up to it?

It seems like it would weigh pretty oppressively on what seems to me like a basic right: the opportunity to try, as best you can, to define yourself. People do that both by trying to change themselves — to be something they are not presently — and by explaining themselves to the world in certain ways — to appear something they are not presently. Of course that ability is limited by possibility: sometimes people just can’t be what they want to be. But to prejudge that agonistic struggle to shape ourselves that we all go through seems intolerable in a free society.

Kat May 1, 2009 at 10:20 am

Hm, already plenty of comments here I agree with.

Presumably people are buying things that send a deceptive signal because they really wish they had the characteristics they were signalling. (Maybe they think they already have it, but they still desire to have it.) Do people act a little bit more extroverted driving a bright red car? A little more intellectual, carrying a classic book on the subway? A little more self-confident, wearing designer clothing? That seems like a good thing in itself when the traits are positive. But even when they are negative–we can see what the person wants to be by what they choose. Perhaps not as useful as knowing what they are, but still useful and more reliable.

I can’t see the restricted purchases becoming reliable signals anyway. The real extroverted party animal probably won’t want to drive a car just like all the others; better get something else and have a custom paint job to stand out, and that becomes an even better indicator. The real high-intelligence person may think it pretentious to advertise IQ; better to choose something based on another characteristic. I imagine the restricted good would be most often chosen by people who barely meet the criteria for getting one and need all the help projecting it they can get: look, I really *am* smart/sexy/wealthy/fun even if I don’t appear so at first glance!

(I wouldn’t mind reliably advertising my personality type, but it’s not a highly-desired one, and I think it becomes apparent quickly anyway.)

mk May 1, 2009 at 10:25 am

I think people are uncomfortable with pure signalling because it signals that I care about signalling.

People want plausible deniability with their signalling. So signalling must be bundled with other product traits– people drive an SUV because they “like to see the road” or “like cargo space.”

If you aggressively signal strength of a particular personality trait you are actually signalling weakness in other personality traits– because why lean so hard on one leg of a stool unless there’s something wrong with the other legs?

In other words, humans want to signal well-roundedness and lack of weaknesses, which may be inconsistent with aggressively signalling one personality trait.

Al Abbott May 1, 2009 at 10:30 am

Buyers decide the signaling; producers try to ride the wave not police it. Top-down signalling seems to miss the entire point, no?

Mark May 1, 2009 at 11:24 am

I think this is simple.

As things stand now, signalling must plausibly be inadvertent. If a signal is explicitly intentional, it becomes less believable because we know it will be attractive to poseurs. This sounds backwards; the signals presented here are impossible to fake because they are based on objective measures. However, I think we find the idea absurd because we are used to thinking of signals that are easy to fake – weary gaudy clothes, loudly discussing your salary, ostentatiously reading Proust, whatever. So, even though the proposed signals would really work better than the signals we’re used to, we’re only used to signals that are meaningful when they are unintentional. Therefore, any type of intentional signal “feels” absurd.

Further, I think people would shy away from these types of intentional signals just as they currently shy away from obviously intentional signals now. Most of the people who would be interested in a signal that requires objective qualifications would lack the necessary qualifications.

Bellisaurius May 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

All I can think of here is the Bohemian Bourgeios, aka the Bobo. Current trends are to signal things by ostentatiously showing you’re not signaling. In that fads and trends don’t last forever, I’d imagine if some company is brave enough to wade the waters (American Express, Apple and they’re different colored items come to mind. 500 dollars more for “black” my butt), there may be a market eventually, and tastes will change to simple shows of status.

Although, it should be noted that to a certain segment, the simple idea of putting a challenge in order to achieve a purchase could attract a fair share of people who want what I’d imagine would be called “entersumption” or “Consutainmant” (Heh, or simply ‘containment’). Kinda like those websites that drag you in with a shooting game or match the dots or what not.

Jay May 1, 2009 at 10:03 pm

How is this absurd? In the context of the shit that passes for legislation in this country (and basically every other country) I consider this a sane harmless proposal relative to what we are used to getting out of our congress critters.

sleepy_commentator May 1, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Firstly, if you actually suggested you might refuse to sell products to people on the basis of traits which felt uncontrollable to them, they would experience this as a threat by an entity (your corporation) to exercise social power and demean them publicly in front of their fellow primates. Not only would they retaliate by shunning that entity and all the fruits of its commerce (such as fruit), they would actively form social bonds with likewise threatened primates and seek to drive the entity out into the bushes, perhaps even going so far as to murder it.

Secondly, basically what sd and Mark Buell were saying, and the most likely reason this hasn’t bubbled out of the fevered minds of marketing analysts. If extroversion was rare enough that driving a red hummer could be a commonly salient signal, and it would be valuable and meaningful to thus signal extroversion, then a singular opportunity to artificially signal extroversion by driving a red hummer would always be more valuable to the less extroverted majority than yet another opportunity to signal extroversion (this time, by driving a red hummer) would be the extroverted minority. Notwithstanding a suitably enormous disutility associated with deception.

Thirdly, the act of deliberately signaling is in and of itself a signal, and thus one cannot thus signal extroversion without primarily signalling the desire to signal extroversion. (Especially by buying a luxury vehicle.) Deliberate signaling would thus only be suitable when and if the signal-of-the-signal complimented the meaning of the original signal.

Fourthly, there’s an natural, emergent system of just such signaling (called fashion or style… where’s your low rider jeans, Tyler?), associated most commonly with the interpolation of identity (and that of ostentation, to a lesser extent), and the risk of this system sabotaging your effort generally outweighs the potential reward of your investment. (Thus such efforts are mainly undertaken with other people’s money by those who see the potential for profit in an optimally wasteful process rather than any hypothetical outcome.)

David May 2, 2009 at 10:50 am

What if I REALLY like red, but I don’t meet the standard for Hummer? I’ll be unhappy and buy red from somewhere else. This does nothing for Hummer. Firms want to increase their markets, not limit them. There are times when firms will differentiate, but only when they can increase profits. I can’t see how this would lead to increased profits. The privacy implications take this to a whole other level, but ultimately, in my opinion, they would further decrease sales/profit.

TW Andrews May 2, 2009 at 10:35 pm

A transparent desire to signal, particularly an elite characteristic, is itself a signal–and generally of douchebaggery. Moreover, this is pretty commonly known. So instead of signaling (only) high intelligence, the true signal would be either a) I’m intelligent and don’t care that you think I’m a douchebag, or b) I’m intelligent enough to get this color car, but not socially aware enough to know that you think I’m a douchebag for buying it (a point which substantially undermines the value of the intended signal).

Of course, it wouldn’t take long for hipsters to ironically buy these cars in by the dozen.

judy May 4, 2009 at 5:49 am

Because no one signals what they actually are. They signal what they’d like you to think they are.

Anthony May 4, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Perhaps slightly off-topic, but consider sexual availability signaling. Why do dating sites seem so unpalatable to many people? Probably because they signal way too directly that they are available. Joining a co-ed sports team, or taking a class, or even going to a bar with friends, says “I might be available, or I might just be interested in learning this or having fun …”

dancingtiger May 11, 2009 at 6:06 am

I can only see being to fit more and more in a box ….where is the freedom of just being, of being different each day, being able to change one’s mind, to feel blue and introverted one day and extroverted and happy another?
Capitalism extreme need to sell more and more to sustain itself, products need to become quickly obsolete to be replaced lowering quality, people defined as target reduced to statistics to be controlled!!
It is going to far, it is killing humanity, the quality of being just human, to recognize each other as human beings not objects to be exploited in the name of profit

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