Evolutionary Consumption

Geoffrey Miller, author of the excellent Mating Mind, has recently released Spent; a look at consumerism and marketing through his lens of evolutionary psychology.

With an existing knowledge of evolutionary psychology theories the ideas in Miller’s latest will come as no surprise. These two reviews are still worth perusing, however:

Jonathan Gottschall provides a concise overview of Miller’s arguments:

From Veblen’s classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Miller appropriates the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” whereby people live and spend wastefully just to flaunt the fact that they can. From Darwin, Miller appropriates sexual selection theory—”costly signaling theory” in modern parlance—whereby animals compete by sending signals of their underlying genetic quality. As with the gaudy displays of peacocks, purchasing decisions frequently represent attempts to advertise “fundamental biological virtues” like “bodily traits of health, fitness, fertility, youth, and attractiveness, and mental traits of intelligence and personality.

Robin Hanson deconstructs Spent into five critical points, offering some fantastic quotes:

  • Signaling infuses most human activity.
  • “Consumer capitalism” marketers trick us into using unreliable signals.
  • We’d be better off to talk and customize more, and work and buy less.
  • Laws aren’t the answer; let’s make better social norms.
  • Let’s also adjust a consumption tax to compensate for side effects.

This looks like the crux of Spent:

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.

Update: John Tierney has written a wonderful review of the book for The New York Times.



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