This is my book summary of Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (by Geoffrey Miller). I consider this a must-read book for anyone that recognizes the runaway, harmful effects of consumerism in modern societies. Miller goes into detail about specific tactics used by marketers to manipulate us into buying things we truly don’t need. The book is available on Amazon.
Summary notes below. All emphasis mine.
Our 1 central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others. Buying products is just the most recent way to fulfill that goal.
Fitness indicators: health, beauty, fertility, intelligence, openness to novelty. We buy things to reveal these fundamental virtues.
Maslow’s hierarchy is now outdated.
Updated Chart of Human Needs:
|Deficiency Needs (pursued only if deficiency arises)||Growth Needs (pursued only if individual is free to do so)|
|Physiological: breathing, drinking, eating, excreting, regulating temperature, having sex||Cognitive: to learn, explore, discover, create, acquire knowledge, increase intelligence|
|Safety: health, wellbeing, familiarity, predictability, personal security, financial security, insurance||Aesthetic: experience beauty as found in nature, people, artifacts|
|Social: family, friendship, intimacy, sexual love, belonging, acceptance||Self-actualization: to fulfill one’s potential and make the most of one’s abilities|
|Esteem: recognition, status, glory, fame, self-respect, self-esteem|
Evolutionary Consumer Psychology
Big 5 Test + general intelligence (IQ) are an accurate predictor when used together
An individual’s ideology can be viewed as his ad campaign to attract quality mates
Why Marketing is Central to Culture
Democracy is marketing applied to government. 30,000 current denominations of Christianity: this is efficient market segmentation given diverse consumers of religious services.
Overall trend: transfer of power from service providers to service consumers.
Marketing revolution gives us a mirror: we can try different lifestyles and experience the results.
Marketing is the enemy of Buddha, as it perpetuates the delusion that desire leads to fulfillment.
Good marketing does not promote materialism; otherwise products are reduced to mere commodities. Instead, advertising/branding attempt to create associations between a product and the aspirations of a consumer (e.g. Smart Water vs. tap water)
Marketing’s logical culmination would be seductive immaterialism (e.g. The Matrix, Second Life)
Plato’s preference for government was a benevolent dictator (because the masses cannot be trusted to understand their own true long term interests).
Marketing dominates life on Earth.
Marketing vs. Memes
“Cultural Engineering”: intentional creation and dissemination of new culture units (memes) through advertising/branding/PR.
Remember: there are just 6 big media conglomerates and 4 big ad conglomerates for the entire world (and consolidation is ongoing).
This is Your Brain on Money
Narcissism: selfishness, arrogance, exceptionalism, sense of entitlement, admiration seeking, success fantasizing, grandiosity, victim mentality, anhedonia (inability to enjoy simple pleasures), emotional instability.
This leads to self-stimulation: fiction reading, TV, drugs, masturbation, extravagant parties, ego surfing, blog streaking
The 2 Faces of Consumerist narcissism: public status seeking and private pleasure seeking
All human brains have deep and abiding interest in 2 revolutionary goals:
- Displaying fitness indicators associated with higher social/sexual status
- Chasing fitness cues associated with better survival, social, social, sexual and parental prospects
(Often to the exclusion of empathy, intimacy, friendship, kinship, parental responsibility & community)
Example: an iPod confers status (sleek design, brand recognition, expensive) and pleasure (your personal music)
|Showing Off (Public)||Self-Stimulating (Private)|
|Basic Functions||Trait display||Pleasure delivery|
|Narcissist symptoms||Grandiosity, admiration seeking, status fantasies, arrogance, ambition, lack of humility||Solipsism, pleasure seeking, self-stimulation, perfectionism, irritability, lack of empathy|
|Associated sins||Pride, avarice, envy||Lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath|
|Typical activity||Work, socializing||Leisure, dreaming|
|Food||Kobe beef, foie gras||Lamb vindaloo|
|Drink||Rare burgundy, red bull||Hot chocolate, margarita|
|House feature||Entry hall, dining room||Media room, master bathroom|
|Software||Personal page||Computer game|
|College manger||Finance, premed bio||Literature, psychology|
|Reading material||Quotable non-fiction||Escapist fiction|
|Film genre||Foreign, classic||Action, porn|
|iPod features||Sleek design, apple logo||Battery life, lightweight, custom covers|
|Books addressing it||Spent||The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption|
A high proportion of products are designed and marketed for showing off as narcissism projectors, trait amplifiers, and fitness indicators, signals of wealth, health or virtue.
Narcissism Premium for Cost-dense products
As cost density increases, so does narcissism. Same goes for cost per unit of time, or cost vs. cost of raw materials.
- Living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does
- Beyond our true necessities and luxuries (not biological adaptations), we get only a little added value from market-traded products.
- Fools toast each other’s wealth, whereas sages toast each other’s health.
- Not all wealth is seen as “morally equal.” We make different attributions about personality, intelligence and moral traits of wealthy people based on the sources of their wealth
- Many luxury goods are positioned to signal more specific aspects of the owner’s “identity”
- Advertising creates symbolic associations between the brand and aspirational traits it embodies, including the specific source and form of wealth of prospective buyers
- Status symbol: anything that provokes social interest, attraction, or deference
- Products can act as status symbols, but they don’t quite confer status by themselves
- Status is what we confer on one another (it exists in our minds as we observe others), usually through other individuals’ judgments on physical, mental, personality and moral traits.
- Beauty raises status. Creativity raises status. Emotional stability and articulate leadership during group emergencies raise status.
- “Taste” is a way for us to sort one another out, to choose friends and mates based on similar aesthetic and moral criteria that reflect commonalities of intelligence, personality and ideology
- Personal taste should not just attract like-minded individuals; it should repulse differently minded ones
Wealth, Status and Taste are merely pseudo-traits.
Most desirable traits: physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality.
Consumerism’s dirty secret: we do a very good job assessing important traits through ordinary conversation, and goods/services we work so hard for are largely redundant and often even counterproductive!
Why do we waste so much time, energy and money on consumerist trait displays?
We overestimate how much people care about the products we buy.
3,000 ads per day are telling us that other people will care deeply about products we buy, display, and use.
Notice: we don’t remember who owned what products.
We notice only a few basic traits: size, shape, age, sex, race, familiarity, relatedness, attractiveness, special states of physiology (e.g. sleep, injury, sickness, pregnancy), emotion (e.g. anger, fear, disgust, sadness, elation), intelligence, mental health, moral virtues (beliefs)
All of the above are hard to fake with bought products, yet we still continue to try and fake them!
Behavior carries more reliable information when the subject feels that he is alone.
Major social rituals (e.g. dates, interviews, parties, banquets, holidays, weddings, honeymoons) are long, high stress, maybe include alcohol: they are designed to bring out the best and worst in us.
Fetishization of Youth and Disparagement of Wisdom
Ability to judge character used to be a major part of wisdom!
Agreeableness, emotional stability, intelligence: all indicators of wisdom.
Marketers replaced parental wisdom and advice. The pitch: “your purchase of this new product is a rebellion against old generation’s outmoded belief in existence, stability and heritability of personal traits.”
Example: rap music sold to suburban white boys to display their coolness/attitude/”street cred”
Goal of marketing: undermine people’s confidence that their traits are real enough to be appreciated without being amplified and externalized by careerism and consumerism.
The Fundamental Consumerist Delusion
Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood.
Truth: natural social behaviors that impress are language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology
Two big lies:
- Above average products can compensate for below average traits when building long term relationships
- Products offer cooler, more impressive ways to display our desirable traits than natural behavior
(any technical innovation or marketing innovation is pitched as an upgrade in signal effectiveness)
Advertising must hint at signaling functions of conspicuous consumption, but must not make quantitative claims about relative signaling frequency of different products, or of artificial products vs. natural human behaviors.
Example: sports cars. Ads must imply more attention from women, but must not claim it explicitly! Otherwise, such an explicit claim can be disproven quite easily.
Consumers must feel that they uniquely recognize the signaling potential of the product from the subtext of the ad — that their desire for social status and sex appeal is subjectively legitimate but publicly embarrassing, and that they alone can convert the products’ technical excellence into a display of personal coolness that yields social and sexual payoffs.
The consumers must feel that they can enter into a signaling conspiracy between themselves, the product, and some hypothetical audience of admirers — and that this conspiracy is racy, ingenious, and even subversive of capitalism itself.
Even “consumer rights” organizations are in on it – they never assess a product’s signal effectiveness in promoting the consumer’s social responsibility or sexual success!
Since most consumers are married, the only way to sell products that promise increased sex appeal is to make pitches below the radar of jealousy (spousal jealousy). Can’t simply say “this Corvette will get you laid,” but you CAN show technical specs (“500 horsepower”) and a female in passenger seat throwing up both hands in surrender. Gullible wife worries less, gullible husband fantasizes more.
For women: L’Oreal lipstick. “This lipstick will signal your desperation and ovulation to sexually jaded husband and male neighbors/household servants.” What the ad actually says: “Micro-crystal technology.”
The trick: allow the most important things to go unsaid – but not unimagined!
Long-term relationships grow and endure through complex, ever-shifting sets of partly conflicting, partly overlapping interests. Repeated cycles of cooperation and conflict, trust and betrayal, intimacy and alienation. Influenced by arguments, explanations, apologies, resolutions, gossip.
The consumerist delusion that products/brands matter (that they constitute a reasonable set of life aspirations), seems autistic, infantile, inhuman and existentially toxic!
Insight: “individuals work hard mostly to show off to others, not for the good of the group.”
Fitness indicators (sexual ornaments) attract attention if they are costly, hard to produce and hard to fake. Ignored if too cheap, simple and easy to counterfeit. Effective fitness indicators from the natural world: peacock’s tail, lion’s mane, whale’s song.
Our faces, voices, hair, gait, skin, height are important.
- Females: breast, buttocks, waist
- Males: beards, penises, upper body muscle mass
Our capabilities for humor, language, art, music, creativity, intelligence and kindness are important.
Fake goods: as our capacities for judging others have improved, so have our capacities for deceiving. Example: fake rubies are “better” than real ones in just about every rational way.
Perhaps traits that began as fake alternatives (e.g. humor as defense mechanism) have become more desirable than the original traits were (humor now more attractive than physical dominance).
Given two spouses of apparently equal quality, we value the one from a “higher quality” family – full of successful and desirable blood relatives. We assess the family’s genes as a genetic guarantee of a mate’s quality.
Fitness indicators grow more costly, elaborate and precise over time as imitators reap the social, sexual, status benefits of such displays without possessing the underlying qualities being displayed (fitness, health, wealth, taste).
Signaling, Branding and Profit
If you want high profit, your product must have a special signaling value beyond its nominal function. Don’t try to appeal to everyone!
Create psychological links between brands and aspirational traits that consumers would like to display. These signaling links need not involve actual product. Example: Vogue ads show brand name + attractive person.
What matters in most advertising: learned association between consumer’s aspirational trait and the company’s trademarked brand name. One of the best examples: Proactiv (for acne skincare).
Celebrity endorsements are very effective. Mont Blanc uses Johnny Depp’s coolness, attractiveness, sense of humor, intelligence, authenticity. Great for demonstrating contributions to philanthropy, generosity… and consumers feel better about buying!
The ad viewer need not believe that brand has logical/statistical link to aspirational trait that he wants to display, but must simply believe that other ad viewers from his social circle will perceive such a link.
Example: most BMW ads are not aimed at potential buyers as they are to BMW coveters — to induce respect for the tiny minority who actually buy the car. In mainstream magazines, less successful peers are reminded that BMW is a coveted car!
Why Bother Signaling? Key Benefits of Signaling
- Quality signals can solicit parental care. If you can prove your prospects for survival and reproduction, you get more attention. “Hey mom, look what I can do!”
- Quality signals can solicit care and investment from other genetic relatives. Privileges, hopes, expectations and resources are redistributed according to quality inspections. We all want to look worthy to our relatives.
- Can be used to solicit social support, alliances and friendships from non-relatives. Young adult popularity yields midlife business contacts.
- Can attract and retain sexual partners.
Family/relatives all care about your physical attractiveness and intelligence. Your social and genetic value increases.
Signals of Body and Mind
Self-deception, encouraged by advertising.
- L’Oreal says: “because you’re worth it”
- What they’re really saying: “because you want to look younger than the skanky barista flirting with your husband”
Advertising euphemisms and peer pressure delude you your entire life.
Conspicuous Consumption as Fitness Signaling
Conspicuous consumption (in men) can be increased by thinking about mating opportunities, and can function as mating display
- equivalent is conspicuous charity in women
- key word is conspicuous – things that are public, costly displays
For short term fling, Porsche Boxster wins over Honda Civic, but doesn’t make the man a more attractive marriage partner. This interesting, because wealth is relevant for long term marriage.
Men who saw pics of attractive women became much more motivated to get whatever money they could in the short term — presumably to spend on conspicuous consumption to attract mates.
We’ve evolved to attract mates and friends through certain kinds of costly, risky behaviors that reliably signal certain desirable traits.
Conspicuous Waste, Precision, and Reputation
“Half the work done in the world is to make things appear as they are not.”
We don’t live in a truthful and perfect world –- survival/reproductive incentives for reproduction are too high.
Humans often show off the most expensive signals that they can afford:
|Basis of comparison||Conspicuous Waste||Conspicuous Precision||Conspicuous Reputation|
|Form of cost||Matter, energy||Attention, skill||Cheater punishment|
|Form of signal quantity||Mass quality||Information, brand||Recognition|
|Typical cues||Large size, costly materials, surface area, scale||Small tolerances, accurate design, symmetry, reliability, intricacy||Large sales, distinctive design, fashionability, popularity, prototypicality|
|Displayer emotions||Largesse||Pride||Vanity, conceit|
|Audience emotions||Awe||Fascination||Familiarity, envy|
|Terms of praise||Fancy, fun||Fine, fit||Famous, fashionable|
|Elements||Gold (watch)||Silicon (chip)||Neon (sign)|
|Foods||Pate de foie gras||Sushi||Prime rib|
|Clothes||Sable coat||Issey Miyake dress||Armani suit|
|House features||Great room, foyer||Kitchen, garden||Façade, postal code|
|Education||Oxford M.A.||MIT Physics PhD||Harvard MBA|
|Optional if the other two indicators are in play||Most successful products display some level of conspicuous precision|
Aristocrats differ from nouveaux riches: they prefer “finer things in life” (precision/reputation) over “crass and vulgar” (conspicuous waste).
Our own favored signaling tactics are the ones we are least likely to recognize as signaling at all.
We moved from conspicuous waste of Victorian ornamentation to conspicuous precision of design, form and functionality (e.g. Frank Lloyd Wright, Knoll furniture, Movado, Apple)
It can differ by country:
- Conspicuous waste still favored in USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China
- Conspicuous precision fetishized in: Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Europe
Conspicuous precision as worldwide fad threatened to halt economy, so we invented:
- Planned obsolescence and wastefulness
- Technological pseudo-progress and techno-fetishization of useless features
Let’s look at the Automobile industry. At this point, the only way to “improve” each year’s new model is through novel functions:
- A/C (1941), power windows (1948), power steering (1951), cruise control (1958), airbags (1980s)
- consumers go through so many as they continuously buy the newest models
- conspicuous precision is quickly reaching limits of our visual acuity and fine motor control
Conspicuous reputation represents serious dematerialization of consumption:
- Signal reliability no longer depends on capital invested in product (conspicuous waste) or in product’s design and manufacturing (conspicuous precision), but rather in the product’s marketing and branding.
- The product’s reputability and brand’s equity exist not in the material form, but in the brains of consumers
- Consumers are reached through advertising, product placement, opinion leaders, imitation, word of mouth
- Companies with the highest brand equity: Apple, Coke, Microsoft, IBM, GE, Intel, Nokia, Toyota, Disney, McDonald’s, Mercedes Benz
Costly signaling theory highlights the fact that brand equity exists in the minds of signal receivers (observers of other people’s consumption). Best examples are from luxury goods industry: LV, Gucci, Chanel, Rolex, Armani, Prada, Bulgari, Hermes, Tiffany, Cartier, etc.
Typical luxury ad: highly attractive model dressed up as a high status heiress, wearing expression of contempt/disdain for the viewer. Instead of saying “buy this!” it’s saying “be assured that if you buy and display this product, others are being well trained to feel ugly and inferior in your presence, just as you feel ugly and inferior compared with this goddess.”
Critics of branding point to invidious social comparison effects:
- oppressive feelings (I’m higher in status, sexiness, sophistication)
- self-delusion (if observers don’t even grant higher status to you!)
Branding seems like a waste of human effort, attention and vanity in the zero sum game of social status.
One benefit of conspicuous reputation: smaller ecological footprint (vs. conspicuous waste and conspicuous precision).
Self-Branding Bodies, Self-Marketing Minds
Indicators of luxury:
- Men: beards, large jaws, upper body muscles, longer/thicker penises
- Women: enlarged breasts/buttocks, relatively thinner waists
“You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.” – Epictetus (a Stoic)
Notice the rise of triathlons (because a mere marathon is too easy!). Triathlons require more wealth, muscle mass, training — who but the rich has enough free time to train for one?
Strong signals drown out the weak
Facial Fertility Indicators and Cosmetics
Sexual selection focuses very heavily on facial appearance – we are highly social and visual. We care where others are looking and what our facial expressions are conveying.
- Male features: prominent brows, jaws, chins, noses, deeper-set smaller eyes, beards
- Female features: larger, prominent eyes; fuller lips, lighter/smoother skin
Females use cosmetics to optimize for young adulthood appearance: plump lips, large eyes, cheekbones, smooth/radiant complexion, thick & glossy head hair, minimal facial hair
It’s hard to “innovate” in cosmetic product world. Women will pay a high price premium for the brand they feel best expresses their personality.
From Signals of Bodily Fitness to Signals of Mental Fitness
We are actually very good at gauging true beauty, fitness and fertility levels:
- Body display products don’t actually increase physical attractiveness
- However, maintaining one’s physical appearance is an effective way of broadcasting one’s personality traits. Consistent and skillful use of fashion, cosmetics, hair products, razors advertises mental health, high self-esteem and conscientiousness
- Older women do it to remind husbands that they are still savvy to make a useful ally in parenting or networking, or a formidable opponent in divorce court!
- Older men do it to show moral self-restraint against gluttony or sloth
Notice: people pay premiums for rare virtual weapons in video games to impress each other. Just as in real world, the alleged “hidden quality and performance benefits” of luxury goods are typically illusory, and remain simply as vague ways for customers to justify their narcissism
The Body Goes Mental
Consumerism is not so much about owning material objects, but about displaying personal qualities.
Virtual goods + Avatars will prove this again and again in the future!
The Central 6 Traits
G = General intelligence (IQ)
Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Stability, and Extraversion
Openness to experience: curiosity, novelty seeking, broad-mindedness, interest in culture, ideas and aesthetics. Seeks complexity and novelty, readily accepts changes/innovations, prefer grand new visions
Agreeableness: warmth, kindness, compliance, empathy, sympathy. Seeks harmony, adapts to others’ needs, and keeps opinions to themselves when doing so avoids conflict.
Low agreeableness boys/girls can be more attractive than “nice” ones for short term mating, as they are perceived as more assertive, exciting, cocky and self-confident.
High stability: “not all who wander are lost” and “smile and let it go”
We always prefer higher intelligence in those we are interacting with (unless we’re trying to take advantage of them!)
We prefer to date people with similar Big 5 Traits.
Openness : gossip heavily about avant-garde, culture, science, aesthetics
Introverted: stay home or go to the library
- “impression management”: we learn to present our apparent big 5 traits in adaptively biased ways, to suit our audience, goals and environments
- most dramatic shifts are “emotions” (“moods” are less dramatic, but last longer)
- If we are only seeking a one night stand, we only pay attention to their current emotional state.
Quick Big 5 Self Assessment:
- For each row in the table below (e.g. “does a thorough job) give yourself a score from 1 to 5
- Then subtract the score of the bottom row from the one above (for each of the big 5 traits). Example shown:
|Have an active imagination||5||Openness||3|
|Have few artistic interests||2|
|Does a thorough job||4||Conscientiousness||0|
|Tends to be lazy||4|
|Is generally trusting||3||Agreeableness||2|
|Tends to find fault with others||1|
|Is relaxed, handles stress well||3||Emotional stability||0|
|Gets nervous easily||3|
|Is outgoing, sociable||3||Extraversion||-1|
The Central 6 Each form a Bell Curve
Most distinct personality types used in market segmentation are illusory.
It’s almost always more effective to measure Central 6 directly instead of relying on traditional segmentation categories to predict.
The Central Six are Fairly Independent
One exception: general intelligence is correlated with openness. Smarter people are more interested in new experiences, travel, cultures, aesthetics.
Open-minded people who are not very bright: an extremely profitable market segment! They buy fantasy novels, self-help books, nutraceuticals, facial piercings, Enya, homeopathy
General intelligence + openness = short term creative intelligence
Traits that Consumers Flaunt and Marketers Ignore
Instead of displaying “cheap talk” trait tattoos and bumper stickers, we buy and display costly products that we think will testify more reliably to our key traits.
Examples: university degree, good credit score, smartphones, subscriptions to Wired, attending church, praying 5 times/day
Mapping Big 5 traits to Automobile choices:
|Intelligence||High||Acura, Audi, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, Smart, Subaru, VW|
– Value, complex controls, reading lights, hard to pronounce name, room
|Low||Cadillac, Chrysler, Hummer, Dodge, Ford, GMC|
– Heavy, low down payment, dealer financing, size: reliability ratio
|Openness||High||Lotus, Mini, Scion, Subaru|
– Eccentric design, foreign origin, ground clearance, moon roof, popularity among youth
– Liberalism, Eccentricity
|Low||Buick, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Rolls Royce, Range Rover|
– traditional design, domestic origin, popularity among elderly and royalty
– Traditionalism, Conservatism
|Conscientiousness||High||Acura, Honda, Lexus, Volvo, Toyota|
– reliability, child safety locks, anti-theft, mileage, daytime lights
– Responsibility, Caution
|Low||Ferrari, Jeep, Mitsubishi, Pontiac|
– cruise control, cup holders, high acceleration
– Impulsiveness, Recklessness
|Agreeableness||High||Acura, Daewoo, Kia, Geo, Saturn|
– eco-friendly, hybrid, payload to help friends move, smiley front
– Kindness, gentleness, altruism
|Low||BMW, Hummer, Mercedes, Nissan, Maserati|
– hip, torque, intimidating size, menacing design, leather seats, sneering
– Aggressive, Dominance
|Stability||High||Acura, Porsche, Scion|
– Cheerful design, “happy” vibes
– safety, airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, warranty
|Extraversion||High||Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Mini, Porsche|
– convertible, high watt subwoofers, vanity plates, ski rack, James Bond
|Low||Acura, Hyundai, Lexus, Saab, Subaru, Volvo|
– tinted windows, neutral paintwork, quiet interior
Advertising Central Six Through Music Preferences and Web Pages
Higher intelligence: Bartok, Bjork, classical, alternative
People can judge someone’s personality very accurately by looking at the content on his/her web or social media profile page
Music is highly correlated: see work of Peter Rentfrow, Samuel Gosling
Why Marketers Ignore the Central Six
Marketers take into account “demographic variables” (e.g. age, sex, ethnicity, socio-economic status) without taking into account correlations with Central Six.
The utility of a product is often conflated with its conspicuous precision and reputation.
Talking about meaningful psychological differences between groups is taboo in American discussion.
Leading theory of advertising suggests that the content of ads and marketing is largely irrelevant. Rather, the costs that a corporation incurs through marketing are largely ways for the corporation to signal its financial strength to potential employees, investors and rival corporations (Conspicuous waste!)
A lot of pseudo-humility exists about IQ from educated elites. IQ actually correlates with: speed of basic sensory-motor tasks, height, symmetry of face and body, physical healthy, longevity, mental health, romantic attractiveness (at least for Long Term Relationships), overall brain size
Top ranked universities are simply IQ guarantees.
It’s socially acceptable to talk about where you went to college, but not OK to discuss SAT/IQ scores.
Credentialism: 300+ “diploma mills” exist online today ($549 for an online PhD, given in 7 days)
There are much more efficient ways to learn career relevant skills than going to school: reading books, watching documentaries, talking with experts, finding mentors
- Warehousing: “mass public education is just cheap child care for working parents”
- Conformism: “school socializes children to be reliable, politically pacified wage slaves. Most students just take the easiest classes possible to maximize GPA anyway.”
“A gentleman need not know Latin, but he should have at least forgotten it.”
Higher education is an absurdly expensive, time consuming way to guarantee intellectual/personality traits that could be measured far more cheaply, quickly and accurately by other means!
Other Intelligence Indicators
- News magazines, non-fiction books, adult education classes, private pilot’s license, Discovery Channel (paying for cable), home astronomy with expensive telescope, strategy games
- Online day trading (everyone actually knows market is random and best bet is index tracking fund with annual expenses <0.5%)
Connotations of using word “intelligence” in ad copy are risky, so…
- We use the “smart” prefix (e.g. smartwater/smart money/smart bar
- We use the “i” prefix (i = intelligence). Examples: iPad, BMW 550i
- Tech savvy males aren’t actually going to use the product’s features, but they need them to talk about the product! “these features can be talked about in ways that will display my general intelligence to potential mates and friends!”
You can also rent intelligence! Genius is expensive, so it’s valued for its rarity. Example: the wealthy have always commissioned works from the greatest geniuses they could find.
Intelligence Boosting Products
Intelligence peaks in young adulthood: usually all the outpour in music, art, humor happens at a young age
- Decision aids (e.g. calculators, Excel)
- Time allocation aids (e.g. watches, diaries, calendars)
- Communication aids (maps, books, phones, email, PowerPoint)
- Social reciprocity aids (money, invoices, checks, debit cards)
- Mozart music, Nintendo Brain Age, LEGO
- Drugs: 20th century (caffeine, nicotine, cocaine) vs. now (energy drinks, smart drugs, Ritalin, Adderall)
- New possibilities: genetic enhancements, implants, etc.
(It doesn’t matter whether it actually makes the customer smarter– as long as the implant is expensive, exclusive, well marketed and clearly branded, it will sell as a costly, conspicuous, limited-reliability signal of high intelligence)
The more you deviate from an average level of openness, the fewer people you attract
Open cities: Amsterdam, Vancouver, Bangkok (San Francisco? Rio? Sao Paulo? NYC?)
Open music: indie, alternative, jazz, world, hip-hop
Conventional music: pop, country, gospel, classic rock
Open fiction: contemporary, science, erotic
Conservative fiction: romance, mystery, military history, fantasy
Why Parasites Reduce Openness
People in high parasite regions will benefit from becoming more xenophobic and ethnocentric. On the other hand, if environment is hostile to parasites (e.g. cold, dry north climates) people are more cosmopolitan
Higher openness drives people to seek out new ideas, experiences, places, cultures.
Higher extraversion drives people to seek out new mates, friends, and allies
Collectivists make strong distinctions between in-group and out-group, and they highly value tradition/conformity. Examples: China, India, Middle East, Africa
Individualists do the opposite. Examples: USA, Western Europe (esp. Scandinavia)
- Collectivism: Republican, fundamentalist, pro-military and/or anti-immigration
- Individualism – Democratic, secular, internationalist, anti-racism
An individual’s self-rated susceptibility to getting colds, diseases, infections predicts his or her xenophobia
People’s openness, extraversion and individualism tend to peak in young adulthood, then decline through middle age.
Conservatives prefer goods and services that are heavy on matter and habits, and light on cognition and imagination:
- rural towns, chain stores, chain restaurants
- formulaic TV series, romantic comedies, military thriller novels, local newspapers, church
Openness is strongly correlated with creativity and psychosis (loss of contact with reality)
Consumed by highly open: Tarantino, David Fincher, Jeff Noon, Salman Rushdie, Ursula Le Guin, Beck, Tricky, Gorillaz, Foucalt, Derrida, Amsterdam, ibiza, raves, clubbing, Vegas, Burning Man
Dangers of openness:
- can lead to physical danger and addictions (extreme sports)
- highly open consumers may be highly profitable, as they can be really gullible (see: alternative medicines)
- early adopters and fashion followers always “want to always own something a little newer and a little better, a little sooner than necessary.” So businesses must seek “planned obsolescence of desirability.” (see: rise of fast fashion brands like Uniqlo, H&M, Zara)
- Integrity, reliability, predictability, consistency, punctuality
- Predicts respect for social norms and responsibilities, and likelihood of fulfilling promises/contracts
- This is a trait that evolved only very recently in humans
- For most of adulthood, people strive to maintain a façade of high conscientiousness
High Maintenance Products:
- Products that are too easy to maintain lose their value as conscientiousness indicators, and lose status and reputability
- Even as technology makes it easier to maintain each square foot of house, we increase total house area so we can maintain it!
- The less food people prepare themselves, the more space and money they tend to devote to displaying potential food preparation
Pets as conscientiousness indicators:
- home aquarium
- single young man with no houseplants or pets is viewed as poor boyfriend prospect by young women
- dogs are even more demanding (single people with dogs have high social and sexual popularity)
- artificial analogues do the job too (see: Tamagotchi, Neopets)
- OCD: acquiring many products in one category, and discussing them with other collectors
- we all learn to rationalize our collecting
Personal grooming: everyone spends a lot of time/money/energy maintaining their hair (a conscientiousness indicator)
On Unused Exercise Machines:
- “Sometime, when I have more time…”
- Exercise salespeople are really selling the delusion that high sunk costs will force people to exercise
- the machines can only increase fitness when used by the highly conscientious
- We infer that if their capacity for guild and foresight can drive them to regular exercise, it might protect us from being exploited or abandoned by them
- Industry is threatened by “exergaming” – DDR/Wii Fit (’cause it’s actually fun, addictive, effective, and popular!)
Your Credit Rating:
- keeping up with a good credit score is important to middle class, and requires a lot of diligence/effort
- Manifest through one’s ability to acquire costly, credit-demanding products
Formal Education and Employment
90% of success is just showing up!
High intelligence + low conscientiousness = almost unemployable.
Self-employed, small business owner, and creative class (writers, artists, marketing consultants) have a special challenge: demonstrate conscientiousness through long periods of diligent work, unreinforced by bosses, tight deadlines, and social pressures.
School, work and credit are the most reliable and conspicuous indicators of conscientiousness. They are fundamental to conspicuous consumption as all other purchases depend on them!
- Personal capacity for kindness, empathy, benevolence, desire for social justice
- Our last, best hope for the salvation of our species, but also persistent source of hypocrisy and runaway self-righteousness
- ritualized occasions for gift giving (holidays, family remembrances, rites of passage)
- De Beers pitch: “a diamond is forever” (two-months’ salary!) Average engagement price of $6,400
- “etiquette”, or how to emulate tacit social norms of the ruling class
Indicators of Agreeableness vs. Aggressiveness:
- Goal in age 18-34 male group: invest the most time/energy/money in the mating effort, often swapping back and forth from agreeableness (to ensure girl’s confidence in you) to aggressiveness (to win her over initially)
- Most attention placed on automobile: notice the mostly aggressive naming and styling.
Displaying Agreeableness through Conformity:
- Mating minded males must display low agreeableness through anti conformity (risk taking)
- Mating minded females must display agreeableness through conformity to peer influence
Ideology as an Agreeableness indicator:
Public displays of ideology (rallies, protest) often result in many new relationships!
Males have much more to gain from intercourse with many women (they can have many children) than the other way around
- Conservatism is read as: ambitious, self-interested personality that will excel at protecting and provisioning a sexual partner
- Liberalism is read as: caring, empathetic personality that will excel at child care and relationship building
Men favor younger, more fertile women. Women favor older, richer men with higher status.
Personality Indicators associated with religions:
- Quakers: agreeable, intelligent
- Satanists: disagreeable, impulsive
- Zen Buddhists: open, stable
- Orthodox Jews: conservative, conscientious
Signaling Failures in Ideology
Dominant ideologies can maintain their monopoly power as signaling systems: they can portray alternative ideologies as signaling undesirable traits, and thereby pre-empt any signaling benefit of switching ideologies.
The Centrifugal Soul
Runaway consumerism leaves us feeling superficial and empty, because we project ourselves too promiscuously and desperately.
The Renunciation Strategy (monks, puritans, hippies) is self-deceptive as they don’t actually escape conspicuous self-display.
The standard strategy: seek highest-paying employment permitted by one’s intelligence and personality, and use resulting income to buy branded goods and services at full price.
As self-display strategy, buying products at full price is inefficient – no story to it!
- what can one say about the skills required in making, finding, acquiring, maintaining or repairing it?
- all typical store purchases are generic and similar, not worth talking about.
- Just don’t get it. Consider whether it’s really worth the cost.
- Instead of going out to spend money, just exercise! Or spend time with someone.
- For many products, long-term net costs of ownership/consumption far outweigh short term benefits
- Find the one you already own
- Borrow one from a friend, relative or neighbor–this also builds social capital (reciprocity, trust, bonds)
- Rent it. Rent a Ferrari! You don’t ever own anything anyway (everyone dies), housing, vehicles, tools, electronics, handbags. Rule of thumb: rent it for a week and see if you like it.
- Buy it used. Overcome the irrational premium we put on pristine condition! The fear of symbolic contagion (by socially inferior or ethnically different pre-owners) is the enemy of rational frugality
- Buy it in generic, replica or trickle down form! Premium branding is becoming less distinctive as objective marker of quality and/or novelty
Another alternative: make stuff yourself!
- Hobbies and crafts allow one to display intelligence, creativity, conscientiousness
- easiest, most frugal and most effective when skills are easily learned but seldom mastered, and when the things are usable, visible, and beautiful.
- Examples: Furniture, cooking, sewing, jewelry, pottery, PCs
- Note: don’t spend $3000 in tools to make a book-case that would cost $80! Borrow the tools instead.
- If you can’t make it, commission it from a local Artisan (this displays one’s resourcefulness, creativity, taste and social skills in collaborating with the artist)
Mass designed houses lose value and are poorly built. Instead, design one together with an architect, you’ll love the process and understand the house better. A custom home requires creativity, openness, agreeableness, extraversion.
Wait 3 years before buying new technology -– early adopters recoup cost of company’s R&D efforts. 2-3 years results in a 80% price drop. Waiting is hard, so instead seek out what is just hitting the mass market.
Ask to get it as a gift: this amplifies personal display value as testament to one’s lovability and popularity
Acknowledge the display premium built into most retail products. Can you think of nothing better to do with the premium you are paying?
Just buying products offers no value w.r.t. narration, but only reveals your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer.
More time-demanding tactics are often not just more romantic, but more rational! As we all have limited time in the developed world, giving gifts and acquiring goods that require high personal time investments are much more credible, impressive signals of generosity and taste.
Without human language to weave stories and connections around products, the products are mute. Otherwise, they can be powerful conversation starters.
The Promise of Mass Customization
Just like bespoke suits or custom yachts, there’s a big benefit to companies that can offer customization options
What anti-consumerist protestors are doing wrong
- Their targets (multinational corps and faceless institutions) simply don’t care about “going green”
- Informal sanctions only work when you hear it from your in-group (your “network” of 150 people)
- Moments of 1-on-1 consciousness raising is how any major change or movement ultimately begins
A friend or lover can imply that we have wasted our lives chasing consumerist dream world mirages; as long as he or she assures us that we still appear intelligent, attractive and virtuous.
Multiculturalism vs. Local Social Norms
- Communities with a chaotic diversity of social norms don’t function very well–they exhibit lower levels of “social capital” (trust, altruism cohesion, and sense of community)
- The only way to signal in multicultural communities is to rent or buy at a particular price point
- With wealth being the only differentiator in such communities, people turn to conspicuous consumption and materialism.
- You have to be able to choose your tribe! Need social norms for every scenario, decision or event that the community agrees on
- Some attempts at setting up tribes: gays in NYC/SF, Mormons in Utah, co-living (frats, co-op, communes)
Cell phones, social networks, MMORPGs are ubiquitous. It’s now possible to live in a social world of one’s own choosing, without regard to location.
Older generation always scoffs at young one for “wasting it’s time on new technologies” — because mew communication tech renders obsolete most traditional aspirations, values, skills, and status criteria.
Yale degree? How about a personal blog.
Endless revolution in tech and economics:
We went from Hunting & Gathering -> Herding -> Farming -> Factory work -> Corporate careers -> Credentialist professions -> Electronic Global Economy
Don’t worry about the young ones–the coming generations will do just fine.
Stuff that will be inevitably outdated: credentialism, workaholism, conspicuous consumption, single-family housing, fragmented kin/social networks, weak social norms, narrowly economic definitions of social progress and national status, indirect democracy distorted by corporate interests and media conglomerates.
The Grand Social Quasi Experiment
- Observe like-minded communities to see what exactly makes a good, positive society
- We should recognize that cultural evolution, like biological evolution, is much smarter than we are
What government can do to stop promoting conspicuous consumption:
- Most governments value GDP growth over citizens’ happiness, quality of life, efficiency of trait display and breadth/depth of social networks
- For examples to emulate, look at places with high Human Development Index (HDI): Norway, Australia, NZ, USA, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Germany
- All economists agree that consumption taxes encourage less consuming and more earning, saving, investing and giving.
- We should promote product longevity (e.g. houses that last longer than 5 years!)
- Good design can minimize depreciation over time (see: today’s clothing industry and obsession with disposable, fast fashion)
- We need to promote camaraderie, reciprocity, trust, charity, savings, eco-friendliness, respect, and trust
Why the Sky Won’t Fall if We Change
Over the longer term (i.e. not too suddenly), economies are resilient!
Free markets always find a way to go forward (“creative destruction”)
Pre-requisites for free markets to work: peace, rule of law, property rights, stable currency, efficient regulation, honest government and social norms of trust, fairness & honor.
- This already more or less exists in Silicon Valley, Hong Kong and Switzerland.
- Humans were meant to live in small-scale societies built on mutual recognition, respect and trust.
Conclusion: Self-Gilding Genes
Remember: goods and services are not good at advertising our traits to others.
Instead, focus on language, kindness, creativity, beauty, and intelligence.
We can flaunt our fitness with more individuality, ingenuity, and enlightenment.
Read other reviews and notes on the book’s Amazon page.