Category: Consumerism (page 1 of 2)

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (Book Summary)

Spent (book cover)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.

Everyone’s Goal

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Maslow’s hierarchy is now outdated.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 sexCognitive: to learn, explore, discover, create, acquire knowledge, increase intelligence
Safety: health, wellbeing, familiarity, predictability, personal security, financial security, insuranceAesthetic: experience beauty as found in nature, people, artifacts
Social: family, friendship, intimacy, sexual love, belonging, acceptanceSelf-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:

  1. Displaying fitness indicators associated with higher social/sexual status
  2. 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 FunctionsTrait displayPleasure delivery
Narcissist symptomsGrandiosity, admiration seeking, status fantasies, arrogance, ambition, lack of humilitySolipsism, pleasure seeking, self-stimulation, perfectionism, irritability, lack of empathy
Associated sinsPride, avarice, envyLust, gluttony, sloth, wrath
Typical activityWork, socializingLeisure, dreaming
FoodKobe beef, foie grasLamb vindaloo
DrinkRare burgundy, red bullHot chocolate, margarita
ClothingBusiness suitLingerie
House featureEntry hall, dining roomMedia room, master bathroom
SoftwarePersonal pageComputer game
College mangerFinance, premed bioLiterature, psychology
Reading materialQuotable non-fictionEscapist fiction
Film genreForeign, classicAction, porn
iPod featuresSleek design, apple logoBattery life, lightweight, custom covers
Books addressing itSpentThe 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.

On Wealth

  •  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

On Status

  • 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.

On Taste

  • “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:

  1. Above average products can compensate for below average traits when building long term relationships
  2. 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!

Flaunting Fitness

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

  1. 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!”
  2. 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.
  3. Can be used to solicit social support, alliances and friendships from non-relatives. Young adult popularity yields midlife business contacts.
  4. 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 comparisonConspicuous WasteConspicuous PrecisionConspicuous Reputation
Form of costMatter, energyAttention, skillCheater punishment
Form of signal quantityMass qualityInformation, brandRecognition
Typical cuesLarge size, costly materials, surface area, scaleSmall tolerances, accurate design, symmetry, reliability, intricacyLarge sales, distinctive design, fashionability, popularity, prototypicality
Displayer emotionsLargessePrideVanity, conceit
Audience emotionsAweFascinationFamiliarity, envy
Terms of praiseFancy, funFine, fitFamous, fashionable
ElementsGold (watch)Silicon (chip)Neon (sign)
FoodsPate de foie grasSushiPrime rib
WatchFranck MullerSkagenRolex
ClothesSable coatIssey Miyake dressArmani suit
House featuresGreat room, foyerKitchen, gardenFaçade, postal code
EducationOxford M.A.MIT Physics PhDHarvard MBA
Optional if the other two indicators are in playMost 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 imagination5Openness3
Have few artistic interests2
Does a thorough job4Conscientiousness0
Tends to be lazy4
Is generally trusting3Agreeableness2
Tends to find fault with others1
Is relaxed, handles stress well3Emotional stability0
Gets nervous easily3
Is outgoing, sociable3Extraversion-1
Is reserved4

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:

IntelligenceHighAcura, Audi, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, Smart, Subaru, VW
– Value, complex controls, reading lights, hard to pronounce name, room
LowCadillac, Chrysler, Hummer, Dodge, Ford, GMC
– Heavy, low down payment, dealer financing, size: reliability ratio
OpennessHighLotus, Mini, Scion, Subaru
– Eccentric design, foreign origin, ground clearance, moon roof, popularity among youth
– Liberalism, Eccentricity
LowBuick, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Rolls Royce, Range Rover
– traditional design, domestic origin, popularity among elderly and royalty
– Traditionalism, Conservatism
ConscientiousnessHighAcura, Honda, Lexus, Volvo, Toyota
– reliability, child safety locks, anti-theft, mileage, daytime lights
– Responsibility, Caution
LowFerrari, Jeep, Mitsubishi, Pontiac
– cruise control, cup holders, high acceleration
– Impulsiveness, Recklessness
AgreeablenessHighAcura, Daewoo, Kia, Geo, Saturn
– eco-friendly, hybrid, payload to help friends move, smiley front
– Kindness, gentleness, altruism
LowBMW, Hummer, Mercedes, Nissan, Maserati
– hip, torque, intimidating size, menacing design, leather seats, sneering
– Aggressive, Dominance
StabilityHighAcura, Porsche, Scion
– Cheerful design, “happy” vibes
LowVW, Volvo
– safety, airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, warranty
ExtraversionHighAston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Mini, Porsche
– convertible, high watt subwoofers, vanity plates, ski rack, James Bond
LowAcura, 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

Educational Credentialism

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

Other views:

  • 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)

Trait: Openness

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)

Trait: Conscientiousness

  • 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)

On Collecting:

  • 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!

Trait: Agreeableness

  • 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

Agreeable Economy:

  • 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.

Other options:

  • 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)

Going Virtual

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

Legalizing Freedom

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.

How To Be Happy With What You Have

If you’ve ever been outside, you’ll know that some people just seem to be happy all the timeAnd at first glance, it seems that those are the people who have the most – the most money, the most stuff, or simply more of everything. However, there are also a lot of people out there who seem to be satisfied no matter what – they have figured out that it’s important to be happy with what you have. And it’s no big secret as to how they do it.

The best way to be satisfied with your existing material possessions (and desire nothing more) is to want what you already have.

You may think this is a silly exercise. After all, doesn’t this mean that you have to trick yourself into thinking you’re satisfied? That deep down, you will still feel the urge to go out and acquire whatever you feel would make you happy – is it possible that suppressing this urge can somehow be helpful?

Turns out, it can be. While it may be uncomfortable at first (it will take a few months to adjust to this new way of thinking), the end result represents a major step towards inner peace.

It all begins by recognizing that everything you own is an absolute marvel of engineering and/or human labor.

“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein

To start building appreciation for what you already own, try to think about how it was originally made, and the journey it took before it became yours. Let’s take denim jeans, for example (just about everyone in the developed world owns a pair):

Be Happy With What You Have - even if you have very little

What if all you own is a pair of jeans?

  1. Jeans are made from cotton, which must first be grown and picked. Picking cotton by hand is tough, back-breaking work (luckily, most cotton is now picked by specialized machines).
  2. Bales of cotton are then transported to a factory where the cotton fibres are separated (seeds, leaves, and other plant parts must be first taken out). Each bale of cotton (~200kg) produces enough fibre for just over 300 pairs of jeans.
  3. The cotton is then turned into denim. This process consists of blending the cotton (to make it consistent), untangling the cotton and stretching it out. The cotton is spun, and is threaded around massive spindles. From here, the cotton is dyed. The thread is then treated with corn starch (to make it stiffer), and dried. In its final form, denim usually consists of a combination of 1 white cotton thread and 3 blue threads.
  4. The denim is then transported to the jean factory (the average pair of jeans is made from 15 pieces). The denim is stacked, a pattern is overlaid on top, and the sheets of material are precision cut. The individual pieces are then moved to the assembly line of (an army of) workers, where they are stitched together to assemble a pair of jeans.
  5. The jeans are then distressed, through a combination of sanding warm patches and grinding frayed edges into the denim. In some cases, a laser gun is used to heat the material to give the appearance of creasing. The jeans are tossed into large washing vats (with buckets of rocks) to add even more wear.
  6. Each pair is then washed, dried and prepared for transportation. A pair of jeans may (and often does) travel thousands of miles before it reaches its final retail location.
Be Happy With What You have - chances are, you're more fortunate than most

Denim jeans being assembled at a factory in Sri Lanka

You get the idea.

Jeans are just one example. The number of steps would be considerably greater for, say, even the simplest of modern digital cameras (or phones). Most electronic items today consist of individually sourced components, designed and rigorously tested to be functional for years (and under extreme conditions). We are literally surrounded by magic.

A lot of work goes into the creation of most things we own. And while many things are mass produced these days, this does not diminish the fact the attention and planning that went into designing and maintaining the manufacturing process.

This way of thinking will also help you realize that, for most product categories, we have long passed the “point of sufficiency.” That is – most things (e.g. cameras, laptop computers, music players, mobile phones, televisions) are beyond “good enough” for consumer purposes. Waiting impatiently for the next digital camera is a futile exercise if your ultimate goal is to become a better photographer – your best bet is to go out and do the most (e.g. take photos) with the gear you already have. Chances are, your existing equipment is just fine for the task.

It’s an important distinction between thinking like an “optimizer” and a “satisficer” – the former is never satisfied with the way things are and is constantly on the lookout for something that could bring in at least 1% more enjoyment, while the latter recognizes that training yourself to be satisfied with what you already have is a far better long-term strategy for happiness.

PS. This doesn’t mean you should not have any ambition or stop trying to make more money. It’s all just a part of a larger narrative – that you will likely find more enjoy in experiences (and creating) than in the never-ending race to own the latest and best of everything. In short: you can be rich and lead a simple lifestyle at the same time.