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Here’s a guest post from Geoffrey Miller, a psychology professor at University of New Mexico. His new book Spent: Sex, evolution, and consumer behavior goes on sale today.
As the global financial crisis shows, our habits of status-seeking workaholism and runaway consumerism have failed us. As house prices fall, equity evaporates. As stock prices fall, pensions erode. As debts go bad, creditors repossess cars, houses, and even whole countries.
The future looks bleak. Retirement won’t be toasting sunsets on a cruise ship deck, but watching Lost re-runs in a hospice bed. Our sons will be polishing silver for the Saudi princes who financed 9/11. Our daughters will be lap-dancing in Shanghai.
To get out of this mess, we need a deeper analysis of how we got into it. Economics won’t help, because it assumes we are rational agents in a free market, unconstrained by ideology, politics, or corporate campaign finance. Instead, the best guidance will come from evolutionary psychology – the science of people as they actually are. This science is no longer a ragged old treasure-map of a few basic instincts (hunger, lust, curiosity). Rather, it’s a high-resolution Google-earth panorama of hundreds of human capacities and preferences. Economics gave a black-and-white VHS view of human nature, whereas evolutionary psychology gives Blu-Ray picture quality.
Evolutionary psychologists focused mostly on mating, parenting, kinship, and group conflict, but we’ve recently turned some attention to consumer behaviour. Economists assumed that we rationally ‘maximize utility’ by buying the goods and services that deliver the greatest happiness. Evolutionary psychologists have been finding that we buy things largely to pursue our unconscious social and sexual agendas. In particular, we buy the products that we think will attract and impress mates friends, and relatives. Conspicuous consumption is the norm, not the exception.
What traits are consumers trying to display through their Hollister shirts, Lexus hybrids, Yale degrees, and Alaskan eco-cruises? The most important traits to display are the main ‘individual differences’ dimensions that have always distinguished one person from another, across cultures and throughout history. Given the obvious physical dimensions of age, sex, and health, we advertise youth or maturity, masculinity or femininity, athleticism or fertility through appearance-enhancing products such as make-up, clothing, and snowboards.
Then there are the psychological traits of competence, character, and virtue. Surprisingly, these boil down to just six central dimensions: general intelligence (IQ), and the ‘Big Five’ personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Each is genetically heritable, predicts a wide range of behaviour; and is seen as a deep moral virtue. If you know how someone scores on these Central Six traits, you can accurately judge how they’ll perform as a student, spouse, friend, or president.
In modern life, we display these Central Six traits largely through the products we buy, use, and display. The highly agreeable buy organic fair-trade espresso to show off their altruism; the highly disagreeable buy the Harley-Davidson ‘Fat Boy’ motorcycle favoured by the Terminator. The highly intelligent will acquire Stanford law degrees and Lexus hybrids; the less intelligent barely afford a high school diploma and a used Jeep Patriot. The highly conscientious pay bills on time, maintain high credit scores, and qualify for low-interest mortgages; the less conscientious make more impulse purchases of Kate Spade shoes, Gitanes cigarettes, and Trojan Magnum condoms.
As the collapse of Communism showed, we can’t eradicate people’s instincts for invidious trait-display. But we can nudge those instincts away from over-consumption, and towards more fulfilling uses of our time, energy, and money. In fact, the most accurate ways to display our intelligence and personality traits are also the most ancient: conversation, dance, music, arts, crafts, and sports. These are the heart of human socializing, romantic sexuality, and parental pride. The more time we spend pursuing them, and the less we spend over-consuming, the more fulfilled our lives will be.
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