Consumerism: Leading the Life of the Peacock

Graphic: Viktor Koen.

Message in What We Buy, but Nobody’s Listening
By John Tierney / May 18, 2009

Why does a diploma from Harvard cost $100,000 more than a similar piece of paper from City College? Why might a BMW cost $25,000 more than a Subaru WRX with equally fast acceleration? Why do “sophisticated” consumers demand 16-gigabyte iPhones and “fair trade” coffee from Starbucks?

If you ask market researchers or advertising executives, you might hear about the difference between “rational” and “emotional” buying decisions, or about products falling into categories like “hedonic” or “utilitarian” or “positional.” But Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, says that even the slickest minds on Madison Avenue are still in the prescientific dark ages.

Instead of running focus groups and spinning theories, he says, marketers could learn more by administering scientifically calibrated tests of intelligence and personality traits. If marketers (or their customers) understood biologists’ new calculations about animals’ “costly signaling,” Dr. Miller says, they’d see that Harvard diplomas and iPhones send the same kind of signal as the ornate tail of a peacock.

Sometimes the message is as simple as “I’ve got resources to burn,” the classic conspicuous waste demonstrated by the energy expended to lift a peacock’s tail or the fuel guzzled by a Hummer. But brand-name products aren’t just about flaunting transient wealth. The audience for our signals — prospective mates, friends, rivals — care more about the permanent traits measured in tests of intelligence and personality, as Dr. Miller explains in his new book, “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior.”

Suppose, during a date, you casually say, “The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term.” Here’s what you’re signaling, as translated by Dr. Miller:

“My S.A.T. scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my I.Q. is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.”

Or suppose a young man, after listening to the specifications of the newest iPhone or hearing about a BMW’s “Servotronic variable-ratio power steering,” says to himself, “Those features sound awesome.” Here’s Dr. Miller’s translation:

“Those features can be talked about in ways that will display my general intelligence to potential mates and friends, who will bow down before my godlike technopowers, which rival those of Iron Man himself.”

Most of us will insist there are other reasons for going to Harvard or buying a BMW or an iPhone — and there are, of course. The education and the products can yield many kinds of rewards. But Dr. Miller says that much of the pleasure we derive from products stems from the unconscious instinct that they will either enhance or signal our fitness by demonstrating intelligence or some of the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.

In a series of experiments, Dr. Miller and other researchers found that people were more likely to expend money and effort on products and activities if they were first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or stories about dating.

After this priming, men were more willing to splurge on designer sunglasses, expensive watches and European vacations. Women became more willing to do volunteer work and perform other acts of conspicuous charity — a signal of high conscientiousness and agreeableness, like demonstrating your concern for third world farmers by spending extra for Starbucks’s “fair trade” coffee.

These signals can be finely nuanced, as Dr. Miller parses them in his book. The “conspicuous precision” of a BMW or a Lexus helps signal the intelligence of all the owners, but the BMW’s “conspicuous reputation” also marks its owner as more extraverted and less agreeable (i.e., more aggressive). Owners of Toyotas and Hondas are signaling high conscientiousness by driving reliable and economical cars.

But once you’ve spent the money, once you’ve got the personality-appropriate appliance or watch or handbag, how much good are these signals actually doing you? Not much, Dr. Miller says. The fundamental consumerist delusion, as he calls it, is that purchases affect the way we’re treated.

The grand edifice of brand-name consumerism rests on the narcissistic fantasy that everyone else cares about what we buy. (It’s no accident that narcissistic teenagers are the most brand-obsessed consumers.) But who else even notices? Can you remember what your partner or your best friend was wearing the day before yesterday? Or what kind of watch your boss has?

A Harvard diploma might help get you a date or a job interview, but what you say during the date or conversation will make the difference. An elegantly thin Skagen watch might send a signal to a stranger at a cocktail party or in an airport lounge, but even if it were noticed, anyone who talked to you for just a few minutes would get a much better gauge of your intelligence and personality.

To get over your consuming obsessions, Dr. Miller suggests exercises like comparing the relative costs and pleasures of the stuff you’ve bought. (You can try the exercise at It may seem odd that we need these exercises — why would natural selection leave us with such unproductive fetishes? — but Dr. Miller says it’s not surprising.

“Evolution is good at getting us to avoid death, desperation and celibacy, but it’s not that good at getting us to feel happy,” he says, calling our desire to impress strangers a quirky evolutionary byproduct of a smaller social world.

“We evolved as social primates who hardly ever encountered strangers in prehistory,” Dr. Miller says. “So we instinctively treat all strangers as if they’re potential mates or friends or enemies. But your happiness and survival today don’t depend on your relationships with strangers. It doesn’t matter whether you get a nanosecond of deference from a shopkeeper or a stranger in an airport.”

Source / New York Times

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2 Responses to Consumerism: Leading the Life of the Peacock

  1. stonefruit says:

    Nails it on the head; an ontology based on having.

  2. Mariann says:

    Another fascinating dissection of the brand-name phenomena, and no doubt with a great deal of insight into human nature.

    However, I wonder about a couple of things:
    1) Is it really true that our happiness and survival don’t depend on our relationships with strangers? I’m not at all quibbling with the idea that what kind of watch or shoes we wear doesn’t define us to strangers or to anyone — this truth should be shouted from the rooftops! — but in an increasingly interdependent world, attempts to signal openness, agreeableness, etc., could be valuable; yet, opportunities to do so, other than, e.g., buying “fair trade” products, are not prominently available. If we can be disabused of the notion that purchases affect the way we’re treated, what activities can be substituted for what seems to be a pretty hard-wired instinct.
    2) Also, what does Miller’s theory have to say about us dinosaurs who still imagine that certain brands are indicative of good workmanship and good value, or that certain brands simply produce the product that best fits our particular need? I know I’m vain about a couple of my possessions, but truly, I give a rat’s ass what other people think of my attire, my vehicle, my groceries, etc., and feel that I shop certain brands in certain items only because I perceive value in them above generic products.
    Maybe, just as the initial impression of an expensive watch or suit is quickly supplanted by conversation with a more-informed appraisal of a man’s worth, the initial enthusiasm for brand-name-mania found most readily in the young is eventually supplanted with more self-confident consumer decision-making?

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