Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

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Penguin Group USA, 2010 - Business & Economics - 374 pages
A leading evolutionary psychologist probes the unconscious instincts behind American consumer culture

Illuminating the hidden reasons for why we buy what we do, Spent applies evolutionary psychology to the sensual wonderland of marketing and perceived status that is American consumer culture. Geoffrey Miller starts with the theory that we purchase things to advertise ourselves to others, and then examines other factors that dictate what we spend money on. With humor and insight, Miller analyzes an array of product choices and deciphers what our decisions say about ourselves, giving us access to a new way of understanding-and improving-our behaviors to become happier consumers.

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User Review  - Opinionated - LibraryThing

This is a book in two parts. For the first part, 250 pages are devoted to an excellent summary of some of the principles of evolutionary psychology, and particularly as it applies to consumerism ... Read full review

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User Review  - lindap69 - LibraryThing

lacked the time and mental energy to finish this esp as it seemed to say in oh so many ways how our society has bought into the marketing of more than any of us will ever need! Read full review

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About the author (2010)

Darwin Goes to the Mall

Consumerist capitalism: it is what it is, and we shouldn''t pretendotherwise.

But what is it, really? Consumerism is hard to describe when it''sthe ocean and we''re the plankton.

Faced with the unfathomable, we could start by asking some freshquestions. Here''s one: Why would the world''s most intelligent primatebuy a Hummer H1 Alpha sport- utility vehicle for $139,771? It is not apractical mode of transport. It seats only four, needs fifty- one feet inwhich to turn around, burns a gallon of gas every ten miles, dawdlesfrom 0 to 60 mph in 13.5 seconds, and has poor reliability, accordingto Consumer Reports. Yet, some people have felt the need to buy it-- asthe Hummer ads say, "Need is a very subjective word."

Although common sense says we buy things because we think we''llenjoy owning and using them, research shows that the pleasures ofacquisition are usually short- lived at best. So why do we keep ourselveson the consumerist treadmill-- working, buying, aspiring?Biology offers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groupsin which image and status were all- important, not only for survival,but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children.Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to makean impression on other people''s minds than to enjoy owning a chunkof matter--a fact that renders "materialism" a profoundly misleadingterm for much of consumption. Many products are signals first andmaterial objects second. Our vast social- primate brains evolved to pursueone central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others. Buyingimpressive products in a money- based economy is just the most recentway to fulfill that goal.

Many bright thinkers have tried to understand modern consumerismby framing it in a historical context, asking, for example: Howdid we go from showing off our status with purple- bordered togas inancient Rome to showing it off with Franck Muller watches in modernManhattan? How did we go from the 1908 black Model- T Fordto the 2006 "Flame Red Pearl" Hummer? How did we go from eatingcanned tuna (about $4 per pound) to eating magical plankton("marine phytoplankton, the ultimate nutrogenomic, superchargedwith high- vibration crystal scalar energy healing frequencies"-- $168for fifty grams, or $1,525 per pound, from Ascendedhealth.com) as aluxury food?

This book takes a different approach from that of historical analysis.It frames consumerism in an evolutionary context, and thusaddresses changes across much longer spans of time. How did we gofrom being small- brained semisocial primates 4 million years ago tobeing the big- brained hypersocial humans we are today? At the sametime it addresses differences across species. Why do we pay so muchfor plankton, the most common form of biomass on the planet? Bluewhales eat four tons of it per day, which would cost $12.2 million perday (plus shipping) from Ascendedhealth.com, if they wanted the"nutrogenomic supercharging."

To understand consumerist capitalism, it might help to begin byconsidering our lives today as our prehistoric ancestors might viewthem. What would they think of us? Compared with their easygoingclannish ways, our frenetic status seeking and product hunting wouldlook bewildering indeed. Our society would seem noisy, perplexing,and maybe psychotic. To see just how psychotic, let''s perform athought experiment-- something exotic, with time travel and lasers.

From Cro-Magnons to Consumers

This is your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go back thirtythousand years in a time machine. Meet some clever Cro-Magnonsin prehistoric France. (We''ll assume that you''ll be able to speak their language, somehow.) Explain our modern system of consumerist capitalismto them. Find out what they think of it. Would the prospect ofever- greater prosperity, leisure, and knowledge motivate them to inventagriculture, animal husbandry, walled towns, money, social classes,and conspicuous consumption? Or would they prefer to stagnate attheir Aurignacian level of culture, knapping flint and painting caves?Suppose you agree to this mission, and go back in your time machine.You find some Cro-Mags one evening, and get their attention by passingout a dozen laser pointers for them to play around with. After an hourthey settle down, and you give your pitch, explaining that our cultureoffers a vast cornucopia of goods and services for showing off one''s personalqualities in ten thousand new ways to millions of strangers. Oneacquires these displays of personal merit by "buying" them with "money"earned through "skilled labor." You promise that if they persist with theirflint- knapping obsession, then in just a few millennia their descendantswill be able to enjoy sophisticated cultural innovations, such as colonicirrigation and YouTube.

Your talk goes well, and it''s time to gauge their reaction. You takesome questions from the audience. One of the dominant adult males,Gérard, has been hooting with enthusiasm, and seems to get the idea.But Gérard has some concerns-- most sound outrageously sexist toyour modern ears, but since they are expressed with genuine curiosity,in the spirit of scientific objectivity you feel obliged to answer themhonestly. Gérard inquires:

So, Man-from-Future, with this money stuff, I could buy twentybright young women willing to bear my children?

You: No, Gérard. Since the abolition of slavery, we can''t offer genuinereproductive success in the form of fertile mates for sale. Thereare prostitutes, but they tend to use contraception.

Gérard: Well, I shall have to seduce the women so they want tobreed with me. Can I buy more intelligence and charisma, betterabilities to tell stories and jokes, more height and muscularity?

You: No, but you can buy self- help books that have some placeboeffect, and some steroids that increase both muscle mass and irritabilityby 30 percent.

Gérard: OK, I will be patient and wait for my sexual rivals to die.Can I buy another hundred years of life?

You: No, but with amazing modern health care, your expected lifespan can increase from seventy years to seventy- eight years.

Gérard: These no- answers anger me, and I feel aggressive. Can Ibuy advanced weaponry to kill my rivals, especially that bastardSerge, and the men of other kin groups and clans, so I can stealtheir women?

You: Yes. One effective choice would be the Auto Assault- 12 shotgun,which can fire five high- explosive fragmenting antipersonnelrounds per second. Oh-- but I guess then the rivals and other kingroups and clans would probably buy them, too.

Gérard: So, we''d end up at just another level of clan- versus- clandétente. And there would be more lethal fights among hotheadedmale teens within our clan. Then I shall be content with my currentmate, Giselle-- can I buy her undying devotion, and multipleorgasms so she never cheats on me?

You: Well, actually, lovers still cheat under capitalism; paternityuncertainty persists.

Gérard: What about Giselle''s mother and sister-- can I buy themkinder personalities, so they are less critical of my foibles?

You: Sadly, no.

Then Giselle, Gérard''s savvy mate, interrupts with a few questions ofher own, which you answer with ever- increasing dismay:

Giselle: Man- from- Future, can I buy a handsome, high- status,charming lover who will never ignore me, beat me, or leave me?

You: No, Giselle, but we can offer romance novels that describe fictionaladventures with such lovers.

Giselle: Can I buy more sisters, who will care for my younger children as they would their own, when I am away gatheringgooseberries?

You: No, child- care employees tend to be underpaid, overwhelmed,miseducated girls who care more about text messaging theirfriends than looking after the children of strangers.

Giselle: How about our teenage children-- Justine and Phillipe?Can I buy their respect and obedience, and the taste to choosegood mates?

You: No, marketers will brainwash them to ignore your social wisdomand to have sex with anyone wearing Hollister- branded clothingor drinking Mountain Dew AMP Energy Overdrive.

Giselle: Zut, alors! Mange de la merde et meurs! This money stuffsounds useless. Can I at least buy a mammoth carcass that neverrots?

Finally, you see an opening, and you start explaining about Sub- Zerofreezers-- but then you remember that there is not yet an Electricitéde France with fifty- nine nuclear reactors to supply freezer power, andyou falter.

Giselle and Gérard are by now giving you looks of withering contempt.The rest of your audience is restless and skeptical; some eventry to set you on fire with their laser pointers. You try to rekindle theirinterest by explaining all the camping conveniences that consumerismoffers for the upwardly mobile Cro-Mag: sunglasses, steel knives,backpacks, and trail- running shoes that last several months, with coolswooshes on the sides.

The audience perks up a bit, and Giselle''s mother, Juliette, asks,"So, what''s the catch? What would we have to do to get these knivesand shoes?" You explain, "All you have to do is sit in classrooms everyday for sixteen years to learn counterintuitive skills, and then work andcommute fifty hours a week for forty years in tedious jobs for amoralcorporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decentchild care, sense of community, political empowerment, or contact with nature. Oh, and you''ll have to take special medicines to avoidsuicidal despair, and to avoid having more than two children. It''s not sobad, really. The shoe swooshes are pretty cool." Juliette, the respectedCro-Magnon matriarch, looks you straight in the eye and asks, withinfinite pity, "Are you out of your mind?"

Contrasts and Choices

This thought experime

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