Our inherited legacy of adaptations is literally precious. Even the poorest parents give their children vast riches, in the form of senses, emotions, and mental faculties that have been optimized through millions of years of product development. They are so reliable, efficient, intricate, self-growing, and self-repairing that no technology comes anywhere close to matching them. 65-6
Miller argues that in modern consumer societies, we use products to signal our desirable traits and our genetic fitness. The primary traits we signal include the “big five” personality traits (openness, contentiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) and intelligence. These traits are stable throughout the lifetime; are heritable; and are meaningful because we can make useful predictions about people based on these traits.
Unfortunately, Miller argues, demonstrating these traits through purchasing decisions is not effective. Humans evolved to detect these traits long before the advent of consumer societies, and we detect these traits more effectively merely by interacting and having other speak about our reputations.
Furthermore, the costs of trying to signal our traits through consumerism are high. Individuals work enormous hours to buy products, and eventually find these products unsatisfying due to the phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill. Long hours and unfulfilling consumption leads to feelings of loneliness, and alienation. The costs are also high for families, for similar reasons. Finally, the environment pays a hefty cost for the production of consumer products.
Miller points to three strategies products may employ to signal their owner’s fitness. Products may use lots of material, or precious materials (Hummers, mansions, gold). They exhibit precision or ingenious design (watches, wearable tech, Apple). Brands may have strong reputations or afford high status (Gucci, BMW). In lieu of entering into one of these three ineffective consumption traps, Miller advises consumers to borrow and create items, use the things they already own, and buy secondhand goods.
Miller notes that neighborhoods are largely stratified by income brackets and consumption choices—the lowest common denominator for making a decision about whom you group with. If people were able to group according to the big six traits, they would be better able to affiliate and signal, find community among like-minded people, and avoid wasteful status games brought about when they try to keep up with the Joneses. People should self-segregate into communities where values are shared, instead of tax bracket of consumption habits.
Miller also advocates for a consumption tax that would target wasteful and conspicuous consumption, to skim some broader social benefits from zero-sum status games of the wealthy. He thinks this could be accomplished without complicated oversight, via simple rules demarcating which items would merit a luxury tax.
The sections on personality traits and the way people display them were quite entertaining (especially the bumper stickers people use to advertise their traits). His plan to have people segregate according to their traits seemed a bit idealistic. It could go very well; consider how the internet has allowed sub-cultures to grow and flourish, and for people to find community. It could go very badly: look what it’s done for ISIS and for people trapped in ethnic ghettos.
In any case, I think it’s important to compare other possibilities to the actual status quo—money as the main factor in segregation. Perhaps other Miller’s suggestion about how to segregate would create problems, but maybe problems preferable to financial stratification.
Ideas per Page:1 5/10 (Medium)
Recommend to Others: not broadly, but yes to people interested in consumer culture through an evolutionary lens
Reread Personally: No
All you have to do is sit in classrooms every day for sixteen years to learn counterintuitive skills and then work and commute fifty hours a week for forty years in tedious jobs for amoral corporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decent child care, sense of community, political empowerment, or contact with nature. Oh, and you’ll have to take special medicines to avoid suicidal despair, and avoid having more than two children. It’s not so bad really. The shoe swooshes are pretty cool. 5
Human intelligence can be represented with astonishing efficiency and accuracy by just one dimension, called the g factor (a.k.a. general intelligence, general cognitive ability, IQ). As we’ll see later, if we know how an individual scores on these “Central Six” dimensions (the Big Five personality traits plus general intelligence), we can predict a great deal about his habits, preferences, values, and attitudes—and about the products he may acquire to display those traits to others. 28
Democracy can be seen as the marketing concept applied to government. … The production-oriented state asked what taxpayers could do for it; the marketing-oriented state asks what it can do for voters. 41
At the evolutionary level, animals are always under selection to survive and reproduce. But at the subjective level, they are always motivated to understand that natural pleasures are associated with evolutionary success, but because they have been shaped to act as if they understood that association unconsciously. 56
…every ideology seeks power by convincing us that we need something beyond our naked bodies and minds to be socially acceptable and sexually attractive. 84
If a product appeals to everyone, it cannot signal anything about the consumer, so consumers will simply comparison shop for it on the basis of features and/or price. … In actual capitalism, corporations strive mightily to avoid competition based on mere objective performance. Instead, they use advertising to create signaling systems—psychological links between brands and the aspirational traits that consumers would like to display. 97
Thus, all ads effectively have two audiences: potential product buyers, and potential product viewers who will credit the product owners with various desirable traits. 99
Thus, arguments about consumerist capitalism can go far astray when we do not recognize that there are many different forms of reliable signaling—and our own favored tactics are the ones least likely to be recognized as signaling at all. 120
…they found that people from territories with the highest parasite load indeed had substantially lower openness and extraversion scores on average. 210-1
Joshua Tybur argues … There is antiparasite disgust, which protects us from contagious disease. There is sexual disgust, which protects us from mating with individuals who are too closely related or whose genetic quality is too low. Finally, there is moral disgust, with protects us from selfish individuals who would undermine local social norms and social contracts. 214
Also, for some indulgences, it’s worth considering how much you would pay not to own the item. For example, Costco sells M&M candies in sixty-four-ounce bags for $8. I like M&Ms, so that seems like a great impulse purchase if I think I deserve a treat. However, at 142 calories per ounce, that bag contains 9,000 calories of milk chocolate, which, knowing myself, I would eventually eat. … For many products, the long-term net costs of ownership and consumption far outweigh the short-term benefits. 259
So, while modern multicultural communities may be very free at the level of the individual lifestyle choice, they are very unfree at the level of allowing people to create and sustain distinctive local community norms and values. This is actually a bad thing, liberal ideologies notwithstanding. It means that the only way to have any influence over who your neighbors are, and how they behave, is to rent or buy at a particular price point, to achieve economic stratification. Antidiscrimination laws apply, de facto, to everything except income, with the result that we have low-income ghettos, working-class tract houses, professional exurbs: a form of assortative living by income, which correlates only moderately with intelligence and conscientiousness. 299
1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.