Sunday, April 29, 2012

Spent. Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, by Geoffrey Miller

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Some of you may remember the excellent book, The Mating Mind, which Geoffrey Miller (an evolutionary psychologist) published in 2000. It opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the evolution of intelligence: as a fitness indicator in sexual selection. Miller’s recent book, Spent. (with the period) Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, delivers just as much creativity.

Miller’s main premise is that much of our consumer behavior is governed by a (usually subconscious) desire to advertise ourselves to prospective mates. Of course, as with human intelligence, this behavior gets used in lots of contexts that are separate from the actual mating game (e.g. by older people). In this premise, Miller goes against the assumptions of many economists (that consumers are rational purchasers) and even against many other evolutionary psychologists (that consumers purchase things to gratify themselves).

In selecting a mate, what does an animal want to know? With the human animal, what a prospective mate wants to know is not just the quality of genes, but the quality of character. Miller says that a person’s character (which has a substantial genetic basis) can be summarized by six features: general intelligence, plus “the big five” that have been an important part of psychological measurement: openness (e.g. to new ideas), conscientiousness (reliability), agreeableness (friendliness), stability (e.g. of character), and extraversion. Miller explains that consumers sometimes spend a lot of money, and a lot of effort, to advertise these characteristics, even to the extent of negating a great deal of self-gratification. The advertisements must be, as much as possible, reliable or costly indicators—that is, difficult to fake. Consider one example: ecological conscientiousness. Rather than just to be unobtrusively green—by driving a small internal combustion car, or by not consuming as much—many people want to advertise their greenness, by buying a hybrid car that may not get much better mileage than a small internal combustion car but which costs a lot more, and everybody knows it. Miller gives many examples.

But sometimes Miller, who seems to be an impulsive writer, goes way too far. For example, he points out that an IQ test, or an SAT score, is a much cheaper measurement of general intelligence than is an expensive college degree. If all that an employer wants to know is how smart you are, why bother with college? A college transcript is also an indicator of conscientiousness: did you show up for class and do the work? Grades of D and F on a transcript are indicators of unreliability in a prospective employee. But surely there are less expensive ways of demonstrating conscientiousness. He even discussed fake degrees as if they might not be just as useful as real ones. I almost felt like I was reading The Wizard of Oz, giving the straw man a diploma and the lion a medal. And that is what Miller, himself an academician, has to say about college education. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t notice him discussing the value of things that you actually learn in college. I don’t want the nurse at the clinic taking a blood sample to be just smart and conscientious; I also want that nurse to know the difference between a vein and an artery! I almost got the feeling that Miller has some unhealed wounds in his academic career, though I do not know what they might be. There I go, psychoanalyzing an evolutionary psychologist! Of course, he was probably joking.

In one case, Miller discusses the “latent prison-gang-rape aggressiveness of many American SUV model names.” He said that you can recognize this if you stick the word [I am not making this up] “anal” in front of model names: Anal Expedition, Anal Explorer, Anal Commander… These are actual examples he uses. After sticking “anal” in front of all of these SUV names, he concludes the very thing he imposed, that SUV names suggest prison gang rapes. Surely a psychologist should recognize the absurdness of this. This must be a joke, although he did not suggest it even subtly. He said he would not be surprised to see an SUV called the Buick Water-Boarder.

He also makes some unrealistic proposals. Once again, I cannot tell if he is joking, although I assume he is. He said we could have numbers tattooed on our foreheads that are measurements of our six characteristics, starting, I assume, with IQ. Tattoos are easy to fake, so he suggests the tattoos should be dispensed only by licensed and reliable tattooers. This would make it easy for us to find compatible mates without having to pay for expensive courtship. And he suggests that income taxes be replaced by consumption taxes, with wasteful consumption being taxed the most. That is actually a good idea but he makes no suggestions for how to even begin doing it.

Geoffrey Miller is brilliant and I learned a lot from this book. But I got the impression that I was reading the Hunter S. Thompson of the evolutionary psychology world. You can decide for yourself whether this is something you might want to read.

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