Thursday, December 19, 2013

Darwin at the Mall

Ho ho ho. The Christmas shopping season is upon us. Greetings from someone who doesn’t enjoy shopping. I’m no Grinch or Scrooge; I just do not enjoy materialism. A walk in the woods, or reading or writing something creative, is much more enjoyable to me than a trip to the Mall. I enjoy receiving gifts, but not all that much. I am sort of like the Dalai Lama on his birthday in the cartoon: he said, “Just what I always wanted! Nothing!” as he looked into an empty box. But it was recently necessary for me to go with my family to the Mall, and when I did, I decided to use it as an opportunity to observe the human species from the viewpoint of an evolutionary biologist.

In Tulsa, “The Mall” usually refers to Woodland Hills Mall at 71st and Memorial. The first thing I noticed was how many clothes retailers there were, each with its own brand. As far as I could tell, all of the clothes that they sold were more or less alike, except for either (1) a status label, or (2) subtle messages that are meaningful only to the sender and the receiver of the message. Right away this reminded me of the 1981 discovery by Nancy Burley that the simple act of putting a red leg band on a male zebra finch would enhance its success of mating. Although this effect has recently been called into question, it remains a memorable example of how something as arbitrary as a leg band can turn out to be a social signal to animals. In many birds, bright feathers are indicators of health. But the exact form of the indicator in one animal species may be meaningless to another. We think it quaint when we read about the Mayoruna tribe in the Amazon decorating their faces with cat whisker tattoos and even embedding palm fibers in their lips like cat whiskers. But to them, our flaunting of brand name clothing would seem as incomprehensible as their decorations seem to us. Of course, they are probably now wearing American brand-name T-shirts and shorts, having been brought into the splendor and comfort of western civilization.

At the same time, many of the businesses appeared nearly desperate to come up with something new other than just to sell the same items as everyone else. In these cases, it is innovation, not just a label, that is the status marker. However, innovations can be just as arbitrary as labels. Just how much innovation can you have in a wristwatch? You can make them into timepieces with atomic accuracy. Or you can replace the hands with little bubbles on an analog face; a large and a small bubble revolve around the center of the watch face. And there was a shop that sold many interesting and wonderful flavors of tea. But after awhile, all the different fruit and flower flavors start seeming alike. Enter monkey-picked tea. This is tea made from the youngest leaves of the tea trees, which grow on branches so delicate that only trained monkeys can harvest them. I tried some; it tasted like tea. The only value of this type of innovation would be if the recipient knows that the tea leaves were picked by monkeys. These innovations are mostly valuable as status symbols.

Perhaps the main products being marketed at this mall are placebos. The labels and innovations do not produce a qualitative difference in the products, but the shoppers can easily imagine that they do. They imagine that monkey tea tastes different from ordinary tea if, in advance, they know that it is monkey tea. It is well known that even many expert wine-tasters will choose wines they think are expensive, even if the wines are cheap brands in expensive bottles. In one corner of the Mall, there were a few shiatsu-massage chairs into which you could insert a dollar and try them out. I gave one of them a try, and found it to be annoying, perhaps because I am not shaped like a typical American and the pokes and nudges touched me in the wrong places. It goosed me a couple of times. I wonder if  “shiatsu” is Japanese for “placebo.” While there is no doubt that massages feel good, I am skeptical that there are “shiatsu points” of special significance on the body. I watched a young Thai mother of four trying out the chair as her kids pommeled on her. The chair evoked an artificial lordosis from her as she was transported into ecstasy. It worked for her. Or maybe it was just her kids tickling her. I wondered whether I should even be watching her.

Finally, I noticed that even though I’d come without the intention of buying anything, I ended up spending a couple of hundred dollars, largely on status and placebo items. Social forces act upon our behavior in ways of which we are hardly conscious, and sometimes despite our best efforts to be conscious of them.

I bought some items at See’s Candies. At last here is something that is truly different and superior: I have tasted many kinds of candy, but none can measure up to See’s. As I tried a sample, I kept asking myself if I was merely experiencing a placebo effect. If I was, it was despite my best effort to be objective. But this purchase accounted for only about twenty dollars of my total expenditure. When I got home, I was not sure how I ended up spending sixty dollars on candles. Evolution has adapted us with flexibility to adjust to changing social environments. The social environment is our human environment; we create it, and it creates us.

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