Today, New York Times science correspondent John Tierney discusses what people are trying to signal when they buy prestige products and it turns out that it's mostly about sex. Tierney cites the work of University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his new book, Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior. Consider this:
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."
Tierney goes to discuss some fascinating experiments run by Miller and his colleagues:
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 Miller claims all this consumerist signaling doesn't get us much or make us especially happy. So why do we do it?
"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."
Whole Tierney article can be found here.
For the record: I drive a 1996 Jaguar XJ6 with 102,000 miles on it.