BMW M6 Convertible = Peacock's Tail?

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peacock

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. 

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  1. it turns out that it’s mostly about sex.

    …and what isn’t?

  2. I have a 350Z because I’m an engineer, and I appreciate a great little machine with high performance at a modest cost. Of course, I do enjoy it when people stop and stare.

  3. Goddamnit, can’t people just like things because they like them?
    Not everything is social signaling, unless (to quote the one whose name shall not be spoken), they are pure second-handers.
    I know we’re all primates, but some of us try not to live like we’re just another ape in the shrewdness.*

    *I had to look up the name for a group of apes. I like this term.

  4. 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,

    “I’m a huge poser, who probably hasn’t ever been to Harvard Yard, because, although it is full of trees, not more than a couple of them are sugar maples.”

    That’s what your signalling.

  5. “I’m a huge poser, who probably hasn’t ever been to Harvard Yard, because, although it is full of trees, not more than a couple of them are sugar maples.”

    What Dean is signaling is that he is a Hahvahd man!

  6. As any who’s been married will tell you, a mate is also a potential enemy…

  7. The second gen (new) 6 series licks ass (and not in a wholesome, loving, Biblical way). The first gen 6 from the 80’s was a FAR more attractive car.

    If only they had made a convertible….

  8. 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.

    Seee… I abolsultely hate this crap and refuse to engage in it.

  9. “We evolved as social primates who hardly ever encountered strangers in prehistory,” Dr. Miller says.

    How in the hell does he know this? I may have to read his book, just to see what evidence he uses to justify this claim.

    also, I don’t own a car.

  10. For the record: I drive a 1996 Jaguar XJ6 with 102,000 miles on it.

    But do you play a mean guitar, Bailey?

  11. Seee… I abolsultely hate this crap and refuse to engage in it.

    I feel the same way about the fancy cars, which is why I’ll stick with my Subaru Outback while everybody else in the office tools around in their Mercedes. Plus I’m much more concerned about getting down my alley when there’s two feet of snow than impressing strangers.

  12. Dello-I drove a hopped up 80s 6 series a year or two ago (I was thinking about buying it, but because I’m a car nut and 6 series are cool), and it was one hell of a vehicle. But I guess I didn’t like the handling, the smooth action of the BMW gearbox, the break-your-freaking-neck brakes, or the holy-shit-how-did-I-get-to-100mph engine. I just wanted to signal.

    I’m sure the Doctor is right in at least some cases, but the universality of his presumptions pisses me off. A lot.

  13. The second gen (new) 6 series licks ass (and not in a wholesome, loving, Biblical way). The first gen 6 from the 80’s was a FAR more attractive car.

    If only they had made a convertible….

    There was a Miami Vice episode (circa 4th/5th season) that had a custom convertible M635csi. It was rather cool.

  14. That’s what your signalling.

    But what does using “your” instead of “you’re” signal?

  15. Sex sells? Have you told anybody about this?

  16. “As any who’s been married will tell you, a mate is also a potential enemy…”

    How many years did you do?

  17. For the record: I drive a 1996 Jaguar XJ6 with 102,000 miles on it.

    Hang in there, Ron; cash for clunkers is coming to bail you out.

  18. “But what does using “your” instead of “you’re” signal?”

    A premium on rapid response over careful editing?

  19. ClubMedSux-No, no, no! You’re signalling that you’re practical and a non-conformist.
    This is like the whole, “Denying you are an alcoholic just proves that you’re an alcoholic” idea so beloved by some shrinks. When you have no empirical evidence, and are not required to, you can conclude whatever the hell you want.

  20. I feel the same way about the fancy cars, which is why I’ll stick with my Subaru Outback while everybody else in the office tools around in their Mercedes.

    The ’06 350Z gets driven from easter to thanksgiving, then the ’02 Exterra comes out. My wife drives a shiny new ’09 Forrester.

    I have the Z just because the kids have been gone for years so I can now live like the elitist prick that everyone calls me.

  21. If you want cool, get a CSL.

  22. I drove a 1973 SIIA 88″ Land Rover (like the one in “The Gods Must be Crazy.”

    What does that say about me?

  23. Besides that I don’t close my parentheticals… or use the preview button?

  24. I drove a 1973 SIIA 88″ Land Rover (like the one in “The Gods Must be Crazy.”

    What does that say about me?

    That you’re not in a hurry.

  25. I’ve never cared what a guy’s car looks like either.

    I really don’t know why men think women care. How many women do you know who are interested in cars anyway? Guy starts talking about his car … instant boredom.

  26. Hazel,

    Her interest in his car = His interest in her shoes

  27. Hazel, lots of women have cared about my Echo. They’re interested until they find out it’s not a hybrid, just a plain old gas-only econobox, and suddenly remember that they were supposed to eat dinner with their roommates that night.

  28. People do signal with their car choices. With my Honda CRV I signal “My wife makes all the decisions.” Her BMW signals “I make all the decisions.” My boss’ baffling decision to purchase a Subaru Outback signals “I’m a lesbian. And so, apparently, is my husband.”

  29. I’ve never cared what a guy’s car looks like either.

    Do you care what it smells like?

  30. So why not just buy clothes at Goodwill, drive an old beater, and use the new pile of discretionary income to different hire hot “escorts” every weekend?

  31. Buying a Lexus says “I just spent too much for a Toyota”. In the long run I wouldn’t get along with a gal who was impressed by a Lexus.

  32. “So why not just buy clothes at Goodwill, drive an old beater, and use the new pile of discretionary income to different hire hot “escorts” every weekend?”

    Something similar has worked out well for me in the past.

  33. I drive a Honda Civic, so all the conservative chicks think I won’t buy American. But it’s not a hybrid so all the liberal chicks think I don’t care about saving the planet. Fortunately there are still libertarian chicks. They’ve got to be around here somewhere…

  34. 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 Me:

    I’m so single mindedly ambitious that I spent every single day on campus focused on my studies, and never once took a weekend to drive up to Vermont.

  35. Clearly the guy who Tierney is quoting doesnt work in sales or the entertainment biz, where your happiness DOES depend on the reactions of strangers.

    Out here, the choice of car is as important as the choice of clothes; not only are you signaling wealth and previous success, you’re also signaling your tribe, and your understanding of pop culture and the prevailing aesthetic.

    When your business is this dependent on social skills and first impressions, you can’t ignore the fatal implications of a used-Subaru purchase.

  36. Is there any variable in his thinking for “car guys?”

    the universality of his presumptions pisses me off. A lot.

    Totally. I drove BMWs most of my driving life. An ’81 or ’82 320i, a 1992 325is and a 2003 M3. I finally sold the M3 last year to by a Mercedes Benz WAGON (at least it is a 500).

    My wife, who does love cars and drives an ’01 Audi TT turbo quattro, didn’t marry me for my cars, nor did she make me get rid of my M. We have 3 dogs and they certainly weren’t going to fit in either of our cars, really.

    Now, all that being said, I drove them because I liked they way they drive. A lot (especially the M, god what a great car). Jesus, I hardly even washed them! Does that fit into his calculations? Fucking Sociologists. FUCK YOU!

    What about Prius drivers? Smug assholes? Or what about the fact that in my own humble experience Prius drivers race around like there are driving race cars? What does that say? You know what? I don’t care, because you sir, are a giant douche.

  37. One’s choice of a vehicle says a lot about their evolutionary fitness. Thats why I have a jaguar. A real one. With a saddle. Terrible mileage, I get about 20 miles per small animal, but you should see the looks I get going down the highway.

  38. Yeah, I’m a non-signaler. I’m a well-paid engineer in SoCal who drives a 2000 Ford Ranger with 120K miles on it… Obviously I don’t care what random people on the road think…

    Which of course is BS. Anyone who studies signaling knows that this is merely “negative signaling”, telling the world that I think I’m superior to their petty rat race and will drive whatever the f*ck I want. Number 6 above [inadvertently] hits the nail on the head, in that driving what I drive signals I’m a non-conformist, not that I’m against signaling.

    (And most of my other signals fall under SugarFree’s assertion above — i.e. “my wife makes all the decisions”)…

  39. But what does using “your” instead of “you’re” signal?

    That even a a Hahvahd man can fall victim to joe’z Memorial Law.

    A premium on rapid response over careful editing?

    Or that.

  40. Brandybuck, there’s still the 1/3 of the U.S. population that is independent and probably doesn’t give a shit if you drive American or care about the environment.

    Happy hunting.

  41. “Number 6 above [inadvertently] hits the nail on the head, in that driving what I drive signals I’m a non-conformist, not that I’m against signaling.”

    Sam Walton drove a pickup truck.

  42. I know we’re all primates, but some of us try not to live like we’re just another ape in the shrewdness.*

    *I had to look up the name for a group of apes. I like this term.

    Because they’re back in town, I went googling up info on chimney swifts today. It turns out what I witnessed hunting near and over the river last evening was a “screaming frenzy” of swifts.

    It may be the best term I’ve heard yet for a collection of animals.

  43. NOT SO MUCH.

    There’s a reason we buy things out of vanity and need for approval –
    and a good one. Because – as Malcolm Gladwell will tell you – first
    impressions and snap judgements may as well run our lives.

    In primitive societies it would have been much more difficult to find
    a mate. There were so few options. In today’s society, an individual
    must differentiate his/her self from the masses. What better way to
    show the kind of lifestyle you live (i.e. what your true values are)
    than to display it in the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the
    music you enjoy? Success is best demonstrated instantly – visually –
    not through words. The “stuff” we buy immediately differentiates us
    from others – and first impressions are very important, as are looks.

    You can try really hard to communicate in words how much you love punk
    rock music (for example), but, it’s not going to hold much water if
    you don’t have spiky hair, or at least a leather jacket. Someone who
    is “out there” looking for a mate who likes punk rock will almost
    automatically rule out anyone who looks on the surface like they
    aren’t a “punk” themselves – unless they spend enough time with them
    to come to another conclusion, and even then, there may be some
    dissonance.

    Creating these “impressions” for others (and yourself), is a way of
    cementing identity – something not mentioned in the article or above
    post, and an important part of modern life and mating. Finding or
    crafting an identity can also inspire confidence and self-esteem,
    which most certainly leads to happiness – if not a mate. So, you see,
    buying stuff CAN lead to happiness after all.

    These days, though, what with the internet and such a broad division
    of subcultures and niches, kids don’t need to be as materialistic.
    There are other ways to advertise your identity (Facebook and
    Myspace). So, I think, the next generation will be less susceptible
    to branding, and more focused on appearing versatile and intelligent.

  44. I’m with Kool on this one, too. BMWs drive like a fucking dream. That’s why you buy them. I’ve never felt so good in a car.

  45. So, I think, the next generation will be less susceptible to branding, and more focused on appearing versatile and intelligent.

    Of course, the way to appear versatile and intelligent is have the brands associated with versatility and intelligence.

  46. Out here, the choice of car is as important as the choice of clothes; not only are you signaling wealth and previous success, you’re also signaling your tribe, and your understanding of pop culture and the prevailing aesthetic.

    Jay Leno frequently tools around the Burbank area on weekends in one of his classic cars. Jay has lots of money, he earned it, and good for him.

    You cannot be Jay Leno just by a driving a car that Jay Leno would drive.

  47. I might drive a Jag but a dead deer will not fit in the trunk.

  48. Yeah, but can this Tierney guy explain LoneWacko?

  49. JK,
    While driving Jay Leno’s car won’t make you Jay Leno (does anyone actually want to BE Jay Leno? I just want his wallet) your choice of cars, stuff, clothes, hair, will definitely help you in making connections with those people who can assist you in your climb toward Leno-dom.

    In the entertainment world, you’re always trying to meet the influential person who can greenlight your project. Which means you’re auditioning every minute of the day–whether you’re a writer, publicist, producer, whatever–and until you get at the Spielberg level of success, you don’t dare risk giving out the wrong message.

    As Zac notes above, there is so much competition for the fun stuff, and few people have the time or inclination to spend more than a nano-second dealing with you unless you can give evidence that you’re both of the same mindset.

    On a related note: Are no libertarians in sales?

  50. My fantasy car is a Mercury Grand Marquis with a V8 engine. A sofa on wheels. It even has smoker’s package with a lighter and an ashtray.

  51. Yesterday I wa driving to town with my daughter. She is a few weeks away from 17. We stopped at a light and she went nuts over the truck next to us. It was an old split window, single cab volkswagen. I am so proud of her.

  52. In the entertainment world, you’re always trying to meet the influential person who can greenlight your project. Which means you’re auditioning every minute of the day–whether you’re a writer, publicist, producer, whatever–and until you get at the Spielberg level of success, you don’t dare risk giving out the wrong message.

    This might explain why everything coming out of Hollywood sucks so incredibly hard.

  53. Mari Dupont,

    Nice name. I got into an argument several years ago with a longtime friend about The Simpsons.

    He was aghast that the show didn’t use real actors and employ them. Instead it used animation that did not require real actors. (Many real actors have done the voice for the program.)

    He didn’t take into account that the animation included a lot of skilled people who are not celebrities with fantastic salaries and bling.

  54. He was aghast that the show didn’t use real actors and employ them. Instead it used animation that did not require real actors. (Many real actors have done the voice for the program.)

    I think the show wouldn’t be in its 20th year if we had to see Bart reach the age of 30 🙂

  55. They’re interested until they find out it’s not a hybrid, just a plain old gas-only econobox, and suddenly remember that they were supposed to eat dinner with their roommates that night.

    That would have the opposite effect on me.

    I would be impressed that your car purchase was made purely for self-interested economical reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with environmental friendliness. But which illustrates the fact that economic efficiency is good for the environment without conscious (or self-conscious) effort.

  56. Didn’t everybody already know this?

    Several people above have been kind enough to remind me why I am not in the entertainment business, sales/advertising or some high powered business career. Fuck that.

    I drive a 1992 Subaru because I am a tight wad and because there is no better car and new cars annoy me. And I could pay cash for a new (bottom of the line) BMW tomorrow if I wanted to.

  57. You say on a date “The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term”?

    Here’s what you’re signaling: “I am so gay.”*

    *Also, “I so did not go to Harvard.”

  58. I finally sold the M3 last year to by a Mercedes Benz WAGON

    My condolences.

  59. I drive a ’99 Camry, which signals “I drive the car my wife gave up when she bought the minivan, and don’t give a fuck about buying a penile extension masquerading as a car”

    I don’t know what signals I sent by writing a CL ad advertising that I’ll send hot, naughty, smutty erotic stories to wild women, and now spend several hours each day sending the responding women naughty emails, including a pierced 18 year old femme fatale.

    This is, however, WAY more fun than a fucking Beemer. Happiness > prestige.

  60. “The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term”?

    I have the capacity to distinguish a carnivorous tree from a deciduous one. Well, not exactly. One has needles and the other has leaves. I am not sure which is which.

    I can distinguish a Apple computer from a PC at about a distance of 40 meters.

  61. I have the capacity to distinguish a carnivorous tree from a deciduous one. Well, not exactly. One has needles and the other has leaves. I am not sure which is which.

    I’ll give you a hint. The one that tries to eat you is carnivorous.

    Which is decidedly different than coniferous.

  62. Instead it used animation that did not require real actors.

    Bah, a skilled voice actor is a real actor, as much as they were actors back in radio dramas.

  63. “carnivorous”

    You mean coniferous?

  64. You mean coniferous?

    OK, I gotta join the scouts or something. Being bare in the woods is not the same as seeing a bear in woods.

  65. Congratulations John Tierney for the enlightened realization that “sex sells”….

    PS: Welcome to 1855, when we all already knew this!

    =D

  66. PS: Welcome to 1855, when we all already knew this!

    OK, I’ll bite. The birth control pill came around in the early 1960’s. What happened in 1855?

  67. ‘a carnivorous tree’

    Damn you, Old Man Willow!

  68. My C5 Corvette says I like fast shiny things, and Al Gore’s corpse on the front bumper says I’m aggressively uninterested in global warming.

  69. I have the capacity to distinguish a carnivorous tree from a deciduous one.

    I’m guessing your first clue was when it bit you.

  70. TallDave,

    Would you prefer that I clobber you with a branch from a sugar maple, black maple, blanch maple, or mountain maple.

  71. I’ve never cared what a guy’s car looks like either.

    I really don’t know why men think women care. How many women do you know who are interested in cars anyway? Guy starts talking about his car … instant boredom.

    Well Hazel, you might not care (at least consciously), but that’s just anecdotal. Men think women care because the fact is, in general, they do (not necessarily about the exact model of car, but rather the level of “success” it signals). It is absolutely incontrovertible that, in general, women are attracted to “successful” men (and by successful I primarily mean in the limited financial sense, of course). Saying that isn’t so is like trying to claim that men, in general, are not attracted to young, beautiful women. It’s nonsense. I’d be willing to bet my, albeit modest, fortune on the proposition that a random sample of women riding in a guy’s BMW are, on average, far more attractive than a random sample of women riding in a guy’s Toyota Corolla. If women really don’t care about cars (and, more to the point, what that car signals) why would this be the case?

    Again, as I tried to make clear above, this is an overall, on average, argument. Of course we all know individual counter-examples and people who don’t fit this picture. But overall we all know it’s true and we’ve all known it’s true for a long time, as others have pointed out.

  72. This is self-selection bias. You can make a plausible case that one’s choice of car is meant to send signals to the opposite sex, and in many cases you’d be right. But by concentrating on that fact, you’re going to ignore a very large sub-set of the car-buying population who bought their car simply because they liked it.

  73. Dfd,
    You’re right. No sane woman wants to HEAR about your new BMW, but we are VERY interested in knowing you can afford one.

    PLUS, the flashy car implies a flashy lifestyle: expensive restaurants, parties, etc etc etc.

    In other words, hanging out with Mr. BMW will likely be more exciting than hanging with Joe Used Corolla.

    As far as who is riding in the passenger seat of those new BMW’s, I agree with your claim: it’s not the Susan Boyles of the world.

    I base my findings on years of research done while eating lunch every day on Sunset Boulevard, where zillions of expensive cars whiz every minute.

    The number of overweight, dowdy, unfashionable women parked in the passenger seats could probably fit together in single BMW trunk.

  74. Bah, a skilled voice actor is a real actor, as much as they were actors back in radio dramas.

    +1

  75. re: Jon the myrmidon | May 19, 2009, 2:44pm | #

    Thanks. This made me giggle like a schoolgirl.

  76. I have 4 vehicles (yes, just me, not family) and no dates…I think I’m doing it wrong…oh well, I guess the explanation would be that my genes are suicidal.

  77. They have a pretty good handful of reviews of this model over at BMWReview.com for those that care.

  78. They have a pretty good amount of reviews over at BMWReview dot com website.

  79. They have some good reviews over at BMWReview if you care to check out that website.

  80. They have some pretty good comments over at BMW Review.

  81. They have some pretty good reviews over at the BMWReview site.

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