Thursday, May 21, 2009

Status is everything?

Tierney describes how Geoffrey Miller continues the arguments he started in "The Mating Mind" which seek to reduce much of our behavior to a quest for sex and status. His new book is “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior.” This is a complementary approach to the sort of material mentioned in Monday's post on Gopnik's article.
If marketers (or their customers) understood biologists’ new calculations about animals’ “costly signaling,” ... they’d see that Harvard diplomas and iPhones send the same kind of signal as the ornate tail of a peacock....Sometimes the message is as simple as “I’ve got resources to burn,” the classic conspicuous waste demonstrated by the energy expended to lift a peacock’s tail or the fuel guzzled by a Hummer. But brand-name products aren’t just about flaunting transient wealth. The audience for our signals — prospective mates, friends, rivals — care more about the permanent traits measured in tests of intelligence and personality.

In a series of experiments, 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.

To get over your consuming obsessions, Dr. Miller suggests exercises like comparing the relative costs and pleasures of the stuff you’ve bought. (You can try the exercise at It may seem odd that we need these exercises — why would natural selection leave us with such unproductive fetishes? — perhaps because evolution is good at getting us to avoid death, desperation and celibacy, but not that good at getting us to feel happy...our desire to impress strangers may be a quirky evolutionary byproduct of a smaller social world...“We evolved as social primates who hardly ever encountered strangers in prehistory,” 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.”


  1. Phlegm12:26 PM

    "It doesn’t matter whether you get a nanosecond of deference from a shopkeeper or a stranger in an airport."

    Well, um, the evidence says otherwise, doesn't it?

  2. I think he means it doesn't matter in the sense that you won't be materially affected by it. But a a product of sexual selection, you are structured to count every bit of status and attractiveness, so it does matter. Which is how we feel, we want to be treated as important and tend to feel bad if we aren't.

    BTW Have you read Miller's book, The Mating Mind? I found it radically shifted my thinking on a lot of things. Sexual selection has been the forgotten cousin of natural selection - perhaps applying to the odd thing here and there - but Miller argues that it has a central role in evolution, especially the evolution of advanced life forms like us. I'd recommend it strongly if you're interested in the biological basis of human activity.

  3. BTW Deric, have you considered unmoderated comments? Or rather, allowing immediate comments appearing immediately then moderated after. It lets a community grow around the blog.

    You need some ground rules, then wipe anything that's offensive or off topic, in a negative sense. Ban repeat offenders.

    A economics blog I visit regularly uses this approach and it works pretty well. See his rules for commenters. You might have some problems with creationists but economics/politics has it share of nutters too. Regards.

  4. Hey Jim, I think you make an excellent suggestion. I would say that only ~1 in 10 comments are inappropriate, flat out commercial advertisements or nutters. I will toggle the settings to allow unmoderated comments.