Consumerism’s Dirty Little Secret: Are We Buying All the Wrong Things?

I have some terrible news…

You’re stranded in the desert!

For three days, you’ve traveled in the heat without food or water. Your eyelids are heavy and your legs even heavier. Your lips are cracked, too dry now to even bleed. For miles and miles, all you see is sky, rock and sand.

Your foot catches on a bit of rock and you fall, knees striking sand.

Is this the end?

But wait, over there! There’s something blue glittering in the sun. What could it be? What do you want it to be?

A diamond, or a bottle of water?

The Real Value of Things

In Bali, Indonesia last year, I met a Japanese man who once spent six weeks homeless and living in a park. There were plenty of places to sleep, and he drank water from a fountain. For nutrition, he boiled flowers and ate them. For extra calories, he bought bread crusts from a local bakery for ten cents a bag.

How much do you think he spent for the entire six weeks? Fifteen dollars.

Survival is cheap.

A bottle of water costs less than $1 (virtually free, from the tap) and holds 500 grams of water. But what about 500 grams of diamond? How much does that cost? I did some calculations, and a half kilo of blue diamond would cost you over a billion dollars.

Why does something you cannot eat, drink, or wear cost over a billion times what water does? An Econ 101 student would say, “Easy. It’s supply and demand. Diamonds are rare and lots of people want them, so they cost a lot.”

Great. But a question remains: Why do so many people want diamonds?

It’s Not My Head, It’s Yours

A Hummer Alpha H1 costs over $100,000. Yet, the gas mileage is horrible. It only fits four people. It’s not even all that safe or reliable.

So what the hell am I paying for?

In Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that one big reason we buy things is for their signal: what the products tell others about us.

“Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children. Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter — a fact that renders ‘materialism’ a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second. Our vast social-primate brains evolved to pursue one central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others.

The Hummer is “good” precisely because it is wasteful. It shows others we have the money to throw away.

Likewise, the value of that diamond is not in the “thing itself” — a race of aliens would toss it away like an ordinary pebble — but the information we carry inside our heads about diamonds:

“…at its heart consumerist capitalism is not ‘materialistic,’ but ‘semiotic.’ It concerns mainly the psychological world of signs, symbols, images, and brands, not the physical world of tangible commodities. Marketers understand that they are selling the sizzle, not the steak, because a premium brand of sizzle yields a high margin of profit, whereas a steak is just a low-margin commodity that any butcher could sell.”

As a child, I wondered why BMW would bother advertising to me, a child with no income and no driver’s license. I thought they were making a mistake.

But BMW’s goal was not to sell me a car. Their goal was to get me to believe their cars are valuable.

They were manufacturing signal.

Biological Virtues

So far, this Miller’s argument is intuitive.

Sometimes, yes, we buy things for personal utility or pleasure. But we also ride in sports cars and put on makeup because — whether we admit it or not — we are trying to send a message.

Now here’s where Miller’s argument gets interesting.

Miller argues that although it seems like we are attracted wealth, status or aesthetic taste, that is not our “true” target. Instead of money or status (which are easily lost) we are attracted to traits that are more robust — what he calls biological virtues:

“In humans, fitness indicators are unlikely to have evolved to advertise monetary wealth, career-based status, or avant-garde taste, because these phenomena arose quite recently on the evolutionary timescale, within the past ten thousand years. Rather, the key traits that we strive to display are the stable traits that differ most between individuals and that most strongly predict our social abilities and preferences. These include physical traits, such as health, fertility, and beauty; personality traits, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to novelty; and cognitive traits, such as general intelligence. These are the biological virtues that people try to broadcast, with the unconscious function of attracting respect, love, and support from friends, mates, and allies.”

Think about these two people:

  • Some guy who bought a lottery ticket while drunk one Sunday morning and won $400 million dollars
  • A smart, hard-working veterinarian who has fallen on hard times because of monthly payments for his mother’s chemotherapy

Who would you rather have in your circle of friends?

We want to find the people who are truly capable or caring, not those who simply seem like they are. In other words, we care about their underlying traits, not who they are on the surface.

Here’s another twist.

We purchase pricey products and leverage names like Lacoste, Lancome or Lamborghini to manufacture and broadcast a signal to others.

We may try be intentionally deceptive and make a fake profile on a dating website. Or we can try to be honest broadcasters, wearing clothes from L. L. Bean and drinking fair trade coffee to show other coffee-lovers where our interests lie.

Either way, says Miller, these tactics don’t work.

Maybe It’s Not Maybelline

You’re a single woman in her early twenties.

It’s 11pm, and you’re at the station waiting for your train home. Ahead of you, on the stairs, you see an elderly woman and a young man. The woman has a big brown suitcase. She’s hunched over, breathing hard, and trying to tug the suitcase up the stairs.

The young man walks over to the lady and grabs the suitcase.

“I’ll take it,” he says.

“I’m fine,” says the lady, pulling the suitcase away. “I don’t need your help.”

“Who says I’m helping?” The man takes a step back and smiles. “I’m a terrible thief, and I’m about to kidnap your suitcase to my hideout at the top of these stairs.”

For a moment, the lady stares. Then, she starts to giggle. “That’s a terrible joke.”

He picks up the suitcase and they walk, shoulders bumping, to the top of the stairs.

I don’t care about the brand of this man’s sweater or the manufacturer of his wristwatch. I care about what he did — that few seconds on the stairs tells me far, far more than any product could.

This is what Miller calls consumerism’s dirty secret:

“Consumerism’s dirty little secret is that we do a rather good job of assessing such [important] traits through ordinary human conversation, such that the trait-displaying goods and services we work so hard to buy are largely redundant, and sometimes counterproductive.”

If we use products to broadcast a fake signal, we may be able to deceive some people in the short-term. And this deception may earn us a good night kiss or a second date.

But, in the long term, we will be found out.

Humans are animals. Over millions of years, we’ve evolved powerful bullshit detectors to detect fakers and cheats because detecting bullshit was, literally, a life or death matter:

“A $15,000 face-lift can make a fifty-five-year-old woman look more like a thirty-five-year-old with regard to facial sagging and wrinkles, but cannot hide other cues of age on the neck and hands. … our social-perceptual systems for recognizing key human traits and emotions are hard to mislead, because they have been evolving so long to be accurate. They have become very efficient at vacuuming up all the information they can from all the different cues that can be perceived from an individual’s body, face, language, and behavior.”

Real, long-term relationships are built on traits and skills that cannot be bought with money, and the best way to detect them is to do what we’ve always done:

“…we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product. Our finest, most impressive goods and services have been endowed to us by our DNA, in the form of physical and psychological adaptations that naturally display our virtues and naturally impress our peers.”

The Fundamental Consumerist Delusion

This is all adds up to what Miller calls the fundamental consumerist delusion, which is made up of two lies:

  • Lie 1: Products can make up for your insufficiencies. We believe we can use products to hide our physical and mental weaknesses. However, humans are good at detecting such deception in the long term.
  • Lie 2: Products can do a better job of showing others who I am. We believe we can use products to bolster our signal, better broadcasting to others who we are. However, the best way to show others who you are is to do what your ancestors did: converse, cuddle and cooperate.

So What?

This essay covers a small, small fraction of Miller’s book, and I’ve simplified a lot of the ideas. I suggest you read it yourself, especially the first half.

But here’s the takeaway for me.

If Miller’s claim is true — that our attempts to fake signals via consumerism are largely futile — then what should we do with our lives? If no Mercedes-Benz or Maybelline makeover will earn me friendship, love or lasting happiness, what should I do with my time and money?

Well, if it’s so difficult to fake who we are, then perhaps the smart thing to do is stop faking. Consider skipping the Hummer H1 for a Toyota Corolla and spend the time you save on learning how to converse better, tell funny jokes, care for the weak, or stay strong in the face of emotional turmoil.

Or, put simply: Stop buying shit and work on yourself.

Have a nice day.


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