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May 20, 2009 / Jake Seliger

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior — Geoffrey Miller

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior is worth reading, but only with a skeptical eye that will keep you from passively imbibe ideas like, “In a complex, media-rich society, perhaps only people with very good mental health can tolerate a high degree of openness without losing their equilibrium” (emphasis added). I suspect many if not most people would ignore “perhaps” and take away the larger message without questioning whether it has real backing. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Spent should be read but read with a doubter’s wariness of the false or ridiculous. Both Outliers and Spent tend to overstate their cases and exaggerate the power of the ideas they impart, and knowing that makes the books a better (and less misleading) read.

If I were in marketing or public relations, I would make sure to read Spent, if for no other reason than its unusual erudition relative to other pop science books and its delivery of a widely ignored framework for understanding products, branding and the like—including how individuals are turned off by branding and advertising as a reaction to it. I would like to imagine myself in the latter category but probably am not to the extent I would prefer. Spent might make me more so by acting as an inoculation against marketing.

One other structure note: Spent is probably three books: one about marketing, one about evolutionary mating theory, and one about consumerism. They’re not always integrated, but three good discrete books jumbled together definitely beat one indifferent standalone book.

I’ll begin with some of Spent’s problems:

1) Ignore the hokey dialog in Spent’s opening pages.

If I had read the first few pages of Spent in a book store, that might have turned me off it. The gimmick is annoying, yes, but don’t discard the book for that reason.

2) Miller puts too much stock into IQ testing and ignores or belittles the vast (and justifiably so) controversy around it.

In All Brains Are the Same Color, Richard E. Nisbett discusses some knowledge regarding the mutability of IQ tests in a racial context, but that context can be generalized to a broader domain. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about similar issues in None of the above: What I.Q. doesn’t tell you about race in The New Yorker, where he discusses the many problems of tests used to ascertain intelligence. He also wrote Outliers, which popularizes the “10,000 hours to mastery” idea. If the path to mastery is practice, people who conscientiously work toward improving IQ-like skills through schooling will in turn improve their scores. That most people don’t might more indicative of motivation or of institutional problems than of genetic intelligence, especially since we still can’t get much beyond correlation in measurements of it. If you want more support for Miller’s perspective, William Saletan’s Created Equal offers some in Slate. Miller says:

Human intelligence has two aspects that make it a bit confusing at first. There is a universal aspect: intelligence as a set of psychological adaptations common to all normal humans… Then there is an individual-differences aspect: intelligence as a set of correlated differences in the speed and efficiency of those natural human capacities…

But he again leaves out intelligence as a function of skill and training.

In any event, this post isn’t meant to be a rehashing or literature review of knowledge on intelligence testing; to perceive the arguments in full is practically a Ph.D. in itself given the history, breadth, and depth of such arguments. The evidence for absolute IQ heritability and genetic intelligence is far weaker than Miller presents it, and it’s frustrating that he doesn’t recognize this.

3) Some statements are vacuous (if interesting).

Miller writes:

Like most reasonable people, I feel deep ambivalence about marketing and consumerism. Their power is awe-inspiring. Like gods, they inspire both worshipful submission and mortal terror

That’s more than a little contrived, and whatever power marketing and consumerism have is power that we give them. Most people probably never or seldom consider either, at least not in the academic terms Miller uses. Still, he uses the section to comic effect, as when he notes the things “exciting and appalling” about consumerism and marketing, including “frappuccinos, business schools, In Style magazine, Glock handguns, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, Dubai airport duty-free shops… the contemporary art market, and Bangkok.”

4) Elitism runs through the book, even when it’s disguised.

This is in part a continuation of the second point. Take, for example, this:

If we do choose to ignore the marketing revolution, we do so because we are terrified of a world in which our elite ideals lose their power to control the fruits of technology. (If you have the leisure time, education, and inclination to read this book, you are obviously a member of the elite.)

The marketing revolution is only as important as we let it be. Much of marketing comes to us through TV and the Internet, but not owning a TV (preferably without being this guy) and Firefox’s Adblock Plus plugin go a long way toward neutering marketing.

I am reminded of a comment from Asher Lev’s uncle in My Name is Asher Lev: “I read. A watchmaker does not necessarily have to be an ignoramus.” So too with people in general.

Sometimes I’m susceptible to nodding through the elitist comments when they flatter my preconceived ideas, as with this statement:

People indoctrinated in hedonistic individualism, religious fundamentalism, or patriarchal nationalism—that is, 99 percent of humanity—are not accustomed to thinking imaginatively about how to change society through changing its behavioral norms and institutional habits.

That might be true, but might there also be a less snide way of stating it?

5) Maybe, maybe not.

I’m not convinced that “Marketing is central to culture,” which is the title of Spent’s third chapter, or at least not unless we’re to stretch marketing beyond a useful definition. I do like the way Miller calls marketing “… ideally, a systematic attempt to fulfill human desires by producing goods and services that people will buy.” Not that the actual marketing often lives up to that, but it’s impressive that Miller is willing to concede that given his ambivalence about the subject and his knowledge of how prone marketing and consumerism are to abuse.

Nations aren’t exactly marketing or signaling in all the examples Miller gives in his chapter “Flaunting Fitness,” like when he says that they “compete to show off their socioeconomic strength through wasteful public ‘investments’ in Olympic facilities, aircraft carriers, manned space flight, or skyscrapers.” Some of that is their for humorous effect, but aircraft carriers and manned space flight both improve their associated technologies enormously, giving us modern day marvels like GPS and massive cruise ships, while skyscrapers allow denser human interactions of the sort that my perhaps favorite economist, Edward Glaeser, describes in his many papers on the subject.

Strengths

The book is filled with ideas, which ought to be evident even from the weaknesses. Brilliant summations occur in places, as when Miller writes, “… plausible deniability and adaptive self-deception allow human social life to zip along like a maglev monorail above the ravines and crevasses of tactical selfishness, by allowing the most important things to go unsaid—but not unimagined.” The metaphor is overwrought, yes, but the sentiment reinforces the “Games People Play” chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. One can see ideas from his book reaching into others and vice-versa, which I consider a strength.

Humor

In talking about “Narcissism and Capitalism,” Miller says that the “core symptoms” of narcissism “lead narcissists to view themselves as stars in their own life stories, protagonists in their own epics, with everyone else a minor character. (They’re like bloggers in that way.)” The dig about bloggers too frequently rings true, even when given in jest.

Some of the funny parts of Spent might not be intended as such, as when Miller deadpans, “The typical Vogue magazine ad shows just two things: a brand name, and an attractive person.” Someone must think this is effective, and I wonder if those ads are part of the fifty percent of one’s advertising budget that’s wasted.

Another Brick

Nonfiction books like this one, most of Gladwell’s (questionable) work, Pinker’s, Ariely’s, and Zimbardo’s, along with the other recent pop professor books, are bricks in the road to greater understanding. They remind us of and help us correct our foibles, and even those of us who consider ourselves virtuous would do well to remember that “the renouncers [of materialism] remain awesomely self-deceived in believing that they have left behind the whole castle of self-display just by escaping the dungeon of runaway consumerism.” Instead, they take to other displays of taste, of artistic creation, of intellectual prowess, and the like, perhaps by writing book/literary blogs. Nonetheless, those activities are probably more socially productive than, say, McMansions, yachts, and SUVs. Spent helps us engage and grapple with those phenomena and our society as a whole, and even some of the weaknesses I enumerate above aren’t as weak as I imply, or else I wouldn’t spend as much time as I do.

(See also my earlier post about Spent and vacuous movies.)

(The New York Times also has a vacuous article about the book in the Times’ Science section. If I were one of those irritating triumphalist bloggers, I might point to this as an example of the superiority of Internet reporting.)

6 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Robin Hanson / May 21 2009 5:18 am

    So on what basis did you concede Miller’s main point, that “displays of taste, of artistic creation, of intellectual prowess, and the like, perhaps by writing book/literary blogs. … are probably more socially productive than, say, McMansions, yachts, and SUVs”? Did you think Miller presented evidence for this claim, or did you already believe it?

  2. Jake Seliger / May 21 2009 9:04 am

    So on what basis did you concede Miller’s main point…

    Chiefly on the basis of it flattering my prejudices, although the particular formulation I put it in comes from my interpretation of his work. I put some notes about his citations below, although I haven’t tried to gauge the quality of those citations.

    Did you think Miller presented evidence for this claim, or did you already believe it?

    Not really in the book, although he does cite his sources for the claims regarding “Environmental critiques of conspicuous consumption” and “The aesthetics of international modernism etc. as forms of conspicuous precision” on page 122 of Spent in the Spent Endnotes (see the bottom of page 19) and references (warning: those are both Word files).

    I find the practice of putting references and endnotes online a curious one; perhaps it will spread, however, since that allows the book itself to be more compact while still imparting the essential information, which has the bonus of being searchable. But the site where Miller promises to put his citations—geoffrey-miller.com—is being “parked” by GoDaddy.com and is filled with ads.

  3. Robin Hanson / May 21 2009 9:23 am

    I presumed that “Environmental critiques” were about environmental externalities of consumption. This is an entirely separate issue than the one Miller focuses on his book. And one can easily agree that international modernism aesthetics are conspicuous consumption without accepting Miller’s main argument. So are you saying that Miller is right, but for the wrong reasons?

  4. Jake Seliger / May 23 2009 4:14 pm

    Robin–This is an entirely separate issue than the one Miller focuses on his book.

    I thought the environmental externalities were what he dealt with in the sections I’m referring to. Page 122 on the hardcover edition, for example, says:

    The twentieth century’s shift from conspicuous waste to conspicuous precision was beneficial in many ways. [... he names some that have nothing to do with the environment... ] It paved the way for the eco-aesthetics of “small is beautiful.”…

    Robin–So are you saying that Miller is right, but for the wrong reasons?

    I’m not entirely sure about which one of Miller’s claims this refers to. If it’s that displays of taste, conspicuous precision, artistic creation, and what not are less wasteful in terms of material than the consumption of distant McMansions, SUVs, and other environmental bugaboos, I would tend to agree.

    Based on your post “Spent = Gold + Schlock,” I would also clarify to say that I have no idea whether one kind of signal is more “accurate” or “true” than another kind.

  5. Robin Hanson / May 23 2009 4:25 pm

    Jake, yes Miller mentions enviro side effects, but the main argument of his book has nothing to do with such things. I was initially asking you if you were persuaded by Miller’s main argument. It seems now that you were not; you just happened to agree with his conclusion for another reason.

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