Monday, April 22, 2024

"Spent" by Geoffrey Miller -- a discussion of evolutionary psychology

 "Spent" is a good book by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, looking particularly at consumer behaviour, including purchasing and marketing, through the lens of evolutionary psychology, concluding with some recommendations for a healthier, happier life based on his insights.  

There are parts of this book where he gets carried away, or makes what I thought were absurd suggestions, but overall I find him an important author and scientist to be aware of.  

Some of the content here reminded me a little bit of a book I previously reviewed called "The Case Against Education" by Bryan Caplan.  In this book, Caplan, an economist, argues that much post-secondary education provides only "signaling value" rather than tangible skills, expertise, or even enjoyment.  In this way, education can become akin to a peacock's tail -- offering a sign to employers or peers that you are intelligent or capable or "fit."  This may indeed be an accurate sign of fitness, but Caplan argues that it is a needlessly expensive one, in terms of time, money, effort, and emotional investment.  The time spent labouring to get your degree could have been spent doing something you found more enjoyable, productive, meaningful, or lucrative.  The intelligence it required to finish your degree could theoretically have been measured before you did your degree, allowing you entry to your career destination without wasting several years of your life in a program you didn't find useful or enjoyable.   Finally I disagreed with Caplan, since he goes too far in his condemnation of post-secondary education, but I have to acknowledge that he is at least partially right, that many of us pursue post-secondary courses that are more "hoops to jump through" to get a degree rather than providing any sort of benefit that we would use for any esthetic or job-related purpose later on.  

Miller looks more broadly at signaling, particularly with respect to consumer behaviour.   Many of the products we buy are chosen not because of their objective utility, but because they have a signaling value of some sort.   That is, they demonstrate either personality traits, or some intrinsic attractive characteristic such as health, stability, capacity to be caring, or humour, that would be desirable or compatible in a relationship partner.  For example, owning a luxury car would be a signal of financial well-being, which would often be found attractive in a a mate.  Different brands of car are more likely favoured by people with different personality traits, hence brand choice could advertise your personality style.  A degree from a prestigious university would advertise intelligence, and perhaps also stability and financial wealth, which are attractive features in a partner.  A diamond ring demonstrates financial stability and the willingness to sacrifice for your partner.  But the business of diamond rings for weddings is a relatively novel human cultural invention, leading to people sacrificing months of their income, further magnified by group norms about this, just to demonstrate a character trait that both partners should have known about each other just through the time they spent together.  

Miller's overarching thesis is not necessarily that these signaling phenomena are intrinsically bad, but that they are often needlessly or absurdly "expensive" which then causes harm to individuals or even to the world.  If everyone is chasing after expensive objects just to show that they are stable or a good catch, it is depleting to the world, and it is depleting to people's time and energy and money, often with small special interest groups (such as those in the sordid world of diamond mining) making huge profits.  

He argues that simple, wholesome signaling is the best and healthiest way to go.  If you would like to signal your personality traits, it is best to simply have sincere conversations with people so they can get to know you.  In conversation, you don't have to boast about yourself, you just have to "be yourself."    You don't have to demonstrate your character through the purchase of a car, or organic produce, or an Apple computer, or designer shoes.  A better signal about character integrity might come from activities, such as the manner in which you conduct relationships with your friends or family, or volunteering, or taking care of a pet.   

Some types of signaling that are meant to be "deceptive" could backfire.  Spending vast sums of money on cosmetic procedures to make yourself look younger and healthier, could in some extreme cases show others that you are overly preoccupied or insecure or "lying" about your appearance.  But wholesome and enjoyable and sincere self-care that is consistent with your interests and personality would always attract the people who are best for you, since it is honest, uncomplicated, non-deceptive signaling.  

In a concluding section, he makes the point that much of human evolution occurred over hundreds of thousands of years during which we lived in small groups surrounded by wilderness.  Effective signaling would have mostly required conversation, simple daily social or individual actions in the community, acts of work or service that would be seen and appreciated by others, demonstrations of particular interests or talents true to our character, and negative social or community consequences for people who behaved badly.  

Instead of buying expensive objects as gifts, Miller argues that it is more meaningful and authentic, healthier for society, and also more effective signaling, to do personalized activities as gifts, such as making someone something using your own efforts and creativity, or taking them on a special outing.  

Activities we would see as daily features of early human communities, such as playing with children, spending time with the elderly, preparing food, doing simple home maintenance for self and others, going for walks in the forest and identifying the bird calls and the plants by name, and managing the duties of daily life with warmth and humour rather than complaint, is a good foundation for a happy and healthy life and a good source of esteem from others.   Demonstrating skill and prowess and enjoyment in these areas would be a universally attractive thing, and hence is much more effective "signaling" than buying an expensive car or obtaining fancy credentials.  I'm a big fan of recommending such simple activities as a foundation of maintaining good mental health.  

No comments: