Why do some people pay a 100,000 percent premium for a Rolex when a Timex is such a sleek and efficient timepiece? Why do others kill themselves at work just so they can get there in a Lexus? Why do we pay 1,000 times more for designer bottles of water when the stuff that gushes from our taps is safer (because it’s more regulated), often tastier, and better for the planet? And how do we convince ourselves that more stuff equals more happiness, when all the research shows that it doesn’t? In Spent, University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that marketing—the jet fuel of unrestrained consumerism—“is the most dominant force in human culture,” and thus the most powerful shaper of life on Earth. Using vivid, evocative language, Miller suggests that consumerism is the sea of modern life and we are the plankton—helplessly tumbled and swirled by forces we can feel but not understand. Miller aims to penetrate to the evolutionary wellsprings of consumerist mania, and to show how it is possible to live lives that are more sustainable, more sane, and more satisfying.
Spent is about “display” consumerism. It leaves aside strictly utilitarian purchases like baloney or tampons. Understanding display consumerism, according to Miller, requires adding one part Thorstein Veblen to one part Darwin. From Veblen’s classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Miller appropriates the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” whereby people live and spend wastefully just to flaunt the fact that they can. From Darwin, Miller appropriates sexual selection theory—“costly signaling theory” in modern parlance—whereby animals compete by sending signals of their underlying genetic quality. As with the gaudy displays of peacocks, purchasing decisions frequently represent attempts to advertise “fundamental biological virtues” like “bodily traits of health, fitness, fertility, youth, and attractiveness, and mental traits of intelligence and personality.” Why spend $160,000 on a prestigious university degree? To make a “narcissistic self-display” of one’s intelligence and diligence. Why stuff yourself into a push-up bra and smear pigment across your lips and cheekbones? To try to enhance—or fake—your fertility signals.