April 23, 2009

"Spent:" This should be better than Malcolm Gladwell's books

Geoffrey Miller, the bright and handsome evolutionary psychologist at the U. of New Mexico, author of The Mating Mind a decade ago, has a new airport book coming out that should give Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Florida, Steve Levitt and the rest a run for their money. The idea of nonfiction books aimed at the frequent flier class that draw upon the human sciences for insights of value to people in business is a good one. Unfortunately, the execution has been mediocre so far. I haven't seen this one yet, but I have hopes for it.
Why do we buy what we buy? Like Freakonomics or The Tipping Point, SPENT: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (Viking; On-sale: May 18, 2009; $26.95), by leading evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, is a bold and revelatory book that illuminates the unseen logic behind the chaos of consumerism and suggests new ways we can become happier consumers and more responsible citizens.

Evolutionary psychology—the compelling science of human nature—has clarified the prehistoric origins of human behavior and influenced many fields, ranging from economics to personal relationships. In SPENT, Miller applies this revolutionary science’s principles to a new domain: the sensual wonderland of marketing and status seeking that we call American consumer culture. Starting with the basic notion that the goods and services we buy unconsciously advertise our biological potential as mates and friends, Miller examines the hidden factors that dictate our choices in everything from lipstick to cars, from the magazines we read to the music we listen to. With humor and insight, Miller analyzes an array of product choices and deciphers what our decisions’ say about us, giving us access to a new way of understanding—and improving—our behaviors.

As I've been looking into buying a car over the last couple of years, I've been struck by how much car-buying is driven by sexual display urges. So, at my age, much of what I see in car design seems more annoying than cool. Even the Honda Accord (which I bought in 1988 and 1998) fits in to this pattern. The LA Times' best writer, car critic Dan Neil wrote:
I was sitting at a red light when they rolled up beside me, the guy riding his Suzuki Do-Me 8000 with his hot female companion on the back, her thongage pouring out of her low-rise jeans. Her blond hair fell from beneath the helmet and fluffed weightlessly in the hot breeze. Her skintight ballistic-armor motorcycle jacket was unzipped down to her navel. It's a good look, I guess, if you go in for that sort of thing.

As I sat there in the Amana-white 2008 Honda Accord EX-L sedan, she looked over at me. I knew what she was thinking. I knew she wanted me.

And why wouldn't she? The Honda Accord ska-reams confirmed heterosexual, and not in a Larry Craig way, either. This car ought to be issued with a complimentary pair of relaxed-fit dad jeans. Every male owner should get a free BlackBerry, which is like monogamy's ankle bracelet. To own this car is to be possessed with an inexplicable urge to trim hedges. While other cars suggest the owner is still working out issues -- experimenting, if you will -- the Accord sedan says, "Hey, I'm past all that. I'm a smoldering volcano of straight suburban love, and I accept it."

For Accord-driving women, the message is related but different: "My husband likes girls."

I finally ended up buying my friend's superbly-maintained 1998 Infiniti I30 (basically, an expensive Nissan Maxima), with 196,000 miles on it. It exudes the High Bourgeois image I'd like to hold about myself: "This man invests in quality for the long term." In contrast, the car I've actually owned for the last eleven years, my dented, paint-pealing, self-destructing 1998 Accord with 108,000 miles, broadcasts the message: "This vehicle has been owned and operated by a family of wild dingoes."

One interesting angle I've been pondering is how Stuff White People Like products, like the Toyota Prius, tend to androgynously subordinate sexual display to class display. (But I'll keep that idea for another time.)

Miller's PR continues:
In his exploration, Miller examines a wide and delightful range of familiar products and what they reveal about us, from the Sims to Rolex watches, from L’Oréal lipstick to the Hummer. SPENT illuminates:

o Why luxury car brands, such as Lexus, advertise in places such as GQ, not to inform rich potential customers that they exist, but to assure those rich potential customers that GQ readers will recognize and respect those brands when they see them
o Why kitchen appliances are now made of high-maintenance stainless steel instead of easy-to-care-for white enamel
o Why all cosmetics aim to recreate the stage at which women are at their highest level of fertility
o Why we’re such suckers for products such as Smartfood, Smartwater, Smart Start, SmartMoney, and Smart Cars—and why marketers would never use the word “intelligent” in such products
o How people advertise their traits through their car choices and iPod play lists
o Why simple IQ tests would threaten the supremacy of Ivy League universities
o Why owning a pet and actually managing to keep it alive is a good signal to a potential mate
o The real reason so many exercise machines are unused
o Why men are supposed to spend two months’ salary on engagement rings

In these economic times when it’s more important than ever to be aware of why we buy what we do, SPENT is both a fascinating look at consumer behavior that will surprise and intrigue.

About the Author:

Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist and author of The Mating Mind. He was educated at Columbia and Stanford and is an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, daughter, and many products.

For some reason, this whole topic reminded me of a refrigerator magnet I saw a couple of years ago. It had a picture of a pretty girl dancing the Hokey-Pokey at a wedding reception, and the caption read:
"What if the Hokey-Pokey is what it's all about?"

Perhaps that refrigerator magnet was my Kant-reading-Hume moment.

Speaking of things that have stuck in my memory, Geoffrey Miller's wife's name is Rosalind Arden, and I've finally figured out why that pair of names is so memorable: "Geoffrey Miller" is the most Chaucerian name imaginable ("The Miller's Tale" is perhaps the most famous of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales), while "Rosalind Arden" is the most Shakespearean name imaginable. Rosalind is the heroine of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy "As You Like It," which is set in the Forest of Arden.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

30 comments:

Danindc said...

great post- can't wait to read book.....well, I can wait- I can wait a while - i actually just started a new job so i'm kind of busy.

Nombre Cilantro said...

OT: C'mon man how about a blog entry on the homosexual mafia and its obnoxious behaviors highlighted this week in the Miss USA pageant. The lavendar crowd has morphed into one of the most intolerant cults on the planet.

And I don't think CNN has enough attempted beefcake promotional shots of Anderson Frigging Cooper. Is that what's known as a "twink", Steve?

And let's not forget the lovely Sisterhood of Eternal Animosity. Yes, here is the really venomous faction of the New American Elite weighing in with yet another psyops media attack on the regular, everyday normal family linked with a frontpage headline at CNN:

Why women are leaving men for other womenFrankfurt School Marxism sure is a lot of fun. Here are the experts, some of the High Priestesses of Culture Cracking, who are cited in the article:

Binnie Klein, a Connecticut-based psychotherapist and lecturer in Yale's department of psychiatryFeminist philosopher Susan Bordo, Ph.D, a professor of English and gender and women's studies at the University of Kentucky

Lisa Diamond, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of UtahBonnie Zylbergold, assistant editor of American SexualityArticle is by Mary A. Fischer from O, The Oprah MagazineYes, these people know how to build and sustain civilization.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, and this is one I'll definitely be picking up.

Funny, last December my car decided it was time to retire, so I went looking for a new one. I really wanted an '07 Mustang, but my newly-acquired fiancee said no, and in a moment of weakness I caved. I got an '07 Fusion instead. Still a nice car but it lacks pickup (the 2.3). Maybe I should have tried to talk her into a Charger.

Anonymous said...

As a prelude to Spent, might I suggest reading James Twitchell's brilliant Living it Up, and its sequel, Branded Nation. Twitchell goes pretty far down the road in showing how shopping/buying is essentially status display, and he writes remarkably well for a university professor.

Anonymous said...

Miller's first book was so excellent I pre-ordered "Spent". I'm hoping it's not an anti-market screed. Actually Miller is too smart for that, but I think it's definitely going to have a big gov't feel to it.

Also, Miller's no longer the skinny handsome man he once was. One of his photos at Edge made him look 50 lbs heavier with some shaggy hippy hair to boot. I didn't recognize him.

His first book ROCKED!!! Highly recomended.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I've been reading your stuff on TPM and the back and forth you've been having with Swartz and the Enforcers of Truth*.

It's a shame that they're taking all these cheap shots at you.

It's pretty clear that they're trying shut you up or get you to explode in anger and say something controversial so they can kick you out.

Keep up the good fight. Be optimistic. Let's face it, after all time is on your side. It's only a matter of time when the truth will win out.

Anonymous said...

"As I've been looking into buying a car over the last couple of years, I've been struck by how much car-buying is driven by sexual display urges."

I briefly had this conversation with you over email years ago. For my job, I wrote a brief on how evolutionary studies could help Ford crush the competition. Too bad Nasser was more interested in affirmative action than raw intellectual excellence. The American auto companies are dying in large part because they refused to hire energetic 25 year old "suits" into positions where their raw talent could be captured and nurtured by more mature staff.

Carolyn said...

That book sounds interesting.

I assume any man driving a Prius:

- is gay
- if hetero then he's a p*ssy (& a poseur)
- not too bright since the gas savings don't justify the higher sticker price (nor is the battery replacement going to be very friendly on the environment)

robert61 said...

1) Sounds like a terrific book.

2) Los Angeles and its status codes, huh? I haven't owned a car since 1993 and live in the city, where it's all about location, square footage and decorators. Feel like I'm missing a whole dimension of life when I read/hear you, Kaus or Adam Carolla.

3) Geoffrey and Rosalind: names for people who like Stuff The Right White People Like

Nombre Cilantro said...

OT: Denninger blog and the heavy trafficked Mish Shedlock blog both came out today demanding prosecutions of Paulson and Bernanke as a result of the testimony before New York AG Cuomo:

Paulson and Bernanke: Indictment Time?

Let the Criminal Indictments Begin: Paulson, Bernanke, Lewis

This story about the damning sworn testimony is huge news. The story was reported on Lou Dobbs and I'm not sure where else today. I heard that Bloomberg reported on it all day while the CNBC skunks ignored it.

Last week Denninger also had a ticker on one of the Fed Board members, Hoenig, who has changed his happy days will be here again story and now says flatly that the oligarchs must be removed before the economy can recover.

If there was ever a time to call your congressman and senators this is it. The banking oligarchy is so arrogant and all-powerful that they got very sloppy pulling off this entire swindle. An evidence trail of damning sworn testimony is there and it can sink these criminals but only if the people demand heads on pikes.

Colin Laney said...

Perhaps that refrigerator magnet was my Kant-reading-Hume moment.This raises the question: of what did the dogmatic slumbers of Steve Sailer consist?

Speaking of things that have stuck in my memory, Geoffrey Miller's wife's name is Rosalind Arden, and I've finally figured out why that pair of names is so memorable: "Geoffrey Miller" is the most Chaucerian name imaginable ("The Miller's Tale" is perhaps the most famous of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales), while "Rosalind Arden" is the most Shakespearean name imaginable.That's a top notch association. Given that nomen est omen, is there anything useful that we might predict or expect for this couple?

Anonymous said...

"This raises the question: of what did the dogmatic slumbers of Steve Sailer consist?"

The idea that it ISN'T all about the Hokey Pokey.

He knows better now.

Captain Jack Aubrey said...

has a new airport book coming out that should give Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Florida, Steve Levitt and the rest a run for their money...So did Dick Florida ever come out? Because I think his Gay Index has a hot ass and the pictures I've seen of Dick set my gaydar ahummin'.

In his exploration, Miller examines a wide and delightful range of familiar products and what they reveal about usWhy does he assume we want to know this stuff? Sedan? Check. Relaxed fit jeans? Check. Showtunes on the iPod? Check.

Artanis Artemis said...

I've given up on new cars and drive rebuilt, repainted, reupholstered 60s and 70s cars exclusively. My daily driver is a candy apple red '71 Buick two door hardtop. The vacation car is a Lake Placid Blue two wheel drive International Travelall with a Detroit Diesel under the hood-think "screaming fire engine sound". People get out of the way when I floor it, even though it isn't very fast.

Yes, I DO paint my cars Fender guitar colors!

Artanis Artemis said...

Actually, I don't make fun of Priuses anymore since i saw one in a wreck with a truck. The little bugger actually held up pretty well-in, say, an old Corolla they'd have been toast.

Bill said...

Why owning a pet and actually managing to keep it alive is a good signal to a potential mateDoes it count if your neighbors have tried to have your pet euthanized?

dearieme said...

Reviews of such books remind me why I try to avoid Mass Society.

Truth said...

"- is gay
- if hetero then he's a p*ssy (& a poseur)
- not too bright since the gas savings don't justify the higher sticker price (nor is the battery replacement going to be very friendly on the environment)"

YEAH!!!!

(or maybe he likes the car?)

Anthony said...

What did you do to that poor Accord that it's falling apart after only 108 kmiles?

And how do you live in LA and only drive 11 kmiles per year?

Anonymous said...

Steve,
That book does sound very interesting.

I have a pet peeve when it comes to evolutionary biology thought that I see all the time and is why I'm so thankful for the publication of the Harpending and Cochran book: looking into our distant past for *all* insights into our present day behavior. I just read (old version) of "The Nurture Assumption" and while I loved it and learned a lot, that stuck out like a sore thumb and was so "dated". I see it all the time, too, in Steveosphere threads.

I hope this book, which I'll get, doesn't disappoint.

I see this tendency strongly with the topic of monogamy. I think monogamy is very analogous with the trait that allows digestion of cow's milk: it occurred recently, sweeps through the population, though I don't know whether it is causative, or correlative, with advanced societies. Whatever is going on with monogamy, I think germs (STDs), intelligence, and temperament tell the tale, somehow, of how we developed civilization, tamed ourselves, and are monogamous. Perhaps a threshold of intelligence with concurrent desire for justice and orderliness gave the shy and/or intelligent an advantage? I think when we observe Africa, and Africans, we are witnessing our past when it comes to behavior, which we have completely taken for granted how badly people can behave and not be able to foresee the consequences or even know about what lurks.

Ronduck said...

So Steve, what sexual message would a Datsun send?

Chief Seattle said...

Sounds like "The Theory of the Leisure Class" updated for modern times. Should be an interesting read. I drive an Amana white Accord - probably screams Beta, probably accurately. Nice car.

Thrasymachus said...

Duuuuuude, you bought a car with 196,000 miles on it? As you say, a meticulously maintained Japanese car, but 196,000(!) miles? (Mr. Sailer, I apologize for addressing you as "dude" but that sentence demands to be started with that word.)

Reg Cæsar said...

Rosalind is the heroine of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy "As You Like It," which is set in the Forest of Arden.The name Arden is even more Shakespearean than you think.

josh said...

It has been my fantasy lately to,first,be rich,--DUH!--but then to buy Saturn from GM as it casts it off,which I assume theyre going to have to do,and completely remake it as a sexy sporty car for guys. To build a profit making car company here in the USA has got to be one of the greatest business coups a guy can pull off--especially in the cramped and musty Age of Obama.Anyway,the ad would be something like this:Voiceover intones,"Not everyone can drive a Mercedes,not everyone can drive a Lexus..." as a doleful looking young guy watches nasty older oligarchs driving their lux cars,"but YOU can drive a ...SATURN!!" here comes the new saturn,not the sissy car of today,but a completely redesigned sporty sporty sexy sexy fun car,built cheap--not unlike a more populist answer to the Subaru WRX. Its affordable and as Huey Long said, "every man a king!" Every man,or at least EVERYMAN,can get their hands on the designed-for-sex American sports car.I would certainly employ many of the Bright Young Things who populate this blog with their wisdom re sex selection. Uhm,Steve,would u be amenable to relocating to say Georgia or Alabama??

David Davenport said...

So Steve, what sexual message would a Datsun send?That you like cars that were new when you were young.

Ronduck said...

That you like cars that were new when you were young.

It was a bad attempt at humor on my part. I'm driving a cheap used car, and Steve was mentioning all these people he had run into who had new and expensive cars.

Besides, the car was made in 1979 and I was born in 1983, so I wasn't even born when it rolled of the assembly line.

Anonymous said...

I think there is some truth in the 'wanting cars that were new when you were young' idea.

However, Ive always quite fancied one of these (convertible version). But they had been out of production for some time before I was even aware of them.

Funnily enough, given this was in London and American cars have never been that common in the UK, the first car I could identify as a kid of about three or four was one of these driving down a road in Battersea. This may well be because I had a toy one.

Anonymous said...

This is sort of a scattered post. Steve, are you smoking dope?

Anonymous said...

He's not good looking, he's a nerd. http://www.unm.edu/~psych/faculty/lg_gmiller.html