Spent: Summary and Review


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

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This book was one of my biggest “worldview shifts” about physical posessions. Spent talks about how consumerism promises to impress our friends, but products do not promote the things that people actually seek in a real friendship, and give tips on how to show the qualities you actually want to highlight while reducing expense and environmental harm.

The top takeaway I had from this book is to purchase things for narrative value, not for perceived status, quality, brand, or other factors that are traditionally considered important. I learned unorthodox strategies for this like commissioning from an artesan, borrowing items when you don’t really need them to strengthen social relationships, and thinking about the item acquisition/purchase story as an attribute of the item itself.

By narrative value, I mean that the important part of products we purchase are about the stories around them, not about the products themselves.

In fact, the whole valence, significance, and trait-signaling power of any given product can be radically altered by the stories we tell about it. Suppose you’re a man who meets an intriguing woman in the Café des Hauteurs atop the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. You chat about the nearby Renoirs for a few minutes, and then notice she’s wearing a fine gold filigree ring with a star sapphire. You praise its workmanship and inquire about its origin, and she replies with one of the following answers (which allow the following trait inferences, in parentheses):

  • “I got it from a Zales mall store in Albuquerque” (normal American tourist)
  • “I got it from a Zales mall store in glamorous Albuquerque, as a treat for finishing Habermas’s Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns” (intelligent, open, intellectually pretentious but geographically self-deprecating American tourist)
  • “I inherited it from my grandmother Valya, who commanded a T-34 in the Great Patriotic War” (nostalgic, family-oriented Russian tourist familiar with World War II tanks)
  • “I got it at the Glastonbury music festival, when Moloko played there back in 2000, to celebrate my one-hundredth Ecstasy trip” (open, impulsive, agreeable counterculture English raver)
  • “I made it myself. Working with the molten gold and hot wax helped distract me from my divorce four months ago” (skilled, resourceful, thermophilic survivor, newly single)
  • “It’s a tracking device that the aliens put on when they abducted me. Sadly, if I tried to take it off to show it to you, the gram of antimatter inside would vaporize everything within eight kilometers” (delusional schizophrenic with semiaccurate understanding of E = mc²)


The main thesis of this book is to expose the lie that consumerism promises: that what you buy is a reflection of your wealth, status, taste, and good traits.

The book also shows how marketing campaigns could be 10x more effective than they currently are, and why businesses currently fail to do this. It’s the best pro-capitalist, pro-environmentalism take on marketing that I’ve seen.

Is buying for narrative value ethical? I think it is ethical as long as you are honest, and only try to highlight traits that you actually have, instead of trying to misleadingly display traits that you don’t have. What parts of your personality do you want to highlight that normally take a long time to reveal? Buy items that enhance the those aspects, but not to show a personality trait you don’t actually have. It’s better for yourself too, because dishonest purchasing behaviour leads you to attract social circles you don’t even enjoy being a part of anyway.


The Marketing Revolution

“Marketing” is the radical shift in perspective from “the producer knows best” to “the consumer knows best”, and is the best practice of listening to users and “making what people want”, instead of merely trying to make something you as the producer think is best. This is a shift of a magnitude on par with the mental shift towards using money as a medium of exchange.

People are way less impressed of social status signalling through consumer products than what you think—what matters way more is whether others confer social grooming upon you.

The effect of thinking that you are in a conspiracy of being the only person to discover a product can raise your status is actually intended by advertisers—believing a conspiracy makes you unlikely to test your hypothesis if your social status is actually raised.

Perceptual harms: Big five personality traits is more important than you initially think, because the field of personal psychology is already so corrupted by pseudoscience like Myers-Briggs and horoscopes.

The neuroscientific basis of personality

  • Intelligence: does the map match the territory?
  • Openness: sparse vs. dense neural networks
  • Conscientiousness: frontal lobe vs. amygdala
  • Agreeableness: number & strength of mirror neurons vs. regular neurons. Low agreeableness is required early on for defender traits (because they advertise peak capacity), high agreeableness is required later for tender traits (because they are displayed during day-to-day interactions)
  • Extraversion: activation energy (high vs. low stimulation)

dopamine-dominant personalities (curious, creative, adventurous types) tend to be drawn to fellow dopamine-influenced adventurers. Serotonin-dominant people (traditional, conscientious, and rule-following) are also drawn to people like themselves. On the other hand, testosterone-dominant people (analytical, skeptical, and tough-minded) and estrogen-dominant individuals (nurturing, contextual, imaginative) are drawn to each other, essentially to their behavioral opposites

Too much openness is not always a good thing: Bad memes are buffer overflow attacks—your brain is normally supposed to just evaluate incoming data, but in this case the new meme (data) is running as code itself and resulting in bad consequences. Since you can’t remove the data or code, you have to introduce new code such that when it runs and processes the malicious data, the result becomes harmless. See Information Hazards.

The most important signal value from what activities you do, what things you buy, what decisions you make, whom you associate with, is the narrative value of the story you can tell afterwards. Effective signalling that is also cost efficient requires you to think in advance, does this make a funny, entertaining story that displays my big five traits? (Entertaining doesn’t mean laugh out loud, but simply inherently interesting like the recipe you used to bake homemade cookies)

Even in the twenty-first century, we still can’t buy true love, respect, or fulfillment. If we’re lacking them, we can’t buy sane parents, successful siblings, or sensible children. We can’t even buy decent replacements for biological adaptations that go wrong—artificial eyes, brains, hands, or wombs. Our bodily organs are the most value-dense items that we can call our own. They are beyond price, but we take them for granted until we lose them through accident or age. If you were going blind through macular degeneration, how much would you pay for another ten years of sight? If you were suffocating from emphysema, what would you pay for another one hundred clear breaths? If you were infertile and wanted children, how much would you pay for working sperm or eggs of your own—not just DNA from an unknown donor?

Our inherited legacy of adaptations is literally precious. Even the poorest parents give their children vast riches, in the form of senses, emotions, and mental faculties that have been optimized through millions of years of product development. They are so reliable, efficient, intricate, self-growing, and self-repairing that no technology comes anywhere close to matching them. The human genome is the ancestral vault of riches, the secret Swiss account. It is very important for consumerist capitalism to make us forget this, to take for granted what we owe to life itself. Beyond our true necessities and luxuries—our biological adaptations—we get only a little added value from market-traded products.

Advertising manufactures narrative value so companies can overcharge for products that do not actually fulfill the narrative you desired before you took on their manufactured narrative:

Suppose a male driver enjoys an average of one extra short-term mating per year attributable to his choice of car. The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 ($70,000) has a $50,000 price premium over the comparable-size Chevrolet Malibu sedan ($20,000), and both cars are designed to become obsolete in about five years. Rational car-buyers could then calculate that the Corvette’s price premium of $50,000 yields an expected five extra sexual encounters during its five-year product life, or $10,000 per encounter. By contrast, a typical encounter with a professional sex worker costs about $200, or fifty times less. Instead of paying the Corvette’s price premium, which might yield one encounter per year, the driver could just buy the Malibu and, with the cash he saved, have one encounter per week. The prospective male Corvette-buyer must accordingly either be wildly overoptimistic about the car’s attractiveness to women, or be very bad at math, or strongly prefer sexual encounters with amateurs rather than professionals.

Alternatively, the Corvette coveter may be a husband seeking plausible deniability regarding the car’s fantasized role in extramarital sexual adventures—a situation that is probably all too common. Since most consumers spend most of their lives married, the only way to sell products that promise increased sex appeal is to make such pitches below the radar of spousal jealousy. Thus, the Sports Illustrated ad for the Corvette must not say, “This will increase your short-term copulation opportunities” (or “This will get you laid”), but it can list some technical specs and show a female passenger throwing up both hands in ecstatic surrender to the 505-horsepower engine and its master. Gullible wives will worry less, and gullible husbands will fantasize more.

The purchase process is itself important to narrative value:

Buying items at full retail cost, either in a store or online, generates no interesting or unique stories, grows no roots with the community, lets you meet no new people, does not promote trust, reciprocity, or social capital, and reflects a lack of creativity.

On the other hand, you can buy it used, thrifted, or build a relationship with an artesan (a tailor, architect, carpenter).

Purchase decision are not made in an economic vaccum tube, but in a whole sociocultural context of a deep web of social relationships and stories you can tell about the purchase.

Business schools / marketing courses don’t talk about personality:

Executives are still trained in MBA programs, and market researchers are still trained in Ph.D. programs, as if humans were created from clay eight thousand years ago, and designed with an arbitrary list of “manifest motives” and “latent motives.” Virtually no course content on the evolutionary origins of human behavior and preferences is included at any of the world’s top business schools.

Advertising as subconscious calls to personality:

This drive to assertiveness display is especially obvious for the single most powerful, expensive, and dangerous product that young males tend to buy: the automobile. Cars have always been advertised as symbols of sexual potency and conquest, but the rhetoric has become more extreme with the SUVs of the 1990s and the muscle cars of the 2000s. Examples from ads for the Subaru WRX: “Remember, this thing’s loaded”; “You have to muscle your way to the front of the pack.” The latent prison-gang-rape aggressiveness of many American SUV model names becomes all too apparent if one prefixes the word “anal” in front of them, which yields the: Anal Armada, Anal Ascender, Anal Commander, Anal Endeavor, Anal Expedition, Anal Explorer, Anal Hummer, Anal Pathfinder, Anal Torrent, Anal Trailblazer, Anal Tribute, and Anal Wrangler.

Spent: it’s a book on how to get better at shopping.

For example, if you truly think that driving a Ferrari F430 will impress a particular person on a particular date, just spend the $1,750 to rent it for a day from Gotham Dream Cars or wherever, rather than the $259,000 to buy it outright. You’d need to drive it on 150 dates before it would make more sense to buy it than rent it. If you don’t get a second date with that particular person, you’ve saved yourself a lot of money. If you do get twenty more dates with the person and then marry him or her, you’ve still saved $224,000 for your house down payment. If the person objects that you seduced him or her with a false display of wealth—a rented rather than owned Ferrari—you can always respond, “So you married me just for my money?”

Conspicous Waste, Conspicous Precision, Conspicous Reputation

Breaking “Conspicuous Consumption” down into ways unfakeable signalling can manifest:

Waste Precision Reputation
Hummer Lexus BMW
Oxford MA MIT physics PhD Harvard MBA
Gold Silicon Neon
Los Angeles Singapore Paris

The shift from conspicuous waste to conspicuous precision reflects a gradual dematerialization of consumption, by which we signal superiority through design, not mass, and through intricacy, not size. Conspicuous reputation represents an even more extreme dematerialization of consumption. In this realm, a product’s signaling reliability no longer depends on the capital invested in the product itself (as in conspicuous waste), or in the product’s design and manufacturing (as in conspicuous precision), but in the product’s marketing and branding. The product’s reputability and the brand’s equity exist not in the product’s material form, but in the brains of consumers and observers

We buy products because we think it will change our biology, but our evolved detection mechanisms are too strong to be fooled—the deception is only temporary as we care more about the Big 5 traits. (Counterargument: supernormal stimulus)

For example, eye size, whiteness, and contrast tend to decline after the mid-twenties fertility peak, so women use eyeliner, eye color, mascara, brow pencils, and Visine to make their eyes look larger and clearer, and to increase the light/dark contrast between pupil, iris, sclera, lashes, skin, and brows. (Virtually all magazine covers, ads, and porn pictorials also use Photoshop image manipulation to whiten the scleras of female models.) The thickness, redness, and eversion of lips tends to peak in the mid-twenties as a fertility indicator, so women use lip liner, lip color, lip gloss, and lip plumper to make their lips look larger and brighter. The prominence and roundness of “cheekbones,” which are really the pads of estrogenized fat above the zygomatic bones, tend to shrink with age, and the overlying skin loses its vasodilated red blush, so women use blush and shading to highlight cheekbones. (Many models and actresses also get small silicone pads implanted in their upper cheeks, and fat extracted from their lower cheeks, to make their cheekbones more prominent.) The translucence, radiance, evenness, and smoothness of women’s facial skin declines after the mid-twenties, so women use foundation and powder to make the skin complexion appear more uniform in pigment and texture, and to hide wrinkles. The thickness, length, color saturation, and glossiness of head hair peaks in the mid-twenties, so older women use volu mizing shampoos, shine-enhancing conditioners, hair dyes, highlights, hair extensions, and wigs to emulate peak-fertility hair. Conversely, they use depilators to minimize facial hair, which tends to grow as estrogen drops and androgens increase after menopause.

Incredible commentary on The Sims 2:

The most popular computer games in history teach players that bourgeois careerism and endless consumption are the twin pillars of a happy, fulfilling life. The Sims learn, work, and buy, but they do not vote, protest, form unions, do volunteer work, give to charity, or go to church. They are economically empowered but politically neutered. Marx would have viewed The Sims 2 as the most advanced form of cultural superstructure ever developed—3.5 gigabytes of interactive, high-resolution, self-inflicted propaganda supporting capitalist ideology and political apathy. No need for fascist goon squads to make kids play it at gunpoint in public schools; they willingly play it themselves, actually believing it’s an escape from the educational indoctrination that they call homework.

Even opportunity cost does not necessarily make traditional retail better if it does not create narrative value:

If a male lawyer who can bill $300 per hour can buy a new shirt in ten minutes from Neiman Marcus for $100, rather than searching through a thrift store for forty minutes to buy a used shirt for $5, he should logically buy the new shirt, which saves $150 in potential billable hours. This is true as far as it goes, but it ignores the larger context of the retail purchase. A fair comparison must take into account the total shirt-research and shirt-purchase time. If the lawyer spent fifty minutes browsing GQ magazine to see which leisure shirts are in fashion, twenty minutes choosing which one he prefers, ten minutes calling local stores to find out who has it in stock, sixty minutes driving to and from Neiman Marcus, and forty post-purchase minutes defending his GQ reading and shirt purchasing against his wife’s aesthetic skepticism, then he’s really spent three hours on the shirt purchase, and its cost is really $1,000: $100 retail cost and $900 opportunity cost. By contrast, he could have driven to the nearest thrift store, used its logical arrangement of stock by garment type, size, and color to quickly identify some interesting shirts, tried them on, picked one, and bought it, in a total shirt-purchase time of about one hour. If his wife doesn’t like the shirt, no problem: it only cost $5. It could be burned impulsively on the barbecue to display his respect for the wife’s superior aesthetic judgment, and she would love him for it, and they could have connubial canoodling for two whole hours, and he would still come out ahead. Plus, the whole episode would make a great dinner-party story. If such purchases are seen clearly in their entire economic, temporal, social, and trait-display contexts, then the more time-demanding tactics listed above will often prove not just more romantic, but more rational.

Generational divide as a result of different signalling strategies pursued by the kids vs. the adults. New technologies often spark cultural shifts towards ease and convenience, which for older generations are hard to distinguish from moral decline.

However, young people have always shown an uncanny knack for allocating their time and energy to emerging new modes of trait display that bring them the highest social and sexual payoffs. Guanxi is where they find it. Maybe they understand something about mobile phones, social networking, and MMOGs that older adults just don’t get. Consider the historical context: every time civilizations develop new social technologies for trait display, the older generation always scoffs at the younger generation for wasting its time on the new technologies and neglecting the development of last-generation skills. The upper-class boys of ancient Greece were sometimes distracted from their proper slave-driving, olive-growing roles by that indulgent new cognitive technology for showing off their intelligence: philosophical debate at Plato’s Academy. Novel reading by young Victorian women was considered a frivolous distraction from hymn singing and husband catching. For hundreds of years, higher education was a self-indulgent form of conspicuous leisure for the aristocracy and landed gentry, until aspiring bourgeois parents began to appreciate its value as an assortative mating market and an intelligence indicator for their offspring. Beatniks talking avidly of existentialism and New Wave film in the 1960s cafés of New York and Paris were viewed as neglecting their duties to international socialism by their Old Left parents. Male hippies, seeking social status and mating opportunities through their conspicuous knowledge of Grateful Dead lyrics and Afghan hashish strains, were castigated for failing to display their fitness in the traditional macho ways: drinking, date-raping, and killing foreigners.

To young people today, mobile phones, social networking, and MMOGs are awesomely efficient ways to short-circuit consumerist conventions of trait display. Instead of spending years studying to get an educational credential, to get a high-paying job, to buy premium products, to display one’s intelligence and personality traits to potential mates and friends, the kids are just displaying their traits directly through the new communication technologies. Why try to display your verbal abilities by getting a Yale degree in postmodern literary theory, when you can write your own blog? Why show off your aesthetic taste by making money to buy second-rate Impressionist paintings when you can design your own MySpace site, with your own graphics, photos, drawings, and music? Why become a pediatric doctor to show off your agreeableness, when you can just be consistently kind in your text messages? Why adopt costly religious conventions to prove your likely sexual fidelity in marriage, when you can just keep your GPS- enabled mobile phone switched on so your spouse can always call you and check your location? In every case, the new communication technology renders obsolete most traditional aspirations, values, skills, and status criteria—that is, most traditional modes of trait display.

This is confusing to the older generation, because they can never quite see how the new trait-display tactics will actually result in friends, mates, and babies. Partly this is because young people are very resourceful at inventing new dialects to hide how they communicate and interact with friends, and at arranging secret sexual liaisons. Partly it is because every generation of parents underestimates its children’s capacity to find a stable mateship and economic niche as they mature in their twenties and thirties. But mainly, it is because every generation forgets how obscure and indirect its own social and sexual relationships appeared to its own parents. Nonliterate parents were perplexed that their children no longer courted in person, but wrote letters—how could mere letters lead to real relationships and real children? Early twentieth-century parents were perplexed that their kids no longer wrote letters, but talked on the phone. How could phone chatter produce grandchildren? Parents always fear that new technically mediated modes of courtship will lead children to forget how to discriminate good mates from bad mates, and that new technically mediated modes of friend making and status seeking will lead children to forget how to find a viable economic niche to feed their own kids. Yet history shows that every new generation of children has succeeded in doing both, despite the endless revolutions in technology and economic roles: hunting, gathering, herding, farming, factory work, corporate careers, credentialist professions, the electronic global economy. This track record of extreme human adaptability in socializing, mating, and parenting suggests that the coming generations will do just fine, whatever their modes of trait display.

The Neighborhood-Selection Exercise

Imagine that you are a young, single, childless adult just graduating from college. Imagine that your country already contained a million or so different neighborhoods that select their residents to fit almost any conceivable combination of individual traits, based on age, sexual orientation, education, occupation, ethnicity, religion, politics, hobbies, interests, physical appearance, Central Six traits, and preferences with regard to lifestyle, activities, social norms, sexual norms, local amenities, and architectural and landscape aesthetics. Write down the ten criteria you would use to select a neighborhood into which you would want to move, to start your working life. Then write down how much more rent you would be willing to pay per month to live in such a community, compared with the place you actually lived as a young adult.

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