Consumer Behavior: Messages into the Void?

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (Viking, 2009)
. An old philosopher’s question asks: “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” An updated version, tongue-in-cheek, is this: “If a man speaks in the forest and there’s no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?” In a new book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, Geoffrey Miller asks a third question: If purchases are in fact messages—to possible mates, friends, or rivals—is anybody really getting the message?

Miller, of the University of New Mexico, looks at consumer behavior through the lens of the evolutionary psychologist. What he sees is a dance that has everything to do with biology. Through a series of experiments, he was able to demonstrate that people were “more likely to expend money and effort on products and activities if they were first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or stories about dating” (John Tierney in The New York Times).

Then, having neatly delineated the messages that we send when we buy, Miller turns the tables, zeroing in on what he calls the “fundamental consumerist delusion”: in reality, nobody’s listening. Thus, however hopeful I may be that this expensive new watch will exude its power and precision onto my persona, that’s not gonna happen. The things we buy cannot transform us. And because they can’t, they won’t make much difference in how we’re treated.

For overshoppers, Miller’s book is a useful reminder that we’re driven to buy out of underlying needs. Acknowledging those needs and finding meaningful ways to fill them is the best way off the consumption treadmill. The alternative, hanging on, is nothing more than continuing to send messages into the void.

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