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Consumerism’s Dirty Little Secret: Are We Buying All the Wrong Things?

Consumerism’s Dirty Little Secret: Are We Buying All the Wrong Things? thumbnail

I have some terrible news…

You’re stranded in the desert!

For three days, you’ve traveled in the heat without food or water. Your eyelids are heavy and your legs even heavier. Your lips are cracked, too dry now to even bleed. For miles and miles, all you see is sky, rock and sand.

Your foot catches on a bit of rock and you fall, knees striking sand.

Is this the end?

But wait, over there! There’s something blue glittering in the sun. What could it be? What do you want it to be?

A diamond, or a bottle of water?

The Real Value of Things

In Bali, Indonesia last year, I met a Japanese man who once spent six weeks homeless and living in a park. There were plenty of places to sleep, and he drank water from a fountain. For nutrition, he boiled flowers and ate them. For extra calories, he bought bread crusts from a local bakery for ten cents a bag.

How much do you think he spent for the entire six weeks? Fifteen dollars.

Survival is cheap.

A bottle of water costs less than $1 (virtually free, from the tap) and holds 500 grams of water. But what about 500 grams of diamond? How much does that cost? I did some calculations, and a half kilo of blue diamond would cost you over a billion dollars.

Why does something you cannot eat, drink, or wear cost over a billion times what water does? An Econ 101 student would say, “Easy. It’s supply and demand. Diamonds are rare and lots of people want them, so they cost a lot.”

Great. But a question remains: Why do so many people want diamonds?

It’s Not My Head, It’s Yours

A Hummer Alpha H1 costs over $100,000. Yet, the gas mileage is horrible. It only fits four people. It’s not even all that safe or reliable.

So what the hell am I paying for?

In Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that one big reason we buy things is for their signal: what the products tell others about us.

“Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children. Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter — a fact that renders ‘materialism’ a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second. Our vast social-primate brains evolved to pursue one central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others.

The Hummer is “good” precisely because it is wasteful. It shows others we have the money to throw away.

Likewise, the value of that diamond is not in the “thing itself” — a race of aliens would toss it away like an ordinary pebble — but the information we carry inside our heads about diamonds:

“…at its heart consumerist capitalism is not ‘materialistic,’ but ‘semiotic.’ It concerns mainly the psychological world of signs, symbols, images, and brands, not the physical world of tangible commodities. Marketers understand that they are selling the sizzle, not the steak, because a premium brand of sizzle yields a high margin of profit, whereas a steak is just a low-margin commodity that any butcher could sell.”

As a child, I wondered why BMW would bother advertising to me, a child with no income and no driver’s license. I thought they were making a mistake.

But BMW’s goal was not to sell me a car. Their goal was to get me to believe their cars are valuable.

They were manufacturing signal.

Biological Virtues

So far, this Miller’s argument is intuitive.

Sometimes, yes, we buy things for personal utility or pleasure. But we also ride in sports cars and put on makeup because — whether we admit it or not — we are trying to send a message.

Now here’s where Miller’s argument gets interesting.

Miller argues that although it seems like we are attracted wealth, status or aesthetic taste, that is not our “true” target. Instead of money or status (which are easily lost) we are attracted to traits that are more robust — what he calls biological virtues:

“In humans, fitness indicators are unlikely to have evolved to advertise monetary wealth, career-based status, or avant-garde taste, because these phenomena arose quite recently on the evolutionary timescale, within the past ten thousand years. Rather, the key traits that we strive to display are the stable traits that differ most between individuals and that most strongly predict our social abilities and preferences. These include physical traits, such as health, fertility, and beauty; personality traits, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to novelty; and cognitive traits, such as general intelligence. These are the biological virtues that people try to broadcast, with the unconscious function of attracting respect, love, and support from friends, mates, and allies.”

Think about these two people:

  • Some guy who bought a lottery ticket while drunk one Sunday morning and won $400 million dollars
  • A smart, hard-working veterinarian who has fallen on hard times because of monthly payments for his mother’s chemotherapy

Who would you rather have in your circle of friends?

We want to find the people who are truly capable or caring, not those who simply seem like they are. In other words, we care about their underlying traits, not who they are on the surface.

Here’s another twist.

We purchase pricey products and leverage names like Lacoste, Lancome or Lamborghini to manufacture and broadcast a signal to others.

We may try be intentionally deceptive and make a fake profile on a dating website. Or we can try to be honest broadcasters, wearing clothes from L. L. Bean and drinking fair trade coffee to show other coffee-lovers where our interests lie.

Either way, says Miller, these tactics don’t work.

Maybe It’s Not Maybelline

You’re a single woman in her early twenties.

It’s 11pm, and you’re at the station waiting for your train home. Ahead of you, on the stairs, you see an elderly woman and a young man. The woman has a big brown suitcase. She’s hunched over, breathing hard, and trying to tug the suitcase up the stairs.

The young man walks over to the lady and grabs the suitcase.

“I’ll take it,” he says.

“I’m fine,” says the lady, pulling the suitcase away. “I don’t need your help.”

“Who says I’m helping?” The man takes a step back and smiles. “I’m a terrible thief, and I’m about to kidnap your suitcase to my hideout at the top of these stairs.”

For a moment, the lady stares. Then, she starts to giggle. “That’s a terrible joke.”

He picks up the suitcase and they walk, shoulders bumping, to the top of the stairs.

I don’t care about the brand of this man’s sweater or the manufacturer of his wristwatch. I care about what he did — that few seconds on the stairs tells me far, far more than any product could.

This is what Miller calls consumerism’s dirty secret:

“Consumerism’s dirty little secret is that we do a rather good job of assessing such [important] traits through ordinary human conversation, such that the trait-displaying goods and services we work so hard to buy are largely redundant, and sometimes counterproductive.”

If we use products to broadcast a fake signal, we may be able to deceive some people in the short-term. And this deception may earn us a good night kiss or a second date.

But, in the long term, we will be found out.

Humans are animals. Over millions of years, we’ve evolved powerful bullshit detectors to detect fakers and cheats because detecting bullshit was, literally, a life or death matter:

“A $15,000 face-lift can make a fifty-five-year-old woman look more like a thirty-five-year-old with regard to facial sagging and wrinkles, but cannot hide other cues of age on the neck and hands. … our social-perceptual systems for recognizing key human traits and emotions are hard to mislead, because they have been evolving so long to be accurate. They have become very efficient at vacuuming up all the information they can from all the different cues that can be perceived from an individual’s body, face, language, and behavior.”

Real, long-term relationships are built on traits and skills that cannot be bought with money, and the best way to detect them is to do what we’ve always done:

“…we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product. Our finest, most impressive goods and services have been endowed to us by our DNA, in the form of physical and psychological adaptations that naturally display our virtues and naturally impress our peers.”

The Fundamental Consumerist Delusion

This is all adds up to what Miller calls the fundamental consumerist delusion, which is made up of two lies:

  • Lie 1: Products can make up for your insufficiencies. We believe we can use products to hide our physical and mental weaknesses. However, humans are good at detecting such deception in the long term.
  • Lie 2: Products can do a better job of showing others who I am. We believe we can use products to bolster our signal, better broadcasting to others who we are. However, the best way to show others who you are is to do what your ancestors did: converse, cuddle and cooperate.

So What?

This essay covers a small, small fraction of Miller’s book, and I’ve simplified a lot of the ideas. I suggest you read it yourself, especially the first half.

But here’s the takeaway for me.

If Miller’s claim is true — that our attempts to fake signals via consumerism are largely futile — then what should we do with our lives? If no Mercedes-Benz or Maybelline makeover will earn me friendship, love or lasting happiness, what should I do with my time and money?

Well, if it’s so difficult to fake who we are, then perhaps the smart thing to do is stop faking. Consider skipping the Hummer H1 for a Toyota Corolla and spend the time you save on learning how to converse better, tell funny jokes, care for the weak, or stay strong in the face of emotional turmoil.

Or, put simply: Stop buying shit and work on yourself.

Have a nice day.



23 Comments on "Consumerism’s Dirty Little Secret: Are We Buying All the Wrong Things?"

  1. baha on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 6:28 am 

    Ha,ha. This is so true…

    I used to think women were attracted to my money and success. Then I gave all that up. And yet they still follow me around.

    I’m not especially good looking, but I am confident and capable. All people are attracted to that 🙂

  2. onlooker on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 6:34 am 

    This is all fine and makes sense. Except for one fatal flaw. We have also developed over time the ability to block ideas and emotions that are particularly disturbing to us. Meaning we not only attempt to fool others but ourselves as well. So,we sabotaged our own bull shit detector with regards to our collective suicidal path.

  3. forbin on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 6:41 am 

    “I don’t care about the brand of this man’s sweater or the manufacturer of his wristwatch. I care about what he did ”

    maybe you did mate ,, but you’re not the majority and in fact under the skin you really are just the same

    Status counts – hardwired in , thats what the article is about

    no smarter than yeast ……


  4. MASTERMIND on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:00 am 

    The world is headed towards an Economic/Financial collapse. And everyone is arguing over a border wall and eating tide pods!

  5. Davy on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:16 am 

    It is more than consumerism. Consumerism is just the result of existential neurosis bordering on psychosis. This is the reckless pursuit of prosperity supported by the cult of the individual. This is now the end game of a civilization. It is now a Ponzi arrangement of unreal prosperity. Our civilization is malinvesting in support of every greater prosperity that is in effect making us less prosperous. It is private profit at the expense of the public good. Yet, even the public good is not good in a planetary sense. We need to call into question our civilization itself. This includes our science and modern adapted spiritual myths of meaning that have been corrupted by science and business.

    We are investing in arrangements with no future. The act of this investing makes the act of investing ever more necessary. We have exited the natural ecosystem and created our own in direct competition with the planetary ecosystem. The problem with this is the planetary ecosystem is the foundation of our human ecosystem. This then becomes a vicious circle of every greater distancing of ourselves from the truth. Wisdom is the pursuit of the truth in the name of survival. I am not sure who said this but I think it was George Mobus:

    “Knowledge of systemness is the hardest won knowledge there is. It includes not just ordinary knowledge, but wisdom as well – the knowledge of what ordinary knowledge to gain and how to use it. This will be more valuable to some future population than computers or solar collectors because from this knowledge all other technical aspects can be regenerated.”

    I would take it a step further and say wisdom is the knowledge of what ordinary knowledge to not partake in. What we need is a new wisdom of what not to be and what not to be is what we are today. It is too late to go back as a civilization. We are too far gone in an existential trap of traps. Yet, we can rediscover ourselves as we destroy ourselves. When there seems to be no hope there becomes the opportunity for hope. This hope is a metamorphosis that comes with complete destruction. Only through the process of destruction can we end bad behavior that is foundational. Rebirth can only happen through death in nature. It also works with our social narrative at the metaphysical level of myth and meaning.

    What this means is adapting and mitigating to a process that will play out necessarily through natural law. It means a new spirituality of respect and reverence of the place we live in and those we live there with. This is not the transcendence of death but the incorporation of death that beings forth life. It is the ultimate denial of death we propagate today with modern civilization by the ever greater need to have and know. The humility that comes with the acceptance of mortality maintains a species through the wisdom of knowing limitations. We moderns do not know our limitations nor do we want to. Our social narrative today is dominated by techno optimism and divine exceptionalism. We feel intelligence is what rules the universe but we mistake human intelligence for this universal intelligence.

    A way forward is a yielding to these greater forces by the individual. These greater forces cannot be altered. They are planetary and civilizational. They are systematic and natural. They are on longer time frames than individual humans relate to. They are a process that will play out regardless of human effort. The individual can go forward once awakened into this existential death and rebirth process. A new relationship with himself and his place of living can result. This awakened individual can then go forth descending back into this here and now of this world of planetary and human destruction. A new wisdom of acceptance and lifestyle adaptation can result. Most will not or cannot be awakened but those who can may be able to make a difference locally. It is only special circumstances that this wisdom can be realized. It comes from those who understand the denial of death of the individual and our human system itself. If is only with the understanding of mortality that limits are appreciated. Once limits are appreciated we limit ourselves. Once limited we try to live in balance as best we can. There really are no answers there are just survival strategies.

  6. joe on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:40 am 

    Accidentally I thought I’d rather the bum lotto winner cause he had money. Then I realised that it was a trick question. Should have picked the vet. I must be so shallow.

  7. MASTERMIND on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:41 am 

    The close alignment between the LTG BAU scenario and observed developments over the last four decades, as well as the correspondence in the underlying dynamics …, portend of potential global collapse. Although the general commentary on the LTG describes collapse occurring sometime mid-century (and the LTG authors stressed not interpreting the time scale too precisely), the BAU scenario implies that a relatively rapid fall in economic conditions and the population could be imminent. Indeed, other aspects of oil supply constraints …, indicate that the ongoing economic downturn of the GFC may be representative of an imminent BAU style collapse. (page 14 –

  8. MD on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:45 am 

    lame ass post, by some idiot that hasn’t a clue,

    ok, I am a cynical old bastard. I just don’t care

  9. MASTERMIND on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:47 am 

    Here are five peer reviewed scientific studies authored by top experts that prove beyond any reasonable doubt that global civilization will collapse within the next decade. Simple really….when the World Economy Collapses everything shuts down…the end….The collapse will be absolutely horrible..There is no collapse or horror movie ever produced that has even come close to imagining what the collapse of BAU might look like. I’m talking about every corporation and every social program going bankrupt at once.I’m talking about people eating people. I’m talking about the Worst Catastrophe to ever happen in the history of mankind. Nothing has ever, or will ever come close.

  10. Dredd on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:47 am 

    “Or, put simply: Stop buying shit and work on yourself.”

    That exercise may get a boost in the not-so-distant future (First Shots Fired In The Currency Wars – 3).

  11. Ghung on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:49 am 

    I never spent much time or money trying to impress other people. Generally, they aren’t worth impressing. I’m a good chainsaw/cheap suit kind of guy.

  12. MD on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:56 am 

    ghung, that might just be my favorite comment of the year. made my day, and thank you.

  13. MD on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 7:57 am 

    yeah there’s some irony buried in there.

  14. Estamos Jodidos on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 8:18 am 

    Don’t own a suit and my chainsaw works “most of the time”. sometimes.

  15. pointer on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 8:20 am 

    Ghung might be far ahead of us.

    Ponder for a few moments to see if there is something missing deep down in your psychic workings… maybe something you try to heal by buying stuff… or by trying to show how much smarter you are than everyone else… perhaps because you feel other people will judge you harshly for being without or for being dumb. Ponder before you react.

  16. Jef on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 8:33 am 

    We spend most of our lives working jobs that we hate, spend money we don’t have, to buy STUFF we don’t need, in order to impress people we don’t like.

  17. deadly on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 8:39 am 

    There are no people who care and if there are people who care, who cares?

    Nobody cares,and anyhow, a plastic bottle with water in it is pollution in its most obscene state.

    If they did care, they would choose to drill a hole in the ground for water not buy a plastic bottle full of water.

    A cop out and more hypocrisy.

    A diamond is more organically based in origin and more ecologically sound than obtaining a plastic bottle with potable water in it.

    So there.

  18. Darrell Cloud on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 9:17 am 

    Oskar Schindler gave a handful of diamonds to an SS Officer to buy his people a train ticket out of a death camp. Today, that same little bag of diamonds would buy a life time’s worth of train throughout Europe. Value is relative. I never saw a U-Haul behind a hearse. The richest man in the world would trade it all for another year of life. Look to your own. Provision for what you think is coming and relax.

  19. Davy on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 10:02 am 

    I buy the best quality I can find for the money and performance. If that means less then I do with less. I have a very nice suit I rarely wear but when I do clean up I look good. I think there is an anti-materialistic attitude about things so some people shun quality becuase there seems to be an attitude of hating material things as a reaction to consumerism.

    Good things I buy are well maintained and properly stored. Treat your material things with reverence. I buy with the idea of a second life. I buy so my kids will have it. I also buy as quality hard assets to barter in a collapse situation.

    I avoid malls and the shopping experience. I don’t keep up with the Jones and a brand does not make my identity. When I do leave the farm to stock up on supplies I make a cordinated trip that is efficient and effective. I like to make an event of it with the wife complete with a good meal. I don’t leave the farm much so when I do I enjoy myself.

  20. Sissyfuss on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 10:31 am 

    And who gives more credence to style over substance than our demure, truculent President Grifter? He spent a lifetime of ruthless rapacity to present an image of competency and success to fool a plurality of deplorables in giving him the keys to the castle. His absolute duplicity can be obfuscated only so long til we see that the Emperor has no clothes and something commensurate to go along with his tiny hands. Humanity has taken the path of least resistance for so long now that when the Reset commences very few will be able to acclimatize to the harshness of overshoot jammed into a bottleneck. And it will be hell to watch as well.

  21. Ghung on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 11:42 am 

    Poor Donnie. He’ll always be a cheap hustler from Queens, no matter how much money he brags he has.

    “Class never runs scared.
    It is sure-footed and confident.
    It can handle anything that comes along.

    Class has a sense of humor.
    It knows a good laugh is the best lubricant for oiling the machinery of human relations.

    Class never makes excuses.
    It takes its lumps and learns from past mistakes.

    Class knows that good manners are nothing more than a series of small, inconsequential sacrifices.

    Class bespeaks an aristocracy that has nothing to do with ancestors or money.
    Some wealthy “blue bloods” have no class, while individuals who are struggling to make ends meet are loaded with it.

    Class is real.
    It can’t be faked.

    Class never tried to build itself by tearing others down.

    Class is already up and need not strive to look better by making others look worse.

    Class can “walk with kings and keep it’s virtue and talk with crowds and keep the common touch.” Everyone is comfortable with the person who has class because that person is comfortable with himself.

    If you have class, you’ve got it made.

    If you don’t have class, no matter what else you have, it doesn’t make any difference.”

    ― Ann Landers

  22. MD on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 2:50 pm 

    can’t argue with miss landers. the lady was classy

  23. MD on Fri, 19th Jan 2018 2:50 pm 

    lady. all caps

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