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Spent Book Summary – Geoffrey Miller

What you will learn from reading Spent:

– How costly signalling theory can explain the rise of luxury brands.

– How mating and marketing are linked and why products that signal desirable traits sell the best.

– Why consumerist capitalism is not actually materialistic but ‘semiotic’.

Spent Book Summary:

Spent is a great book written by Geoffrey Miller, which brings the evolutionary psychology lens to the free market and explains how signalling theory can explain market forces and why people buy what they buy. A must read for any marketer anyone interested in why people buy what they buy.


Key Insight:

An evolutionary perspective gives us confidence that each new generation will find its own ways to turn new technologies into new trait-display modes and economic opportunities.


We are all Status-ticians:

Humans are not just intuitive linguists; we are also intuitive status-ticians.  Evolution has crafted our innate ability to  each acquire culturally modulated communication skills. We are very good at perceiving peoples status and also at displaying our own status.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the instincts for social display are hidden behind vaguely aspirational drives.


Social Status 101:

In any species of social primate, a higher-status animal is simply one who is looked at and groomed more often by others, who can displace others from desired resources such as food, and who is solicited more often as a friend, ally, or mate. (Robin Dunbar has shown that we humans use verbal grooming-talking-instead of physical grooming to ingratiate ourselves with higher-status individuals.)

Status is what we confer on one another-usually through I other individuals’ judgments on physical, mental, personality, and moral traits. Beauty raises status. Creativity raises status. Emotional stability and articulate leadership during group emergencies raise status. There are as many types of status as there are types of individual differences between people.

When we speak of buying products to display our status, we really mean buying products to display the fact that our physical, mental, or moral traits are superior to those of other people in some comparison group. Like “wealth,” “status” boils down to a type of superiority with regard to some set of individual-differences dimensions that have already been noted, judged, and validated by others.

One’s self-esteem usually tracks the traits that are socially valued by others. High intelligence and high physical attractiveness tend to increase self-esteem, whereas the opposite traits lower it, because others usually value high intelligence and attractiveness.


Why do we buy material products?

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. Buying impressive products in a money-based economy is just the most recent way to fulfil that goal.


The role of Marketers:

Marketing consultants build careers around the postmodern insight: 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 butcher could sell.

Marketers still believe that premium products are bought to display wealth, status, and taste, and they miss the deeper mental traits that people are actually wired to display-traits such as kindness, intelligence, and creativity.


The two types of products:

Roughly, products fall into two overlapping categories: (1) things that display our desirable traits and bring us “status” when others see that we own them, and (2) things that push our pleasure buttons and bring us satisfaction even if no one else knows we have them.

The trouble is not that marketing promotes materialism. Quite the opposite. It promotes a narcissistic pseudo-spiritualism based on subjective pleasure, social status, romance, and lifestyle, as a product’s mental associations become more important than its actual physical qualities. This is the whole point of advertising and branding-to create associations between a product and the aspirations of the consumer, so the product seems to be worth more to the consumer than its mere physical form could possibly warrant.

A surprisingly high proportion of products are designed and marketed for showing off-as narcissism projectors, trait amplifiers, fitness indicators, signals of health, wealth, or virtue. This has been well understood by every intelligent observer of capitalism since Adam Smith, including Thorstein Veblen, Vance Packard, and Robert H. Frank.

Narcissists tend to alternate between public status seeking and private pleasure seeking. Miller believes that these two faces of narcissism are also the two key components of the consumerist mind-set. We buy things for status or for hedonism, to show off to others or to please ourselves, to send fake fitness indicators to others or fake fitness cues to ourselves. The two basic functions can be seen as showing off and self-stimulating. Admiration seeking and pleasure seeking.


Mating as marketing:

Miller’s previous book The Mating Mind uses a lot of marketing metaphors. Animals seek sexual partners in a competitive mating market. Animal bodies and behaviours evolve largely as advertisements for their genes. Male humans evolved potent new sales tactics-verbal courtship, rhythmic music, gentle foreplay, prolonged copulation-for seducing skeptical female customers into accepting free trials of their fastest-moving consumer goods (sperm). Female humans evolved potent new tactics of relationship marketing to build long-term loyalty among their highest-value male customers, and to promote continued male investment in their new subsidiaries (children).


Memes and popular culture:

Richard Dawkins founded the idea that much of human culture reflects an evolutionary competition between memes: information units such as stories, anecdotes, ideas, catchphrases, or jingles that can be remembered and repeated to others.

Memes that are salient, memorable, and communicable (like celebrity gossip and human interest stories) are expected to proliferate and spread. Memes that are irrelevant and forgettable (1like the fact that a proton has about 1,836 times the mass of an electron) should fade quickly from popular consciousness (despite the best efforts of high school physics teachers). According to Blackmore, human popular culture consists of successful memes that reflect the interests and preferences of individual humans.


Tastes and values provide valuable social information:

Taste is a way for us to sort on another out, to choose friends and mates based on similar aesthetic and moral criteria that reflect commonalities of intelligence, personality, and ideology. Common ground in aesthetics, morals, and personality traits make it easier for people to coordinate their behaviour with one another for their mutual benefit. Similar tastes make similar stimuli, ideas, and behavioural tactics more salient to each individual.


Desirable traits:

The most desirable traits are universal, stable heritable traits closely related to biological fitness-traits like physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and sonality. When we really want to find out about someone-as a potential friend, mate, co-worker, mentor, or political leader-these are the traits we are most motivated to assess accurately.

Indeed, the traits that are most salient and relevant to people are precisely the traits that remain hardest for purchased products to signal reliably-or to misrepresent credibly.


Other people don’t care what you buy:

Advertisements for most products converge on one key message: other people will care deeply what products we buy, display, and use. At first glance, this message sounds absurd-socially implausible and easily disproved by talking with others. However, given that were exposed to about three thousand ads per day repeating some version of this message, it’s hard to remain skeptical. The result is that we greatly overestimate how much attention others pay to our product displays,


Costly Signaling and fitness indicators:

Fitness indicators function as both advertisements and warranties: they not only proclaim quality, but guarantee it. Indicators attract attention if they are costly, hard to produce, and hard to fake. They are ignored if they are too cheap, simple, and easy to counterfeit.

Signaling theory is best understood by thinking about these issues of counterfeiting, cost, precision, and luxury branding. If you look at any costly signal, any fitness indicator, you’re always looking at a snapshot of ongoing coevolution between the real and the fake. The peacock’s tail, the lion’s mane, the $20 bill, and the Rolex are not static designs. They grow ever more costly, precise, and elaborate over time as imitators try to reap the social, sexual, and status benefits of such displays without possessing the underlying qualities being displayed (fitness, health, wealth, or taste).

However, the term “cost” can be misleading, and is not limited to biological analogues of monetary cost. Signal costs can also include costs in terms of an animal’s time (minutes spent doing something), attention (proportion of consciousness allocated to some ongoing task), diligence (proportion of quality-control systems invested in growing or producing a well-formed signal), physical risk (probability of injury or death), or social risk (probability of embarrassment or punishment if fakery is discovered).

Costly signaling theory highlights the fact that brand equity exists mostly in the minds of signal receivers (observers of other people’s product consumption), not in the minds of signalers themselves (actual consumers of a product).

This is why the typical luxury ad includes a highly attractive model dressed up as a high-status heiress, wearing an expression of contempt and disdain for the viewer. The ad does not say “Buy this!”; it says, “Be assured that if you buy and display this product, others are being well trained to feel ugly and inferior in your presence, just as you feel ugly and inferior compared with this goddess.”

Example: The triathlon’s displacement of the marathon exemplifies a key signaling principle: strong signals drive out the weak.


The Big 5 Personality traits:

Lewis Goldberg argues that when we meet people, we come armed with a few fundamental questions about them: 

(1) are they interesting (open) or boring?; 

(2) are they reliable (conscientious) or flaky?; 

(3) are they nice (agreeable) or nasty?; 

(4) are they sane (stable) or crazy?; 

(5) are they dominant (extraverted) or submissive?

Big Five traits are stable across each individual’s life span not because they predict behaviour invariably across all situations, but because they predict behaviour on average if you get to know somebody across many different situations.

The most dramatic shifts in apparent personality are called emotions. If we suddenly need to appear much lower in agreeableness, given some social threat, we enter a special new mode of perceptual, cognitive, and behavioural operation called anger. Anger gives us a credible but temporary boost in assertiveness, aggressiveness, and formidability. If we suddenly need to appear much higher in openness in order to attract a particular mate, we enter a special mode of operation called being in love.


Different types of intelligence:

Many of the new-fangled types of intelligence that have become popular recently (social intelligence, emotional intelligence, creative intelligence) boil down to general intelligence plus some combination of the Big Five personality traits.


Education and positional signaling:

If a university degree basically functions as an IQ guarantee, then a degree’s social status and economic value should be more strongly predicted by the average SAT scores of graduating students, rather then the average knowledge learned by those students. An IQ-guarantee degree is what economists call a positional good-a way of showing one’s personal superiority over competitors. Positional goods often lead to runaway status competition.

Most students want to maximise their grade point average (a credentialist goal), not the amount of challenging, counterintuitive, life-relevant material they learn (a value-added goal).

There are hundreds of other perceivable cues of intelligence that may be equally reliable and valid, but that reach our ears and eyes in evolutionarily novel ways that our person perception systems did not evolve to process so easily. For instance, a complete 3-D MRI scan of someone’s brain might convey as much objective information about his intelligence as hearing him play an awesome drum solo, but inspecting a brain scan just cannot inspire as much social respect or sexual attraction as moving one’s body to a compelling rhythm. Likewise, a trait tattoo might convey more-reliable information about intelligence than a ten-minute conversation, but it cannot spark the emotions that drive social interaction. There seems to be no easy shortcut through our person-perception systems.


Buying brands is a unimaginative way of displaying traits:

Some common themes emerge from these slightly whimsical suggestions. One is that buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value-no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product’s design, provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer.

Buying brands is easy and requires little thought. Commissioning a product displays very high creativity, resourcefulness, commitment, and conscientiousness. Indeed, a personally commissioned handmade ring in sterling silver may elicit more gratitude than a mass-produced platinum band.

In fact some people actually prefer products that require some regular maintenance, so they can show off their conscientiousness-often goes unnoticed by economists and unexploited by marketers. Like so much of costly signaling theory, it doesn’t make rational sense at first glance.


Signalling evolution

Likewise, every signaling innovation in human culture is at first considered unfair and disreputable, at least by those who excelled at the previous signaling game. Medieval lords were no doubt driven nuts by the minstrels and troubadours who used musical innovations (isorhythmic motets, polyphony, even madrigals!) to seduce their wives and daughters, rather than winning them by the traditional methods (physical force, economic oppression, religious indoctrination).

From the viewpoint of social competitors and sexual rivals who “play fair” by getting formal educations, working full-time jobs, and paying full retail prices, any of these alternative ways of displaying one’s personal traits seem like cheating. However, from the viewpoint of rational individuals seeking maximum social and sexual status at minimal cost, all these tactics were wonderfully liberating.


Punishing is easier then rewarding:

Punishing bad acts is much easier than rewarding good acts, because there are many low-cost ways to impose fitness costs on people (taking away their resources, status, freedom, or bodily organs), but only a few, high-cost ways to give them true fitness benefits (awarding them longer life, extra sexual partners, and babies).


Social sanctions work in a group:

For example, anti-consumerism protesters often target large corporations and international trade organisations. They try to use the usual social-hominid tactics of informal social sanctioning-preaching, public humiliation, ostracism, name-calling, and throwing rotten fruit. But the objects of their wrath are faceless institutions that have no conscience or responsiveness to such sanctions, or institutional leaders and functionaries whose real social lives have no overlap with those of the protesters, and thus who are immune to suffering any real fitness costs from the protesters’ disaffection.

The protesters are not their neighbours, friends, kin, colleagues, or potential lovers, so their disapproval means nothing. They are the out-group, and informal social sanctions only work within one’s in-group.


Events bring about discussion:

To the extent that public protests helped at all, they may have simply provided the news-feed fodder to provoke private discussions among family and friends. They were occasions for airing thoughts about topics that were previously off the radar. Once people’s  tacit assumptions and behavioural habits are held up to the are lamp of thoughtful discussion, they tend to burn out like stalled film stock flicker, scorch, bubble, whoosh.


We like to see our selfs reflected back:

As well trained consumer narcissists, we are such insecure, praise-starved flattery sluts that a little social validation goes a long way. A friend or lover can imply that we have wasted our lives chasing consumerist dreamworlds and status mirages, as long as he or she reassures us that we still appear intelligent, attractive, and virtuous. (Don’t forget to mention that, or people will cry.)

As usual, plausible deniability and adaptive self-deception allow human social life to zip along above the ravines and crevasses of tactical selfishness, by allowing the most important things to go unsaid but not unimagined.