Sex Sells. Here's Why We Buy

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Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior
Geoffrey Miller
Viking, 483 pages

The Gist:
That iPhone in your pocket? That's for sex. As is pretty much everything you've ever bought, from the car you drive to the T shirt you wear — or so says evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. From mating to marketing, Miller explores how everyday consumer choices subtly — and sometimes not so subtly — reveal society's misguided attempts at projecting four central traits (intelligence, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness) to attract sexual partners. (See how Americans are spending now.)

Highlight Reel:
1. On the difficulty of explaining modern life to our prehistoric ancestors: "Compared with their easygoing clannish ways, our frenetic status seeking and product hunting would look bewildering indeed. Our society would seem noisy, perplexing and maybe psychotic ... All you have to do is sit in classrooms every day for 16 years to learn counterintuitive skills, and then work and commute 50 hours a week for 40 years in tedious jobs for amoral corporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decent child care, sense of community, political empowerment or contact with nature. Oh, and you'll have to take special medicines to avoid suicidal despair, and to avoid having more than two children. It's not so bad, really. The shoe swooshes are pretty cool."

2. On the biological concept of marketing: "Since about 1990, there have been two bloodless but momentous revolutions in human affairs: the collapse of Communism in politics, and the rise of signaling theory in biology. Both depended on the same insight: individuals work hard mostly because they want to show off to others, not for the good of the group. This tendency holds true in both organic evolution and human economics ... We've known since Darwin that animals are basically machines for survival and reproduction; now we also know that animals achieve much of their survival and reproductive success through self-advertisement, self-marketing and self-promotion."

2. On the futility of consumer capitalism: "We take wondrously adaptive capacities for human self-display — language, intelligence, kindness, creativity, and beauty — and then forget how to use them in making friends, attracting mates and gaining prestige. Instead, we rely on goods and services acquired through education, work and consumption to advertise our personal traits to others. These costly signals are mostly redundant or misleading, so others usually ignore them. They prefer to judge us through natural face-to-face interaction. We think our gilding dazzles them, though we ignore their own gilding when choosing our friends and mates." (See 10 things to buy during the recession.)

The Lowdown:
Like Sigmund Freud, Miller sees sex everywhere; all our acquisitions of personal goods, according to Miller, are motivated by the primal desire for procreation, pleasure or both. Though he advocates abolishing income taxes in favor of a "consumption tax" and learning to buy secondhand, he isn't a utopian hippie radical either. "Unlike many malcontents," Miller writes, "I consider the three best inventions of all time to be money, markets and media." But while Miller does his best to avoid sounding too academic (and has an ear for phrases like "insecure, praise-starved flattery-sluts"), his broad, rambling arguments read at times like a college professor's lecture notes. Worse still, his ideas don't seem particularly groundbreaking. In fact, some seem downright antiquated: Men buy Porsches to project power, women use eyeliner to look pretty, and everyone seeks attention without realizing they're going about it all wrong. But if Miller's ideas don't quite hit the mark, don't blame him. "Consumerism is hard to describe when it's the ocean and we're the plankton," he argues in his defense.

The Verdict: Skim.

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