Spent by Geoffrey Miller

In his book “Spent” Geoffrey Miller explains consumerism from an evolutionary standpoint. Miller argues that consumerism has sold us on the lie that we need to buy things in order to display our most desirable traits. The constant bombardment of advertisements causes us to overestimate how much attention people pay to our product displays. We already excel at picking up on each other’s traits so most of our conspicuous consumption is a waste. Trait enhancing products can fool some people some of the time but will fail to do so in the long term. This one is a must-read for anyone trying to understand why our society shops so much.






Chapter 1 – Darwin goes to the Mall 

-Human instincts for trying to unconsciously to display certain desirable personal traits + current social norms for displaying those mental traits through certain kinds of credentials, jobs, goods, and services + current technological abilities and constraints + certain social institutions and ideologies + historical accident and cultural inertia = early 21st century consumerist capitalism

-Fitness indicators are signals of one individual’s traits and qualities that are perceivable by other individuals.

-Our brains did not evolve to pursue reproductive success consciously, but to pursue the cues, experiences, people, and things that typically led to reproductive success under ancestral conditions.

-Many recent studies confirmed that men increase the conspicuousness of their consumption when they are most interested in mating.

-Men pay very little attention to conspicuous consumption by women

-Humans have evolved unique abilities to invent, make, display, and imitate new kinds of fitness indicators. These new indicators evolve at the cultural rather than genetic level, and they include many of the credentials, jobs, goods, and services that are typical in modern economies.

-Teens seem to have evolved similar systems to learn whatever culture-specific fitness indicators are favored in their local eco-niche, social niche, or market niche.


Chapter 2 – The Genius of Marketing  

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

-While Maslow’s work was a useful early step in categorizing the diversity of human motivations, it never integrated Darwinian insights, and it is now seriously outdated.

-Virtually no course content on the evolutionary origins of human behavior and preferences is included at any of the world’s top business schools.

-If we know how an individual scores on the big five plus general intelligence we can predict a great deal about his habits, preferences, values, and attitudes — and about the products he may acquire to display those traits to others.


Chapter 3 – Why Marketing is Central to Culture 

-That a company should produce what people desire, instead of trying to convince people to buy what the company happens to make, was a radical idea that seems obvious only in retrospect.

-Marketing, ideally, makes consumers into technology’s masters.

-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.

-Most successful memes are imposed top-down by marketing, in the interests of certain powerful individuals, groups, and institutions.

Six Media Conglomerates

-If warner bro. Releases a big-budget film such as The Dark Knight, it will typically be featured on the covers of Time and People magazines, reviewed favorably on CNN, and well-advertised on AOL.

-The more-powerful industry groups hugely amplify our evolved food preferences through massive political clout and marketing budgets for their food groups.


Chapter 4 – This is Your Brain on Money 

-Narcissism in particular is a pervasive pattern of self-centered, egotistical behavior that usually begins by early adulthood, and that combines an intense need for admiration by others with a lack of empathy for others.

-Narcissists tend to alternate between public status-seeking and private pleasure-seeking.

-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.

-Natural selection cannot favor animals’ responding to any cues that do not identify an opportunity to promote their survival or reproduction

-Narcissism and consumerism are two related ways in which the drives for displaying fitness indicators and chasing fitness cues can take over our lives — often to the exclusion of empathy, intimacy, friendship, kinship, parental responsibility, and community spirit.

-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.

-Basic survival goods are cheap, whereas narcissistic self-stimulation and social-display products are expensive. Living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does.

-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.

-Fools toast each other’s wealth, whereas sages toast each other’s health.


Chapter 5 – The Fundamental Consumerist Delusion 

-There are many types of status as there are types of individual differences between people.

-Similar tastes make similar stimuli, ideas, and behavioral tactics more salient to each individual. In game-theory terms, they make it easier for people to coordinate on certain “focal points” in “coordination games.”

-Personal taste should not just attract like-minded individuals; it should also repulse differently minded ones.

-We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.

-We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.

-Over the past few million years, we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.

-Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies.

-The most desirable traits are not wealth, status, and taste — these are just vague pseudo-traits that are achieved and displayed in widely different ways across different cultures, and ones that do not show very high stability within individual lives, or very high heritability across generations.

-The most desirable traits are universal, stable, heritable traits closely related to biological fitness — traits like physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality.

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

-Because we are bombarded by constant advertisements… “we greatly overestimate how much attention others pay to our product displays, through which we unconsciously striving to show off our key bodily and mental traits.”

-We also underestimate how much attention others pay to more natural forms of trait display that can be judged easily and accurately in a few minutes of observation and conversation.

-We automatically notice only a few basic traits when we see people: their size, shape, age, sex, race, familiarity, relatedness, and attractiveness.

-We also notice special states of physiology and emotion.

-We are really rather good at judging other people’s intelligence, sanity, and personality from just a few minutes of observing their behavior or talking with them.

-Accuracy of judgment tends to be higher for more visible traits such as extraversion, and lower for more internal traits such as neuroticism.

-Accuracy is also higher when we judge a person behaving in a free unscripted situation rather than a highly structured one

-Observed behavior also carries more reliable information when the persons in question believe they are alone, and are not constructing a false persona for public approval.

-Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood.

-The truth that must be forgotten is that 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 crate loads of product.

-Trait enhancing products can fool some of the people in the short term, but they can’t fool any of the people in the long term.


Chapter 6 – Flaunting Fitness 

-When animals use physical traits or behaviors to show off, we can call these handicaps, or costly signals, or sexual ornaments, or fitness indicators.

-Indicators attract attention if they are costly, hard to produce, and hard to fake. They are ignored of they are too cheap, simple, and easy to counterfeit.

-If you want to make a decent profit, your product must have a special signaling value beyond its nominal function.

-Celebrities are portrayed in ads not just for their name recognition, but for the distinctive traits they are believed to have, and these become associated, through the symbolic magic of classical conditioning, with the product itself.

-Most BMW ads are not really aimed so much at potential BMW as they are at potential BMW coveters, to induce respect for the tiny minority who can afford the cars.

-The healthiest, most attractive individuals in an extended-family clan tend to elicit the greatest attention and fondness from their relatives. They get more cookies from grandmothers and more jobs offers from uncles.

-We all want to look worthy to our relatives, to the extent that they can do anything for us.

-We have evolved irrepressible instincts to display our individual qualities to any potential supporters, allies, or friends who can offer us social benefits.

-Conspicuous consumption (for men) and conspicuous charity (for women) can be increased by thinking about mating opportunities, and so can function strategically as a form of mating display.

-Men who saw attractive women became much more motivated to get whatever money they could in the short term, presumably so they could spend it on conspicuous consumption to attract mates.

-Much of human economic behavior, whether consumption or charity, is engendered by motives of costly signaling to display our personal qualities to potential mates and other social partners. These motives are finely tuned and very specific. They show systematic sex differences, and are influenced by apparent mating opportunities. Among mating-primed people, they especially provoke conspicuous rather than inconspicuous Behaviors. Among mating-primed women, they especially provoke charitable spending rather than luxury spending. Among mating-primed men, especially promiscuous men, they provoke heroic, socially prestigious, and socially dominant forms of pro-social behavior.


Chapter 7 – Conspicuous Waste, Precision, and Reputation 

-Reliable signaling demands some sort of “conspicuous waste” — a highly visible expenditure of resources that brings no material benefit, but that simply signals the expender’s ability and willingness to waste those resources.

-Signal costs can also include costs in terms of animal’s time or energy . In these cases, costly signals may not demand conspicuous waste; they may demand instead conspicuous precision (which can be achieved only through time, attention, and diligence) or conspicuous reputation (vulnerability to social sanctions).

-Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (“the finer things in life”) over conspicuous waste (“the crass and vulgar”).

-Arguments about consumerist capitalism can go far astray when we do not recognize that there are many different forms of reliable signaling — and our own favored signaling tactics are the one we are least likely to recognize as signaling at all.

-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 mind of signalers themselves (actual consumers of a product).


Chapter 8 – Self-branding Bodies,Self-Marketing Minds

-The fact that all cosmetics aim for the same youth and fertility-enhancing effects makes it very difficult to be a cosmetics marketer or product developer because it is so hard to capitalize on genuine functional innovation in the cosmetics themselves.

-The alleged hidden quality and performance benefits of luxury goods are typically illusory — just vague ways for consumers to rationalize their consumer narcissism.


Chapter 9 – The Central Six 

-If you know how somebody scores on each of these “Central Six” traits, you can infer a lot about his character, capabilities, virtues, and vices.

-These six traits are absolutely central to understanding consumerism because they are the fundamental traits that we try to display to one another through the goods And services that we buy.

-G is known as general intelligence or IQ

-The other members of the Central six are the Big five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion.

-Bright people with low agreeableness often make the most revolutionary creative contributions in the arts and sciences, because they want to leave their mark on the world and don’t much care what others deem to be conventionally correct.

-We don’t often meet adults who are very high on the central six traits that best predict social status (intelligence, conscientiousness, stability, extraversion) , because they typically become so successful so quickly that they rarely interact with ordinary folks like us.

-The Big five seems to exist in other animals and are likely to have existed for at least 13 million years

-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?

-We learn to present our apparent Big Five traits in adaptively biased ways. Normal adults learn this skill so well that we recalibrate our trait displays dozens of times a day, to suit our audience, goals, and environments.

-The most dramatic shifts in apparent personality are called emotions.

-Less dramatic shifts in apparent personality are called moods — they last longer than emotions but are less extreme in intensity. An irritable mood reduces one’s agreeableness; a whimsical mood reduces one’s conscientiousness.

-From the perspective of emotions research, personality traits are simply stable propensities to feel certain emotional states more often. But from the perspective of personality research, emotions are simply transient shifts in one’s manifest personality traits.

-Nation, region, language, culture, socioeconomic status, class, and education level may predict consumer behavior mainly because they are correlated with some of the Central Six traits, not because they directly cause the behavior.


Chapter 10 – Traits That Consumers Flaunt and Marketers Ignore 

-People were able to rate fairly accurately people big 5 personality based just on their musical tastes

-Marketers think they are studying the effects of sex, age, or political beliefs, when they are actually studying the effects of openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, or extraversion, which also show different average scores across males and females, young and old, liberals and conservatives.


11 – General Intelligence 

-General intelligence is not a mental organ, but a latent variable that emerges when one analyzes the functional efficiencies of many different mental organs (such as memory, language ability, social perceptiveness, speed at learning practical skills, and musical aptitude).

-In a total samples of 935 normal adults, general intelligence correlated +.43 with brain size – much higher than the correlation previously found between intelligence and external head size (about +.2).

-Intelligence appears to be a genuine biological trait with a deep connection to organic processes of bodily growth and brain efficiency.

-Many intellectuals deny IQ as they tend to interact with other high IQ people

Chapter 12 – Openness 

-People from territories with the highest parasite load indeed had substantially lower openness and extraversion scores on average.

-Women in the first trimester also show higher xenophobia, as if they unconsciously realize that their weaker immune systems will have more trouble fighting off new infections from outsiders; this xenophobia becomes weaker as their immune systems become stronger in the second trimester.

-More generally, people’s openness, extraversion, and individualism tend to peak in young adulthood when their immune systems are strongest and tend to decline throughout middle age as their health declines.

-The baby boomers, for example, were not only the first generation in the United States to grow up benefiting from broad-spectrum childhood immunizations, but were also the first generation to show a sudden massive increase in interracial tolerance, internationalism, openness, and individualism, as manifest in the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the New Left, the psychedelic revolution, the sexual revolution, and the “Me” generation.

-Low openness has some biological benefits in avoiding new infectious diseases from unfamiliar people, groups, foods, and hygiene practices.

-People who unconsciously understand that their own mental health is vulnerable may experience stronger cultural disgust and lower openness.

-The less-open can thrive for years in meme-excluding bubbles, avoiding as much as possible disturbing thoughts and social encounters. For them, the unexamined life is….the easiest way to avoid psychosis.

-Openness is a dangerous trait in several ways. It can lead to social embarrassment when one’s behavior is too weird or novel. It can lead to one’s brain getting infected by maladaptive memes – false information, dumb ideologies, conspiracy theories.

-While openness is strongly correlated with creativity, it is also correlated with psychosis ( thin line between genius and insanity)

-In a complex, media-rich society, perhaps only people with very good mental health can tolerate a high degree of openness without losing their equilibrium.

-High openness plus high stability and high intelligence yields high creativity and social attractiveness. Conversely, high openness plus low stability yields a high risk of mental illness.

-People may use conspicuous displays of openness as a guarantee of their mental health — especially their resistance to developing schizotypy, Schizophrenia, or other forms of psychosis.

-Highly open consumers can be highly profitable because they can be highly gullible.


Chapter 13 – Conscientiousness 

-Conscientiousness is the Big Five personality trait that includes such characteristics as integrity, reliability, predictability, consistency, and punctuality. It predicts respect for social norms and responsibilities and the likelihood of fulfilling promises and contracts.

-The less food people prepare themselves, the more space and money they tend to devote to displaying their potential capacities for food preparation.

-Conscientiousness can be displayed not only through products that require high maintenance but through those that are conspicuously fragile.

-Home fitness machines make excellent conscientiousness indicators, as they can increase fitness only when used by the highly conscientious; for everyone else, they just gather dust.

-The only people who can stay in shape throughout their twenties and thirties are the highly conscientious. Everyone else bloats.

-A person of limited intelligence but high conscientiousness can make a valuable employee; a person of higher intelligence but very low conscientiousness is almost unemployable.

-The highest-status professions are those in which sustained conscientiousness is required for long-term career success, but in which there are minimal sticks, carrots, and bosses to motivate short-term performance. (entrepreneurship)


Chapter 14 – Agreeableness

-Economies are driven by this trait at several levels: by high-agreeableness consumers striving to display their kindness and generosity, and by low agreeableness consumers striving to display their assertiveness and dominance.

-Highly agreeable people want to get along with everyone, so they tend to be conformists, whether with respect to peer-group opinions, fashions, or product choices.

-Mating-primed men want to stand out from the crowd when it comes to having distinctive taste, but they rely on peer opinion to avoid factual errors.


Chapter 15 – The Centrifugal Soul 

-Instead of renunciation…. it seems far more self-aware and creative to take a hard, conscious look at one’s self-display strategies – to assess their true social and sexual goals, their reliability and efficiency as trait displays, and the many alternatives that are available.

-The standard self-display strategy in most developed societies is to seek the highest-paying full-time employment permitted by one’s intelligence and personality, and to use the resulting income to buy branded goods and services at full retail price.


16 – The Will to Display 

-Conspicuous consumption is a wasteful and ineffective way to display our psychological traits to others. Those traits can be assessed fairly accurately from a few minutes of informal social interaction, but can be assessed even more accurately from a few minutes of formal intelligence and personality tests.

-The endless co-evolution between our truth-seeking person-perception abilities and our deceptive trait-display tactics never reaches a point where everyone’s first impressions are always accurate.

-Informal social norms only work if individuals make inferences about personalities, capabilities, and moral virtues of others by observing their behavior. Such inferences are always based on incomplete information, probabilistic cues, and past experiences, so they are always fallible — and open to charges of prejudice, bias, and stereotyping. Likewise, informal social norms work only if individuals are willing to praise or punish others for observed behaviors and inferred traits that must logically be a joint product of their genes, environments, and accidents.

-We must be willing to act as if people are admirable for personal virtues and culpable for personal failings — as if free will existed, even though we know that, metaphysically, it does not.

-We espouse the ideologies of tolerance and diversity, which boil down to an unwillingness to praise or blame anyone for any behaviors. The result is that we have no leverage for effecting social change, except through government intervention.

-Recent research in game theory and experimental economics has shown that informal social norms can powerfully influence human behavior and sustain human cooperation. This is especially true for systems of socially distributed punishment, in which many individuals impose sanctions on the few who do not behave properly.

-informal social sanctions only work within one’s in-group….. that’s why environmental protest rarely working targeting faceless corporation or CEO’s who don’t actually have to deal with protestors in real life

-When you point out that consumerism is a really inefficient way to advertise personal traits, you can praise someone’s traits and tickle their vanity even as you’re cluster bombing the central ideology around which they’ve organized their education, career, leisure, identity, status seeking, and mating strategy.

-There is increasing evidence that communities with a chaotic diversity of social norms do not function very well.

-American communities with higher levels of ethnic diversity tend to have lower levels of “social capital” — trust, altruism, cohesion, and sense of community.

-Communities without a coherent set of social norms just don’t feel much like communities at all, so people withdraw from community life into their own families and houses.

-Real norms can be sustained effectively only by selecting who moves in, by praising or punishing those who uphold or violate norma as residents, and by expelling those who repeatedly violate the norms. These are the requirements to sustain the type of cooperation called network reciprocity, in which cooperators form local “network clusters” (communities) in which they help one another. Current laws in most developed countries make network reciprocity almost impossible.

-While modern multicultural communities may be very free at the level of individual lifestyle choice, they are very unfree at the level of allowing people to create and sustain distinctive local community norms and values.

-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 social sciences have always been crippled by the fact that they can’t assign groups of people randomly to different cultures with different social norms and institutions, so they can’t really infer what causes what.

-We can overcome this problem to some degree by allowing people to form a great diversity of like-minded communities, each of which has cohesive social norms. One huge benefit of legalizing such diversity is that we might learn what really makes communities work. We can compare different criteria of success across different communities and see what succeeds and what fails.


17 – Legalizing Freedom  

-Changing informal social norms is usually the most effective way to change human behavior.

-One problem with most current governments is that they prioritize economic growth (as mismeasured by GDP per capita) over citizens happiness, quality of life, efficiency of trait display, and breadth and depth of social networks.

-So, if you want to understand how political power biases the trait-display systems of our society, you have to track the money in which politics depends: taxation to support the government, and campaign finance to support individual politicians. These are the key points of democratic leverage where citizens can enact policy changes that free everybody to display their traits in more diverse and more accurate ways.

-If citizens don’t understand taxes, they don’t understand how, when, and where their government expropriates money, time, and freedom from their lives. They also don’t understand how most governments bias consumption over savings, and bias some forms of consumption over other forms, thereby distorting the trait-display systems that people might otherwise favor.

-In essence, income taxes penalize people for what they contribute to society (labor and capital), whereas consumption taxes penalize people for what they take out of society (new retail purchases).

-Free markets embody the aggregate intelligence of every buyer, seller, and innovator