Expensive Purchases Are Like Peacock Feathers, Except They Don't Work

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, says marketers are trying too hard to find a working model of why people spend money the way they do. It really comes down to the human equivalent of “cost signaling” in the animal world—a sort of “peacock feather” display that’s supposed to tell peers and prospective mates how smart or sophisticated we are. The only problem is, other people never fall for it.

Suppose, during a date, you casually say, “The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term.” Here’s what you’re signaling, as translated by Dr. Miller:

“My S.A.T. scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my I.Q. is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.”


Dr. Miller says that much of the pleasure we derive from products stems from the unconscious instinct that they will either enhance or signal our fitness by demonstrating intelligence or some of the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.

To begin with, we had no idea there’s a group of personality traits called the Big Five, and frankly we’re disappointed that laziness and “revenge plotting” aren’t in there, considering how much energy this writer devotes to those past times.

But back to evolutionary psychology. One way Dr. Miller illustrates his theory is by testing whether people change their shopping habits after being primed by pictures of attractive mates. They do:

In a series of experiments, Dr. Miller and other researchers found 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.

After this priming, men were more willing to splurge on designer sunglasses, expensive watches and European vacations. Women became more willing to do volunteer work and perform other acts of conspicuous charity – a signal of high conscientiousness and agreeableness, like demonstrating your concern for third world farmers by spending extra for Starbucks’s “fair trade” coffee.

But the truly useful point made by Dr. Miller (at least from our perspective) is: all this signaling doesn’t really work. He describes the misperception that what we purchase matters to other people as a “fundamental consumerist delusion,” but because a lot of the behavior is triggered by subconscious impulses, it can be hard to recognize or break. On the New York Times website, he suggests a simple exercise you can do to help illustrate the disconnect between how much you spend on something and how much enjoyment it brings yout:

List the ten most expensive things (products, services or experiences) that you have ever paid for (including houses, cars, university degrees, marriage ceremonies, divorce settlements and taxes). Then, list the ten items that you have ever bought that gave you the most happiness. Count how many items appear on both lists.

Note that this won’t help convince you that people aren’t falling for your screwed-up notion that what you buy will make people like you more, but it will help you realize that those big-ticket purchases aren’t always necessary for creating a fulfilling life. And if they’re not making you happy and aren’t getting you laid, then maybe there’s really no good reason to purchase them at all.

“Message in What We Buy, but Nobody’s Listening” [New York Times]
(Photo: respres)

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.