“What are you reading?”
“Spent, by Geoffrey Miller. It’s a book I’m going to review on easternblot. It’s about the psychology of consumerism.”
“Oh, wow, I need to read that.”
A week later, I was reading Spent on my lunch break, in a student study lounge. It wasn’t very busy, because exams were just over and summer classes hadn’t started yet. A girl handed me a piece of paper, and explained she was doing a very quick study — it would only take me a minute. I indulged her and took the paper. It was a short questionnaire about what you would do if you were standing in line at the post office for more than 30 minutes, waiting to mail a package, and someone offered to take you to the front of the line in exchange for $3. Would you pay the three dollars or keep waiting? When the student came back to pick up my filled out questionnaire, I showed her what I was reading: “It’s so funny you gave me this, because just a minute ago I was reading about a study where participants had to choose between spending money now or saving it for later, and how it was related to what situations they were in.” I flipped two pages back in Spent and showed her the relevant section in the chapter Flaunting Fitness. “Cool!”, she said, and took note of the title and author.
(What did I answer on the questionnaire? I said I’d pay the $3, because I figured that 30 minutes of my time is worth more than $3. I didn’t know it at the time, but that very same concept of translating time to how much you could earn if you spent that time working is mentioned in a later chapter of Spent.)
A few days after that, I overheard my colleagues talking and laughing about how surgeons always drive a particular car. I rolled out of my office on my desk chair, Spent in hand, and read out loud part of the section How Car Choices Reveal The Central Six Traits where Miller lists what type of people drive what type of car. I work with intelligent and conscientious introverts, according to the list.
So, do I recommend Spent? Apparently I do: I recommended it a couple of times before even finishing it. I do want to point out a warning that Miller gives the reader in the introduction: if you’re used to reading marketing books about consumer studies, Spent might seem too slow-paced, and if you’re used to scientific papers, it might seem too subjective and disjointed. The main idea of the book is an attempt to explain our consumerist culture through the eye of evolutionary biology. How does what we purchase (cars, clothes, university educations) function to express who we are to others? The last section of the book gives some suggestions on how to change our consumer lifestyle, both to better reflect our personalities as well as to reduce rampant and pointless consumerism in a sensible way. (For example, Miller suggest taxing products on how much damage they lead to: average cost of deaths per bullet, average cost of transportation and road repair per imported food product, etc.) The appended Exercises for the Reader contain activities like going to the mall and observing people objectively, or playing Sims 2 for a couple of weeks.
Miller’s writing style is funny and perceptive, but also a bit controversial at times. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, the book should be a fun read. He expects most of his readers to be highly educated middle-class consumers, and that’s probably an apt assumption. Luckily for him, most people who buy and read books (or this review) automatically fall in that very category!