The economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the sort of expenditures certain wealthy people make primarily to demonstrate that they can. The one that springs to mind is the Vertu, that entirely preposterous diamond-encrusted mobile phone they used to advertise in the FT's How To Spend It supplement. (Sadly, I left my Vertu in the back of a taxi, along with the keys to my speedboat.) But while Veblen focused on the rich, the phenomenon is wider-reaching: the designer label-wearing kid on a deprived council estate is doing something similar. It's a fair bet, though, that you don't think of yourself as a conspicuous consumer. You buy things because they're useful or enjoyable, not to prove some point about status. Right?
Wrong, says the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his recent book Spent: Sex, Evolution And The Secrets Of Consumerism. Combining Veblen with Darwin, Miller argues that we're all engaged in "costly signalling": spending money, energy or time in order to advertise our genetic fitness. Buying an overpriced sports car sends the message, "I've got so many resources, I can afford to squander some of them." You might shudder at such crassness, but if you're paying a premium for organic vegetables, you may be subconsciously signalling another desirable trait: conscientiousness. That urge you feel to buy the latest Booker prizewinner may be rooted in a wish to demonstrate intelligence. Consumer capitalism, in this view, is a giant signalling machine for the purposes of sexual selection.
We put too much effort into sending signals, Miller says, instead of into what makes us truly happy. Besides, the signals we send through consumption don't actually impress others. Over millennia, we've evolved highly efficient means of advertising our qualities through person-to-person interaction; by comparison, buying cool stuff has little effect. This, he writes, is "the fundamental consumerist delusion – that other people care more about the artificial products you display through consumerist spending than about the natural traits you display through normal conversation, cooperation, and cuddles."
Evolutionary psychologists are always being accused of implying that the way we've evolved is the way we ought to be, and they're always denying the charge: to explain something in evolutionary terms – male promiscuity, say – isn't to condone it. But Miller blurs the is-versus-ought distinction. We've evolved to be emotionally well-balanced individuals on the African savannah of hundreds of thousands of years ago, he notes. So perhaps, if we want to be happy, we ought to spend less time sending signals through consumerism and more on the activities that dominated life back then. This back-to-basics mentality needn't mean rejecting any of the vast technological and social advances we've made: that would be absurd. It might simply mean spending more time in nature, with children, or in face-to-face conversation. Miller provides a checklist: how many times in the last month, it asks, among other things, have you "felt the sunrise warm your face", "rocked a newborn baby to sleep" or "repaired something that was broken"? It's a useful, if not comprehensive, approach to evaluating your life: does it include a sizeable chunk of things you could have done 250,000 years ago?