“Spent. Sex Evolution, and Consumer Behavior” by Geoffrey Miller: Discussion Questions

SpentCover

Why do we buy? Why are so many of our consumer choices simply a waste of time, energy, and money? How does advertising really work? And why are pregnant women more racist than the rest of us? In this brilliantly original, provocative and witty book, Geoffrey Miller – acclaimed author of The Mating Mind – uses evolutionary psychology to explain the phenomenon of modern brand-driven consumerism.

Discussion Questions for April 9, 2015 Book Club Meeting:

1. “Marketing is not just one of the most important ideas in business. It has become the dominant force in human culture.” This is how evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller leads into an early chapter on the importance of marketing. Do you agree with this conclusion? Why or why not?

2. In “Spent,” Miller sets out to explain why humans buy the things they do. His perspective is based on the concept that, compared to the time it took humans to evolve, our consumer society is so new that our brains are applying the skills developed for hunter-gatherer communities and applying them today. The extended evolutionary time frame in contrast with the recent and relatively brief span of civilization is a fundamental tenet of evolutionary psychology. What do you think of this fundamental premise? Will humans eventually evolve into a creature more compatible with our modern civilization (if civilization it lasts long enough to test the theory)?

3. One of the more valuable insight in “Spent” comes in the first half of the book. In his discussion on “consumer narcissism,” Miller succinctly states that the underlying premise of the book:

All human brains have a deep and abiding interest in two big sets of evolutionary goals: displaying fitness indicators that were associated with higher social and sexual status in prehistory, and chasing fitness cues that were associated with better survival, social, sexual, and parental prospects in prehistory.

What are some practical examples of this type of behavior (keeping in mind that “fit” is not just physical, but also social)? How does this tie into “conspicuous consumption” where humans who “waste” resources demonstrate to others that they are “fit,” e.g., a sickly peacock would be unable to grow an impressive tail?

4. In today’s society, we engage in behaviors like cosmetic surgery and philanthropy for reasons that seem to have little to do with DNA survival. These, Miller posits, are the way we adapt our primal programs to today’s opportunities and demands. Is it really evolutionary behavior or are cultural phenomena more to blame?

5. The second half of the book delves into discussion of what Miller terms the “Central Six” personality traits. These consist of “general intelligence” and the “Big Five”: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion. Is this an accurate summary of the primary human traits that drive consumption? Why or why not?

6. Do you agree with the book’s theme that evolution has a fundamental influence on consumer behavior and that we (or at least marketeers) ignore them at our peril?

7. What are the best aspects of the book? The worst?

Hope everyone enjoyed this interesting and informative book.

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