Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a Prada handbag, an Armani suit, or a Rolex watch? If you really need to know the time, buy a cheap Timex or just look at your phone and send the money you have saved to Oxfam. Certain consumer behaviors seem irrational, wasteful, even evil. What drives people to possess so much more than they need?
Maybe they have good taste. In her wonderful 2003 book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel argues that our reaction to many consumer items is “immediate, perceptual, and emotional.” We want these things because of the pleasure we get from looking at and interacting with high-quality products—and there is nothing wrong with this. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life,” she writes. “They are part of it.”
Postrel is pushing back against a more cynical theory held by many sociologists, economists, and evolutionary theorists. Building from the insights of Thorstein Veblen, they argue that we buy such things as status symbols. Though we are often unaware of it and might angrily deny it, we are driven to accumulate ostentatious goods to impress others. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives this theory an adaptationist twist, arguing that the hunger for these luxury goods is a modern expression of the evolved desire to signal attractive traits—such as intelligence, ambition, and power—to entice mates: Charles Darwin’s sexual selection meets Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.
Signaling is a theory with broad scope—it has been applied to everything from self-mutilating behavior to the fact that the best private schools teach dead languages—but it is most blatant in the consumer world. Advertisements are often pure signaling fantasies. Your neighbors gasp as your car drives by; the attractive stranger in a bar is aroused by your choice of beer; your spouse and children love you because you bought the right brand of frozen pizza. Consistent with this, neuroscience studies reveal that when people look at products they judge to be “cool,” brain areas associated with praise and social approval are activated.
If such purchases are motivated by status enhancement, they become positional goods: their value is determined by what other people possess. This inspires a powerful critique of consumerism. Status is a zero-sum game, and just as countries in a literal arms race have to strip away resources from domestic priorities, the figurative arms race that economist Robert H. Frank calls “luxury fever” takes away from individual consumers money that would be better spent on more substantial goods, such as socializing and travel. It is hard for people to opt out. To say that an individual can simply refuse to participate is like saying that countries in a literal arms race can choose to stop buying all those fighter planes and put the money into school lunches and Shakespeare in the Park. Sure they can—if they don’t mind being invaded. If everyone else buys fancy suits for their job interviews, then I risk unemployment by choosing not to.
We would be better off, then, if some Leviathan could force us to disarm, so Miller, Frank, and others argue that the government should step in. A policy aimed at curbing luxury shopping might involve higher marginal tax rates or, as a more targeted intervention, a consumption tax. As it becomes harder to afford a Rolex, people will devote more money to pleasures that really matter. Less waste, more happiness.
Now, only a philistine would deny Postrel’s point that some consumer preferences are aesthetic, even sensual. And only a rube would doubt that some people buy some luxury items to impress colleagues, competitors, spouses, and lovers. Perhaps we can divvy up the consumer world. An appreciation of beauty explains certain accessible and universal consumer pleasures—Postrel begins her book in Kabul after the Taliban fell, describing how the women there reveled in their freedom to possess burkas of different colors and to paint their nails—while signaling theory applies to the more extravagant purchases. A crimson burka? Aesthetics. A $30,000 watch? Signaling. Aristotle Onassis’s choice to upholster the bar stools in his yacht with whale foreskin? Definitely signaling.
I don’t think any of this is mistaken. But it is seriously incomplete. There is a further explanation for our love of such goods, which draws upon one of the most interesting ideas in the cognitive sciences: that humans are not primarily sensory creatures. Rather, we respond to what we believe are objects’ deeper properties, including their histories. Sensory properties are relevant and so is signaling, but the pleasure we get from the right sort of history explains much of the lure of luxury items—and of more mundane consumer items as well.
The debate over the psychology and politics of non-utilitarian goods isn’t just about the whims of millionaires, then. Everyone has an appetite for non-utilitarian things; most people own things that they don’t really need. It is worth thinking about why.
Adapted from http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-lure-luxury