Sunday, 13 September 2009

Book Review: Spent, by Geoffrey Miller (2009)

It is somewhat irritating for a book to camouflage itself as an examination of consumer behaviour when it is really an academic's view of human personality analysis. Sub-titled "Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour", Geoffrey Miller's Spent is actually about none of these things. This mislabeling does not make the book any less interesting, just annoyingly misleading.

The book is, instead, primarily about understanding and explaining all human characteristics through the prism of personalities, and specifically what Miller terms the Central Six personality traits: General Intelligence, Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Stability, and Extraversion. Miller is passionate about these Six, and his argument is that we need not look beyond them to explain all human actions, including consumer behaviour.

Miller is an evolutionary psychologist and believes that our personalities and behaviours have evolved over the generations according to a straightforward "survival of the fittest" path, where the personalities and behaviours that persist today are the ones needed for the human species to survive and thrive. It's a simple premise, and Miller makes it work.

He explains how all our buying decisions and day-to-day societal actions stem from our need to demonstrate our fitness (both physical and material) and suitability as mates to pro-create. Spent does an excellent job explaining four of the six personality traits, and these chapters are thought- provoking and rich with ideas and good observations of human behaviour.

However, Miller, a professor at the University of New Mexico, mixes a humourous but naive and underdeveloped writing style with needless academic haughtiness in taking unnecessary shots at other academic theories. 59 pages into the book, Miller is still telling us what the book will be about. And often, the chapters come across as compiled lecture notes.

But Miller very much saves the worst parts of the book until the end, where we read, apparently seriously, about ideas such as labeling our personality traits on our forehead, companies in a free market intentionally limiting the sale of their products to people who meet specific personality characteristics (as saved in databases), and in a most ghastly idea, encouraging segregated neighbourhoods where only people with similar personalities are allowed in. One would think that even the University of New Mexico should be able to do better.

Spent is a useful read, but in addition to crystallizing the role of evolution in the routine decisions of modern-day society, it confirms that academics can be stunningly ridiculous.

329 pages plus Index.
Published in hardcover by Viking.

Spent at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 22.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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