This is a post by Val Curtis, evolutionary psychologist and Director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It was first published on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog.
Why are we humans such a greedy lot? There are four reasons why we like to consume. First, we seek to meet basic needs: calories, micro-nutrients, water, shelter and transport, for example. Second, we consume to stimulate ourselves, to give ourselves pleasure: cheesecake, music, flowers and recreational drugs might all fall into this. We also consume to hoard: owning and collecting. This instinct to hoard is more often nowadays expressed in shoe, ornament and, in my case, hotel soap collecting.
But the fourth, and most economically important, type of consumption serves a signalling function – display. As Geoffrey Miller eloquently argues in his book Spent, we consume to show off. We throw away the old and buy the latest phone because otherwise we’d be seen as old fashioned; we wear what’s cool in our social group and we buy beauty products to advertise our fitness and thus attract potential mates (even if we are not actually in need of one).
Two types of consumption
Consumption of goods is on the rise globally, and most of this rise can be put down to two of the four forces. One part of the world still has to meet its basic needs; for food, water, sanitation while at the same time people in wealthier parts of the world are consuming wildly on high-tech kitchens, four-wheel drives, mini-breaks and so on.
Spending on basic needs will grow inexorably in the emerging markets of the world and it is untenable to suggest that such growth should be stifled or prevented. Hans Rosling’s TED talk, the magic washing machine, used the example of washing machines. Two-thirds of the world’s women still laboriously scrub clothes clean by hand in bowls, basins and rivers and denying them access means they will forgo liberation from drudgery.
Rosling argues that we should rather direct our concerns at the consumption patterns of the rich world, where the lion’s share of resources are used – and mostly for the purpose of conspicuous display.
If consumerism really is a problem for the future of the planet (and not all would agree – for a contrarian view see Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist), then the question of how to stem this rampant, wasteful, signalling via products is a pressing one.
First we need to see the problem for what it is. The sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen provided an early explanation in his 1899 critique of consumerism. He argued that conspicuous consumption, via conspicuous waste, is used as a way to signal status. Evolutionary psychology says the brain of homo sapiens evolved in a world of scarcity, and as a result we are tuned to always want more. Because this was adaptive, it kept us striving to get the stuff that helped us to get more offspring and that included attraction to a mate who had ‘more’.
Displaying success through having so much surplus that it can be wasted led others to admire and seek alliances, and to accord social status, which in turn led to higher fitness and more gene copies in the next generation.
The desire to signal success and to copy the successful are thus inherited parts of human nature.
Marketing and a spiral of self-destruction
Marketers have long understood the power of these voices. They know that they can sell shampoo and cars on sex appeal and mobile phones as status props. Adding signalling value to brands works, it shifts more products, however irrational this may seem.
And, of course, the wider the gap between those who have stuff and those who have not, the greater the motivation for those with less to try to catch up. As rich countries get richer, as the rich in emerging markets pull away from their poor, and as the mega-rich get to display their toys via global media, so the innate need to signal that one is not ‘a failure’ grows.
As a result, more and more consumers around the world spend frantically in an effort to signal that they are also worthy of attention, status and mating opportunity. Is this an inevitable and gathering process, doomed to spiral us into self-destruction?
No amount of environmental rhetoric will induce us, as a species, to forgo the vast improvements in the conditions of life brought about by industrialisation. And there is no question that our current global market system will allow these benefits to continue to spread. This inevitably means more consumption. So how can we meet the challenge of reining in wasteful, signalling consumption?
Motivations, payoffs and the future
One way to engineer human behaviour is to change what’s called the motivational payoff structure. Tax systems could be re-engineered to social ends, one of which could be to switch to purchase taxes that make a distinction between basic needs and wasteful consumption. This would be deeply controversial; careful research and much citizen debate would be needed to figure out how to draw the line between what was and what was not wasteful.
Another way to change the motivational payoff structure is to imbue the target behaviour with a new motive: can wasteful consumption behaviour be seen as parasitic on society and therefore disgusting? Can it be made ridiculous, embarrassing and shameful? Some moves have been made in this direction by the environmental lobby, suggesting that this may be possible.
Research could be conducted to highlight the craziness of our consuming behaviour. We can expose our mismatched cave-man motives as ridiculous and damaging.
However, it’s not clear how research or campaigns to change public attitudes would be funded. Most resources deployed in influencing human consumption behaviour today work in the opposite direction: global marketing budgets motivate us to spend in an environmentally unsound fashion. Some large companies, of course, have a vested interest in continuing to shift as much product as possible; it is not in their short-term interests to attempt to curb wasteful consumption
This article originally appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog on 15th November 2011 and is an edited version of a piece that will be published by Unilever on 22 November at their sustainable living debate