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Conspicuous Contribution

Entry 1026, on 2009-06-05 at 21:31:59 (Rating 2, Comments)

I listen to a lot of science podcasts and one scientific area I find discussed in them which is probably more controversial than the others is social or behavioural evolution - also referred to as social Darwinism, often in a deprecating manner.

Social evolution involves the study of how behaviour is shaped by evolution. There is no doubt this happens (at least there's no doubt from people who are realistic about the concept of evolution in general) but often the supporters of the theory are accused of taking it too far and sometimes they probably do.

The particular angle being pursued in this interview was the evolutionary nature of consumerism. The claim is that buying "bling" (and this can include everything from jewellery to BMWs) is just a way for the person to make themself more attractive to potential mates and to other members of society.

It was pointed out that its overly simplistic to attribute all behaviour to this sort of phenomenon because there are other powerful societal influences such as government, corporations, and media. But aren't those things also driven by evolution? Wouldn't there be a good case to suggest that the person who wants to be in charge of the government of a country or CEO of a corporation also be driven by the need to "show off"?

Anyway there was a strong argument made against consumerism because research indicates people do not become more happy as they get richer. Actually, to be more accurate, there is a certain point where people become moderately comfortable above which there is little, if any, increase in happiness. So the ability to consume more doesn't seem to result in greater happiness.

Western industry depends on consumption to survive so there is a strong push from marketers to make use of people's innate need to consume. Advertising useless products like bottled water works because these things are seen as social status indicators.

The researcher said he tried to avoid this trap but said that he was still involved in seeking greater social status through recognition of his research (through mechanisms such as citation of his journal articles). He also thought that younger people were establishing their status through internet activities such as pages on social sites. So maybe the internet will provide an escape from the consumption of physical goods by allowing people to establish themselves through their on-line presence.

Another point which needs to be made is: is there anything wrong with consumption of useless goods, even if they don't add to the happiness of the purchaser? In some ways there is because it encourages irresponsible use of the planet's resources. Surely this is an issue which should be taken seriously.

Human nature is unlikely to change so individuals will always try to establish and promote their personalities by whatever means they think are appropriate. The researcher said everyone should be able to find a meaningful outlet other than consumption. He suggested music, art, writing, and comedy. He also specifically mentioned blogs as a significant way to establish an individual's personality. Again the internet comes to the rescue.

It seems likely that we are going to have to change in the near future. The current rate of consumption cannot be maintained. Just imagine how society could benefit if this tendency could be channeled into positive outlets instead?

The answer is simple really: conspicuous consumption needs to end and conspicuous contribution needs to take over.

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