The Propensity for Narrative

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in the last seven years has been Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour. For many years, I have been somewhat restrained in expressing my fascination with this book. This is less because of the dubious reputation evolutionary psychology has (and evopsych underpins the book), and more because Miller’s conclusions so precisely matched my own thinking (which did not even have the backing of evopsych) that I was unable to decide if I was a genius or if Miller was talking something so banal that I thought of it too. Anyhow, that (along with laziness) explains why I am writing about this book almost six years after having first read it.

In Spent, Miller makes the case that all of modern civilisation and consumer capitalism is the outcome of our genes’ desire to pass themselves on. We want to have sex, and therefore we want to attract mates, and therefore we want to signal how great we are, and in the process we buy things which we hope will signal said greatness.

Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter—a fact that renders “materialism” a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second.

Miller says that when you come down to it, there are only six unique traits which we actually signal: intelligence, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion. Meanwhile, brands and their managers themselves catch on to our desire to signal these traits and tailor brand images to associate them with particular traits. So, for example:

  • The Economist associates itself with intelligence
  • Mountain Dew associates itself with openness to experience
  • Life insurance companies, especially in India, associate themselves with conscientiousness and stability (but to be fair, what else will they associate themselves with)

To some extent, this association may actually have a basis in the product itself. At other times, it exists only in marketing communication (really, just how much will 15% sugar water that looks like urine make you more open to new experiences?). But howsoever strong or weak the connection, at some point consumers will take it seriously.

At about the fifteenth chapter, Miller gives up description and takes up prescription. And that is what this post is really about. Everything until now has only been background. (Sorry.) Miller says:

… buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product’s design, provenance, acquisition, or use.

He continues with a long list of things that buying premium products fails to accomplish, but what I’m really interested in is the point about narrative value. On which note, let’s skip a few paragraphs in the same chapter, and go to Miller’s parable of a high powered lawyer who decides not to read GQ, drive to Neiman Marcus, and buy shirts; and instead:

… he could have driven to the nearest thrift store, used its logical arrangement of stock by garment type, size, and color to quickly identify some interesting shirts, tried them on, picked one, and bought it, in a total shirt-purchase time of about one hour. If his wife doesn’t like the shirt, no problem: it only cost $5. It could be burned impulsively on the barbecue to display his respect for the wife’s superior aesthetic judgement, and she would love him for it, and they could have connubial canoodling for two whole hours, and he would still come out ahead. Plus, the whole episode would make such a great dinner-party story.

(Incidentally, the above paragraph illustrates the appeal of Spent. Even if its argument is claptrap – and I have still not been able to find a reason why the argument is claptrap – the writing is so deliciously self-assured and sardonic that you will love the book despite its claptrapness. But back to narrative value for now.)

For many years, amazed at how much Miller and I thought alike, especially when it came to the bit about narrative value, I used to feel dismay and frustration watching people buy expensive brand name products that had little underlying utility, and brag about them with little underlying justification. This would be more sharply triggered with some product categories than others. Flooring, for example, is a product in which this rankles even today. Why buy Italian marble at Rs 650 a square foot, when tiles do the job at Rs 110, or when red oxide gives you the opportunity to talk about how you once read Amulya Shruthi’s blogpost about it and were utterly carried away by her reminiscing.

With other types of consumption, my reaction was more amusement and derision than frustration and rage. Luxury handbags, for example. I have once had the privilege of hearing a Bavarian thatha who manufactures glue rant ferociously about how useless the quality of these handbags is. And to this day, seeing people talk about Hermes or Louis Vuitton bags makes me giggle as I recall that rant, and mentally thank them for spending so much money to bring that back for me.

But, to really, really get back to narrative value. After three years of either rage or amusement, I began to wonder about why people could not see this for themselves. And I then began to wonder: what if some people simply do not have the capacity for narrative?

After all, we are living in India, where so many, too many, parents react in horror if their children reads “storybooks”, or anything other than assigned textbooks. There is also the disturbing push to see the Mahabharata and Ramayana as literal history instead of inspired and wonderful fictional fantasy – and that means that any attempt to build upon  or remix the narrative will be seen as ruining the story instead of improving it. But even if you think that these explanations are rubbish, do consider the possibility that something – Twitter, TV news, the Gods know what – is leading to people having lower and lower capacity for a deep narrative – and that as their capacity drops, the only narrative they can absorb are shallow brand identities like “Italian marble = made it in life” and “iPhone = pinnacle of usability”. And thus luxury marketing marches on.

Tangential points have arisen during the writing of this post that are perhaps too big to be footnotes:

  1. If you take Miller’s point about signaling at face value, the troll tactic that accuses you of ‘virtue signaling’ whenever you talk about feminism, human rights, or some such becomes both additionally tiresome and easily refuted. The correct answer to being accused of virture signaling then becomes: “Yes. And your point is? Signalling virtue is what has allowed us to leave the savannah, invent agriculture, start the Industrial Revolution, and bring about the gigantic improvement in longevity, health, wellbeing and prosperity that has culminated in you barging into my replies. So what is your fucking point exactly, and do you imagine that your barging into my replies is anything other than your own attempt to signal audaciousness and knowledge?”
  2. The value I place on a good dinner-story is so high that it has led me to maintain grudges against family members that have run for up to fifteen years (and counting). My motivation for this is that making up with said family members would, at best, give me a decent relationship with somebody extremely boring at best and annoying at worst. But carrying the feud on lets me tell stories about it for the amusement and entertainment of friends and family members whose presence is actually enjoyable, and with whom the relationship strengthens and deepens by sharing such stories and judgement.
  3. The Discworld, of course, takes the narrative capacity up to an extreme, and runs primarily on the power of narrative and less so on the laws of physics. If you accept Miller’s thesis, then conspicuous consumption of branded merchandise is the anti-narrativium. Jaguar and Jimmy Choo are therefore the agents of the Auditors of Reality.
  4. Punjabi pop music, in recent years, has been severely namedropping brands associated with such conspicuous consumption. That needs a blogpost in itself and I hope you will hold me to writing it.

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