The Possessions Exercise (According to Geoffrey Miller)

I’m re-reading Geoffrey Miller’s books The Mating Mind and Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, partially for pleasure and partially because some of his ideas might make it into my dissertation. The latter book is worth reading if for nothing other than the exercises he lists at the end, including “The Possessions Exercise:”

List the ten most expensive things (products, services, or experiences) that you have ever paid for (including houses, cars, university degrees, marriage ceremonies, divorce settlements, and taxes). Then, list the ten items that you have ever bought that gave you the most happiness. Count how many items appear on both lists.

(This exercise ought to be conjoined with the reading of Paul Graham’s essay Stuff.)

For many people, I suspect that relatively few items appear on each list, although that might be projection on my own part.

I do a lot of work on my computer, so many of the “bought” items tend to be related to that: an iMac, an Aeron, a Kinesis Advantage. The “university degree” appears on both lists, although I suspect that I often appreciated the experience of being at a university for undergrad as much if not more than the classes I was actually putatively there to take.

The big takeway from Miller’s exercise is obvious: what we really value often isn’t what we pay the most for, but few of us realize that. We overvalue stuff, to use Paul Graham’s phrase, and we undervalue each other, learning, making things, and interpersonal experience.

7 responses

  1. Interesting post and book recommendations. Where do you think travel fits in? If I ignore car/house/college degree, traveling (easily) fills the rest of my top 10 expenditures list, but also fills a lot of my top 10 sources of happiness list.

    If I ignore traveling, your point is very well taken.


  2. What do you mean by “we”? Values are highly temporal and spatial constructs and undervaluing other people, making things, and interpersonal experience is mostly because “we” live in a consumer culture but in many other places people matter way more than goods bought at a high cost.


  3. Could this not be partly to do with the fact that we probably aren’t very good at valuing the things that we have bought? For example, on your list of the ten most valuable things you’ve bought might be the $300 you spent taking your girlfriend to see Bon Jovi in the next state, which wouldn’t make it on to the list of ten things you’ve spent the most money on. But how can you value that experience against the Aeron chair you bought for $1000? The chair you’ve sat on for 60 hours per week every week for the last three years, which hasn’t made your back ache, which has been ergonomic enough to not give you RSI, the chair which (supposing you’re a contractor) has allowed you to work a little longer in comfort each day, and has contributed towards an extra $3000 in billable hours this year. Trying to value things by ‘most happiness’ seems like it will skew you towards obvious short term happinesses, and make you forget about the long term happiness (through their usefulness) of things like chairs and transport.


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  5. I’m really glad you shared this exercise. I realized that what’s even more dangerous than my most expensive purchases are the medium expensive range, $50-$200. With the really expensive stuff there is is more questioning of whether this is really necessary. The medium range purchases are often more impulsive and less thought out, and do add up. Luckily, my most expensive purchases were experiences rather than things, or tools that enabled experiences like sports equipment and technology.


  6. Pingback: The dangers of over-reliance on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, courtesy of Ernest Gellner and Henry Farrell « The Story's Story

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