Briefly noted: “Mate” is out and it’s good — Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller

As previously noted, Mate: Become the Man Women Want is out and it’s good.* As the book says in the introduction, “Your culture has failed you and the women you’re trying to meet.” The book is part of the remedy. When I read the draft a couple months ago I told Tucker, “I wish I could teleport a copy of Mate back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, and then instruct him to read it once a year for the next decade.” That’s still true. If you know any teenage or early 20s guys who are likely straight, give them a copy of this book. It is not going to be useful for everyone and indeed I expect some of you to strongly dislike it. People like how-to in many fields but often not this one.

Mate_CoverThe book emphasizes empathy: “If you always try to understand the woman’s perspective—what they want, why they want it, and how to ethically give it to them—then you will find it much easier to become attractive to them, and you’ll be much more successful with your mating efforts.” There are no shortcuts. For a while I’ve been describing the empathy gap, because I increasingly think that the average man doesn’t much understand or try to understand the average woman—and vice-versa. That’s why books like Mate, or Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, are valuable: they work to close the empathy gap.

Parts of the book will be obvious to older guys who have their lives together—that showering and grooming are important will not be news, but most of us can also probably remember the shambling smelly kids in school. Other parts counteract some of the more dubious parts of our culture, like the claim that women are attracted most by money and that all women are “gold diggers.” For most women most of the time other things matter most, like how “individual women just your fuckability by your social network. So you had better have proof—social proof—that it exists.” Most people, men and women, who want a relationship reasonably want to know the person they’re having a relationship with, and that means knowing friends and family—and knowing they exist. Many of us have had the experience of sleeping with someone who keeps us totally separate from the rest of their lives. Sometimes that can be good—we don’t “count”—but for actual relationships it’s not.

There are still hilarious metaphors and comparisons, like “[A lot of guys think they need to have a ton of money,] then the women will just magically appear, like monarch butterflies to milkweed, flies to honey, rappers to Scarface posters.” But there are fewer of them: The book is entertaining but it leans informational. I at least felt rueful for my teenage and college self when I read some sections. Perhaps my favorite moment occurs two-thirds through the book, when Max and Miller are noting some of the artistic skills that women like, like music, storytelling, and, saliently for this quote, drawing:

The key thing here is to cultivate actual skill rather than indulge in modernist expressionism or abstract art. The poet John Ciardi pointed out, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at women and persuade themselves they have a better idea.”

I’ve never read as concise and accurate description of why so much modern art is so bogus.

The bibliography is useful.


* As also previously noted, I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

Looks matter and always will because they convey valuable information, and a note about the media

In “The Revolution Will Not Be Screen-Printed on a Thong” Maureen O’Connor laments that people judge each other based on looks (“Why can’t we just not obsess about bodies?”), and then kind of answers her own question:

I ask that in earnest — it’s possible that we actually can’t stop, that this compulsive corporeal scrutiny is some sort of biological imperative, or species-wide neurosis left over from millennia of treating women as chattel.

We judge each based on looks because, as Geoffrey Miller describes in Spent and others have described elsewhere, looks convey a lot of useful information about age, fertility, and health. Beyond that, women are competitive with each other in this domain because they know (correctly) that men judge them based on looks (among other things).

In addition, as Tim Harford discusses in The Logic of Life, speed dating and other research shows that women reject about 90% of those in any given speed-dating event, and men reject about 80% of women. Both men and women usually report that they want similar things—men want youth and beauty; women want height and humor. But researchers devised clever experiments in which dating pools of either men or women have changed systematically—for example, by having entirely very tall men or very short men. Yet the rate at which men and women accept or decline dates remains the same.

That implies “compulsive corporeal scrutiny” is based partially on the knowledge that any particular person will be judged based on the other people around.

I don’t bring this up merely to correct a point in an article; it’s also to observe that a lot of the stuff one reads online is based on limited knowledge. As I get older I increasingly get the impression that a lot of journalists would be better served, at least intellectually speaking, to spend more time reading books and less time… doing other things?

One thing I like about journalists or journalist-blogger hybrids like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias is their wide, deep reading, and their willingness to connect wide, deep reading with the subjects they write about. One might disagree with them for ideological or other reasons, but they do at least know what they’re talking about and usually try to learn when they don’t. Too much of the media—whether in The Seattle Times or The Wall Street Journal or New York Magazine—is just making noise.*

Given the choice between most media and books, choose books. The challenge, of course, is finding them.

EDIT: Maybe Ezra Klein’s new mystery venture will solve some of the complaints above; he mentions “the deficiencies in how we present information” and promises “context.” I hope so, and certainly I’m not the first person to notice the many problems with the way much of the media works.


* Granted, I may be contributing to this in my own small way by contributing a link and possibly hits to a noise-making article that should be better than it is.

For Men Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn is missing evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and psychology

For Men Only promises “A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women,” but it’s missing any acknowledgment of the vast amount of research that shows:

  • We don’t know what we really want.
  • What we say or think we want often doesn’t match how we behave.
  • We behave different ways at different times and places.

For_men_onlyThe book would benefit from close study of work by Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman. For most guys, it’s worth reading, but reading skeptically. I say it’s worth reading because much of the book, especially regarding emotional engagement, matches my mistakes.

The writers, for example, say that “Women tend to process things by talking them through. [. . . while ] Men, however, tend to process things by thinking them through, and not saying anything until they full understand what they are thinking.” That is, on average, true in my experience, and it took a lot of trial and error—and more error—to realize that talking without knowing why one is talking isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual fatuousness or weakness. It’s a sign that a lot of women are simply “processing,” to use the Feldhahns’s language.

Elsewhere, the Feldhahns say that “When our wife or girlfriend is upset, we do what we would do with other guys: We give her space to work things out. But with very few exceptions, when women are upset they don’t want space. They want a hug.” Space increases feelings of loneliness, not feelings of competence and control. They also say that women often don’t necessarily want solutions to emotional problems—they want empathy, and a listener:

She just wants you to listen = she does want and need you to understand how she’s feeling about the problem. ‘It‘ = an emotional problem. This listening rule does not apply to technical conundrums.

To me, this makes no sense: why share a problem unless you want it resolved? But I’ve learned the the hard way that their reading is correct in many situations, and I’ve tended to discount emotions in favor of trying to solve problems. When this strategy failed, or elicited tears from girls, I would wonder what the fuck is the matter. I mean, when I have problems, I want them fixed, right? But, as the Feldhahns point out, I’m missing that the problem isn’t the problem—it’s a placeholder, in many situations, for something else. I failed to read the situation metaphorically.

The Feldhahns also point out that men overestimate the need to be seen as a “provider” and earn money, while underestimating the need for emotional and sexual closeness (for a literary example of this, pay close attention to the portrayal of Matt French in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me; he spends his life working, or worrying about work, in order to buy a big, crappy house, and neglects his wife to the point that she starts sleeping with another guy who probably makes less money but is sexy and available). Notice the words “overestimate” and “underestimate:” money and ambition matter, but not as much as many men think. The Feldhahns say, “For her, ’emotional security’ matters most: feeling emotionally connected and close to you, and knowing that you are there for her no matter what. Sure, providing financially is appreciated, but for most women it’s nowhere near the top of the list.” Clearly Jeff Feldhahn hasn’t dated some of the cold fish I have, but we’ll leave those stories aside.

From what I can discern, those insights are correct, even if the process that led to those insights is bogus, or at least not optimal. The authors say, “Besides conducting hundreds of in-person interviews, we gathered huge amounts of anecdotal information at dozens of women’s events where Feldhahn was presenting materials from For Women Only.” What people say they want and what they actually do often differ severely, as anyone who has ever listened to girls complain about the “assholes” they sleep with, compared with the “nice guys” they don’t, can attest. But my favorite study on the topic of the discrepancy between what people state in various situations is Alexander and Fisher’s “Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self‐reported sexuality:”

Men report more permissive sexual attitudes and behavior than do women. This experiment tested whether these differences might result from false accommodation to gender norms (distorted reporting consistent with gender stereotypes). Participants completed questionnaires under three conditions. Sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior were negligible in a bogus pipeline condition in which participants believed lying could be detected [meaning that “participants are attached to a non-functioning polygraph and are led to believe that dishonest answers given during an interview or on a survey can be detected by the machine” (28)], moderate in an anonymous condition [where participants don’t believe their answers will be revealed at all], and greatest in an exposure threat condition in which the experimenter could potentially view participants’ responses. This pattern was clearest for behaviors considered less acceptable for women than men (e.g., masturbation, exposure to hardcore & softcore erotica). Results suggest that some sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior reflect responses influenced by normative expectations for men and women

In other words, what people say about their sexual habits and beliefs depend in part on who is listening and how the speaker believes what they say will be interpreted. Given that fact, “in-person interviews” and “anecdotal information at women’s events” are arguably the worst way one could gather data on what women “really” want. Every time the Feldhahns say things like, “70 percent of the women said they’d rather their husband take a lower-paying job that would require financial sacrifices if it allowed more family time” (emphasis added) I wanted to say, “they only say that.”

Beyond the issue of what people say in different contexts, there’s an issue about what people do in different states of mind. In Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein’s paper “The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making,” the authors show that college-aged guys in a “cold” state systematically underestimate their likely sexual preferences and acts when they are in a “hot” state (which the experimenters elicit through showing each individual man porn, encouraging him to masturbate, and then asking the same set of questions). In Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes the difficult of conducting that experiment in the first place because of his university’s human-subjects board, and he speculates that getting permission to operate the same experiment with female subjects would be more difficult still.

The women the Feldhahns speak to are, presumably, in a cold state. What they say they want at that moment, speaking to somewhat high-status writers, may or may not bear any relation to what they want in hot states, or what they want in the private sphere that still exists between their ears. We are all hypocrites, but some of us are better at acknowledging it, and incorporating that knowledge into our thinking, than others.

Perhaps the second-best romantic advice I’ve ever heard is simple: “Don’t pay any attention to what she says—just look at what she does.” (The first-best is “The worst thing she can say is ‘no.'” Alter the gender pronouns to fit your preferences, as needed.) The Feldhahns are paying a lot of attention to what she says.

Jeff also plays himself off as stupid, like many men: “I doubted that a woman could ever be understood. Compared to other complex matters—like the tides, say, or how to figure a baseball player’s ERA—women seemed unknowable. Random even.” That’s because he’s either a) an idiot or b) has bought into large-scale cultural nonsense. Women can be understood. Evolutionary biology is a good place to start: take a look at Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, then the new introduction to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved, then Thornhill and Gangestad’s The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. All of them explain a lot about the pressures women feel, and, by extension, the pressures men feel in response (the pressures men and women feel are, of course, a feedback loop, with one side “responding” to the other).

Individual preferences can’t be understood based on group identification, because individual preferences can vary substantially, but understanding the basic evolutionary and cultural pressures operating on each sex will show why many people behave the way they do. Those “cultural pressures” I mentioned in the previous sentence are also important, and books like Neil Strauss’s The Game discuss them.

Let me return to Hrdy for a moment. In describing her path to the book, she says:

Competition between females is documented for every well-studied species of primate save one: our own. Once we leave the scientific realm, of course, and consider history, literature, and, for many of us, personal experience, examples of highly competitive, manipulative, and even murderous females flock to mind.

Competition between human females also exists—as “history, literature, and [. . .] personal experience” show us (we should get out of the lab and into culture if we’re going to study humans)—but it tends to exist along different dimensions than male competition. That’s why men tend not to notice it. In addition, male scientists suffer a failure of imagination, as Hrdy elegantly puts it: “The history of our knowledge about primate infanticide is in many ways a parable for the biases and fallibility that plague observational sciences: we discount the unimaginable and fail to see what we do not expect.”

Jeff doesn’t understand women because he doesn’t understand that women are also under competitive pressure, though he probably doesn’t realize what he doesn’t understand. Instead of thinking that women are “Random even,” he should be asking: What incentives operate on women that don’t on men? What’s it like to be female in our society? How can I learn more? He’s showing an empathy deficit and a research deficit.

Why are the authors ignorant about the vast literature on deception? They’re not researchers, and they don’t evince any interest in research, which is a major weakness. They’re may be inclined to massage their readers’ prejudice instead of challenging those views. They may also not want to know better, which I say because they say that “This book holds to a biblical world view. [. . . ] because Feldhahn and I view life through our Christian faith, we have seen that these findings are consistent with biblical principles.” In modern America, ensuring that “findings are consistent with biblical principles” is a code-phrase for militant, pointless ignorance. This is where I should point out that intellectual rigor and sophistication can (and should) co-exist with religious belief, but I don’t have the energy for culture-war crap.

The authors also sometimes evade important issues altogether, as their strategic use of passive voice shows here: “In this culture, women are not being protected emotionally. They are being humiliated.” Women are not being “protected emotionally” by who or what? “They are being humiliated” by who or what? As I tell students, cultures don’t just emerge from some amorphous cloud: they’re the result of aggregated individual decisions. Who should be doing the protecting? What does humiliation mean here? It’s hard to emotionally humiliate someone without their consent. This idea is simply asserted, and it’s asserted in a way that removes important information.

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.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior — Geoffrey Miller

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior is worth reading, but only with a skeptical eye that will keep you from passively imbibe ideas like, “In a complex, media-rich society, perhaps only people with very good mental health can tolerate a high degree of openness without losing their equilibrium” (emphasis added). I suspect many if not most people would ignore “perhaps” and take away the larger message without questioning whether it has real backing. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Spent should be read but read with a doubter’s wariness of the false or ridiculous. Both Outliers and Spent tend to overstate their cases and exaggerate the power of the ideas they impart, and knowing that makes the books a better (and less misleading) read.

If I were in marketing or public relations, I would make sure to read Spent, if for no other reason than its unusual erudition relative to other pop science books and its delivery of a widely ignored framework for understanding products, branding and the like—including how individuals are turned off by branding and advertising as a reaction to it. I would like to imagine myself in the latter category but probably am not to the extent I would prefer. Spent might make me more so by acting as an inoculation against marketing.

One other structure note: Spent is probably three books: one about marketing, one about evolutionary mating theory, and one about consumerism. They’re not always integrated, but three good discrete books jumbled together definitely beat one indifferent standalone book.

I’ll begin with some of Spent’s problems:

1) Ignore the hokey dialog in Spent’s opening pages.

If I had read the first few pages of Spent in a book store, that might have turned me off it. The gimmick is annoying, yes, but don’t discard the book for that reason.

2) Miller puts too much stock into IQ testing and ignores or belittles the vast (and justifiably so) controversy around it.

In All Brains Are the Same Color, Richard E. Nisbett discusses some knowledge regarding the mutability of IQ tests in a racial context, but that context can be generalized to a broader domain. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about similar issues in None of the above: What I.Q. doesn’t tell you about race in The New Yorker, where he discusses the many problems of tests used to ascertain intelligence. He also wrote Outliers, which popularizes the “10,000 hours to mastery” idea. If the path to mastery is practice, people who conscientiously work toward improving IQ-like skills through schooling will in turn improve their scores. That most people don’t might more indicative of motivation or of institutional problems than of genetic intelligence, especially since we still can’t get much beyond correlation in measurements of it. If you want more support for Miller’s perspective, William Saletan’s Created Equal offers some in Slate. Miller says:

Human intelligence has two aspects that make it a bit confusing at first. There is a universal aspect: intelligence as a set of psychological adaptations common to all normal humans… Then there is an individual-differences aspect: intelligence as a set of correlated differences in the speed and efficiency of those natural human capacities…

But he again leaves out intelligence as a function of skill and training.

In any event, this post isn’t meant to be a rehashing or literature review of knowledge on intelligence testing; to perceive the arguments in full is practically a Ph.D. in itself given the history, breadth, and depth of such arguments. The evidence for absolute IQ heritability and genetic intelligence is far weaker than Miller presents it, and it’s frustrating that he doesn’t recognize this.

3) Some statements are vacuous (if interesting).

Miller writes:

Like most reasonable people, I feel deep ambivalence about marketing and consumerism. Their power is awe-inspiring. Like gods, they inspire both worshipful submission and mortal terror

That’s more than a little contrived, and whatever power marketing and consumerism have is power that we give them. Most people probably never or seldom consider either, at least not in the academic terms Miller uses. Still, he uses the section to comic effect, as when he notes the things “exciting and appalling” about consumerism and marketing, including “frappuccinos, business schools, In Style magazine, Glock handguns, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, Dubai airport duty-free shops… the contemporary art market, and Bangkok.”

4) Elitism runs through the book, even when it’s disguised.

This is in part a continuation of the second point. Take, for example, this:

If we do choose to ignore the marketing revolution, we do so because we are terrified of a world in which our elite ideals lose their power to control the fruits of technology. (If you have the leisure time, education, and inclination to read this book, you are obviously a member of the elite.)

The marketing revolution is only as important as we let it be. Much of marketing comes to us through TV and the Internet, but not owning a TV (preferably without being this guy) and Firefox’s Adblock Plus plugin go a long way toward neutering marketing.

I am reminded of a comment from Asher Lev’s uncle in My Name is Asher Lev: “I read. A watchmaker does not necessarily have to be an ignoramus.” So too with people in general.

Sometimes I’m susceptible to nodding through the elitist comments when they flatter my preconceived ideas, as with this statement:

People indoctrinated in hedonistic individualism, religious fundamentalism, or patriarchal nationalism—that is, 99 percent of humanity—are not accustomed to thinking imaginatively about how to change society through changing its behavioral norms and institutional habits.

That might be true, but might there also be a less snide way of stating it?

5) Maybe, maybe not.

I’m not convinced that “Marketing is central to culture,” which is the title of Spent’s third chapter, or at least not unless we’re to stretch marketing beyond a useful definition. I do like the way Miller calls marketing “… ideally, a systematic attempt to fulfill human desires by producing goods and services that people will buy.” Not that the actual marketing often lives up to that, but it’s impressive that Miller is willing to concede that given his ambivalence about the subject and his knowledge of how prone marketing and consumerism are to abuse.

Nations aren’t exactly marketing or signaling in all the examples Miller gives in his chapter “Flaunting Fitness,” like when he says that they “compete to show off their socioeconomic strength through wasteful public ‘investments’ in Olympic facilities, aircraft carriers, manned space flight, or skyscrapers.” Some of that is their for humorous effect, but aircraft carriers and manned space flight both improve their associated technologies enormously, giving us modern day marvels like GPS and massive cruise ships, while skyscrapers allow denser human interactions of the sort that my perhaps favorite economist, Edward Glaeser, describes in his many papers on the subject.

Strengths

The book is filled with ideas, which ought to be evident even from the weaknesses. Brilliant summations occur in places, as when Miller writes, “… plausible deniability and adaptive self-deception allow human social life to zip along like a maglev monorail above the ravines and crevasses of tactical selfishness, by allowing the most important things to go unsaid—but not unimagined.” The metaphor is overwrought, yes, but the sentiment reinforces the “Games People Play” chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. One can see ideas from his book reaching into others and vice-versa, which I consider a strength.

Humor

In talking about “Narcissism and Capitalism,” Miller says that the “core symptoms” of narcissism “lead narcissists to view themselves as stars in their own life stories, protagonists in their own epics, with everyone else a minor character. (They’re like bloggers in that way.)” The dig about bloggers too frequently rings true, even when given in jest.

Some of the funny parts of Spent might not be intended as such, as when Miller deadpans, “The typical Vogue magazine ad shows just two things: a brand name, and an attractive person.” Someone must think this is effective, and I wonder if those ads are part of the fifty percent of one’s advertising budget that’s wasted.

Another Brick

Nonfiction books like this one, most of Gladwell’s (questionable) work, Pinker’s, Ariely’s, and Zimbardo’s, along with the other recent pop professor books, are bricks in the road to greater understanding. They remind us of and help us correct our foibles, and even those of us who consider ourselves virtuous would do well to remember that “the renouncers [of materialism] remain awesomely self-deceived in believing that they have left behind the whole castle of self-display just by escaping the dungeon of runaway consumerism.” Instead, they take to other displays of taste, of artistic creation, of intellectual prowess, and the like, perhaps by writing book/literary blogs. Nonetheless, those activities are probably more socially productive than, say, McMansions, yachts, and SUVs. Spent helps us engage and grapple with those phenomena and our society as a whole, and even some of the weaknesses I enumerate above aren’t as weak as I imply, or else I wouldn’t spend as much time as I do.

(See also my earlier post about Spent and vacuous movies.)

(The New York Times also has a vacuous article about the book in the Times’ Science section. If I were one of those irritating triumphalist bloggers, I might point to this as an example of the superiority of Internet reporting.)

On marketing, movies, and Geoffrey Miller's Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior and more

In “Why are so many movies awful?“, I quoted the fascinating New Yorker story “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook,” which says:

One of the oldest jokes in the business is that when a studio head takes over he’s given three envelopes, the first of which contains the advice “Fire the head of marketing.” Nowadays, though, former marketers, such as Oren Aviv, at Disney, and Marc Shmuger, at Universal, often run the studios. “Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,” one studio’s president of production says. “So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, ‘This director was born to make this movie.’ ”

Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior says:

That a company should produce what people desire, instead of trying to convince people to buy what the company happens to make, was a radical idea that seems obvious only in retrospect.

But maybe that theory works better in consumer goods purchases than in artistic or aesthetic fields, which movies are nominally supposed to be. The book so far intrigues even if its claims seem overstated; you can read more about it courtesy of Marginal Revolution here and here, which inspired me to get the book.

My guess so far at 40 pages in is that Spent will have lots of new ideas that don’t extend as far as Miller wants them to, but that it’s still a nice way to avoid mindless materialism (for more, see Paul Graham’s “Stuff” or Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy) without resorting to overwrought pieces like Marx’s “Commodity Fetishism” or Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment. As Miller says on page 16, “Evolutionary psychology can offer a deeper, more radical critique of consumerist culture than anything developed by Marx, Nietzsche, Veblen, Adorno, Marcuse, or Baudrillard,” as if rattling off the humanities’ intellectual grad school dream team. I’m not fully convinced but will happily hear the case.


EDIT: I wrote a full post about Spent here.

On marketing, movies, and Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior and more

In “Why are so many movies awful?“, I quoted the fascinating New Yorker story “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook:”

One of the oldest jokes in the business is that when a studio head takes over he’s given three envelopes, the first of which contains the advice “Fire the head of marketing.” Nowadays, though, former marketers, such as Oren Aviv, at Disney, and Marc Shmuger, at Universal, often run the studios. “Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,” one studio’s president of production says. “So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, ‘This director was born to make this movie.’ ”

Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior says:

That a company should produce what people desire, instead of trying to convince people to buy what the company happens to make, was a radical idea that seems obvious only in retrospect.

But maybe that theory works better in consumer goods purchases than in artistic or aesthetic fields, which movies are nominally supposed to be. The book so far intrigues even if its claims seem overstated; you can read more about it courtesy of Marginal Revolution here and here, which inspired me to get the book.

My guess so far at 40 pages in is that Spent will have lots of new ideas that don’t extend as far as Miller wants them to, but that it’s still a nice way to avoid mindless materialism (for more, see Paul Graham’s “Stuff” or Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy) without resorting to overwrought pieces like Marx’s “Commodity Fetishism” or Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment. As Miller says on page 16, “Evolutionary psychology can offer a deeper, more radical critique of consumerist culture than anything developed by Marx, Nietzsche, Veblen, Adorno, Marcuse, or Baudrillard,” as if rattling off the humanities’ intellectual grad school dream team. I’m not fully convinced but will happily hear the case.

EDIT: I wrote a full post about Spent here.

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