Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pondering the Evolutionary Psychology of Thoughtful Consumerism

 After finishing Saved a few weeks ago, I started thinking about how and why we acquire material goods.  You might recall my little post on reverent materialism; it was that idea that really got me thinking about what’s going on in our brains when we think about stuff and the acquisition of it.  As a biologist, I’m always intrigued by the deepest underpinnings of behavior: genes and their interactions with the environment.  Our species has spent most its time in conditions where we didn’t have a lot of stuff, and the stuff we did have was crafted by hand using tools that were also made by hand.  Our Paleolithic ancestors wore clothes and made art.  They gathered food, eventually using baskets and other vessels.  They hunted with simple weapons.  Everything they did was by hand, and I imagine they treasured the few possessions they had.  Why wouldn’t they?  If you’d spent hours making a basket or a simple piece of clothing, you’d want to take good care of it too.

On the other hand, food would have been eaten when it was fresh.  Without preservation techniques, I imagine that food would have been enjoyed quickly after acquiring it.  Similarly, other goods may have been used right away, like firewood.  My list of one-time-use consumables is short here, but the point is that there were one-time use things.

The overall model to emerge here is that things were either made by hand and treasured forever or they were used once and consumed completely.  What we don’t have are items that are made, used a few times, and thrown away.  Which brings me to my next point: maybe the idea of throwaway goods doesn’t make sense in the context of our evolutionary relationship with consumerism.  Do our brains really know what to do with $1 flip-flops and $3 camisoles from Old Navy?  They don’t fit easily into the ancient models that we inherited from our ancestors.  Poorly made goods are just confusing, unless they are part of the one-time-use model.

Over and over again, I have read stories from people who are relieved to simplify their lives.  The stuff they choose to keep is the stuff they love and use.  I suspect that the joy of less is not just that less stuff is easier to manage.  I think it might be tapping into a conceptual framework with which our brains are innately more comfortable: stuff is either part of the “forever” category or it’s meant to be consumed completely.  Doesn’t it make sense that most goods outside of the food category really should last a long, long time?  Maybe not forever, but certainly longer than a season.

I’m not an anthropologist; I’m just musing out loud here.  What do you think?


Chrissy (The New Me) said...

I always love your posts on consumerism, but this one might be my favorite. I have nothing intelligent to add, but maybe I'll come up with something after I think some more about this. It's such an interesting theory, and one that I feel must have some truth to it. What DO we do with $1 flip flops? Such a great question!

Rosiecat said...

Thanks, Chrissy! Hey, I wish I had more to say on this subject too :-) Paul tells me that he has a really interesting book on acquisitive behavior in humans, so maybe I'll have more to say after reading that. Too bad my current "books to read" stack is ten books high!

(In all fairness, though, this year I've been buying camisoles from Target for about $7-8, and they are terrific. In that case, it's less about the price and more about the fit and durability.)

More thoughtful consumerism posts coming soon...along with a book giveaway! I'm excited.