De psychologie achter consumentisme (2009)

Spent (2009) van Geoffrey Miller

Of: De psychologie achter consumentisme

Er zijn niet zoveel boeken en auteurs die een link leggen tussen economie, groei, welvaart en de psychologie die daar achter steekt. Het recente boek ‘Spent’ (met als ondertitel: sex, evolution, and the secrets of consumerism) van Geoffrey Miller is daarom een mooie aanleiding hier aandacht aan te besteden. Bijkomend voordeel: mijn site kan nu ook gevonden worden door op de veel gebruikte term ‘sex’ te googlen …

Kern van het betoog

De kern van het boek is dat we goederen en diensten niet per se kopen vanwege de objectieve eigenschappen of de gebruikswaarde. We behangen ons met goederen en diensten om indruk te maken op andere mensen. En dat doen we weer omdat ons imago en onze status van het allergrootste belang zijn om te overleven, om aantrekkelijke partners te krijgen, om vrienden te imponeren en om voor goed nageslacht te zorgen. Deze krachten zitten in ons vanuit de evolutionaire ontwikkeling die ons gebracht heeft waar we nu staan. Ook al zijn deze krachten oud en lijken ze misschien niet meer van deze tijd, ze blijven een krachtige (en vaak onbewuste) rol spelen in ons dagelijkse leven.

Stel dat we onze hedendaagse successen en verworvenheden zouden voorleggen aan de oude oermens, dan krijgen we een vermakelijke discussie. Ah, zegt de mannelijke holbewoner, dat is mooi als je zo rijk bent, dus ik kan met dat geld 20 vrouwen kopen die mijn kinderen gaan dragen? Eh, nee dat kan niet, dan moet je eerst een dure auto kopen en bijzondere kleding en dan maar hopen dat je er eentje aan de haak slaat die je kind wil dragen. Ah, zegt de vrouwelijke holbewoonster vervolgens, kun je met dat geld dan een man kopen die me niet meer slaat en die mooi is en zorgzaam bovendien. Eh, nee, ook dat hoort vooralsnog niet tot de mogelijkheden.

Fitness indicatoren

Welke signalen geven we af door ons met goederen en diensten te omringen? In feite fungeren de goederen en diensten als ‘fitness indicators’, ze laten zien hoe geschikt we zijn als sexuele partners. Miller laat zien dat er zes eigenschappen zijn die ons ‘objectief’ gezien geschikte partner maken, deze zes staan bekend als de ‘central six’, en ook onder de afkorting GOCASE. De letters in dit ezelsbruggetjes staan voor: General intelligence, Openness, Consentiousness, Agreeableness, Stability en Extraversion. Het gaat te ver om op deze plek al deze elementen apart te behandelen, maar ter illustratie behandel ik er twee.

Consentiousness. Deze eigenschap of indicator toont hoe betrouwbaar of zorgzaam je bent. Door producten te nemen die erg veel onderhoud vergen laat je zien dat je je dat kunt veroorloven. Kijk mij dat eens allemaal netjes doen, daar heb ik zomaar de tijd voor over, dat maakt mij een sterke en geschikte partner. Het hebben van een interessante verzameling, het houden van dure huisdieren, het geeft vanuit evolutionair perspectief het signaal af dat we iets goed en met zorg kunnen onderhouden.

Agreeableness. Het is aantrekkelijk en aangenaam om in mijn gezelschap te verkeren, ik pas me aan aan mijn omgeving, ik hoor bij een groep en dat geeft een betere bescherming tegen gevaar van buitenaf. Daarom geven mensen dingen weg aan anderen, zijn er mensen die zeehondjes beschermen etc. Deze fitness-indicator geeft volgens Miller mogelijkheden ons gedrag te veranderen, waarover later meer.

Maar de belangrijkste conclusie van de Central Six is eigenlijk dat er 1 indicator uitspringt als een goede en betrouwbare voorspeller van aantrekkelijkheid en succes en dat is de G van algemene intelligentie oftewel IQ. Het vreemde nu is dat IQ goed is te meten en dus hoeven we niet zoveel moeite te doen (en geld uit te geven) aan allerlei zaken. Gewoon een kwestie van ons IQ in het paspoort zetten en klaar is kees. Maar nee hoor, we geven liever een paar honderd duizend Euro uit aan een dure opleiding van enkele jaren om daarmee het signaal af te geven dat we volhoudend zijn en behoorlijk slim. Miller noemt deze opleidingen een ‘time-consuming and expensive way to guarantee a high IQ’. Blijkbaar is het dus niet zo simpel. Waarom doen we al die moeite als het ook simpel kan?

Waarom al die moeite?

Natuurlijk gaat het hier om het foppen van de medemens, je probeert met uiterlijkheden (goederen en diensten) betere signalen af te geven dan dat je werkelijk in huis hebt. Dit is in de natuur (bij dieren en planten) een volstrekt normaal fenomeen. Dit is in essentie wat marketing doet: de suggestie wekken dat het kopen van een product anderen het idee geeft dat je bepaalde interessante eigenschappen hebt en dus een aantrekkelijke partner bent. De advertenties suggereren succes als je een dure Porsche koopt. Je betaalt als het ware een ‘price premium’ (een opslag bovenop de kale kosten van productie, bovenop de basale behoefte om van a naar b te bewegen) om de verkeerde signalen af te kunnen geven. Waarom wordt hier eigenlijk niet meer empirisch onderzoek naar gedaan (vraagt Miller zich af)? Je kunt makkelijk testen of iemand met een Porsche meer en mooiere vrouwen krijgt en meer succesvollere kinderen achter laat op deze wereld (wel corrigeren voor zijn intelligentie natuurlijk!). Antwoord: dat is niet in het belang van onze economie, de meeste producten zouden door de mand vallen.

De meer wezenlijke vraag is hier eigenlijk: waarom trappen we er met zijn allen steeds weer in als consument? Mensen blijken (ook weer evolutionair) prima in staat in hele korte tijd te beoordelen in een face-to-face gesprek of iemand een interessante partner is, we zijn ontwikkeld om de goede signalen er snel uit te pikken. Dus nogmaals: waarom dan toch een hoop gedoe met dure goederen om valse signalen af te geven? Dat komt volgens Miller omdat we zelf wel denken te weten hoe het zit maar dat we van anderen denken dat zij het niet weten en dat de ander er dus wel waarde aan hecht met welke goederen en diensten we onszelf omringen. Blijkbaar zit er dus een rare kronkel in ons brein. Hoewel we ‘deep down’ wel beter weten, denken we dat anderen niet alleen naar ons als mens kijken maar ook naar de producten waarmee we ons omringen, en we denken ook dat we met die producten onze mindere eigenschappen kunnen compenseren. Het is deze ingebakken kronkel of illusie die door de marketing graag in stand wordt gehouden.

Marketing als pauwenstaart

Miller verklaart helaas niet waarom we deze kronkel dan evolutionair hebben meegekregen. Miller geeft behoorlijk af op de marketingmachines van grote ondernemingen, ze baseren zich volgens hem op pseudo-wetenschap en volstrekt achterhaalde theorieen. Hij vergelijke de grote marketing-afdelingen zelfs met de beroemde pauwenstaart. Een pauw heeft een zeer fraaie maar erg onhandige en (in termen van onderhoud en gevaar) zeer dure staart. Waarom heeft de pauw dan toch deze lastige staart ontwikkeld? Welnu, de pauw geeft aan zijn omgeving het signaal af dat hij ondanks deze lastige maar dure staart nog makkelijk kan overleven. Blijkbaar heeft hij zoveel resources in huis dat hij best wat kan missen en dan nog makkelijk overleeft. Zo’n pauw moet je dus als partner hebben! En zoiets kan ook gelden voor marketingafdelingen in grote bedrijven. Nee, natuurlijk heeft deze dure marketing-afdeling geen enkel nut. Maar wij zijn als bedrijf zo succesvol dat wij het ons makkelijk kunnen permitteren zo’n dure afdeling op de been te houden. Leuke gedachte, dat wel. Maar niet helemaal consistent volgens mij. Blijkbaar hebben we een natuurlijk kronkel in ons brein en daar maken de marketeers dankbaar gebruik van (steeds meer met datamining, wel degelijk met onderliggende systematische analyses van het beschikbare empirische materiaal).

Probleem?

Eigenlijk hebben we nog niet echt een probleem te pakken. Mensen geven een hoop geld uit aan dure producten die uiteindelijk niet de voordelen brengen die ze er onbewust van hadden gehoopt. Nou en? Zo zitten we blijkbaar in elkaar, zo werkt onze economie. Maar, en ik wijk hier af van Miller, er zitten twee aspecten aan dit fenomeen. We komen in een ratrace van steeds weer nieuwe producten terecht. Voordeel daarvan is dat er vaak onbedoeld echte innovaties en ontwikkelingen tot stand komen. Bekend is dat de oorlogs- en ruimtevaartindustrie duizenden vindingen hebben opgeleverd die hun toepassing vooral elders hebben gevonden. Maar nadeel is dat we een hoop overbodige shit om ons heen verzamelen die ons van vrije tijd en sociale contacten berooft en ons nu ‘zoetjesaan’ laat zien dat we de grenzen bereiken van wat deze wereld nog aankan. We willen de echte innovatie en progressie behouden maar zoveel mogelijk een halt toeroepen aan verspilling en vernietiging, vooral ook in het belang van onze eigen soort.

Oplossingsrichting

Uitgangspunt voor Miller is dat we het spel van de interessante partner spelen en gebruik maken van fopsignalen niet wezenlijk kunnen veranderen. We moeten nadenken hoe we het ingebouwde mechanimse een andere, meer vruchtbare en duurzame, kant op kunnen dwingen. Ik haal uit het betoog van Miller drie oplossingsrichtingen.

Op het micro-niveau hebben we allemaal onze verantwoordelijkheid om ‘runaway consumentism’ te voorkomen. Als je je weer eens realiseert dat je dolgraag dat nieuwe product wilt kopen, moet je je alternatieven op een rij zetten. Om te beginnen kun je het product gewoon niet kopen. Bereken voor jezelf vooral eens de prijs die je betaalt door het wel te kopen, haal de teleurstelling van je vorige aankoop weer voor de geest. Je kunt in plaats van nieuw kopen je oude spullen opknappen. Dat geeft vaak een beter gevoel (en ook hiermee kun je de aantrekkelijke partner spelen). Je kunt de spullen lenen, huren of tweedehands kopen. Je kunt niet het origineel kopen maar iets wat er op lijkt, een replica waarvan toch niemand ziet dat het een replica is. En tenslotte, je kunt ook gewoon drie jaar wachten met de aankoop, dan is er weer een nieuwe rage en koop je dat ding (als je het dan nog wilt) voor een prikkie.

Op het macro-niveau noemt Miller twee oplossingsrichtingen. De eerste is het weer toestaan van discriminatie. We moeten meer de vrijheid krijgen onze eigen clubs en gemeenschappen op te zetten. Dus een wijk inrichten waar het mogelijk wordt bij de mensen te wonen die je ook als je buren wilt hebben. Mensen die dezelfde normen en waarden als jij hebben. Achterliggend idee is dat je dan indruk op je omgeving kunt maken in lijn met diezelfde normen en waarden. Dan krijg je een ratrace in ‘voor elkaar zorgen’, ‘de meest ecologische groenten kweken’. Ik kan hier nog wel wat bezwaren aanvoeren, maar de denkrichting is prima.

Grand social quasi experiment

Maar de tweede oplossingsrichting vind ik zeker zo interessant. Miller pleit voor het opzetten van een grote internationale database. Hierin wordt van alle producten bijgehouden wat hun totale kosten en effecten zijn ook op de langere termijn. De voorbeelden zijn natuurlijk bekend. Neem een kogel voor een pistool. Die koop je voor een paar Euro. Maar de kosten voor de maatschappij kunnen enorm zijn. Daarom moet je dus bijhouden hoeveel mensen door kogels om het leven komen, welke ziekenhuiskosten dat met zich meebrengt etc. Als de database op orde is bepaal je de echte prijs van het product en gaat een kogel ongeveer 1000 Euro kosten. Zelfde verhaal voor cigaretten, motorfietsen. Zo wordt een goedkope wc-borstel van plastic die sneller slijt en vaker vervangen moet worden en voor milieubelasting zorgt een stuk duurder dan een houten wc-borstel met natuurhaar (of niet, dat blijkt dan wel uit de database). Ook hier zijn nog wel wat zaken om nader uit te werken maar wederom is de denkrichting prima. Technisch kunnen we dit natuurlijk prima voor elkaar krijgen. Het levert veel werk op en in mijn ogen nuttig werk waarmee je jezelf als een zeer aantrekkelijk partner kunt afficheren!


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