Confronting Cavemanomics

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 14, 2009 | Go to article overview

Confronting Cavemanomics


Byline: Jeremy Lott, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the late 1990s, Geoffrey Miller landed a research job with University College of London's Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution. Mr. Miller's heroic challenge was to get evolutionary psychologists - members of his particular academic guild - and game-theory economists to work together.

How well did that go? It was the most frustrating experience of my professional life, Mr. Miller confesses in his second book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. It was apples to aliens: [W]e psychologists just did not understand the economists, and they did not understand us. They didn't think the same thoughts and they barely spoke the same language.

Mr. Miller's crisis point came in 1999 during a conference in London. The psychologists thought the economists might enjoy learning about their preference experiments, but it became obvious the assembled dismal scientists believed that consumer preferences were mere psychological abstractions - hidden hypothetical states that cannot be measured or explained apart from the purchases that they cause.

Now, he can chalk that one up to being ahead of the curve. In 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his development of Prospect Theory, which helps economists to better model real-life choices. Economics research has since shifted in a radically hands-on, experimental direction that is far more open to input from other disciplines. Many universities today express a marked preference for experimental economists for new hires.

But he couldn't have known that back at that conference in 1999. Fortunately, there was a rather large consolation prize to take away. Mr. Miller writes, [T]he economists gradually drifted away from the conference, leaving the psychologists to nurse our bruised egos, in the company of some strange-looking folks we hadn't seen before.

These strange-looking folks were marketers who turned out to be hot for psychology. Imagine that: They actually cared about people's preferences - where they came from, how they worked, and - let's not forget - how to profit from them.

In talking to the marketers, Mr. Miller explains, [A] new world opened up. He started reading as much marketing literature as he could get his hands on and now believes marketing is not just one of the most important ideas in business. It's become the most dominant force in human culture as well.

The author understands that this claim is open to charges of hyperbole. He replies that marketing is much more than mere advertising. Marketing-oriented companies help us discover desires we never knew we had, and ways of fulfilling them we never imagined. And this is taking place on a massive scale. In 2004, the United States had about 37,000 philosophy professors to 212,000 market and survey researchers.

Most of this research takes place without drawing much notice. …

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