Miller: The Role Of Blank Slateism In Consumerist Capitalism
May 02, 2009, 02:15 AM
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In Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, Geoffrey Miller writes:
The fetishization of youth and disparagement of wisdom in consumerist social judgment

The accuracy of person perception tends to improve with age, as we learn, gradually and painfully, which behavioral cues are the most reliable indicators of personality, intelligence, and moral virtues. We learn which situations reveal the most diagnostic information about someone’s true character. We learn how to see through first impressions.

This explains why the dating choices made by teenagers have always seemed appallingly stupid to their parents. Teenagers are overly influenced by the traits that are easiest to assess (physical attractiveness and status among peers). By contrast, parents have decades more experience in assessing the harder-to-discern traits, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and intelligence, and in appreciating the longer-term benefits that these traits convey in any human relationship. This ability to judge character was considered a major part of wisdom, and a cardinal virtue, before consumerist capitalism made concepts like character, wisdom, and virtue sound unfashionable.

... [B]y the mid-twentieth century, it became crucial for marketers to convince young people that they could judge one another’s individuality more effectively through consumerist trait displays than their elders could through wise observation. Judgments of one’s peers and dates by the older generation had be made to seem old-fashioned, uncool, irrelevant, biased, and prejudiced. In this, the marketers succeeded spectacularly, assisted by two key twentieth century ideologies: (1) the egalitarian rejection of the idea that an individual’s personality, intelligence, mental health, and moral virtues are useful concepts worth evaluating accurately and discussing socially, and (2) the environmentalist rejection of the idea that these traits show stability within individuals (across situations, relationships, and ages) and within families (through genetic inheritance).

Consumerist capitalism has depended on youth’s embrace of these blank-slate ideologies, which were sold as thrillingly rebellious and thoughtfully progressive.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, they seemed validated by psychology, social science, progressive politics, and the self-help movement. In popular culture, the blank-slate ideology convinced the young that the purchase of any new product designed to display some personal trait was a heroic rebellion against the older generation’s outmoded belief in the existence, stability, and heritability of personal traits. In the behavioral sciences, the blank-slate ideology biased generations of scientists against trait psychology, personality research, intelligence research, behavior genetics, and any other area concerned with individual differences. Instead, the focus turned to psychological processes that were allegedly similar across all humans: child development, social cognition, neural information processing.

As long as advertising never actually used the old-fashioned terms for traits (character, intelligence, virtue), the young could buy, display, and admire the trait-displaying products, make the social judgments they needed to make about one another’s traits, and pretend that they were living in a radical new post-trait world. The whole discourse of traits went underground, discreetly hidden in the rhetoric and semiotics of branding and marketing. It remained just visible enough for the young to recognize, unconsciously, which products would display which traits, but it was just elusive enough that their anti-trait ideology was never threatened, and the person-perception wisdom of their parents never seemed relevant to their lives.

For example, rap music producers such as Dr. Dre realized in the 1990s that the real money lay in convincing white middle-class suburban boys that by buying and playing rap, they could display their coolness, attitude, and street cred (that is, their aspirations toward low conscientiousness, low agreeableness, and high promiscuity.) The white boys obliged by pouring billions of their parents’ dollars through the local music retailers’ hip-hop sections, while dissing their parents’ concerns that white girls might actually prefer to date boys who display high conscientiousness, agreeableness, and chastity. But if the parents couldn’t distinguish between DJ Spooky, DJ Spinna, and DJ Qualls, how could they possibly claim that the whole rap music industry was just another marketing-driven set of costly, unreliable trait displays, or that the trait displays their children considered cool were actually repulsive to potential mates, friends, and employers?

Thus, the blank-slate model of human nature, far from challenging the principles of consumerist capitalism, forms consumerism’s ideological bedrock. It makes the trait-perception wisdom of older generations seem outdated and irrelevant, and makes the trait-display aspirations of younger generations seem to require buying the appropriate goods and services, while allowing them to pretend that they live in a brave new post-trait world. Most importantly, it undermines everyone’s confidence that their traits are real enough and visible enough to be appreciated without being amplified and externalized by careerism and consumerism.