The Lure of Luxury | Paul Bloom

Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a Prada handbag, an Armani suit, or a Rolex watch? If you really need to know the time, buy a cheap Timex or just look at your phone and send the money you have saved to Oxfam. Certain consumer behaviors seem irrational, wasteful, even evil. What drives people to possess so much more than they need?

Maybe they have good taste. In her wonderful 2003 book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel argues that our reaction to many consumer items is “immediate, perceptual, and emotional.” We want these things because of the pleasure we get from looking at and interacting with high-quality products—and there is nothing wrong with this. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life,” she writes. “They are part of it.”

Postrel is pushing back against a more cynical theory held by many sociologists, economists, and evolutionary theorists. Building from the insights of Thorstein Veblen, they argue that we buy such things as status symbols. Though we are often unaware of it and might angrily deny it, we are driven to accumulate ostentatious goods to impress others. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives this theory an adaptationist twist, arguing that the hunger for these luxury goods is a modern expression of the evolved desire to signal attractive traits—such as intelligence, ambition, and power—to entice mates: Charles Darwin’s sexual selection meets Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.