We are always making consumption decisions. Even apparently modest things like what we put in the trolley in the supermarket or what shoes we wear are distillations of large notions: who we think we are, how we wish to live and what we think will contribute to our well being. From different directions, all our actions as consumers are tapping into the same central question: what will make me happy?
We are always making consumption decisions: where to go on holiday; which handbag to purchase; which mortgage lender to go to; what style of socks or make of car to buy; what to have for lunch. We don’t normally spell it out, but each decision is a shot at understanding ourselves in some sector of existence, big or small. The range of our options is inevitably constrained but ideally, in exercising choice, we are promoting our happiness to the greatest possible extent. Even apparently modest things like what we put in the trolley in the supermarket or what shoes we wear are distillations of large, nebulous notions: who we think we are, how we wish to live and what we think will contribute to our well being. From different directions, all our actions as consumers are tapping into the same central question: what will make me happy?
We tend to think of consumption going badly or well mainly around price. We get annoyed with ourselves for spending too much. Or we’re really pleased if we pick up a bargain.
But there’s another way things can go wrong around consumption choices. We choose the wrong things because we don’t know ourselves well enough to select what will best work for us.
It can initially sound like a strange and rather insulting idea. How can you possible say that I am not qualified to know what I want? The idea that we might have a shortfall of self-knowledge around purchasing decisions can feel offensive.
The pursuit of happiness through personal choice is a key notion of modern capitalism. And it is tied to a critical – but rarely admitted – assumption, which is that we already naturally have enough self knowledge and a good enough grasp of our true needs to make the right choices for ourselves.
But the problem is that self-knowledge isn’t as easy and obvious as we might naturally suppose. With hindsight, we can sometimes see we’ve made mistaken choices. One ends up thinking things like:
– I thought I’d be wearing that dress all the time, in fact it’s hardly left the wardrobe.
– I seriously underestimated how stressed the mortgage would make me.
– I thought moving to the country would be great, but I just can’t stand being cut off from my old friends.
– What am I doing in Croatia at the beach!
The regrets could be summed up as the thought: if I’d known myself better at the time I’d have made a different decision.
It’s natural at times to blame ourselves for these mistakes. But really we’re more deserving of sympathy than criticism, because there are some pretty serious obstacles to the necessary consumer self-knowledge. Here are a few of these obstacles:
One: We track prestige too much
What we think we want is produced culturally. We’re strongly inclined to take our cues from other people – and to take to heart whatever has prestige in our society. We see this – with comic clarity – in societies far from our own, especially those in the past. There were times and places where adolescent boys were desperately excited by the idea of possessing a walking stick. Aged fourteen, they’d long for the day when they too could tap the pavement with an ebony cane. It seems funny in retrospect, but it is really just evidence about the power of prestige. We naturally want the things that convey social status – though, of course, what things have prestige changes dramatically over time.
Prestige is a problem when the things that enjoy prestige are not the ones that happen to serve our own best interests. We are so dependent on the regard of others, we may well forget the signals from deep within us that are hinting to us that we are not actually happy with the standard paths being proposed.
In the late winter of 1961, the portly literary critic Cyril Connolly wrote an article in the Sunday Times about his recent holiday to Barbados. And in it he took a brave decision. He decided to tell the wider world about his passion for snorkelling. Since then (and partly thanks to him) it no longer seems very strange for a seriously minded middle aged individual to don a rubber mask and a special breathing tube and bob around looking at cuttlefish and unusual kinds of seaweed. But at the time it was a very unusual activity indeed. There must have been a great many serious people who in fact would have liked it, if they had given it a go. Connolly was distinctive in the degree to which he was aware of his own needs and pleasures and was prepared to accord them time and respect; his snorkelling activities were connected to self-knowledge. It’s a tiny instance of a huge issue. We don’t automatically know ourselves well enough to know what we’d like. And specifically we are put off by anything that seems potentially odd. We generally fail to trust ourselves over the habits of other people.
Two: We have difficulty registering self-data
Generally speaking, attention is selective. You might have walked past an old building many times; then someone mentions that the chimney is an usual shape. You must have seen this on countless occasions – in the sense that your eyes had flitted over the roofline – but not actually noted it. It’s a reminder of something slightly disconcerting about how our minds work.
We often have fleeting sensations of pleasure or disappointment which we are marginally aware of, but don’t focus on. For instance:
– The indicator in a particular kind of car makes a strangely attractive clicking sound.
– Some cutlery designs feel nicer to hold than others.
– The sleeves of a jacket are slightly too long.
– It could be very nice just to eat a cheese sandwich at a restaurant.
We may have these sensations in a subliminal way, but don’t pay much attention to them. Later someone else might point what the lovely or annoying thing was that was going on. And with their help we learn to see more clearly what we want or don’t want. We get to know ourselves a little better in some part of existence. In principle, this is something we can do for ourselves. We don’t have to wait on the chance fact of another person guiding our attention more carefully. But we generally fail to act on our spontaneous feelings.
Three: We underrate the long-term
The present instant looms extremely large in consciousness. But our choices will have lasting repercussions. In theory, we know this perfectly well. Yet, with shocking regularity, we make decisions based on the mood of the moment, which turns out to misrepresent our better long-term interests.
It’s not so surprising we have this tendency. The human mind developed to tackle short-horizon problems. In a more precarious world than we inhabit now, this makes perfect sense. For hundreds of thousands of years the primary issue was to make sure you could survive the next 24 hours. That’s the mentality we’ve largely inherited. The long-range, strategic mind is less closely connected to our appetites and emotions.
Four: Our habits are responses to earlier problems
At critical moments of development we take up attitudes which enable us to cope with certain problems.
One’s father may have been stymied in his career and so any conspicuous success would look like a criticism of him. It seemed at that time necessary to disdain any expensive item. So later on, one feels compelled to order the least expensive dish in a restaurant or wear only very modest clothes, even though there’s a part of oneself that might relishhomard americanor an elegant winter coat. But because of the pressure of the past, these areas of self-knowledge don’t get explored. Having in the past suffered from not being able to afford things, one might develop a compensatory strategy of insisting always on luxury. It’s an attempt to fix an early humiliation. It can easily continue to override a more accurate assessment of one’s needs. One is still warding off a worry of ten years ago rather than carefully sifting one’s current needs.
These four big factors make it tricky for the mind to know itself. It’s very unfortunate, but not surprising, that it can take so long to sift through them and slowly arrive at self-knowledge. There is information inside our minds that the conscious self doesn’t have easy access to, though this information is central to the project of finding out what we want.
If perfect self-knowledge markets existed, it would be possible to readily generate satisfaction. Unfortunately, we are very far from possessing anything like perfect self-knowledge. Our predictable failures of self-knowledge have large and very unfortunate consequences for the economy.
Demand is geared towards things that don’t produce happiness
When people don’t understand themselves very well (by understand, we mean, don’t understand the path to eudaimonia), then what happens is: we misunderstand our own needs and make purchase that are misguided: that is, that fail to lead to what we ourselves are aiming at – our own happiness.
Work is low in meaning
Because meaningful work can be defined as work that properly enhances the wellbeing of others, if we sense that others don’t actually need what we’re involved in producing and perhaps would – if their self-knowledge were greater – actually reject it, we are left with a nagging undercurrent of suspicion: one’s labours are sadly counter-productive. One feels a subterranean sense of shame. One edges towards cynicism.
Opportunities for job and wealth creation are missed
The evolution of new and very important industries depends upon enough people recognising that they need and want things that hitherto have not been on offer. At its best, this would mean a better-targeted offering that had an important contribution to make to people’s pursuit of eudaimonia – a happy life. But successful innovation of this kind relies on there being a sufficiently large receptive audience; a large enough constituency of people with the requisite bit of self-knowledge in place – so they have an appetite for the new product or service
Problems around self-knowledge lead to problems in the economy. And one big idea starts to look tempting: does this show we should start dismantling our present economy, built around freedom of choice, and try to replace it with one that’s more directed – one that limits the scope given to the individual? That was tried in the Soviet Union and other places. It clearly doesn’t work…
The other option is to address our problems around self-knowledge. This is more hopeful for two reasons.
One: We’ve got lots of evidence that self-knowledge can be improved; only, up to now, the process happens in a slightly haphazard way. It’s far from impossible, only it’s not organised.
Two: Gains in self-knowledge benefit the individual, because (as we’ve been saying) a gain in self-knowledge is really a gain in knowledge about how to live a happier life.
And this is one of the principal routes along which we could collectively advance towards a much better economy. Governments are hugely committed to improving the economy and direct vast resources to this task. They should be turning a lot of attention to the philosophical question: how can we improve consumer self-knowledge to maximise the chances of consumption going well?