An evolutionary biologist explains why we spend a fortune trying to fake health, fitness and other desirable traits — and why our efforts are rarely convincing.
High heels, padded shoulders, cosmetics and fast cars. What do they all have in common? They are, according to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, PhD, just a few of the many strategies we humans employ to “fake” fitness.
Miller, the author of Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (Viking, 2009) and The Mating Mind (Anchor Books, 2001), theorizes that a great deal of our society’s tendency toward conspicuous consumption is driven by our desire “to convince others that we possess certain socially and sexually desirable traits.”
Those traits include physical health, fitness and beauty, as well as a variety of prized mental and emotional characteristics. As a culture, Miller explains, we spend billions on consumer goods trying to create the illusion that we possess these traits to a greater extent than we actually do.
In fact, we may wind up expending more time, money and energy toward faking certain traits than we would toward developing our natural strengths. And yet, our attempted fakeries rarely succeed in fooling others.
“The traits we most value are precisely the traits that are the most difficult to develop,” Miller explains, ”and they are also the most difficult to convincingly fake.”
The Urge to Exaggerate
Since the dawn of humanity, advertising our best and brightest qualities — to potential mates we hoped to attract, to peers and kin whose support we needed to thrive, and to potential foes or rivals we wanted to intimidate — has always been an essential survival strategy, says Miller. And it’s one that’s still widely employed by both animals and humans, from chest-thumping gorillas to eyelash-batting flirts.
Given the choice, an animal of any species will choose a healthy-looking mate over a mangy one. The condition of our bodies, however, is just one of many physical and mental characteristics that collectively account for what evolutionary biologists refer to as our “fitness,” a term they use to describe our net qualifications as a mate, friend or genetic donor.
The lush plumage of a bird, the daunting size of a male elk and the symmetry of a human face are all considered “fitness indicators,” but so is the demonstration of generosity and the ability to juggle. Whether or not we are aware of it, says Miller, we are constantly screening for “fitness indicators” that will help us assess the physical, mental and emotional potential of others. And we’re constantly trying to show our own fitness indicators in the best possible light.
In comparison with the animal world, though, modern human society’s economic and cultural variables complicate matters significantly. Unlike animals, we can purchase goods and services that augment our attractive features, and help minimize our apparent flaws.
Bettering Our Bodies
Physical health and fitness have always been considered highly valuable traits. But they have taken on even greater status in our culture in recent decades, Miller notes, because as our societal norms have shifted, these physical traits have become far more challenging for most people to acquire and maintain at a high level.
In an era when obesity and sedentary living have become common, maintaining a fit, healthy body requires both effort and attention. Precisely because staying in great shape beyond the age of 25 has become so challenging, Miller asserts, it has also come to represent all kinds of desirable character traits — like discipline, conscientiousness and restraint. (For more on this, see “Health: The New Sex Symbol”.)
Right or wrong, we are naturally inclined to infer that a person in good physical shape is more likely to possess better-than-average mental, social and emotional capacities.
This explains why so many of us are so eager to fake a better level of health and fitness however we can — whether through belly-flattening undergarments, shine-enhancing hair products or plastic surgery.
Products That Project
The range and quantity of products marketed to help us broadcast — or fake — our fitness is extraordinary.
The most obvious examples are products that help us amplify or minimize certain physical characteristics: High-heeled shoes make our legs look longer and better proportioned; a great dress may take a few pounds off our frame; a well-cut suit can broaden shoulders and hide a paunch. Botox, hair coloring or teeth whitening may make us appear more youthful; cosmetics like lipstick, blush and skin-smoothing foundation are designed to mimic the effects of good circulation, nutrition and immunity. Plastic surgery can refine or perfect our features, changing bust-to-waist ratios in ways that signal fertility, or making our faces more symmetrical or conventionally beautiful, thereby suggesting we come from good genetic stock.
But because our perceptions of fitness, at least in evolutionary terms, are not limited to physical traits, our “faked fitness” attempts are not limited to the body. There’s a whole range of products designed to reflect the character strengths and intellectual abilities we want to display: Owning original art may suggest wealth, creativity and refined taste, for example. Having a shelf full of books, regardless of whether we’ve ever read any of them, may help signal intelligence, curiosity or education. An expensive home may signal our social status and capacity to produce materially.
There’s also a whole category of products that let us psychologically “put on” the characteristics we wish we had more of. Fast sports cars, well-muscled dogs and even video games (where we can choose to be represented by attractive, hypersexualized and powerful avatars) allow us to borrow traits — like speed, beauty, skill and confidence — that we may not possess in any similar measure.
While appealing as a source of amusement and fantasy, any of these investments can backfire, says Miller, because taken to an extreme, they may wind up signaling low self-esteem, self-delusion and a disinclination to develop such traits for ourselves.
Expensive and obvious investments, in particular, can send both a positive and negative message. A series of plastic surgeries, for example, may perfect certain features and signal that we have ample material resources. Going too far with such displays, however, may wind up signaling that we are vain, insecure or even emotionally disturbed.
Why We Buy
So why would one of the world’s most intelligent species spend so much money on things that net us so little in the way of real value, or that may even work against us?
The answer, says Miller, is in our biology. For countless generations, appealing physical, emotional and mental character traits helped us survive, find quality mates and increase our chances of producing healthy offspring. We became adept at searching for and displaying the traits most widely considered to be valuable indicators of merit.
From a genetic standpoint, a tendency to err on the side of overbroadcasting those traits may have proved successful throughout the millennia, Miller theorizes: Those more inclined to aggressively signal their fitness may have enjoyed a greater chance to survive and pass on their genes.
Whatever the reason, the instinct continues to this day, says Miller. “I think an inner caveman narcissist still exists in both sexes,” he says, “so we are still always foraging and hunting for signals we can use; we are always on the lookout for new cultural ways we can amplify the signals we send.”
Consumer products have provided us with a vast bounty of signaling options our ancient ancestors didn’t have access to. “Marketers have a huge financial incentive to figure out how to ‘help’ consumers with their signaling strategies,” says Miller. Consumers, meanwhile, have proven eager to believe that buying our way to perceived fitness is possible, which for the most part, according to Miller, it is not.
First, he notes, the complex signals that indicate physical health are almost impossible to fudge. While most cosmetic products, like blush or a fake tan, can temporarily make us appear more vibrant, they cannot compensate for the lack of other indicators (overall skin and hair condition, clear eyes, appealing personal aroma) that signal true health. And even the best-tailored suit isn’t going to convince anyone that a middle-aged guy is in substantially better shape than he really is — particularly once he takes it off.
Second, the nonphysical traits we attempt to signal through acquired goods — intelligence, creativity, discernment — are far more effectively communicated (and thus betrayed) through our actions and interactions. Although we may be initially attracted by intelligent-looking eyeglasses or a well-curated CD collection, we are always more impressed by the abilities and sensibilities people have actually developed, says Miller, than by the trait-signaling consumer goods they have managed to acquire.
For example, fast, shiny cars may make midlife men feel better about their diminishing physical prowess, but they probably aren’t fooling most women. Of course, women may be impressed by whatever perceived skills and strengths won the man the material wealth he needed to buy the car — but if they learn he went into deep debt to buy it, that appeal will be diminished.
Our possessions can certainly signal others about our tastes and preferences, alerting them to our likes and dislikes and broadcasting the priorities we hope our friends and mates will have in common with us. But, says Miller, they very rarely help us appear much fitter, or better, than we actually are — at least, not over the long haul.
Therefore, instead of putting so much time, money and energy into displaying counterfeit fitness indicators, Miller asserts, we’re better served by simply living more authentic lives — cultivating the real traits and talents we desire by using the inherent strengths we possess.
In Search of the Authentic
The first defense against the temptation to fake fitness through material consumption is to recognize that you actually want and deserve the real thing.
Investing a lot of time and energy in makeup and expensive clothes to mask an unhealthy, out-of-shape physical self you’re not happy with is unlikely to make you satisfied or confident. And it can keep you from investing time, money and energy in developing the real health and fitness you’d prefer to enjoy.
The same goes for acquiring athletic gear you don’t use, or musical instruments you never learn to play. Having those props around may serve as a reminder of who you want to be, but until you actually make the effort and take the associated risks — of being a beginner, of trying and failing, of looking foolish — you can’t really hope to enjoy their true rewards.
“The thing about mastering the most valued display skills — things like becoming fit, drawing, singing, doing improv comedy — is that they’re difficult,” Miller explains. “If they weren’t difficult, they wouldn’t be good indicators of fitness.”
Fitness indicators that can be purchased, on the other hand, generally aren’t effective signals because, says Miller, “acquiring and possessing these things doesn’t require investing the kind of energy or taking the kind of social risks that actually end up being attractive to others.”
The greater the risk, the greater the potential return. And once we begin devoting ourselves to cultivating real and worthwhile traits, we start experiencing real rewards — a fact that can motivate us to take more risks.
It’s true, acknowledges Miller, that “developing bona fide traits and learning natural creative and romantic skills can be challenging at first.” But there comes a point “where the process of practice and learning and display becomes self-reinforcing and fun.”
Integrating the real-life skills and strengths we’ve been ineffectively chasing through consumption is deeply satisfying, he promises. And the payoffs are worth far more than any amount of faked fitness could ever deliver.