Why do we buy what we do? That is, why do we order “decaf mocha frappuccinos” instead of simply milk shakes? Or why choose a BMW instead of a Honda? It’s not by chance of course. Here’s a thought experiment to express what I think.
Imagine there’s been a freak time-altering science experiment that wipes out the entire population of earth, except you. All buildings, cars, etc. are in-tact and stay that way forever. Even the electricity works everywhere, and there’s plenty of food that never spoils. You can do whatever you like and have anything and everything you want (except actual human company).
What do you do?
It would be pretty scary at first really, because you’d have to get used to being alone all the time. Maybe you could get an imaginary friend like Wilson in Cast Away with Tom Hanks. There is good news though! You don’t need to get up early ever again, or wear a tie or put on makeup. There would be no obligations to anyone. If you wanted you could go to a Ferrari dealership and drive one around all day, then you could drive a Bently the next day. You could go get yourself an Armani suit (all of the Armani suits actually). And you could have all of the Rolex watches in the world, without having to share them with anyone else. Fantastic right?
Of course, without a working society none of that crap matters at all though. If no one’s around to see you, it doesn’t matter if you have an expensive car, a luxury apartment in times square, or if you’re the best-dressed person in the cosmos or not.
So why do you care about that stuff now? It’s hard to argue that it’s for some reason other than to project the image you want to project to other people. All of this stuff we accumulate, the decisions we make, and the clothes we wear, are for other people. Buying a Prius says “I’m earth-conscious and practical” and buying an SUV says “I … ” Well actually, I’m the wrong person to ask about this because I still don’t understand why people buy SUVs. But the point is that every decision we make is to project some type of outward appearance for other people, not for ourselves. What’s surprising is that often we don’t even personally know these other people – it’s just for society in general or a certain type of social group that we want to fit into. From the coffee we drink to the TV shows we watch, it’s all for other people. Is there anything that’s truly just for us?
Admittedly, as I write this I’m sitting on a couch that has no cushioning – I can literally feel the springs digging into my butt cheeks. Even if I were alone in the world, I would want a better couch. This one is ridiculous – it hurts! It turns out there are some intrinsic desires that are related to our biology. I think this desire for comfort is one of them. It would only go so far though, and would not include a desire for a top-of-the-line designer, “miniature work of art” couch. There would be no reason for that.
If I were all alone in such a situation, I think I would read or maybe watch a lot of movies. I’d like to think I would exercise as well, because I love exercise. But currently I love it because it’s so calming, relaxing, and meditative. Perhaps I wouldn’t need it if I were all alone, or perhaps I would need it more.
The scenario above is taken from On Desire: Why We Want We Want by William B. Irvine and put into my own words. In his book he goes in depth as to why we desire, where desires come from, and what we might do about it. The next time you make a purchase, think about who you’re buying it for. Are you really buying that new thing for yourself? Probably not. Knowing our motivations for buying can help us distinguish between the necessary items and the useless ones.