Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thrift Week, day seven: Lust

And so we come to the end of our Thrift Week celebration, which concludes with the always interesting topic of lust. There's no shortage of examples in which lust, in its most literal sense, can be costly: we can see plenty of cases in the news of men in high places being brought down by sex scandals, but even among ordinary folk it's clear that the inability to control sexual impulses can lead to costly affairs, costly divorces, and in some cases, costly habits such as prostitution or pornography. For young women, the consequences can be even more serious, since they're the ones who generally bear the financial burden of unintended pregnancy. Early childbirth can mean abandoning college—perhaps even not finishing high school—and being stuck on welfare or in dead-end jobs. It's hard to think of any other mistake a girl could make that's so likely to trap her in poverty. And, of course, people of both sexes can be financially harmed by lust—or even love—when it leads them into an imprudent marriage with a partner who has expensive tastes or wasteful habits.

To me, however, it's still more intriguing to consider a less literal interpretation of the word lust. As I noted in the first post of this series, the sin now known as lust or lechery was identified in the original Latin as luxuria, a term more literally translated as "extravagance." The author of the TipHero piece on the seven deadly sins also took this angle on lust, talking about how often people "fall in love" with some luxury item and just have to have it, regardless of the cost. This figurative form of lechery—what we might call "consumer lust"—bears a strong similarity to the more literal kind. Think about how often people talk about "falling in love" with a house, for instance, so that they're willing to go completely out of their price range to satisfy their longing. Or consider how cars, another big-ticket item, are often discussed in sexual terms. The fabled "new-car smell," in particular, seems to be a more potent aphrodisiac than any perfume. (In fact, if they could find a way of bottling that elusive scent, a woman could probably make herself more irresistible to men with it than with any fragrance now on the market.)

Though this form of lust is often treated as an exclusively female affliction, a moment's consideration makes it obvious that it isn't really anything of the kind. Women may be most vulnerable to the attractions of clothing, footwear, and furniture, but page through any electronics catalogue and you'll see in a minute that the newest and priciest items are being marketed as toys for boys (of the grown-up variety). In fact, according to this article, a five-year-old study done at Stanford shows that shopping addiction (which is now recognized as a genuine mental disorder), is nearly as prevalent among men as it is among women. And even when shopping isn't actually pathological, men are by no means immune to temptation. Another survey dating from around the same time shows that while women may spend more time shopping, men actually spend more money, at least during holiday sales.

And here's another, less obvious point: according to this article, referenced by Doug in response to Thursday's entry, sometimes consumer spending actually is linked to lust in its more literal form. According to this 2009 article, "men in the mating condition" are more inclined to spend money on "conspicuous luxuries" than men who aren't looking for a mate. The article went on to note that men seemed likely to spend in order to impress women only "when the potential mating situation is a short-term hook-up rather than a long-term relationship"—in other words, when lust rather than anything that might be called love is the driving factor. (Women, interestingly, don't seem as inclined to spend in order to attract a mate; they're more likely instead to engage in "conspicuous pro-social volunteering." In other words, men show off for women by spending money, while women show off for men by being active in the community. The article didn't say how well these strategies actually work; personally, I can't help wondering if trying to attract a mate through volunteerism is likely to do much good, especially with men who are looking mainly for "a short-term hook-up.")

So, to sum up, lust can drive spending in three ways:
  1. spending money on people we're attracted to;
  2. spending money on stuff we're attracted to; and
  3. spending money on stuff in order to attract people.
And which of these is the most destructive? That will obviously depend on the people involved—as well as the stuff.

And with that, we conclude our Thrift Week series. Talking about sin all week, I have to say, hasn't been nearly as entertaining as I'd hoped. Maybe next year I'll come up with a juicer topic, like tax strategies.
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