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Adam Smith is the father of more than one sort of economics

Learning to resist my male vices

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

Gandhi would test his resolve by sleeping between two naked virgins, an avenue not really open to me, as my wife is an Anglican vicar: though Anglicanism imposes almost no constraints on your behaviour or beliefs nowadays, it still frowns on sleeping with naked virgins, especially if they are of the opposite sex.

So my equivalent of this exercise is to try to go into certain shops for half an hour and emerge without buying anything. Lakeland is an especially tough challenge here, but the real Matterhorn for me is an airport branch of Dixons. Last time I tried this, I found myself having to resist buying one of the GoPro range of ruggedised cameras — useful, perhaps, were I a base-jumper or fell-runner, but not so sensible in someone for whom stair-climbing counts as an extreme sport.

‘How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles… some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.’

This is a pretty good description of the modern obsession with consumer electronics, all the more remarkable for being written in 1759. The passage appears in Adam Smith’s (unfortunately less influential) book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which many people now consider to be the first major work written in the field of behavioural economics.

Smith also spotted the gadget-lover’s tendency towards ‘measurebation’ — although he did not call it that. A derogatory term coined by photographers, a ‘measurebator’ is someone who obsesses about all the specifications of his camera — the megapixel count, the ISO range, the shutter latency, and so on — but never takes any good photographs:

A watch, in the same manner, that falls behind above two minutes in a day, is despised by one curious in watches. He sells it perhaps for a couple of guineas, and purchases another at 50, which will not lose above a minute in a fortnight. The sole use of watches, however, is to tell us what o’clock it is, and to hinder us from breaking any engagement, or suffering any other inconveniency by our ignorance in that particular point. But the person so nice with regard to this machine, will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned… to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it.

Measurebation — and the obsession with the quantifiable attributes of a thing rather than what it is really for — appears to be an overwhelmingly male vice. (The cause may lie in gender differences in the structure of the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain, and is often the subject of studies into autism.)

It is significant that so many of the MPs who protested against HS2 were female. Most men, in my experience, are a teeny bit Aspergic. An assemblage of highly ‘male’ brains may be great if you want to design a new jet engine, but elsewhere — finance, economics, politics, trains — it can lead to the wasteful and overzealous pursuit of goals which are more or less irrelevant to human happiness.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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