The Wiki Man

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • Chateauneuf-du-Puss

    Speaking as one that has had to be celibate and not by predilection (yes, I’m Mrs Chateauneuf, and no Mr C. has no interest in the other, as many people seem to assume about those of his kind), Gandhi’s ‘test’ was a form of boasting: he knew quite well that they would not tempt him. And did he care — how did he compensate — the virgin girls for lying beside him? On its face, it’s a contemptible thing to put young women through, a way of exploiting their innocence even if it didn’t involve the physical.

    • Kitty MLB

      People make the most outrageous assumptions about such mystical creatures
      as Mr Chateauneuf . The ancient Egyptians used to worship his kind as gods
      and clearly the somewhat distant Mr C has never forgotten that.
      Clearly sitting upon a cushion of a higher level then most creatures.
      As someone with my name suggests, I am also feline ( a name, I have actually
      been called since forever )
      So therefore might I suggest you just purr more loudly and do that little thing
      with your tail..

      • Chateauneuf-du-Puss

        If the cat were ‘cool’ — but it’s all over now, baby blue.

  • Kitty MLB

    So the great Ghandi felt a need to ” test” himself with young virgins. The real test
    would have been with a beautiful temptress..but why would the great man risk the
    possibility of failure. Or maybe he was waiting for Astraea daughter of Zeus-
    she, the ultimate virgin- representing innocence and purity.
    Socrates surrounded himself with young virgin boys for the same reason, they wished
    to be in his company hoping for some of his wisdom. And he would chose to be in
    their company to prove he was on a higher spiritual level then most others.
    Regardless of the Anglican Churches views on naked virgins ( apposed to those
    wearing some silky thing ?) at least they acknowledge that females exist unlike
    the Catholic Church.

  • Des Demona

    I am definitely willing to sit the ”two naked virgin” test. If I fail I suppose in time I’ll learn to live with it.


    Your first sentence; “Ghandi slept with naked virgins” is utter tosh, that was never attributed to Ghandi, so why read any more of your misinformed article.

    • rorysutherland

      He did. Google it. “One who conserves his vital fluid acquires unfailing power”. And one of them was his grand-niece.

  • browolf

    makes you wonder how different things would be if we had a female chancellor