Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"

Michael Platt

I just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the topic of runaway consumption beyond the carrying capacity of our planet was a major theme. The discussion would have profited mightily from Sterling’s excellent essay and the discussion thread here. Perhaps we can make it so next year.

I will add a little more biology to the foregoing analyses. In my own work, we have discovered that the “satisfaction” circuits so beautifully described by Sterling are actually comprised of specialized cellular pathways dedicated to the pursuit of either natural resources (e.g., food, water, etc.) or social resources (e.g., friends, partners, mates). Such “social neurons” are sensitive to the identity, qualities, social status, and value of others. We suspect that these pathways can be mutually reinforcing, as when we act collectively to achieve a useful end, or in conflict, as when we are driven to seek out others and emulate their behavior at the expense of more mundane but biologically necessary resources. Coordination of these circuits may lead to cooperation and mutual satisfaction, whereas conflict may lead to addiction to social stimulation through online and other media. Whether these separate sub-circuits are individually accessible and tunable through persuasive messaging and culture remains an open question.

Michael Platt
Michael Platt is James S. Riepe University Professor, Professor of Neuroscience, Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania.

Cite as Michael Platt, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume," Great Transition Initiative (February 2016),

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