Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

A (p)review of the Consuming Instinct

Why you buy what you buy

The other day, I went on amazon.com, and ordered a copy of a new book with a very clever title: The consuming instinct: What juicy burgers, Ferraris, pornography, and gift-giving reveal about human nature.  The book is by Gad Saad, University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University.  Saad is also a blogger for Psychology Today, and I've several times admired his outspoken defense of evolutionary approaches to human decision-making. 

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Dr. Saad has been a pioneer in bringing evolutionary ideas to the field of business.  An overwhelming body of literature now demonstrates that human decision-making is influenced by adaptively motivated biases inherited from our ancestors.  It follows that those biases influence how we allocate our scarce economic resources.  This has profound implications for consumer behavior, as Geoffrey Miller and several of my former students (Jill Sundie at UT, Vlad Griskevicius at Minnesota, and Josh Ackerman at MIT) have been arguing.  These researchers have been providing empirical demonstrations of the power of that viewpoint.  As a business professor, Saad has had to struggle against a set of false Blank Slate assumptions that still dominate that field.  Yes, there really are still people out there, often in prestigious academic positions, who believe evolution applies to the brains and behaviors of other animals, but not humans.  My colleagues received a review from a prestigious marketing journal, for example, stating boldly that “giraffes don’t have phone sex,” which seemed in the reviewer’s mind, to cleverly close the case for considering any biological influences on human decision-making.  Saad reviews several such fallacies in Chapter One.

The consumer goods in Saad’s clever title are not chosen randomly, but are matched to what he views as four overriding Darwinian pursuits: 

1. Survival: We are here because our ancestors were inclined to eat fatty cooked meats and other calorie-dense foods scorned by all California vegans today. Transported into the present, our ancestors would have lined up at McDonald’s for those juicy burgers in his title.  In the modern world, Saad notes that the top ten restaurants are McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Starbuck’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s Pizza, and Dunkin’ Donuts.  That diet does not help us live to 90, but the inclinations that drive those now unhealthy choices helped our ancestors survive until reproductive age.

2. Reproduction:  As Saad notes, men are overwhelmingly the consumers of pornography, and this sex difference is just the tip of the iceberg.  Indeed, Saad argues that a whole range of sex differences in consumer purchases are sex differentiated.  Flashy overpowered sports cars are also overwhelmingly a male purchase, and, Saad argues, mainly used as a sexual signal (and indeed the media from Fox News to the Belfast Telegraph is abuzz this week with a series of studies by Jill Sundie and colleagues that demonstrates the links between Porsches and mating displays; I talked about it here even before it was big in Belfast).  In Saad’s own research, he finds that simply driving an expensive sports car triggers a boost in men’s testosterone levels. 

3. Kin Selection:  Saad notes that many of our purchases are made for direct kin.  This month, I’ve shelled out money for Legos, art supplies, summer recreational programs, as well as a number of special foods aimed to please my seven-year-old son.  I just got back from lunch with him, his older brother, and my two grandchildren, and to test your knowledge of marketing behavior and inclusive fitness, guess who paid? 

4. Reciprocity: We not only buy gifts and lunches for our kin, we buy gifts for friends, pick up the tab at the restaurant when we’re with close friends, and so on.  We do so not because we’re economically “irrational,” but because it feels good to make our close associates feel good.  Indeed, gift-giving is linked not only to friends and kin, it is used to woo mates and to maintain relationships with them (think Valentine’s day and anniversary presents).  I enjoy Saad’s abundant use of statistics to bolster the points. He informs us that fully 10 percent of retail purchases in North America are for gifts, which boils down to $1,215 per person, which starts to add up after a while (to a whopping $253 billion per year in the economy, in fact).  

I could quibble with Saad’s list of motivational forces, and prefer a longer list of social motives (see Rebuilding Maslow’s Pyramid on an  Evolutionary Foundation). But I’m not yet done with the book, so will hold back quibbling, and simply agree with what David Buss said in the foreward: Saad's book that should be required reading at business schools.  Besides a broad-ranging overview of research on marketing, psychology, economics, anthropology, and biology, Saad peppers the book with lots of take-home messages for consumers, policy-makers, and business people (an appealing feature of books aimed at the business crowd -- a la Heath and Heath’s Made to Stick and Goldstein, Martin, and Cialdini’s Yes! – are those practical bottom-line suggestions). 

If you are either a professional businessperson or simply a consumer, I'd challenge you read this book and Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior -- and not come away thinking very differently about people’s motives for buying the many, many, things they buy.  But I don’t have time to talk more now, gotta turn on my brand new iPad and consume something else on amazon.com or iTunes. (links next pg)

Doug Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. The book was recently reviewed favorably in The Guardian and The Washington Post.   

Related posts:

Deep Rationality II: Conspicuous Consumption as Mating Display 

Rebuilding Maslow’s Pyramid on an  Evolutionary Foundation

Deep Rationality: Evolutionary psychology meets behavioral economics.

Does Driving a Porsche Make a Man More Desirable to Women?  Science Daily, June 16, 2011. 

References

Goldstein, N.J., Martin, S.J., & Cialdini, R.B. (2008).  Yes! Fifty scientifically proven ways to be persuasive. New York: Free Press.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York: Random House.

Miller, G. (2009).  Spent: Sex, evolution, and consumer behavior. New York: Viking Adult.

Saad, G. (2011).  The consuming instinct: what juicy burgers, Ferraris, pornography, and gift-giving reveal about human nature.  Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sundie, J.M., Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J., Vohs, K., & Beal, D.J. (2011). Peacocks, Porsches, and Thorsten Veblen: Conspicuous consumption as a sexual signaling system. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 100, 664-680.

P.S. Thanks for the internet copyeditors (I have gotten through 6 decades, and even won multiple spelling bees as a child, yet only just learned the difference between forward and foreward!)

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

more...

Subscribe to Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?