Under a Friendly Spell

How friends influence us, for better and for worse, throughout life.

Shopping with Darwin

A new book applies evolutionary psychology to consumer behavior.

In his entertaining new book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal about Human Nature, PT Blogger Gad Saad summarizes (and defends) the field of evolutionary psychology while offering up helpful insights to business professors, wedding planners, and song lyricists alike.

PT: For starters, your definition of "consuming" is broad, including the act of consuming "cultural products" such as religion. Does consumption apply to anything we want, and any activity we take part in?

In my work, I define consumption very broadly and well beyond the strict economic definition of consumer behavior, typically defined as the purchase, use, and eventual disposal of goods (and services). I propose that the great majority of experiential acts are ultimately consummatory in nature. Moments are consumed. Relationships are consumed. Religious narratives are consumed. Books are consumed. Ideas are consumed. Hence, within my framework, consumption does indeed carry an all-encompassing connotation. Homo consumericus has a voracious appetite!

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PT: Your book is a great primer or overview of EP. You explain an epiphany you had in understanding the power of evolutionary theory--can you briefly retell that?

In my first semester as a doctoral student at Cornell University (Fall 1990), I was enrolled in Professor Dennis Regan's "Advanced Social Psychology" course. Around the middle of the semester, Dr. Regan assigned Homicide, a book authored by Drs. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, two of the founders of evolutionary psychology housed at McMaster University in Canada. In their book, they demonstrate how numerous crimes occur in very similar manners and for similar reasons across otherwise varied cultural settings.

For example, the greatest physical threat to a woman is her male partner, and the trigger for spousal homicides (or battery) is perceived or realized infidelity. This holds true across epochs and cultures, and is linked to the sex-specific threats of paternity uncertainty. I should mention that to offer a scientific explanation for such a dreadful form of violence in no way condones or justifies it. As a second example, Daly and Wilson showed that the presence of a stepparent in a family is a driving factor behind child abuse (coined the Cinderella Effect). This is known as discriminative parental solicitude, namely it makes evolutionary sense for individuals to provide greater care to kin more so than to non-kin, and this is certainly the case when it comes to parental investment (or lack thereof). Daly and Wilson offer numerous other examples, all of which are parsimoniously and elegantly explained via evolutionary principles. Upon reading their book, my epiphany had taken place. My intellectual path became crystal clear: I would seek to Darwinize the field of consumer behavior, which had heretofore been void of evolutionary-based theorizing.

PT: Robin Dunbar is quoted as saying, "If I have a plea on which to end, it is that social scientists refrain from the kinds of knee-jerk abhorrence of the evolutionary approach, and ask instead how this approach might benefit what they do." Why do you think many people, including many social scientists, have a negative visceral reaction to EP? Do you think that's changing at all? Why or why not?

The list of people who detest EP is a long one, as is the list of reasons for the antipathy. Some of the key ones include:

(1) Conflating evolutionary theory with its misapplication by those who hold sinister political and social agendas (e.g., Nazis, eugenicists, social class elitists, racists);

(2) Wrongly assuming that EP is tantamount to genetic determinism (i.e., we are doomed to succumb to our biological impulses);

(3) Unwilling to accept that the same evolutionary principles that drive the behaviors of animals are operative when it comes to humans;

(4) Erroneously believing that EP is only concerned with human universals while ignoring the importance of individual differences and cross-cultural differences;

(5) Holding on to the ignorant belief that EP is nothing more than fanciful post-hoc story telling otherwise void of any theoretical substance;

(6) Rejecting the idea that evolution is a scientific fact on the ground that this would be tantamount to advancing an atheist agenda since many evolutionary and related scientific principles contradict "accepted" religious doctrines;

(7) Believing that to offer an evolutionary explanation for a criminal or immoral act (e.g., infanticide, rape, marital infidelity) implies that one condones, agrees with, or justifies the act in question;

(8) Wrongly assuming that evolutionary psychology proposes that humans are violent, competitive, and brutish beasts who are otherwise void of compassion, empathy, love, and a cooperative spirit;

(9) Assuming that if one finds a single example that is contrary to an evolutionary principle, this means that EP has been falsified ("My nephew is dating an older woman. Hence, the supposed evolutionary principle that men prefer to mate with younger women is nonsense.");

(10) Deeming that any theory that purports that men and women might possess innate sex differences must inherently be sexist nonsense;

(11) Rejecting the possibility that humans might have innate biological blueprints. Rather, it is much more "hopeful" to believe that we are all born with equipotential blank slates;

(12) Denouncing universal theories of a shared human nature (as purported by EP) since all knowledge is supposedly subjective (postmodernism), all reality is constrained by language (deconstructionism), and all cultures are emic-based (cultural relativism).

There are several other reasons for the antipathy toward EP. That said you might see how we might have our hands full trying to quell all of these erroneous and antiquated criticisms.

I find solace in the fact that the scientific method is an auto-corrective system. Its capacity to sift through competing ideas and identify the one that best explains the world is what offers me hope that a growing number of critics will eventually accept the central tenets of EP. However, there will always be ideologues who will reject EP for reasons that have nothing to do with scientific issues, and everything to do with ideological dogma.

PT: EP does a great job of explaining why we crave certain things that are bad for us (fat and salt, for example) or why some people engage in maladaptive behaviors, such as hoarding. But the frustrating thing about EP in terms of mental health is that knowing the evolutionary roots of a feeling or impulse does not usually make it go away. Is our only hope against our evolved psychology huge doses of willpower?

Your point is not restricted to EP. Moral philosophers and theologians have repeatedly warned us against the seven deadly sins and yet most people have a very difficult time avoiding these alluring traps. People have a very clear understanding of the deleterious effects of smoking and yet this does not necessarily stop them from engaging in the behavior.

As I explain in my book, the operative premise when it comes to consumer wellbeing has been that individuals make poor choices because they do not have the necessary knowledge to make better ones. Educate them and the problem will be solved. This is grossly incorrect. To give an example closer to EP, many powerful men know full well that to engage in sexual indiscretions might ruin their careers, and yet they still succumb to the temptations (see Arnold Schwarznegger and Anthony Weiner most recently).

Knowledge is power but only when instantiated via self-restraint. Men and women have evolved the capacity to stray from their monogamous unions. However, we've also evolved a moral calculus that permits us to resist such temptations. Accordingly, at any given point, there might be multiple Darwinian drives pulling us in different directions. Our biology does not doom us to a deterministic fate. It is up to each individual to ensure that given his/her goal state the "appropriate" evolutionary pull wins out!

PT: Speaking of Dunbar, one fun fact in your book is that the average number of guests at American weddings is 164--a number close to 150, the number Dunbar determined to be the average size of our "tribes" in the evolutionary era. What do you take that to say about modern weddings?

Modern weddings provide a forum for celebrating an important rite of passage with those closest to us. That the average number of guests is close to Dunbar's number suggests that our evolved psychology regarding human sociality manifests itself in this very modern context.

Our outer concentric circle of close bonds, as drawn up in a wedding guest list, is in line with the number of individuals that humans would have interacted with in our evolutionary past. In The Consuming Instinct, I also argue that other wedding-related phenomena are indicative of our evolved psychology. For example, I proposed that the cost of a wedding gift would be positively correlated to the genetic relatedness between the giver and the newlyweds.

I also proclaimed that wedding gifts should be larger when offered by individuals from the maternal side of both the groom and bride (because of paternity uncertainty), and that in studying the seating arrangements at a wedding, members from the maternal side of the newlyweds would likely be seated closer to the table of honor. Subsequent to my completing The Consuming Instinct, I was contacted by Israeli colleagues (headed by Sigal Tifferet) to collaborate on a project wherein they had collected data on many of these exact issues! I am happy to report that the findings support the hypotheses that I posited in my book.

PT: No one would be surprised to learn that men prefer sports cars to sedans, but the biological connection you've made to this preference is telling. Can you summarize some of the hormone-purchases links your research has uncovered?

In 2009, I published a paper with one of my former graduate students (John G. Vongas) wherein we tested some of my theoretical ideas. Specifically, we explored what happens to men's testosterone (T) levels when made to drive either a fancy sports car (Porsche) or a beaten up old Toyota sedan in one of two environments: downtown Montreal (where the viewing audience would be substantial) or on an isolated highway (minimal viewing audience).

T is an important hormonal marker when it comes to changes to one's status. In hierarchical species, winners of intrasexual competitions (typically males) see a rise in their T levels whereas the losers experience a decrease in theirs. Returning to our study, we found that men's T levels increased significantly subsequent to driving the Porsche and to our surprise this increase was not moderated by the driving environment. In other words, whereas we had predicted that the increase would be greater in downtown Montreal (as compared to the semi-deserted highway), no such effect was found. Put a man in a Porsche and his T levels shoot up irrespective of the setting! The proverbial peacock's tail becomes the Porsche in the human context.

PT: You call religion the greatest product ever devised, and link it to, among other popular products, wrinkle cream. What do they have in common?

I chose a rather provocative title for chapter 8: Marketing Hope by Telling Lies. The overriding theme of the chapter is that some of the most successful products are those that cater to our Darwinian-based insecurities (mortality, aging, self-value on the mating market, sexual prowess, parenting abilities, status concerns, and so forth), and offer "solutions" in the shape of hope. Hence, religious narratives, cosmetic companies, and self-help gurus each peddle hope within their respective realms: "Believe in my religious narrative and I'll grant you immortality," "Apply this cream and you'll reverse the aging process," "Read my self-help book to learn how to make love to the same woman 20,000 times and give her an orgasm each time." It's all nonsense but it caters to our deepest insecurities. Hence, most individuals suspend reason with the hope that the hopeful message will work!

PT: Your book contains nuggets of advice for consumers, marketers, and policy makers. Can you share one "takeaway" mentioned in the book for each of these three groups?

It is difficult to identify only one but here it goes!

For consumers: Self-knowledge is very liberating. Why are men more likely to consumer hardcore pornography? Why do women wear stilettos? How does the menstrual cycle affect women's consumer choices? Why is religion such a powerful narrative? Why do we love our pets so much? Which of our four grandparents is most likely to invest in us and why? How does the fashion industry play on our instinctual need to belong? Do toys socialize us into little boys and girls or do they reflect innate sex differences? What does our preferred perfume say about our immune system? Why are engagement rings such an integral part of the modern courtship ritual?

These and countless other questions are answered once consumers understand the evolutionary origins of their consuming instinct.

For marketers: The local versus global debate has raged in advertising for close to eighty years. Should a company develop one advertising campaign for all international markets (global strategy) or should it tweak it to fit various cultural settings (local strategy)? I propose that EP can help advertisers resolve this conundrum. Some advertising cues are universally valid and hence are transportable across cultural settings (e.g., facially symmetric endorsers should be used when peddling beauty products; male endorsers with deep voices should be used when wishing to generate an aura of expertise, dominance, and authority). Other phenomena are culture-specific albeit for biological reasons (e.g., the differential use of spices across culinary traditions is an adaptation to the likelihood of food pathogens in a given culture).

Finally, some cues are culture-specific for reasons that have nothing to do with biology (e.g., cross-cultural differences in color connotations). EP provides advertisers and marketers with the framework for assorting phenomena into the various possible categories.

As a second practical example of EP, marketers would be well advised to know that products that are incongruent with human nature are likely to be commercial flops. Romance novels in which the male hero is short, pudgy, unemployed, submissive, and whiny will not sell. Soft "positive" erotica will never be a major seller among men (of heterosexual or homosexual orientation). Restaurant chains that sell raw vegetables and grass juice will never outperform McDonald's (even if they had an unlimited advertising budget to promote their products). Strip clubs targeting a heterosexual female clientele have a very limited market potential (notwithstanding the fact that so few such clubs currently exist).

For policy makers: As I mentioned in my response to question 4, policy makers always assume that the provision of the appropriate information will curb poor consumer choices. This is simply wrong.

For example, women have greater knowledge than men regarding the negative consequences of sun tanning and yet they engage much more frequently in the behavior. Providing public service announcements (PSA) that speak to the underlying evolutionary motive of sun tanning (e.g., beautification) would be the optimal strategy. Hence, in addition to providing statistical information about the risks of contracting melanoma in some distant future, create a PSA that vividly shows the aesthetic consequences of skin damage. Young males who drive recklessly do so precisely because they wish to defy death and come out unscathed. A PSA that simply reminds young men of the possibility of their own death will likely fall on deaf ears. Telling young male smokers about the early and imminent onset of impotence is much more powerful than advising them that they might be prone to heart disease in forty years. The Darwinian explanation is rather obvious!

 

Carlin Flora is a journalist in New York City. She was a member of PT's staff from 2004-2011, most recently as Features Editor.

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