Are Consumers Born or Made? Both.

Knowing Your Customers. Step 1: Read Charles Darwin!

Posted Nov 23, 2008

I am delighted to have been asked to serve as a blogger for Psychology Today. For my first post, I'd like to briefly discuss the general theme of my blog. First, a quick definition of what I mean by "consumption." Humans are consummatory animals with rapacious appetites. We consume products (coffee, food, cars, clothing), services (massage, haircut, personal shopper), hedonic experiences (bungee jumping, traveling), mates, friends, family relationships, religious narratives, songs, movies, self-help books, motivational speeches, music videos, advertising images, and endless other instantiations of consumption. Hence, my definition of consumption is all encompassing. Much of what we do short of breathing and sleeping involves some consumption act. Second, I shall demonstrate that consumption phenomena are due both to our biology as well as our environment. Hence, Homo consumericus is both a cultural (nurture) as well as biological (nature) species. To most social scientists and many people at large, this is heretical news. The great majority of the discourse on consumption has focused on identifying the cultural and social forces that shape our consuming minds and bodies. However, over the past 15 years or so, I have been arguing that to fully understand the incredible richness of consumption requires that we identify the Darwinian forces that have led to the evolution of Homo consumericus.

Case in point: The Consumption of Beauty

I hate having to publicly admit this but I caught part of the Oprah Show yesterday. My excuse is that my wife was already watching it so I simply planting myself on the couch having just returned from teaching my undergraduate class. The general theme of the show was that beauty is a social construction. Hence, the manner by which we "consume" beauty is apparently culturally dependent. Oprah interviewed several guests who reiterated that same point. Mauritanian men prefer rotund women whereas Mauritanian women prefer skinny men. French women consider themselves sexy and desirable well past their sixtieth birthday. These examples might indeed be true albeit they do not negate the fact that many beauty markers are universal. Symmetric faces are considered to be more beautiful than asymmetric ones and this holds true across every known cultural setting. Some cultures may place a greater premium on rotund women versus skinny women, however men of all cultures prefer women who possess hourglass figures more so than those who mimic the waist-to-hip ratios of East German female swimmers of the 1970s! Hence, it is not that cultural factors do not matter for they certainly do, however underneath these differences lies a set of universal preferences that are rooted in a common biological heritage.

To tickle your curiosity, I list here typical issues that I am likely to discuss on this post. Why do men constitute the great majority of Ferrari owners? Why do women wear extraordinarily uncomfortable high heels, which often result in severe podiatric injuries? What do the most successful global restaurant chains have in common? How do consumers allocate their gift-giving budgets? Why is religion such a successful "product"? What do Arabic, Hindi, French, and American Hip Hop songs have in common? How does a woman's menstrual cycle affect her consumption acts? Why was Seinfeld such a popular sitcom? Why are beautiful endorsers so frequently used in advertisements? Are successful telemarketers likely to possess particular types of voices? Why are pathological gamblers largely male whereas women constitute the majority of compulsive buyers? The answer to each of the latter questions (and countless others) rests on an understanding of our biological heritage. I hope to tackle such issues and endless other fun topics on this blog. I hope that you'll visit it on a regular basis. Ciao for now.