The Mind as a Blank Slate: Hopeful But Wrong

Wishful thinking = blank slate view of the human mind

Posted Oct 15, 2012

My first Psychology Today article close to four years ago was titled “Are Consumers Born or Made? Both.” In it, I set the ground for the unassailable fact that Homo sapiens in general and Homo consumericus in particular is both a biological and cultural animal. I return to this issue today by exploring the pervasive view among countless social scientists and lay people alike that we are born with empty minds (i.e., no biological blueprints), formally known at the Tabula Rasa (blank slate) view of the human mind.

In both my 2007 academic book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, and my 2011 trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, I critique the blank slate premise (see also Pinker, 2002 for a book-length dismantling of this view). I discuss this long-standing mantra of the social sciences in the context of consumer behavior. In most instances, marketing scholars have largely ignored that consumers are biological beings and have instead assumed that consumers are strictly socialized into their preferences, desires, and choices (see also Saad, 2008). Consumers are apparently born with empty minds that are subsequently filled with advertising messages, media images, Hollywood stereotypes, pornographic plotlines, sexual song lyrics, etc.

The “blank slate” explanations are ubiquitous in the social sciences. Why do men stray from their marriages? It is undoubtedly due to their viewing of pornography. What explains the rising divorce rate? Again, look no further than pornography. It attacks wholesome family values placing undue pressures on the marriage institution. Why do people succumb to juicy burgers? It’s those alluring advertising jingles. Why are women the overwhelming suffers of eating disorders? It’s those damned media images that attack women’s self-worth. Why are some young men prone to violent and reckless behaviors? We must legislate aggressive video games. Why do some teenagers engage in an overactive sex life? We must put an end to today’s raunchy song lyrics that adolescents listen to. If only we could get rid of pornography, alluring advertising, violent video games, raunchy song lyrics, and sexist media images, the world would be a much healthier and safer place. Come to think of it, we should also legislate television shows, movie themes, romance novels, and sports viewing (e.g., the violent MMA combats). I am sure that we could come up with countless other “interventions” to curb the panoply of social ills. Needless to say, these arguments are pure fiction otherwise rooted in a perfectly erroneous view of human nature. Each of the latter examples is linked to evolutionary and biological principles that have little to do with the “removal” of culprit socialization forces. These cultural products exist in their form precisely because they cater to our biological-based human nature. They do not shape our supposedly infinitely malleable human nature.

Why is the blank slate view of the human mind so pervasive in the social sciences? I propose that it caters to one of the most important of all human quests, the endless pursuit for hope (see chapter 8 of The Consuming Instinct titled “Marketing Hope by Selling Lies”). In the 1994 classic film The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne [in a letter to his friend Red] (played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman respectively): “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” It is hopeful to believe that serial killers are not born evil but rather something in their environment must have shaped their diabolic penchants. It is hopeful to believe that all humans are born with equal intelligence potentiality. It is hopeful to believe that beauty is a social construction, and as such all individuals, free of those pesky media images, might be perceived as equally beautiful. It is hopeful to believe that autism is strictly caused by environmental agents (e.g., childhood vaccinations). Each of these faulty attributions is hopeful because it provides people with the illusion of control. Alter the supposed culprit environmental cause and the issue will apparently be resolved. Regrettably, as hopeful as this worldview might be, it is erroneous. It is such fatuous reasoning that led one of my marketing colleagues to proclaim to me at the recent Association for Consumer Research conference held in Vancouver that evolutionary theory has no actionable value. I should rush off and advise all of my colleagues in the evolutionary sciences that we are all wasting our time, as an understanding our evolved and biological-based human nature apparently has no “practical value”! This is the type of resistance that I’ve been facing for the past 15 years in my quest to Darwinize the field of consumer behavior albeit this is becoming an increasingly indefensible position to hold. Human behavior cannot be decoupled from the evolutionary forces that have shaped our minds.

Humans in general, and consumers in particular, are a mélange of their biology and their idiosyncratic environments. Ignoring our biological heritage yields a litany of false and incomplete theories of human behavior, the grandest of which might be the Tabula Rasa view of the human mind.

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