on February 21, 2013
The aphorist, Aaron Haspel, once wrote: “Once you see human interaction as a contest to signal mating fitness, you never see it as anything else.” That’s both interesting and true, but for the purposes of this review, I’m going to need to paint with a broader brush: once you see all aspects of human existence as a product of evolution, you never see them as anything else. Modern-day consumerism is no exception and it’s the subject of Gad Saad’s fantastic book The Consuming Instinct.
Saad is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and writes a popular blog at Psychology Today called Homo Consumericus. Using various parts of evolutionary theory, Saad dissects modern-day consumer behavior with applaudable gusto. Parts of his analysis are sure to be offensive to some, which suggests to me that he’s on to something. As a general rule of thumb, if some people are strongly offended by an idea, it’s worth giving it special consideration. This is because many truths simply aren’t all that pleasant. Many people respond to these types of books with knee-jerk reactions full of personal attacks and hatred because they confuse positive statements with normative ones. I would urge these people to consider that explaining how things are says nothing about how they ought to be.
The subtitle of the book is What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature. Not surprisingly, they reveal quite a bit. These four items speak to the four Darwinian pursuits that underlie human existence: survival, reproduction, kin selection, and reciprocity. The consuming instinct, then, can be studied under the lens of evolutionary psychology (EP), which is a theoretical framework that proposes that the human mind evolved by the same Darwinian forces that shaped all animals. The human brain is simply another product of the dual evolutionary processes called natural selection and sexual selection. More people are familiar with former and not the latter, which can explain things like art, religion, and consumer behavior.
It’s worth noting that amongst those who believe in evolution, there seems to be a small contingent of people who believe that evolution can explain the human foot, but anything above the neck is off limits. In other words, they are hesitant to give any credence to the field of evolutionary psychology because they don’t like some of the logical implications that follow. Like Saad, I believe this is an egregious mistake. The human brain is an amazing thing, but the fact that some people want to elevate it to something that was created outside the bounds of the natural world is silly. I think Malcolm de Chazal would remind us of the following: “Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into the mirror, he sees a monkey.”
Political correctness be damned, Saad takes a refreshing and no holds barred approach to debunking the myths of social constructivism, particularly the myths surrounding gender differences. The Harvard evolutionist E. O. Wilson, once said: “The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.” Anyone who understands the power of evolutionary theory will understand that marketing efforts for products that don’t align with our natural instincts are doomed to fail. Excellent marketers are intuitively well aware of this reality too — they understand that the way to market beer to men is different than is way to market cosmetics to women.
There is a reason why men consume more pornography, more Ferraris, and are more likely to participate in extreme sports than are women. These differences are due to a deep rooted evolutionary causes and it’s a sad state of affairs when one is considered a cultural deviant for suggesting that men and women, thanks to the process of evolution, have deep biological differences. I’ll proudly wear the label of “cultural deviant” if that’s the term used to describe people who are more interested in knowing the truth than they are in hearing fictitious, yet comforting stories.
Here’s an interesting fact from the book: studies show that when men drive a Porsche they experience an increase in testosterone levels. It appears that the mere act of sexual signaling can cause an increase in testosterone in men. How many men would care about driving a Porsche if no one were around to watch though? I suspect that the answer is not many. I think this is why you see men cruising around in Porsches and Ferraris in crowded hotspots like Chicago’s Viagra Triangle on a Saturday night and not in downtown Longmont, Colorado. This, of course, prompts an interesting philosophical question: If a sexual signal is flashed and no one is there to receive it, does it really exist?
Another thing that’s bound to upset social constructivists is that universal metrics of beauty do exist, and are not arbitrary social constructs. Studies show that a deep male voice is universally attractive, which makes sense since it indicates a greater exposure to pubertal testosterone. Studies also show that women with the optimum waist-to-hip ratio of around 0.7 are preferred by men around the world. Universally, for men, achieving high status in the social hierarchy matters greatly if one wants to be an attractive mate, while, for women, it’s physical beauty that matters most.
One of my favorite chapters was called “Marketing Hope by Selling Lies”. In the chapter Saad explains that there are many unpleasant biological-based realities, like aging, mortality, sexual boredom in monogamous relationships, and the fact that children are born with innate differences in abilities. Marketers, and self-help gurus of all varieties, see this as an opportunity. After-all, it provides them a chance to sell hope, which is often nothing but an especially insidious form of snake oil.
Saad sees religion as the greatest (and perhaps evilest) product ever devised. He writes: “Religion possesses unique attributes that render it a marketer’s dream product.” Indeed it is. A number of televangelists get in front of audience every Sunday and tell their delusional, yet optimistic followers that God has great things in store for them in the afterlife if only they give up their worldly possessions to their preacher in this life. Don’t worry, God wants the preacher to have your money — apparently He said so. Alas, these religious charlatans are smart enough to know that it helps to plant the seed of fear early if you want to swindle people out of their money later in life.
The Argentine shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis once famously said: “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” Even if you already intuitively understand why that is so, I highly recommend reading The Consuming Instinct anyway.
on August 9, 2011
This is basically a tour of the evolutionary psychology (EP) space, with a particular emphasis on consumer behavior. It's got all the standard theories and studies and authors, presented in a pretty engaging style.
There were two sections that were a little different and that I particularly liked. In one, at the beginning, the author takes on several arguments that are typically made against EP. Valuable stuff. In the other, at the end of the book, Saad argues for EP as a basis for all social science research. It's a bit of a stretch, but a very interesting idea.
So, why only 3 stars? There are a number of reasons:
- There's not a lot that's new here. If you read Geoffrey Miller's Spent, you probably don't need to read this one.
- The author forgets to tie in consumer behavior at points, focusing more on straight EP. The things he has to say are invariably very interesting, but he really can leave the reader hanging.
- The author jumps around quite a bit. He does typically end one section with a transition to the next, but some of these are very jarring and artificial.
- Saad likes to engage the reader by sharing some personal stories. Some of these are great. Some, though, are shaggy dog stories.
- His treatment of religion is quite negative ("Bronze Age superstitions that are antithetical to every rational tenet"). I don't really mind that much personally, but I just kept wondering why that tone was necessary. That's especially the case when you consider that there is some EP thought out there that basically says we evolved to believe.
on February 18, 2015
Gad Saad explains his theories of an evolutionary basis for consumer behavior. Since the evolution of the human brain mostly took place before modern civilization, the concerns, cravings, and aspirations of our hunter-gatherer ancestors out in the Paleolithic wilderness are the same ones that drive us in the wilds of the modern malls, clubs, and churches. This is backed up with meticulous notes from Gad’s and others empirical research into evolutionary psychology, consumer ethnography, behavioral finance, sociobiology, and myriad other subjects.
There's an equal treatment of theory and application. For example, it's joked about and much supposed that women find men in expensive cars more attractive. It makes some sense that high status men have more resources to provide, but can it be true in our sophisticated, post-modern society? It turns out it is. Studies are presented that show women find men, any men, attractive in an expensive car. The luxury and prestige of the car is transferred to the man driving it. It's also shown that men's testosterone level increases when driving an expensive sports car as opposed to driving a regular car. Clearly there are unconscious patterns at work in consumers' minds that fit patterns that have developed long ago and are still with us.
There are many other examples and presentations. One notable subject that the author has gotten a lot of attention for is his criticism of religion and defense of atheism. There’s not much more I can add to that debate, but I think Gad’s own research frames the issue in surprising ways. Although he does give his thoughts about the idea of God (he obviously doesn’t believe in it), the complaints, similar to other atheists and agnostics, are mostly with the practice of religion. Considering his family's experiences with religious conflicts, which he touches on in his chapter about altruism and social networks, his view is understandable. Religion is practiced by flawed people beholden to evolutionary urges, so obviously there are going to be problems, some serious. However, the same cultural and evolutionary forces that, say, shape a group to become more cohesive and conforming in times of stress also shape them to be more religious. There are desires and cravings that prompt scandalous acts, but there are also virtuous values that result in good ones. Religion may be a way to exploit our evolutionary behavior, or, just as plausible, it's a product of our evolutionary behavior. Regardless of how you feel about, it's an important topic worth considering.
Another part that was of particular interest to me was his thoughts on the intersection of neuroscience and business. One imagines the purveyors of neuro-this and neuro-that consulting some turn-of-the-century pathological illustration of the brain diagrammed with each part associated with some function. The hippocampus controls organization, the amygdala controls fear, the basal ganglia controls some other thing, etc. Fortunately, Gad puts this confusion of the map for the territory reductivisim to rest. Complex systems such as human behavior and personality are much more than the sum of their parts. There isn't a magic bullet to control or program them. The best explanations to deal with them holistically are decision heuristics governed by evolutionary psychology such as what is presented in The Consuming Instinct.
This book was enjoyable and informative. Anyone involved in selling products to consumers, studying their behavior, or even just wishing to get more insight in their own consuming habits will find this book valuable. Highly recommended.
on August 26, 2015
My job has me reading lots of books on consumer behavior, and many recent ones cover the same faddish approaches, using the same anecdotes and citing the same studies. The evolutionary psych angle is new to me, and this book was a great introduction. Sometimes it felt like the author was stretching the theory a bit too far and some examples didn't quite fit, but overall the book covers a lot of novel ground quickly, is fun, and avoids that Gladwellesque longwinded structure that if you hate it, you really hate it.