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Consuming Instinct

The Consuming Instinct

‘The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography and Gift-Giving Reveal About Human Nature’  is a book written by Gad Saad, who for many years has been studying the fundamental question: are consumers made or born? It’s particularly relevent when it comes to understanding food choices…

In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Saad discusses which consumer choices are shaped by environmental factors (e.g., culture) and which are manifestations of our common biological heritage, his area of research for the past 15 years of his career, using evolutionary psychology (EP) as the theoretical framework of our consuming instinct.

Evolutionary psychology, he says, proposes that the human mind is the product of the dual evolutionary processes of natural selection as well as sexual selection. In other words, evolution is as relevant in explaining the evolution of the human mind as it is in elucidating how our opposable thumbs, eyes, and pancreas have evolved.

Contrary to the predominant view in the social sciences, evolution does not stop at the head. Natural selection yields adaptations that confer a survival advantage (e.g., animal camouflage), while sexual selection results in adaptations that bestow a mating advantage (a peacock’s tail).

He argues that many consumer choices are vestiges of these two forces of evolution: “For example, the universal penchant for fatty foods is an adaptation to the recurring survival challenges of caloric scarcity and caloric uncertainty faced by our ancestors. It is not surprising then that the most popular restaurant chains around the world (McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks, Subway, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin’ Donuts) share one common element: They all offer highly caloric and tasty foods that are congruent with our evolved taste buds.”

Interestingly, many cross-cultural differences in culinary traditions are also due to biological forces. For example, spices that are used in a given cuisine (e.g., Thai versus Swedish), the extent of pickling that occurs (e.g., Korean kimchi), and the prevalence of meat versus vegetable dishes, are all cultural adaptations driven by a desire to minimize exposure to food pathogens. Note, Saad adds, how EP is relevant in explaining universally similar gustatory preferences (desire for highly caloric foods) as well as cross-cultural culinary differences (the extent of spice use).

“In life’s struggle, the first step is to survive. The next is to attract a suitable mate. It is not surprising then that many products serve as sexual signals in the mating market. It is no coincidence that men constitute the great majority of luxury car collectors (despite the fact that innumerable wealthy women could afford to own such cars). The Aston Martin is the human male version of the peacock’s tail,” Saad states.

“I recently conducted a study with one of my former graduate students wherein we had young men drive one of two cars (an expensive Porsche or an old decrepit sedan) in one of two environments (downtown Montreal or on a semi-deserted highway). After each of the four drives, we collected salivary assays to determine how men’s testosterone levels might be affected by such conspicuous acts.

“As expected, putting a man behind the wheels of a Porsche yields a drastic rise in his testosterone levels. This endocrinological reaction has been documented across numerous species that establish dominance hierarchies. In a combat between rival males, the winner will see a rise in his testosterone levels while the loser will experience a corresponding drop in his. Driving a Porsche is akin to a social victory.”

In a related scenario, Saad points out how drivers behave very differently on the road depending on the status of the cars that they are driving: “At an intersection, drivers are much more patient when behind a high-status car (in terms of how quickly they honk when the light turns green), and they are much more likely to honk if driving a high-status car. You truly own the road when behind the wheels of a Maserati.”

Beyond cars, countless other products possess a strong sex-specificity because they are rooted in biological-based sex differences (e.g., gambling, pornography, extreme sports, compulsive buying, cosmetics, plastic surgery).

Hormonal influences are not restricted to male consumers. With one of his doctoral students, Saad tracked women’s consumer preferences, desires, and purchases across 35 contiguous days to determine whether these are influenced by their menstrual cycles. Specifically, they were interested in women’s beautification practices (mating) and food-related (survival) behaviours.

“As expected, the import of each of these two basal drives varies across a woman’s menstrual cycle. When in the fertile phase of their cycles, women are much more concerned with beautification, while when in the luteal phase (non-fertile) food assumes a more important role in their daily lives. These hormonal-based realities are equally operative for Japanese, Namibian or Bedouin women.

Saad does not agree with those proponents of the premise that socialization is the dominant force behind sex-typed behaviours; or the “blank-slate view of the human mind, which posits that we are born with empty minds that are subsequently socialized via a wide range of environmental agents (e.g., parents, peers, movies, song lyrics, music videos and so forth)”.

If this were true, he contends then marketers would have the near-infinite ability to socialize consumers into endless new patterns of consumption – boys could be taught to prefer to play with Barbie dolls and little girls might be socialized to seek toy trucks and G.I. Joe action figures.

But these products, he says, will likely never exist because marketers are well aware that products that are incongruent with our universal and biological-based human nature will fail in the marketplace. He quotes the Harvard evolutionist EO Wilson, who famously asserted: “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.”

Saad concludes: “Marketers might not know the evolutionary reasons that drive such commercial realities but they are well aware that consumers possess universal commonalities. Across cultures, when peddling beauty-related products, advertisers use endorsers who have highly symmetric faces. Around the world, online female escorts are advertised as possessing the universally preferred hourglass figure. Globally, religious narratives, cosmetic companies and self-help gurus offer solace and hope to assuage the exact same set of Darwinian-based insecurities (e.g., mortality, mating concerns, parental worries, status angst).

“Ultimately, successful global marketers are those who recognize the shared biological-based features that unite all consumers within the proverbial global village. To slightly reword the famous quote by the evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: Nothing in consumer behaviour makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

The Wall Street Journal: Read more

Dr Saad is professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, and is the author of “The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature,” published June 21, as well as “The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption” (2007).

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