My Genes Made Me Buy It
In this interview with Sociologist Gad Saad, he promulgates the idea that innate biological imperatives drive consumer behavior. Saad is the Professor of Marketing and the research chair in evolutionary behavioral sciences and darwinian consumption at Montreal’s Concordia University. He is also the author of the book, “The Consumer Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature.” His studies purport that consumer behavior has four primary, biologically-rooted drives:
- Kin Selection
- Reciprocal altruism
The survival instinct, he believes is the reason why the top restaurants across the globe–McDonald’s, KFC, etc.–sling high-fat foods. More fat = more calories = surviving on the tundra for an extra day.
The reproductive instinct, he claims, plays itself out differently with the different sexes: Women are wooed by high social value, while men focus on physical traits. He uses one case study as an example, where a man was placed in a beat up car as well as a Bentley. Women were to report on the physical attractiveness of the same man in each car. The man in the Bentley was consistently deemed more physically attractive, as the car–a sign of high social value–influenced their perception. Conversely, the same test administered to men with a woman in the car found the men indifferent to the type of car.
In the interview, Saad does not delve into the final two instincts: Kin selection and reciprocal altruism, described as the instinct to exchange gifts with family members and the instinct to offer gifts to close friends, respectively. But we can assume that these are the operative instincts during the holiday gift-giving season and the $253B gift-giving economy in North America, which accounts for 10% of all retail purchases according to Saad.
We’ve had various discussions about gift-giving and receiving, some of which have gotten pretty contentious. The explanation that any sort of prohibition or limiting of gift exchange is in direct opposition to a biological imperative does not seemed far-fetched.
What Saad does not do–at least here–is claim that marketeers intentionally exploit these instincts. Rather, he suggests these tactics are implemented because they appeal to instinctual motivation and are thereby effective. Another example he cites is a study that found young men were not dissuaded from smoking because it caused cancer, but were dissuaded when they were told smoking would make them impotent and hence compromise their reproductive capabilities. Behavior driven by instinctual drives like these, Saad suggests, win the day, and marketeers know that based on bottom lines.
The question we have is how do you promote sane consumer behavior–using what you got, buying what you need, buying quality–when the prevailing symbols of biological success are linked with excess? Can living with less be consistent with our survival or reproductive instincts? Can giving your family member a “One Less Gift Certificate” align with our kin selection instinct? Or are we hardwired to consume when the resources are available? What do you think? Let us know in our comments section.