Gad Saad is an evolutionary behavioral scientist and professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business (Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada) who is known for applying evolutionary psychology to marketing and consumer behavior.
He holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption and has a blog at Psychology Today titled Homo Consumericus.
Grégoire Canlorbe is a French intellectual entrepreneur. He currently lives in Paris.
Grégoire Canlorbe: How would you present evolutionary psychology, its field of study and its founding hypothesis, to the layman? In particular, could you elaborate on the rejection of the “blank slate” assumption and on the leading arguments that were advanced against this postulate?
Gad Saad: Evolutionary psychology is basically the application of evolutionary principles to the study of the human mind. The same way that we can study how our pancreas, and our lungs and our liver and our thumbs have evolved through evolution, there is no reason to think that our brain has come about through something other than evolution. For many people, this is a difficult premise to accept, and I call this the “evolution stops at the neck” reflex. They’re willing to accept that everything else about humans has evolved through evolution but the thing that is most important in explaining your personhood, namely your mind, somehow evolution doesn’t apply to it.
So let me give you some basics tenets of what evolutionary psychologists argue. First, evolutionary psychologists argue that the mind is a product of natural and sexual selection. Basically we’ve got these drives for survival and these other drives for reproduction and then they manifest themselves in all sorts of ways, at least in the field that I study, in the consumer setting.
Secondly, evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind is an amalgamation of domain-specific computational systems. Much of psychology looks at domain-general mechanisms; for example intelligence is a domain-general mechanism that can be applied to solve a wide range of problems, in all sorts of contexts. So it’s a key that could be used in many different ways. Whereas evolutionist psychologists argue that yes it’s true that part of our brain is made up of domain-general mechanisms but also our brain has evolved domain-specific systems to solve specific evolutionary problems, i.e. things like finding a mate, retaining a mate, finding nutritious food, avoiding poisonous food, avoiding predators, investing in family or kin, and building coalitions with non-kin members. Each of these evolutionarily important problems has necessitated the evolution of specific computational systems in the brain, specifically meant to solve that particular problem.
A third important tenet of evolutionary psychology refers to your “blank slate” question; of course evolutionist psychologists reject the idea that the mind is tabula rasa, is an empty slate, which is only subsequently filled with socialization. Rather we are born with biological blueprints and one way to demonstrate this among several approaches is to identify in children who are too young to have been socialized, certain penchants that couldn’t have been due to socialization. For example, children who are very young already show a preference to people who are beautiful. If I place a facially symmetric person and a facially asymmetric person in front of very young infants, they will stare at the beautiful person for much longer than at the lesser beautiful one. This demonstrates that there are certain reflexes, if you like, certain instincts, certain biological imperatives that could not be due to socialization.
So that’s one way to demonstrate that the “blank slate” premise is false. Another way to demonstrate it is to show that there are certain human universals that happen in exactly the same way across unbelievably different cultures and across very different time periods; and so to argue that something is due to learning or to socialization or to culture doesn’t really explain anything because you would then have to explain why coincidentally that particular form of learning happens in exactly the same way across incredibly different cultures. So these are two ways by which we can demonstrate that the blank slate premise is certainly incorrect.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: An important debate in epistemology focuses on the question to know whether social sciences may be properly understood as a part of biology. According to the reductionist approach, laws of evolutionary biology alone can explain everything in human societies. According to the non-reductionist approach, there exists a certain number of macro-level, emerging phenomena, which require separate laws, in addition to the more fundamental laws of biology for their explanation.
Which one of these two approaches do you personally advocate?
Gad Saad: So this issue refers to “is biology reductionist?” And the answer is no, because there is always an interaction between our biology and our environment. For example, even specific genes either get turned on or turned off as a function of environmental inputs so the idea that biology is reductionist is actually a silly one.
People think about reductionism because they think that when you’re applying evolutionary explanations, you always reduce everything to the level of the gene, which you don’t. Biologists study phenomena at the genetic, cellular, molecular, organism, group, species, population, and ecological levels. So it’s not true that if somehow you are a biologically inspired researcher you’re very reductionist.
If I wanted to know why France won the 1998 World Cup in football, I wouldn’t necessarily study the neural firings in the brain of Zidane to find out why they won. That would be reductionist. But it is impossible to study anything meaningfully and fully about humans if you completely reject the fact that they are biological agents. While not every phenomenon necessitates a biological explanation, we have to at the very least be aware that any phenomenon involving humans, who are after all biological beings, is ultimately related to our evolutionary-based human nature.
Grégoire Canlorbe: In which circumstances and for which motives did you come to develop a keen interest in the evolutionary roots of consumption? Have you had an intellectual passion and visceral attraction for “juicy burgers, Ferraris, pornography and gift giving” since primary school?
Gad Saad: In the preface of my 2007 book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, I actually answered that question. In my first semester as a doctoral student at Cornell University, I was taking an Advanced Social Psychology course under the tutelage of Professor Dennis Regan. Halfway through the semester he assigned a book called Homicide by two pioneers of evolutionary psychology, a husband and wife team, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly. In their book, they examined patterns of criminality, i.e. the ways that crimes happen all around the world in very different societies. It could be in tribes in the Amazon, it could be the 1950s in Detroit, or it could be in Paris today; and they looked at whether some crime-related phenomena hold true irrespective of time and place. And to explain these things, they used evolutionary theory.
If you think about the most dangerous person in a woman’s life, it’s her longtime partner (husband or boyfriend). It’s not a stranger hiding in the trees, who is about to jump to rape her; it’s her regular partner. Men will attack if not kill their women for one very important evolutionary reason: suspected or realized infidelity. If I think that you’ve cheated on me or if I know that you’ve cheated on me, it could cause some very violent retribution on my part. The reason for this violent reaction is a very simple one, evolutionarily speaking.
We are a bi-parental species, meaning both men and women invest heavily in their offspring. For males, human males, it wouldn’t be a good idea to spend many years and many resources investing in a child, if that child is not assured to be his. Because of paternity uncertainty, you and I are descendants of ancestors who were very sexually territorial. And that’s why men around the world will respond very violently to threats to their genetic interests. This is a very elegant explanation. And when I read this, when I read the power of evolutionary theory to explain all sorts of criminal behaviors, at that point I was bitten by the evolutionary bug. And since, I was interested in studying consumer behavior; I thought “you know what, I’m going to take this evolutionary framework and then apply it to consumer behavior.” And so, I ended up eventually founding the field of evolutionary consumption. That’s the background of my intellectual and scientific journey.
Interestingly in offering an explanation as to why men at times kill their female partners, this is where you often get hostility against evolutionary psychology because people wrongly think that if you provide a scientific explanation for a phenomenon, it implies that you are justifying and condoning it. But that’s a very idiotic position to take. A cancer researcher studies cancer; he is not for cancer, he’s not condoning or justifying cancer; he’s merely explaining the phenomenon.
That’s one of the main sources of hostility that I have seen from people who don’t appreciate evolutionary theory. They are under the misguided impression that evolutionary scientists sit around trying to find ways to justify an immoral behavior. For example, if you explain why people cheat within the context of their monogamist unions, then somebody will get upset “Oh but you’re using science to justify infidelity”. Of course, you’re not doing that; you’re just explaining why people do it. It’s very important to keep this in mind.
Grégoire Canlorbe: The twentieth century’s porn king and multimillionaire Hugh Hefner affirmed in a recent interview: “What’s amazing is that the taste of American men and international tastes in terms of beauty have essentially stayed the same. Styles change, but our view of beauty stays the same.”
I suspect your scientific inquiry into the clothing and cosmetics consumption fields illuminates the relevance of these statements by the founder and chief creative officer of Playboy Enterprises. Could you say a few words about this?
Gad Saad: More generally if I can rephrase your question, you are asking which phenomena might be bound by time and space, and which are invariant to these. Let us take the example that you gave, clothing.
Several studies – and I discussed these in my books – have looked at, for example, how women’s fashion trends change as a function of macroeconomic variables. When, for example, economic conditions are very difficult, you might expect women to make themselves more attractive in the mating market, i.e. to increase their sexual signaling. Some studies have looked at the length of skirts that women wear, how short it is, a miniskirt or a really long skirt, if it is a conservative or a very sexy, as a function of economic variables; and they’ve tracked this for 80+ years. And they show that economic indicators are actually highly correlated with some of these fashion trends. So, even cyclical changes in fashion trends are in part shaped by biologically relevant factors.
Grégoire Canlorbe: One of your greatest insights into consumer behavior is that buying and driving a Ferrari or any expensive sports car is the human male’s equivalent of displaying a peacock’s tail in order to attract females.
Could you expose your in-depth analysis of this male behavior?
Gad Saad: Across a great majority of sexually reproducing species males compete – but not always, sometimes you have what are called sex-role reversed species, where it is the female that engage in more vigorous sexual signaling – so that they can garner sexual access to females. These sexual signals evolve through the mechanism of sexual selection. The classic example is the peacock’s tail, which could not have evolved via natural selection since it decreases the peacock’s survival prospects. Having a very large ostentatious tail makes you more visible to predators and makes it more difficult for you to escape predators. So why would peacocks have evolved such big tails? To answer this question, you have to delve into a mechanism known as sexual selection.
Sexual selection is the evolutionary process that results in a mating advantage. In other words, peacocks evolved their big tails because these served as honest signals, as advertisements to females. “Hey choose me, I’m the top male. Look, I have this very big tail, that’s very costly, that’s very dangerous to me to have and yet I’m still here, I must be a top genetic specimen.” And so, I take this costly signaling principle, which is known in biology as the Handicap Principle, and I apply it in consumer behavior; and I argue that a lot of the conspicuous consumption that we engage in is a form of peacocking. So the Ferrari is the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail.
Professor Saad peacocking in Florida
If you and I are competing on the mating market, perhaps you have enough money to rent a Ford Mustang today to impress women on the Champs-Elysées. But if you wish to play with the big dogs, you can’t compete with me because I have a Ferrari; it’s a costly signal that you cannot imitate. A few years ago, I published a paper with one of my former graduate students wherein we examined the effects of conspicuous consumption on men’s testosterone levels. We brought young males to the lab where two cars awaiting them. This is not a study involving a hypothetical “imagine you were doing this” task; we actually had them drive the two cars. They drove a fancy Porsche and they also drove a beaten up old Sedan in two environments: either in downtown Montreal, on the weekend where everybody can see you driving these two cars, or on a semi-deserted highway. And after each of the driving conditions, we took salivary assays, in order to measure the fluctuations in their testosterone levels, the idea being that if you infuse a male with high status, this is a social win, and his testosterone should go up; and on the other hand, if the male is defeated, his testosterone should go down. We found that when you put a male in a Porsche his testosterone levels increase. And that’s not because he’s driving fast; in Downtown Montreal, on Friday in the evening, the traffic is very heavy, it’s akin to being in a parking place. It’s not that he’s driving quickly that causes his testosterone rise; it’s that you’re imbuing him with high social status.
Grégoire Canlorbe: In what manner do our innate biological drives influence the books we read, the films we watch and the music we listen to?
Gad Saad: When paleontologists study the evolutionary history of a species, they head out into the field to find fossils and skeletal remains. This allows them to reconstruct the evolutionary history of a given species. Of course, the human mind is organic; so, it doesn’t fossilize. However, what does fossilize are the cultural products that human minds leave behind. We can study cultural products as fossils of the human mind. I will give you an example.
A contemporary university student anywhere in the world can study ancient Greek tragedies written three thousand years ago in a completely different cultural setting. Yet the student in question will be able to fully understand the key universal themes driving these stories: status competition, paternity uncertainty, parent-offspring conflict, sibling rivalry, mating pursuits, etc. There are a few main themes that one finds in all cultural products, be it the songs that we love to listen to, the movies that we love to watch, or the religious narratives that we choose to believe.
All of these cultural products can be investigated; their contents can be studied, because their contents can tell us something about the universal aspects of our shared biologic heritage. In my work I take a particular cultural product, let’s say song lyrics, and I demonstrate that whether you take, the troubadours from a thousand years ago, or hip-hop and rap songs from today, what men and women sing about is exactly the same across time and place. Now, of course what changes is the style, the troubadour is not singing in the same style as Dr. Dre. Men are much more likely to show off their status in song lyrics. In contemporary contexts, this amounts to brand mentions about owning the Ferrari or the Aston Martin; they are also much more likely to comment about women’s beauty. Women on the other hand are much more likely to sing about not wanting men of lower social status. I am unaware of a song wherein a male singer says “Hey Linda, you’re not working hard enough in your job; I’m not going to have sex with you”; but the opposite happens all the time. There are numerous songs where women are denigrating men because they don’t have a job, they have lazy, and they have low social status.
So, we can study these cultural products because they illuminate something that is truly universal about human nature.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Behavioral decision theorists, especially Amos Tversky in 1969, have established unequivocally that humans do not adhere to the chief tenets of rationality that is expected of Homo Economicus. Additionally, the incorporation of biology within the business sciences has yielded new and more relevant definitions of rationality rooted in an understanding of the evolutionary foundations of our decision-making processes.
As you wrote in The Consuming Instinct, “most business phenomena, be it those relevant to consumers, employees, or employers, are manifestations of the indelible forces of evolution in shaping our minds and bodies.” Could you elaborate on this key statement and develop a few examples?
Gad Saad: Homo economicus is a mythical creature that solely exists in the deep recesses of the minds of economists. It is a mythical creature akin to the unicorn, because it adheres to definitions of rationality that are removed from reality. Normative rationality stipulates that our decisions have to axiomatically, mathematically be rational. For example, if I prefer car A to car B, and if I prefer car B to car C, then by transitivity I should prefer car A to car C. If I adhere to this axiom, I’m irrational. Here is another example: If I tell you that this hamburger is 10% fat free or if I tell you that this hamburger is 90% fat, these two statements are logically identical, they are equivalent, isomorphic. Yet, people have completely different perceptions of the same hamburger across the two descriptive frames. This is the old framing effect of Kahneman and Tversky. Both Daniel Kahneman (in 2002) and Herbert Simon (in 1978) have won the Nobel Prize in Economics for casting doubt on the strict tenets of normative rationality. In Simon’s case, he argued for bounded rationality. Decision makers don’t have unlimited time and energy to maximize their utility nor do they possess the cognitive capacity to evaluate all possible alternatives prior to making a decision. Because we are bounded by time and by our cognitive limitations, we are bounded in our rationality. But even his definition of rationality was not rooted in an evolutionary understanding of the human mind.
“Ecological rationality” and “deep rationality” are more recent definitions of human rationality that are contextualized within an evolutionary understanding of how the human mind has evolved. Let me give you an example from my own research. Along with one of my former doctoral students (Tripat Gill), I took the framing effect, “the 10% fat-free hamburger vs. the 90% fat hamburger”, and I applied it in the mating context. Let me give you the background. We argued that the framing effect would be differentially manifested in men or women, when evaluating prospective mates. Suppose that you’re thinking of going on a date and someone advises you that 90% of the acquaintances of the prospective date believe her to be intelligent. He could have equivalently stated that 10% of her acquaintances do not believe that she’s not intelligent We posited that in the mating domain women would be much more likely to succumb to the framing effect. And to make this prediction, we utilized the following evolutionary principle: Making a poor mate choice looms much larger for women than it does for men, because of parental investment differences between men and women. If a woman makes a poor mate choice, the consequences are much greater than if a man were to make a less than optimal mate choice. Therefore, women should be more evolutionary attuned to negatively framed information. In other words, the warning signs are more likely to go off when women are exposed to negatively framed information.
Gill and I conducted three studies where men and women evaluated eight prospective mates. Each was described using either positively or negatively framed attribute information. We showed that women were much more likely to succumb to the framing effect. Viewed via an evolutionary lens, which recognizes the adaptive nature of negatively framed information in general and in the mating context in particular, this sex-specific finding makes perfect sense.
As far as the quote from The Consuming Instinct is concerned, I am arguing that the evolutionary framework is relevant beyond consumer behavior. In my 2011 edited a book Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences, I expanded the reach of evolutionary theory across all the business sciences. Whether you study investment behavior, behavioral economics, or entrepreneurship, all of these disciplines involve biological beings. Ultimately, you can’t fully and accurately study business without recognizing that all participants within the business sphere, be they consumers, employees, or employers, are biological beings shaped by a shared biological heritage.
Let me give you a few examples outside of consumer behavior. Researchers have examined the relationship between entrepreneurship and men’s baseline testosterone levels. As you might expect, entrepreneurship involves risk taking. Well, which hormone is related to risk taking? Testosterone. You might expect that people who take big risks are more likely to be prone to entrepreneurial activity. And that’s exactly what was found out in this study.
A similar study was conducted in a financial context. British researchers studied how well male traders performed on a London trading floor as a function of their testosterone levels. And again they found a link between their testosterone levels and their performances in the market.
Ultimately, everything we do, as consumers, employers, or employees, cannot be fully understood as long as it’s not recognized that we are biological beings shaped by evolutionary forces.
Grégoire Canlorbe: The leading Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, wrote in his 1949 magnum opus, Human Action: “Profit-seeking business is subject to the sovereignty of the consumers, while nonprofit institutions are sovereign unto themselves and not responsible to the public. Production for profit is necessarily production for use, as profits can only be earned by providing the consumers with those things they most urgently want to use.
The moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers – the people, the common man – prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books, and that governments prefer guns to butter. The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling “bad” things than in selling “good” things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely. People do not drink intoxicating beverages in order to make the “alcohol capital” happy, and they do not go to war in order to increase the profits of the “merchants of death.” ”
Do you share this iconoclastic point of view?
Gad Saad: Some people think that advertisers and marketers have a limitless ability to create human needs and desires. Were it not for the evil of McDonald’s, we wouldn’t apparently crave the Big Mac and those succulent french fries. This is a silly premise. Evolutionary psychology teaches us that successful marketers are those who truly understand human nature, and as such who offer us products that are congruent with our evolved preferences.
A concrete albeit hypothetical example might be instructive here. Suppose that I had an unlimited advertising budget to promote a new chain of fast-food restaurants that only serve grass juice. Recall that I can hire countless Hollywood stars to promote my product. Money is no object! Will this endeavor succeed on the market? No, because that particular product offering is inconsistent with our evolved gustatory preferences. McDonald’s is successful because it offers products that are congruent with our in-born preference for, highly caloric, tasty food. Advertising can convince me to visit McDonald’s instead of Burger King. But it cannot convince me to prefer grass juice more so than french fries.
I will offer you another example. In the same way that aspects of male sexuality can be studied by examining the contents of hardcore pornography, romance novels serve as a window to understanding female sexuality. Irrespective of the cultural settings, romance novels possess very similar story lines. The male hero is always a tall prince, who is also a neurosurgeon, and a financial tycoon. He wrestles crocodiles on his six-pack abs, and engages in countless other reckless and risky behaviors but always comes out on top.
This archetype of the male hero corresponds to women’s fantasies regarding the ideal mate. A few years ago, a publishing company was keen to create a new line of romance novels that departed from these “sexist” stereotypes. They created romance novels with a radically different male archetype that defied the standard metrics of masculinity sought by women. What do you think happened? The project failed, because you cannot force people (in this case women) to buy things that are grossly inconsistent with specific aspects of their human nature.
Grégoire Canlorbe: You recently argued that sex frequency is an important contributor to one’s own happiness. “Have lots of sex and hang out with people who don’t have as much of it as you do. There is your prescription for happiness!”
Could you develop the main scientific arguments in favor of this hedonistic mantra?
Gad Saad: I was describing a recent study that showed that one’s happiness is in part shaped by comparing one’s self to relevant others. After all, we are a hierarchical social species. We’re constantly engaging in social comparisons. Having lots of sex can induce happiness but true bliss is achieved when you are also having more sex than some relevant comparison group (e.g., your friends).
Back in 2001 I published a paper with Tripat Gill in an economics journal, which is relevant to the frequency of sex-happiness study. We gave people the choice between two scenarios: 1) Both you and your colleague can each receive a $500 salary increase; or 2) You receive a $600 salary increase but your colleague receives an $800 salary increase. Classical economic theory stipulates that option 2 should be preferred, because from a strict utility (income) maximization perspective, people should prefer to have $600 in their pockets rather than $500. Of course, this assumes that humans are impervious to fairness and equity and are solely driven by income maximization.
This salary example demonstrates that happiness and satisfaction are not necessarily calculated in absolute terms; rather they involve relative comparisons. In the context of sexual frequency, the more sex that we have the happier we’ll be. But that’s not enough; it’s better if I also know that I’m having more sex than Grégoire, assuming that Grégoire is part of my social network. Then, I’m really happy. So, I first have to have a lot of sex, and hopefully you don’t have a lot of sex. If these two conditions are met, I’m maximally happy.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: Our interview comes to its end. Would you like to add a few words?
Gad Saad: I would like to thank you for this opportunity to share my ideas.
Grégoire Canlorbe: It was a pleasure. Thank you for your time and your insights.