Nir’s Note: Gad Saad is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Consuming Instinct. He’ll be speaking at the upcoming Habit Summit in April. (You can register here!) In this interview with Max Ogles, Saad discusses the role of evolutionary psychology in modern marketing.
Q: Let’s start with a simple question: What is evolutionary psychology?
Gad Saad: Evolutionary psychology is applying evolutionary theory to understand the human mind. Evolution is typically used to explain all biological diversity, from how flowers evolved, to how a particular trait of an animal evolves. For example, why does the peacock have its tail that way that it does? The exact same tools of biology apply when we’re trying to understand the human mind. Put simply, evolutionary psychology is the pursuit of understanding the human mind through an evolutionary lens.
Q: Now to dive deeper, what are some of the specific tenets of evolutionary psychology?
GS: The first thing that evolutionary psychologists argue is that the forces of natural selection and sexual selection that are operative in biology can be used to explain psychology. In the game of life, there are two things that need to happen: First, I need to survive, then I need to mate. I can only extend my genes if both of those things happen. We uncover the adaptive problems that humans would have faced recurrently in the past, that would result in the human mind developing computational systems to solve these problems.
Secondly, evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind is an amalgamation of both domain-general mechanisms and domain-specific mechanisms. Domain general mechanisms are things like intelligence, which can be transported across domains. You can use intelligence to solve a calculus problem and also to read literature. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind is also comprised of domain-specific mechanisms. This means that the human mind would also have specific computational systems to solve adaptive problems such as avoiding predators, seeking nutritious foods, etc. Domain-specific mechanisms are like a Swiss army knife, with many types of blades for specific functions.
Finally, evolutionary psychology implies that we aren’t born with empty minds that are subsequently filled with socialization. Instead, we come to the world with innate biological blueprints. This is precisely what allows a 3-month-old child to stare at a beautiful face longer than a non-beautiful face, without learning about beauty previously. So the final point is that humans are an amalgamation of their culture and their biology—we’re an inexplicable mix of both our biology and our environments.
Q: You’re known as an evolutionary psychologist AND an expert in consumer marketing. How do they fit together to form “evolutionary consumption”?
GS: In my first semester as an undergraduate student, I took an advanced social psychology course. The professor assigned us a book called Homicide by two seminal evolutionary psychologists, Margo Wilson and Martin Daley. In the book, they applied evolutionary principles to demonstrate that there are certain criminal behaviors that transcend time and culture. You might go to the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon and see patterns of criminality that are exactly the same as those in Oxford, England.
As I flipped through those pages of that book in fall 1990, my epiphany happened. I knew that I was going to pursue my PhD studying consumer behavior. Then when I saw this unbelievably powerful framework, I wanted to take those evolutionary principles and use them to study consumer behavior. And that’s how the theory of evolutionary consumption developed.
Q: What types of things do you study in evolutionary consumption?
GS: The idea is to apply evolutionary principles to study our behaviors, choices, and preferences when we put on our consumer hats. But here’s the interesting part: I defined consumer behavior very broadly. So it’s not just consuming Coca Cola, Starbucks, or jeans, but also friendships, religious narratives, cultural products, etc. I look at consumption with a capital C. I argue that if you want to really understand universal consumer drives, then you really can’t have a full understanding if you leave biology out of the equation.
If you're looking for even more research on this topic, then I invite you to download my 18-lesson PDF course on Product Psychology. I've asked the brightest minds in the field to share their best resources on user behavior:
Q: One frequent topic in your research is gender. What’s something product managers and marketers should know about gender that would help them interact with customers more effectively?
GS: Let’s suppose I’m Coca Cola developing an advertising campaign from Atlanta. Should I develop a global message that I transport across cultures? Or should I have local advertising whereby I tweak the message to fit all the cross differences? This local versus global debate has been going on for 80 years, and that hasn’t been resolved.
I say you can solve this practical problem through an understanding of evolutionary psychology. There are certain things in advertising that are universally understood in exactly the same way. If I use a facially symmetric endorser when I’m selling a beauty product, there is no culture that would respond with, “Oh gee, why did they pick that person? They’re so ugly.” Because facial symmetry is understood the same way across cultures as a universal marker of beauty.
But this doesn’t hold true for color connotations. Green might be construed as a symbol of disease in one culture and as a symbol of fertility in another culture. Therefore, understanding which cues in advertising are universally transportable and which ones are culturally determined is very much within what evolutionary psychology allows you to do.
Top Consumer Psychology Articles
- The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good
- Here's How Fortnite 'Hooked' Millions
- How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self
- How Netflix's Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession
- Want to Design User Behavior? Pass the 'Regret Test' First
- How to Trigger Product Usage that Sticks
- How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off
- Here's How Amazon's Alexa Hooks You
- How to Use Psychology to Make Persuasive Video
- How to Use Personality Science to Drive Online Conversions
- The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology
- The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology
- Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do
- How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business
- What Most People Don't Know About Behavioral Design
- How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design
- Your World is Full of Placebo Buttons (and That's a Good Thing)
- How to Build Technology that Feels Like a Friend
- 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Tech Products
- Here's How to Ethically Manipulate Other People
- How Two Companies Hooked Customers On Products They Rarely Use
- How to Hook Users in 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Die Dashboards, Die! Why Conversations Will Reinvent Software
- The Secret to Sending Emails and Notifications That Work
- How to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- Hooked for Good: How Habit-Forming Products Improve Lives
- Good Products Start With Good Questions
- Human + A.I. = Your Digital Future
- Why 'Assistant-As-App' Might Be the Next Big Tech Trend
- People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently.
- 4 Ways to Win Your Competitor's Customer Habits (Slides)
- Here’s Why You'll Hate the Apple Watch (and the Important Business Lesson You Need to Know)
- The Secret Psychology of Snapchat
- The Psychology of Notifications: How to Send Triggers that Work
- How Technology Tricks You Into Tipping More
- The Limits of Loyalty: When Habits Change, You're Toast
- 4 Ways to Use Psychology to Win Your Competition's Customers
- The Real Reason “Stupid” Startups Raise So Much Money
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can't Stop Messaging
- The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?
- Framing Reward is as Important as Reward Itself
- A Free Course on User Behavior
- It’s Not All Fun And Games: The Pros and Cons of Gamification at Work
- Getting Traction: How to Hook New Users
- Designing for Behavior Change Book Review
- The Sneaky Trick Behind the Explosive Growth of the Kardashian Game
- How Successful Companies Design for Users' Multi-Device Lives
- The Link Between Habits and User Satisfaction
- What Triggers The Best Word of Mouth Marketing?
- What Tech Companies Can Learn from Rehab
- The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions
- Teach or Hook? What's the Real Goal of Online Education?
- Using Mind Control to Raise Startup Cash
- How To Build Habits In A Multi-Device World
- How To Cope with Your Insane Jealousy Of The WhatsApp Deal
- Why Do Fads Fade? The Inevitable Death Of Flappy Bird
- You'd Be Surprised By What Really Motivates Users
- Nostalgia: A Product Designer's Secret Weapon
- How You Can Help Users Change Habits
- Is “Lean Startup” Right for Your Idea?
- Hunting for Habits: Keying in on smart design to make a product irresistible
- Are Companies Too Obsessed With Growth? How to Measure Habits
- Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love
- Angel or Devil: Who’s Really Investing In Your Start-Up?
- In 10 Years, We Won't Use Personal Technology
- 4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits
- "Yes, And": The Two Words that Created a #1 App
- From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating
- What if In-App Purchases Came to Real Life?
- Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time
- How To Save Your Startup From The “Spotlight Effect”
- Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles
- How to Boost Desire Using the Psychology of Scarcity
- Marketplaces & The Curse of the Network Effect
- Today's Behaviors, Tomorrow's Startups
- Venture Capital and The Superstitious Investor
- The Future is Driven by Interface Changes
- Why Business is Addicted to Habits
- Viral Loops Or Viral 'Oops'?
- Making a Marketplace
- What Killed Turntable.fm?
- What You Don't Know About Human Intuition Can Hurt You
- Designing to Reward our Tribal Sides
- New Video - "Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products"
- How Technology is Like Bug Sex
- Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do
- The Network Effect Isn’t Good Enough
- Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time
- How Investment Drives Engagement (Slides)
- Getting Your Product Into the Habit Zone
- Where Have The Users Gone?
- Infinite Scroll: The Web’s Slot Machine
- Designing User Habits Video
- Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain
- This is Your Brain On Boarding: How to Turn Visitors Into Users
- User Investment: Make Your Users Do the Work
- Behavior by Design Video
- When Designing for Good Is Bad
- Stop Building Apps, Start Building User Behaviors
- The Next Secrets of the Internet
- User Growth and Engagement: A Hacker Metric
- Spotting the Next Facebook: Why Emotions are Big Business
- The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro to Triggers
- Why Everyone Hates I.T. People
- Hooking Users In 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Abolish The Reference Check
- Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy
- How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)
- How To Design For “Normals”
- Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire
- User Habits: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts
- What Is, and Is Not, Your Product's Job
- Pinterest’s Obvious Secret
- Personalized eCommerce Is Already Here, You Just Don’t Recognize It
- Where is the Web Going?
- The Developer Divide: When Great Companies Can't Hire
- Being a Quitter Makes You a Good Entrepreneur
- Behavior by Design
- Why You Should Run Your Business Barefoot
- Are you a Startup Star, Wacko, or Wannabe?