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, has a blog at Psychology Today titled Homo Consumericus, and is the author of The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (Prometheus Books, June 2011).
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 for 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 less 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 in which we can demonstrate that the blank slate premise is certainly incorrect.
Grégoire Canlorbe: An important debate in epistemology focuses on the question of 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 exist 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 out 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 conservative or 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 females 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 for 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 to 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.