Evolutionary Psychology: An Interview with Gad Saad*
Gad Saad is an evolutionary behavioral scientist and professor of marketing at
the John Molson School of Business (Concordia University, Montreal,
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).
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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.
twentieth century’s porn king and multimillionaire Hugh Hefner affirmed
“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
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.
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?
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.
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-Élysées. 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 were 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 lot. It’s not the fact that he’s driving quickly
that causes his testosterone rise; it’s that you’re imbuing him with
high social status.
“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-Élysées.
But if you wish to play with the big dogs, you can’t compete
with me because I have a Ferrari.”
manner do our innate biological drives influence the books we read, the
films we watch, and the music we listen to?
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 are 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.
Behavioral decision theorists, especially Amos Tversky in 1969, have
established unequivocally that humans do not adhere to the chief tenets
of rationality that are 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, “[M]ost
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?
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
“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 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 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 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
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.
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
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
you share this iconoclastic point of view?
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
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 than french
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 storylines. 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
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 favour of this hedonistic
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.
interview comes to its end. Would you like to add a few words?
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to share my ideas.
It was a pleasure. Thank you for your time and your insights.
*This interview was first published on March 25, 2015,
on the Institut Coppet Website.
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