The evolution of consumerism

The author argues that consumer behavior is best studied through the lens of evolutionary psychology

By Gad Saad, PhD

One of the first decisions faced by doctoral students in marketing is whether they’d like to be quantitative modelers or behavioral scientists. If they choose the behavioral track, they then typically obtain specialized training in one or more of the cognate disciplines in the social sciences be it cognitive psychology, social psychology, cultural anthropology, or sociology. Irrespective of their decision, what has historically been common in all instances is the sheer absence of evolutionary psychology and related biological formalisms in the study of consumption (cf. Saad, 2006a, 2008a). In fall 1990, I began my doctoral training at Cornell University excited at the prospect of becoming a consumer scholar. In my first semester and on the advice of my eventual doctoral supervisor the cognitive psychologist J. Edward Russo, I enrolled in Advanced Social Psychology taught by Professor Dennis T. Regan. One of the required readings in that course would have a profound effect on my professional career. At approximately the midpoint of the semester, the class was assigned the seminal book Homicide, coauthored by the Canadian-based psychologists Martin Daly and the late Margo Wilson (two of the founders of the then nascent field of evolutionary psychology). Incidentally, Robert Kurzban, one of the current co-editors of Evolution and Human Behavior, the premier journal of the field, was enrolled in the latter course with me. Robert reminded me of this fact during his visit to my university in March 2011. In their brilliant book, Daly and Wilson offered evolutionary psychology as a parsimonious framework to explain a wide range of criminal behaviors that occur in universally similar ways irrespective of time or place (e.g., murder of a female spouse by her male partner, male-male violence). Eureka! I would dedicate my scientific career to Darwinizing the study of consumer behavior via the consilient (unity of knowledge) framework afforded by evolutionary psychology.

For close to fifteen years, I have been infusing evolutionary psychology within consumer research (cf. Saad & Gill, 2000). In 2007, my academic book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption was published. This was followed this past summer by the release of my trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers,  Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, and my edited book Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences. Throughout my work, I argue that Homo consumericus could never be fully understood if scholars restrict their scientific pursuits to proximate causes. Rather, a complete and accurate exploration of any biological organism (including consumers) requires that one tackle ultimate causation, namely the Darwinian why to explain why a particular consumer preference, choice, or need exists in its particular form. The foods that we eat, the products that we use as sexual signals, the gifts that we offer to our family members and friends, are manifestation of four key Darwinian meta-pursuits: survival, reproduction, kin selection, and reciprocity. Furthermore, the cultural products that move us, be it song lyrics, religious narratives, romance novels, or movie themes, possess universally recurring themes that speak to a globally shared human nature. Ancient Greeks were as concerned with paternity uncertainty, sexual jealousy, sibling rivalry, intrasexual competition, and parental investment as we are today. Yes, culture matters, but underneath the rich tapestry of cross-cultural consumer differences one finds a foundation of human universals that defines the global consumer. Our shared consuming instinct unites consumers from Bolivia, Japan, Tanzania, Kuwait, and Canada under a common Darwinian umbrella.

A profound epistemological benefit of evolutionary psychology is in its ability to promote interdisciplinarity (Garcia et al., 2011). Because of my evolutionary lens, I’ve been able to traverse intellectual landscapes that transcend disciplinary boundaries. My works have been published in a wide range of journal outlets including in marketing, business, psychology, economics, medicine, and bibliometrics. A sample of the broad range of topics that I have tackled include popular culture (Saad, 2012), gift giving to mates, kin, and friends (Saad & Gill, 2003), the representation of women in advertising (Saad, 2004), sun tanning behavior (Saad & Peng, 2006), sex differences in the ultimatum game (Saad & Gill, 2001), psychiatric issues (Saad, 2006b, 2007b, 2010), sex differences in online browsing (Stenstrom et al., 2008), neuromarketing (Garcia & Saad, 2008), mate choice/mate search (Saad, Eba, & Sejean, 2009), birth order and product innovations (Saad, Gill, & Nataraajan, 2005), waist-to-hip ratios of online escorts (Saad, 2008b), the effect of the menstrual cycle on consumption (Saad & Stenstrom, 2011), the links between conspicuous consumption and men’s testosterone levels (Saad & Vongas, 2009), the relationship between the 2nd-to-4th digit ratio and men’s risk-taking proclivities (Stenstrom et al., 2011), and possible links between pathological gambling and testosterone (Stenstrom & Saad, 2011). These are radically different topics, all of which are linked via the consilience afforded by the meta-framework of evolutionary psychology. Life is too short to restrict one’s self to myopic intellectual pursuits.

Psychology in general and consumer psychology in particular share a common epistemological weakness. They are comprised of insular and disjointed subdisciplines that nonetheless generate methodologically sound work. Unlike physics, chemistry, or biology, each of which possesses meta-theories that unite the cumulative findings onto a tree of knowledge, general psychology and consumer behavior alike have not historically possessed the requisite consilience of the natural sciences (see Saad, 2007, chapter 7, for an extensive discussion of this point). Accordingly, a desire to create a parsimonious and consilient body of knowledge in part drove my quest to Darwinize the field of consumer behavior. I am happy to report that after years of dogged resistance from my marketing colleagues (and social scientists in general), the paradigmatic winds are changing. It is becoming increasingly more tenuous for behavioral scientists to generate research programs that ignore if not contradict evolutionary principles. For example, the mantra that the great majority of sex differences are mere and arbitrary social constructions is finding fewer sympathizers. Men and women share many similarities and exhibit numerous profound differences, all of which are rooted in an understanding of the adaptive problems that the sexes have faced in our evolutionary history. To summarize, consumers are shaped both by biological as well as cultural forces. A parsimonious understanding of our consuming instinct requires that we recognize the evolutionary forces that have shaped our minds and bodies. To paraphrase T. Dobzhansky’s famous quote, nothing in consumer research makes sense except in the light of evolution.


Garcia, J. R., Geher, G., Crosier, B., Saad, G., Gambacorta, D., Johnsen, L., & Pranckitas, E. (2011). The interdisciplinarity of evolutionary approaches to human behavior: A key to survival in the ivory archipelago. Futures, 43, 749–761.

Garcia, J., & Saad, G. (2008). Evolutionary neuromarketing: Darwinizing the neuroimaging paradigm for consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 7, 397–414.

Saad, G. (2012). Nothing in popular culture makes sense except in the light of evolution. Review of General Psychology, forthcoming.

Saad, G. (2011a). The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Saad, G. (Ed.) (2011b). Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences. Springer: Heidelberg, Germany.

Saad, G. (2010). Munchausen by proxy: The dark side of parental investment theory? Medical Hypotheses, 75, 479–481.

Saad, G. (2008a). The collective amnesia of marketing scholars regarding consumers’ biological and evolutionary roots. Marketing Theory, 8, 425–448.

Saad, G. (2008b). Advertised waist-to-hip ratios of online female escorts: An evolutionary perspective. International Journal of e-Collaboration, 4 (3), 40-50.

Saad, G. (2007a). The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Saad, G. (2007b). Suicide triggers as sex-specific threats in domains of evolutionary import: Negative correlation between global male-to-female suicide ratios and average per capita gross national income. Medical Hypotheses, 68, 692–696.

Saad, G. (2006a). Applying evolutionary psychology in understanding the Darwinian roots of consumption phenomena. Managerial and Decision Economics, 27, 189–201.

Saad, G. (2006b). Sex differences in OCD symptomatology: An evolutionary perspective. Medical Hypotheses, 67, 1455–1459.

Saad, G. (2004). Applying evolutionary psychology in understanding the representation of women in advertisements. Psychology & Marketing, 21, 593–612.

Saad, G., Eba, A., & Sejean, R. (2009). Sex differences when searching for a mate: A process-tracing approach. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 22, 171–190.

Saad, G., & Gill, T. (2003). An evolutionary psychology perspective on gift giving among young adults. Psychology & Marketing, 20, 765–784.

Saad, G., & Gill, T. (2001). Sex differences in the ultimatum game: An evolutionary psychology perspective. Journal of Bioeconomics, 3, 171–193.

Saad, G., & Gill, T. (2000). Applications of evolutionary psychology in marketing. Psychology & Marketing, 17, 1005–1034.

Saad, G., Gill, T., & Nataraajan, R. (2005). Are laterborns more innovative and nonconforming consumers than firstborns? A Darwinian perspective. Journal of Business Research, 58, 902–909.

Saad, G. & Peng, A. (2006). Applying Darwinian principles in designing effective intervention strategies: The case of sun tanning. Psychology & Marketing, 23, 617-638.

Saad, G., & Stenstrom, E. (2011). Calories, beauty, and ovulation: The effects of the menstrual cycle on food and appearance-related consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology, doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2011.10.001.

Saad, G., & Vongas, J. G. (2009). The effect of conspicuous consumption on men’s testosterone levels. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 110, 80–92.

Stenstrom, E., & Saad, G. (2011). Testosterone, financial risk-taking, and pathological gambling. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, 4, 254–266.

Stenstrom E., Saad, G., Nepomuceno, M., & Mendenhall, Z. Testosterone and domain specific risk: Digit ratios (2D:4D and rel2) as predictors of recreational, financial, and social risk-taking behaviors (2011). Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 412–416.

Stenstrom, E., Stenstrom, P., Saad, G., & Cheikhrouhou, S. (2008). Online hunting and gathering: An evolutionary perspective on sex differences in website preferences and navigation. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 51 (2), 155–168.