Saad’s The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption


Jason Collins


April 5, 2012

Over the last three to four decades, the social sciences have been subject to increasing examination under an evolutionary framework. Leading the charge into consumer and marketing theory has been Gad Saad, a pioneer of evolutionary consumer psychology who was responsible for the first evolutionary psychology papers to appear in any consumer and marketing journals.

The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption is Saad’s “academic book”, in which he argues that introducing an evolutionary framework into the analysis of consumer behaviour and marketing theory can provide an explanation for consumption patterns that cultural critiques struggle to provide. It is a convincing and thorough effort, and full of interesting references.

For someone familiar with the evolutionary psychology literature, many of Saad’s arguments do not come as a surprise. The value in Saad’s book is the detailed cataloguing of the literature behind many of the claims, rather than providing an easy front to back read. The description of it as an “academic book” is how I expect I will use it, as a source of arguments and references.

Saad uses consumption in the broad sense that an economist would, with it encompassing almost all human activities. He maps consumption across four Darwinian modules: reproduction, survival, kin selection and reciprocation. For reproduction, mating itself is a consumption choice, while consumption also serves as a signal to mates. Consumption underpins survival of both oneself and ones kin, with humans having evolved preferences for fatty foods, sugar and sharing with relatives. Consumption also forms the basis of many reciprocal relationships.

While Saad does not explicitly put the text into an economic framework, the analysis is ripe for economic applications. Consumption is shaped by preferences shaped by evolution. Saad has provided much material that could be used in examining those preferences, and the book provides many interesting hypotheses that economists might find value in testing.

Given the depth of the literature already in place in these fields, much of the book involves a critique of findings developed under the standard social science model, which involves assumptions such as the malleability of human nature and a belief that culture cannot be broken down into components. For example, in Saad’s discussion of advertising, it is noted that women in advertisements tend to be young and attractive, the men older than the women, the men taller than the women and so on. This pattern is present across societies, and any cultural explanation concerning trained gender roles suffers from trying to note why there are universal patterns across such seemingly diverse cultures.

My main critique of the book is related to a mismatch between what I expect were Saad’s objectives in writing the book and what I wanted to get out of it. For an outsider with no familiarity with the literature in the consumer behaviour and marketing fields, there was questionable value to having the existing academic approaches explained only for them to be pulled down again. It was important for Saad to address these academic approaches, reflecting years of battles to have evolutionary psychology accepted in the consumer and marketing fields. However, it means that the evolutionary framework gets less space than it should.

The evolutionary explanations also get less space than might be expected simply due to the state of the field in 2007. Many of the arguments made by Saad, while logical under an evolutionary framework, had not been fully tested at the time of writing. Even though the book is only five years old, it already feels like there is much new literature that could be included to bolster the arguments. Many of Saad’s conjectures have now been tested (often by himself) and the book would benefit from their inclusion. Due to this, I hope that there is second edition of this book planned. This might also provide the opportunity for the book to be more forward looking and set its own agenda without having to spend so much time dealing with the failings of the consumer and marketing fields.

I should also note that I have not yet read Saad’s The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature. Released last year and benefiting from much of the more recent research, I have been told it is worth the read.