Book Review: The Consuming Instinct

The aphorist, Aaron Haspel, once wrote: “Once you see human interaction as a contest to signal mating fitness, you never see it as anything else.”  That’s both interesting and true, but for the purposes of this review, I’m going to need to paint with a broader brush: once you see all aspects of human existence as a product of evolution, you never see them as anything else.  Modern-day consumerism is no exception and it’s the subject of Gad Saad’s fantastic book The Consuming Instinct.

Saad is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and writes a popular blog at Psychology Today called Homo Consumericus.  Using various parts of evolutionary theory, Saad dissects modern-day consumer behavior with applaudable gusto.  Parts of his analysis are sure to be offensive to some, which suggests to me that he’s on to something.  As a general rule of thumb, if some people are strongly offended by an idea, it’s worth giving it special consideration.  This is because many truths simply aren’t all that pleasant.  Many people respond to these types of books with knee-jerk reactions full of personal attacks and hatred because they confuse positive statements with normative ones.  I would urge these people to consider that explaining how things are says nothing about how they ought to be.

The subtitle of the book is What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature.  Not surprisingly, they reveal quite a bit.  These four items speak to the four Darwinian pursuits that underlie human existence: survival, reproduction, kin selection, and reciprocity.  The consuming instinct, then, can be studied under the lens of evolutionary psychology (EP), which is a theoretical framework that proposes that the human mind evolved by the same Darwinian forces that shaped all animals.  The human brain is simply another product of the dual evolutionary processes called natural selection and sexual selection.  More people are familiar with former and not the latter, which can explain things like art, religion, and consumer behavior.

It’s worth noting that amongst those who believe in evolution, there seems to be a small contingent of people who believe that evolution can explain the human foot, but anything above the neck is off limits.  In other words, they are hesitant to give any credence to the field of evolutionary psychology  because they don’t like some of the logical implications that follow.  Like Saad, I believe this is an egregious mistake.  The human brain is an amazing thing, but the fact that some people want to elevate it to something that was created outside the bounds of the natural world is silly.  I think Malcolm de Chazal would remind us of the following: “Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into the mirror, he sees a monkey.”

Political correctness be damned, Saad takes a refreshing and no holds barred approach to debunking the myths of social constructivism, particularly the myths surrounding gender differences.  The Harvard evolutionist E. O. Wilson, once said: “The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.”  Anyone who understands the power of evolutionary theory will understand that marketing efforts for products that don’t align with our natural instincts are doomed to fail.  Excellent marketers are intuitively well aware of this reality too — they understand that the way to market beer to men is different than is way to market cosmetics to women.

There is a reason why men consume more pornography, more Ferraris, and are more likely to participate in extreme sports than are women.  These differences are due to a deep rooted evolutionary causes and it’s a sad state of affairs when one is considered a cultural deviant for suggesting that men and women, thanks to the process of evolution, have deep biological differences.  I’ll proudly wear the label of “cultural deviant” if that’s the term used to describe people who are more interested in knowing the truth than they are in hearing fictitious, yet comforting stories.

Here’s an interesting fact from the book: studies show that when men drive a Porsche they experience an increase in testosterone levels.  It appears that the mere act of sexual signaling can cause an increase in testosterone in men.  How many men would care about driving a Porsche if no one were around to watch though?  I suspect that the answer is not many.  I think this is why you see men cruising around in Porsches and Ferraris in crowded hotspots like Chicago’s Viagra Triangle on a Saturday night and not in downtown Longmont, Colorado.  This, of course, prompts an interesting philosophical question: If a sexual signal is flashed and no one is there to receive it, does it really exist?

Another thing that’s bound to upset social constructivists is that universal metrics of beauty do exist, and are not arbitrary social constructs.  Studies show that a deep male voice is universally attractive, which makes sense since it indicates a greater exposure to pubertal testosterone.  Studies also show that women with the optimum waist-to-hip ratio of around 0.7 are preferred by men around the world.  Universally, for men, achieving high status in the social hierarchy matters greatly if one wants to be an attractive mate, while, for women, it’s physical beauty that matters most.

One of my favorite chapters was called “Marketing Hope by Selling Lies”.  In the chapter Saad explains that there are many unpleasant biological-based realities, like aging, mortality, sexual boredom in monogamous relationships, and the fact that children are born with innate differences in abilities.  Marketers, and self-help gurus of all varieties, see this as an opportunity.  After-all, it provides them a chance to sell hope, which is often nothing but an especially insidious form of snake oil.

Saad sees religion as the greatest (and perhaps evilest) product ever devised.  He writes: “Religion possesses unique attributes that render it a marketer’s dream product.”  Indeed it is.  A number of televangelists get in front of audience every Sunday and tell their delusional, yet optimistic followers that God has great things in store for them in the afterlife if only they give up their worldly possessions to their preacher in this life.  Don’t worry, God wants the preacher to have your money — apparently He said so.  Alas, these religious charlatans are smart enough to know that it helps to plant the seed of fear early if you want to swindle people out of their money later in life.

The Argentine shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis once famously said: “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.”  Even if you already intuitively understand why that is so, I highly recommend reading The Consuming Instinct anyway.