Gift giving and fashion statements from the viewpoint of human evolution

May 2, 2007 | By | 15 Replies More

In his new book, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (2007), Gad Saad serves as a tour guide, draws connections from human biology to the purchasing decisions of human consumers.  He strongly advocates that no explanation of consumer behavior is complete unless that explanation considers human evolution–we always need to consider “ultimate” explanations as well as “proximate” explanations.  Saad has me sold, and I’m only halfway through his book.  I don’t buy $40 books every day, but this book delves into a topic that fascinates me.  Also, I must’ve felt deep in my bones that buying this book would make me more attractive to potential mates (or something like that). Bottom line: I bought the book, I’m reading every word of it and I’m marking up the margins ferociously.  It is a terrific collection of ideas, collected and presented by Saad, who is a talented writer and thinker.

One section of the book is titled “Gift giving As a Means of Creating and/or Solidifying Bonds.”  I wanted to share some of the ideas from that chapter.

Saad begins by recognizing that the “economic repercussions of the giftgiving ritual are enormous.”  That people are so willing to participate in store sponsored events (Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, secretary of state, etc.) “is a testament to our innate drive to engage in a reciprocal exchanges.”  Very few gifts are given without an expectation that something will be coming back in return, someday, courtesy of today’s beneficiary.  Saad gives the example of friends who treat each other to dinner on their respective birthdays.  Consider, also, that when gifts are exchanged, it becomes awkward when the gifts are not of comparable value (page 112).

What’s going on, evolutionarily speaking?  Saad provides an answer:

Numerous cultural traditions replete with important consumption implications serve the primary goal of reaffirming the bonds of friendship as forged through reciprocal arrangements.  Several rituals associated with Western marriages are precisely meant to solidify these bonds of reciprocity.  These include bridal showers were in a bride is literally showered with gifts, the bachelor or bachelorette parties, baby showers, God parenting, and finally the naming of the complete wedding party.  Needless to say, there are specific giftgiving rituals associated with each of these relationships, all of which served to reinforce the bonds of reciprocity.

Whereas cultural relativists focus on the differences among the cultures (should one open a gift in front of the giver?  How should one wrap a gift?  How much should one pay for a gift?), Saad focuses on the commonality: “gift giving is a human universal because it is a means by which evolutionary adaptive friendships and coalitions are formed, maintained and solidified.” In short, gift giving is social sonar.  Engaging in gift giving signals who is friend and who is foe.

Another way to signal group membership is to decorate one’s self with particular types of clothing.  We don’t wear just any type of clothing.  “Consumers wear clothes consistent with their age cohorts, social class, ethnic backgrounds and professional affiliations.”  According to Saad, fashion (like gift giving) is “part of our innate desire to signal membership within some relevant in-group, namely to belong to an established group.”  (Page 113).  The fashion industry itself is essentially “an exercise of group conformity and group identification.”  And it’s profitable too:

The overt cues of belongingness are labile such that to continue to belong to the’ fashionable’ group, one must continuously buy the ever changing attires, accoutrements and accessories. 

Saad quotes Henry David Thoreau: “Every generation laughs at the old fashions what follows religiously than new.”  He also quotes Sebastian-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort: “Change of fashion is the tax levied by the industry of the poor on the vanity of the rich.”  Why the latter quote?  Because popular fashion trends are now “democratized to the masses.”  As a result, the well-to-do among us need to keep changing to distinguish themselves.  No matter what they do, those high-end fashions that worked so well last year are going to show up this year at Target and K-mart.  It all becomes a classic evolutionary arms race. 

As objects of elite culture diffuse onto the masses and hence no longer serve as accurate indicators of one social standing, new symbols must be found that the limit membership into the various strata…. The wasteful efforts needed to consistently maintain one’s membership within the desired elite cultural group are a manifestation of the handicap principle.

(Page 115).  In this sense, fashion and clothing are no different then ever changing music styles and dance styles, all of which “have evolved as a means of signaling the cohesiveness of a coalitional group.” 

This deeply ingrained propensity of humans to concern themselves with a coalitional and affiliation of thinking is also demonstrated by the way they view sports events.  When our team wins, we “bask in reflected glory” by wearing T-shirts with our teams logo.  This phenomenon was documented by C. L. Dini in 1976.  He found that “College students were more likely to wear University attire (T-shirt with University insignia) following a victory of their football team.” People do have this tendency to associate themselves with winning efforts and to “dissociate from losers in both the public and private spheres.”

When I read this, I had the image of Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face that incident shouted “not invulnerable,” a serious hit to the Bush administration which, at that time, had the media well trained to portray the administration as, if nothing else, in control.  After that incident, it seemed to me that it was much more likely that people who identified themselves as Democrats associated themselves with stories, quips and cartoons regarding this duck hunting incident.


Tags: , , , ,

Category: Consumerism, Cultural Evolution, Economy, Evolution, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (15)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Vicki Baker says:

    That gift-giving solidifies social bonds and that fashions signal status and group membership – in what way are these astonishing new insights into human behavior?

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki: How often do we hear it naively portrayed that gift-giving is for reasons of "kindness," and "generosity"? Saad's book explores large swaths of recent research establishing that we have Machiavellian instincts deep in our bones. Saad's ultimate explanations offer a much more satisfying explanation of why we scurry around doing all of this shopping "for others." He asks us to always consider our biological roots.

    This post is part of my personal "crusade" that where we go wrong in maintaining a wholesome society can often be traced back to a point where we refuse to think of ourselves as human animals.  All too many of us strive to draw a special special category for humans so that we can justify taking out a blank slate to create new rules, from scratch, concerning who we are and how we should behave. The result is too often ad hoc dysfunctional bullshit–people shouting at each other that they should or should not do things, based on no justifiable framework.  Ad hoc morality is serious enough of an issue to have led Immanual Kant to write his Metaphysics of Morals.  That same frustration (ad hoc morality) is pushing the current generation of evolutionary psychologists to push in a fundamentally different direction, one that I find fruitful.

    Research topics like those surveyed by Saad re-ignite fundamental questions like this one: is it even possible to act unselfishly? My take on that question:  Certainly it is possible to act unselfishly, as long as we don't think about it too much . . .

    In my opinion, it is that early move of drawing an unwarranted distinction between humans and our animal cousins, that drives us to create (and impose on each other) incoherent, unanchored, judgmental and often ethereal forms of morality, rather than striving for a society based on some form of enlightened ecology.  It is my faith that we would all be better off with the latter.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich writes: "In my opinion, it is that early move of drawing an unwarranted distinction between humans and our animal cousins, that drives us to create (and impose on each other) incoherent, unanchored, judgmental and often ethereal forms of morality, rather than striving for a society based on some form of enlightened ecology. It is my faith that we would all be better off with the latter."

    Although I agree with this statement, it has a potentially troubling consequence. When the "ecology" of a society is rooted in an invisible supernatural god, the people at the bottom of that society (the "losers" in the "ecology") have someone *other those at the top* to blame for their misfortune. Beliefs such as, "God *wants* me to be poor"…"God has *rewards in heaven* for people who are poor"…"Satan is to blame for my suffering"…"God says, "the meek shall inherit the earth," etc., give the downtrodden an invisible, imaginary target for their anger and frustration, and some hope for redemption in an afterlife. However, if we remove invisible gods, demons and "the promise of everlasting life" from this equation, life in this world becomes much more of a zero-sum game, and the downtrodden might well conclude that the reason why they have so little is because their neighbors have too much. True, the best way to lessen such anger and frustration is by creating a more egalitarian society, but this might not always be possible, either because the society won't allow it (as often happens in America, with the rich and powerful slashing social benefits to the poor and weak) or because there will always be significant stratification in any society (society needs people who will collect its garbage, work in its mines, die in its wars, etc.). One of the reasons why Christianity has survived for so long in the Western world is because it has had the support of its kings and presidents…who, whether they were consciously aware of it or not, enjoyed the calming effect that this particular religion has had on downtrodden people. Remove that religion, destroy belief in that god among the poor, and we really don't know what will happen. We might well discover that there is a tipping point (much like the tipping point that many people fear might exist for global warming) beyond which a society, deprived of religious beliefs, propels itself into civil war and chaos.

    At least, so goes the argument from some social conservatives about the value of religion and why we should perhaps not be too eager to drive it to extinction. The Big Three religions have caused much individual suffering (from holy wars to suicide bombings), but they also correspond to the most successful two millenia that any species has likely ever enjoyed on our planet. Perhaps the fact that we exist today as (apparently) the dominant species on our planet is a credit to those religious beliefs — not because they are true, but because the *widespread belief* that they are true has important moderating effects on our (competitive, cruel, irrational, ego-driven) species.

    Balancing this theory, of course, is the notion that altruistic, unselfish behavior is so inherently beneficial to us that we would engage in it even without the urging (through love or punishment, take your pick) of a supernatural deity. That might be true, but we might still be too early in the research stage to know for sure. Moreover, it might be true only for some individuals or for relatively small social groups, and fail when a very large number of people is involved (i.e., the "mob mentality").

    Anyway, it is something to consider when we discuss the interaction between supernatural morality and real-world economics.

  4. Ben says:

    "This post is part of my personal “crusade” that where we go wrong in maintaining a wholesome society can often be traced back to a point where we refuse to think of ourselves as human animals."

    You mean you evolved from a monkey?

    "Around the house, the monkeys help out by doing tasks including microwaving food, washing the quadriplegic's face, and opening drink bottles."

    Monkeys have even been known to prostelytize, if given enough time on a word processor.

  5. Erika Price says:

    But can we, as animals also capable of metacognitive and philosophical thought, move beyond what our evolutionary programming has told us to expect? In this particular case, can we ever give gifts with the intent of demonstrating that we care about a person, or to make them smile? Or, does a seemingly "selfless" gift without the promise of reciprocation simply represent buying a person's friendship or love? Thinking in terms of evolutionary psychology can quickly leave you disillusioned with any grandiose concepts of "human nature" like love and altruism.

    I can't sort out whether humans actually have the capacity to care about one another's feelings selflessly or not. Do we just tune in to the emotions of others so we can see how to take advantage of them? Or because, as social animals, we must facilitate group harmony in order to survive? Probably the latter- many other animals appear to have a keen empathic instinct that tells them how best to respond to other's emotions, too.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    Don't mean to dis yer author, Erich, but ever heard of karma? The concept that sharing and gift-giving benefits both parties in a very real way is a bit of folk wisdom so ancient and widespread that only "modern science" would claim it as a new insight. "I store my food in the belly of my brother," is a saying of an Amazonian tribe I hope to blog about if I ever get the time. "Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land," says the sage of Ecclesiastes.

    The real insight of evolutionary psychology here is to supercede a reductionist economic model, that we are giving out of some sort of calculated means/end analysis. Rather, we may be predisposed to enjoy the dance of giving and receiving for its own sake.

    In terms of personal morality, I'd have to say it's not rocket science. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; "For happiness, cherish others" – wise people have been saying things like this for centuries. Actually putting them into practice falls under the rubric of "simple but not easy" like so much of what it takes to live a truly "good life." In terms of extra-personal morality, I have to agree with Mother Theresa that the problem is that "we draw the circle of our family too small."

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Certainly there is, as Vicki mentions, giving for the sake of giving. Nevertheless, there is *far more* giving for the sake of garnering favor: we give much more to our friends and family (i.e., long-term relationships, from which we are likely to recieve reciprocity) than we give to total strangers.

    In any case, there is no reason to quote scripture. Scripture merely codifies, and then claims credit for, long-standing animal…excuse me, *human*…behaviors. Even bats share their food with comrades, yet I suspect not one of them has ever read Ecclesiastes. If THEY discovered the benefits of gift giving all by themselves, then I imagine we apes did, too.

  8. Vicki Baker says:

    Grumps, I wasn't making a case that scripture has some special insight, but that this guy Saad doesn't. The Amazonian saying and the Ecclesiastes quote both make the same point that we give in the hope of reciprocity. I suspect academic turf battles behind the hype for this book; I'll let you analyze the evolutionary basis of academic turf battles at your leisure.

    Maybe it's Buddhist teaching finally rubbing off on me, but I'm not seeing the point of making distinctions between self-less and self-ish when the self is just a name we give to a node in a web of interconnected dependencies. Erika, why not just enjoy that we enjoy making other people smile?

    Erich: certainly evolutionary theory has implications for personal and policy decisions, Often, though, the radical "new" insights are just leading us back to traditional ways. Child care is one example – most Americans think that it's normal for a tiny baby to sleep alone in a crib and see no problem with the "cry it out" approach. picking up the crying baby will just reward the crying, right? But look at the baby as a primate infant, and you'll see why he/she is screaming to be picked up – alone on the jungle floor or the savannah is no place for a primate baby. The baby has no way of knowing she's safe in a crib in the nursery.

    So be good primates: put your baby in a sling, co-sleep (with the baby in a sidecar crib if you're worried about rollover) and nurse on demand. All traditional practices: it's us modern folks who thought we were so much smarter than evolution.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki: You provoked me to look up karma: According to Wikipedia, karma is a matter of performing positive actions that result in a good condition (whereas a negative action results in a bad effect). The effects may be seen immediately or delayed. Delay can be until later in the present life or in the next.

    As I understand karma, it not tied to any proximate or ultimate scientific explanation. It is not tied to animal biology. Saad's conception of gift-giving is biologically anchored in a framework that provides for predictions that can be proven or disproven. For example, the theory of reciprocal altruism is a viable strategy where there is an opportunity for repeated interactions withe the recipient, plus opportunities for keeping track of who has "honored or cheated on their reciprocal obligations." (Saad, p. 117).

    Evolutionary psychology also predicts that being nice to strangers is much more likely to occur where it is done before an audience of one's friends and acquaintances. Sure enough, think of those many charity donations that are done in exchange for plaques and other public recognition.

    Evolutionary psychology presents many theories that are testable.

    Karma? It's hard to test. It's hard to know exactly what it even means. I could imagine many private acts of generosity that wouldn't result in anything good at all to the do-gooder.  For instance, if I secretly entered a food pantry at night and left a bag with $5,000 would my life improve? Maybe someone would be nice to me in the future, but would that have any causal relation to my good deed? Maybe a gang would beat me up the next day. Is there any relation at all? Who really knows? How would you test this? Karma doesn't distinguish between public displays of kindness versus private acts, yet there is a world of difference. I admit that I can see some overlap between Karma versus gift-giving to the extent that the do-gooding is public.

    Karma is a useful concept–it amounts to an implied social contract, to many people.   It is akin to the golden rule.  Each of these concepts can serve to harness immediate "selfish" impulses and sublimate them to the greater good.  If the principle Karma wre followed in the aggregate, the world would be a more pleasant place, no doubt.

    But Karma is not evolutionary psychology. I find that analyses and experiments like Saad's add greatly to my understanding of human animals. Even if I were well-versed in Karma, I could learn a lot more about human animals by studying evolutionary psychology.

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich asks, "If I secretly entered a food pantry at night and left a bag with $5,000 would my life improve?…Maybe a gang would beat me up the next day."

    One way to perhaps better understand why Vicki mentions Karma is to think about the so-called Butterfly Effect in chaos theory: the idea that a butterfly's wing flapping might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear (or to not appear). This is a metaphor for the chaos theory concept of "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" — the notion that small variations in the initial state of a non-linear dynamic system can lead to large variations in the long-term behavior of the system.

    As Vicki explains, Karma isn't just about the life of the *giver*, it also includes the lives of everyone else. When a giver gives a gift, even an anonymous gift, the life of the giver might (or might not) change but the life of the *recipient* definitely does change (i.e., probably improves). That person might then do something nice for other people, who in turn might do more nice things for still more people, and so on and so on. Using Erich's above example, what if the anonymous $5,000 in that bag went to a food bank, and what if the food bank gave a hot meal to the gang members, and what if the well-fed gang members who were going to attack Erich the next day were happy about the free food so instead decided to play basketball, and what if one of the gang members were spotted by an NBA recruiter, and what if the gang member becomes an NBA star and donates millions of dollars back to his old neighborhood, and what if…well, you get the idea. When you do a good deed for someone else, even an anonymous good deed, you just never know what chain of events you have set into motion.

    Similarly, the process can also work in a negative direction (so-called "bad Karma). For example, what if an evil, dishonest man decides to, say, illegally invade a foreign country: he sends in his Marines, they blow up someone's house, which kills someone's wife and children, so he volunteers to be a suicide bomber, he then blows up a Marine barracks, so the invader sends in *more* Marines as part of a "troop surge to stem the violence," and they kill more innocent people, so then more people volunteer to be suicide bombers…well, you get the idea. Just as with good deeds, you never know what chain of events bad deeds will set into motion.

    With these examples in mind, I think the point Vicki is making is that our lives form a dynamic, highly-interconnected, non-linear system. It is so complex that even Saad's scientific method cannot understand, much less explain, its behavior; and, moreover, what it *can* explain has been self-evident since the dawn of human history: i.e., that people give gifts for selfish reasons (e.g., to form and strenghen coalitions) and we make our clothing choices to signal cohesion to a particular in-group. I think Vicki is saying, "Well, duh, Dr. Saad, tell us something we all don't already know, because I think your research findings are self-evident." I haven't read Dr. Saad's book, but I would agree: I don't see what significant new insights Saad's book offers. Anyone who has ever given a gift has consciously decided that the pros outweigh the cons, and anyone who has ever been a teenager knows full well the importance and meaning of clothing choices, so what does Saad's research tell us that we don't already know?

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Gut level understandings are often enhanced by rigorous study. Saad's meticulous research and many illustrations truly enhanced my understanding of gift-giving (and many other phenomena). It gave me a larger framework than I previously had (and I was fully aware of the butterfly effect and my own Machiavellian machinations prior to reading Saad). That is why I shared this information.

    Here are two podcasts of a recent talk Saad gave with regard to the contents of his book at Indiana University. I guarantee that the information provided in these lectures goes far beyond any deep understanding of "karma." You will hear of an EP analysis of such disparate things as the enhanced testosterone levels of men who drive Porsches and an EP analysis of the "Master of My Domain" episode of Seinfeld.

    [Be patient, these are entire lectures and the downloads will take 5 or 10 minutes]

  12. Vicki Baker says:

    Using patterns of sharing and gift-giving to uncover social structure and power dynamics has been a tool in the anthropologist's toolbox since the late 19th century. Evolutionary psychology may add some insight but it seems to me that "EP confirms thousands of years of folk wisdom and 120 years of anthropological research" would be the most accurate summary on this particular point.

    BTW, I don't see the need to use a perjorative term like "Machiavellian" to describe social bonding in primates. That implies a win/lose situation rather than a win-win strategy to optimally regulate each other's hormone levels. I'll take a good hit of oxytocin any day!

    Speaking of the Golden Rule, I certainly would not appreciate it someone dissed a book I liked w/o reading it, so I will try and locate a copy over the weekend to check it out.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki, Thanks for the most recent email.

    I'd also point out that my post is not just directed to you and Grumpy. It was also directed to the many people who are not as familiar with the concepts of EP. For many of them (I would bet) it is a startling thought that there is a deep Darwinian framework for understanding gift-giving to be an abject investment in one's self.

  14. Erika Price says:

    We have an easy time looking at a research finding and concluding that it seems obvious to us. Hindsight bias accounts for this phenomenon, but that doesn't mean the seemingly obvious research has no purpose. We can intuitively "know" some things, and find that evidence from research proves quite to the opposite. We can't say that all sage wisdom has truth in it, after all, because many intuitively "right" sayings contradict eachother. Just looking at English sayings: the early bird catches the worm, but good things come to those who wait. We can't hold either of these as particularly true; they don't even hold their value as intuitive, pragmatically wise suggestions that have stood the test of time. Both sayings have stuck and get frequently repeated, and a person might simultaneously believe both of them, and might make a habit of saying both of them despite the contradiction. Many such contradictions in common sayings (in all cultures) exist. So we can't really fall back on what ancient knowledge, or common knowledge, tells us. We have to chase the evidence to the answer.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Gad Saad has a new blog at Psychology Today. It's called "Homo Consumericus

    The Nature and Nurture of Consumption." You'll find it here:

    Recent article consider God's willingness to intervene in sports contests and this one, on brand loyalty and unfair advertising laws, as applied to religions. Here's one more: The importance of those on the maternal side of the family of assuring those on the paternal side that the baby looks like the father, even when there is no evidence of this.

    For an overall description of what Saad is studying, consider this excerpt from his first post:

    To tickle your curiosity, I list here typical issues that I am likely to discuss on this post. Why do men constitute the great majority of Ferrari owners? Why do women wear extraordinarily uncomfortable high heels, which often result in severe podiatric injuries? What do the most successful global restaurant chains have in common? How do consumers allocate their gift-giving budgets? Why is religion such a successful "product"? What do Arabic, Hindi, French, and American Hip Hop songs have in common? How does a woman's menstrual cycle affect her consumption acts? Why was Seinfeld such a popular sitcom? Why are beautiful endorsers so frequently used in advertisements? Are successful telemarketers likely to possess particular types of voices? Why are pathological gamblers largely male whereas women constitute the majority of compulsive buyers? The answer to each of the latter questions (and countless others) rests on an understanding of our biological heritage.

Leave a Reply