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.