Monkey motives

“I’d rather be a climbing ape than a falling angel.”  – Terry Pratchett

On my way home on the bus yesterday I spotted ‘a small fella’ driving a big black Hummer. Why did he feel the need to buy this I wondered? Surely the pleasure of acquiring and driving it can only be short lived at best.  What makes someone spend almost US$150,000 on an unreliable, gas guzzling, hard to drive sport-utility vehicle?

Charles Darwin and the new science of evolutionary psychology provide insights into what drives human beings to behave the way they do. Human beings evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends and rearing children.


Around 100,000 years ago, some of ancestors began to emigrate out of Africa and eventually colonized the whole World. In understanding the biological underpinning of the human mind we must understand both the physical and social environment in which we evolved on the African savannahs.

We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates. We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs, and we have evolved the mental capacities to display those traits. Signaling theory in biology shows that animals will make a lot of noise about themselves if it will improve their chances of survival and reproduction.

The peacock’s tail is the classic example of a fitness indicator. It attracts peahens by showing the health and fitness of the peacock in question. Nature produces peacock tails. CBD oil arthritis interacts with our naturally occurring systems, but is non-psychotropic, it doesn’t cause a high.

Human culture produces luxury goods such as the Hummer.  The Hummer guy could also be a real mummy’s boy (“My son’s got a Hummer”), and the most popular guy at football (Can pick us up in the Hummer, Dave?”); quality signaling can assist in getting parental care, social support as well as sexual partners.

Evolutionary psychologists see conspicuous consumption as an increasingly wasteful arms race, where signaling is driving a proliferation of features and functions. Luxury goods companies are scouring the World to decode different types of luxury – ostentatious display of brand names, art house style, precision craftsmanship, creative chic, uberpremium – you name it there are many ways human beings are finding to self market themselves to each other (including changing their actual body shape and appearance).

Geoffrey Miller, in his new book, Spent, argues that we do more than just parade our fertility. We are, he argues, trying to display fundamental personality traits – because these provide a lot of information to others about our character, capabilities, virtues and vices. He describes six central traits:

  • General Intelligence – basically general cognitive ability or IQ
  • Openness – to experience, curiosity, novelty seeking, broadmindedness etc
  • Conscientiousness – self-control, will power, reliability, trustworthiness etc
  • Agreeableness – warmth, kindness, sympathy, empathy etc
  • Stability – adaptability, optimism, at ease, resilient etc
  • Extraversion – friendly, gregarious, talkative, funny, expressive etc

Group living increases the potential for competition. For our ancestors, forming alliances and friendships was a vital if not especially easy task. An alliance is formed when, “I’ll help you if you help me”. To sustain cooperation it is important that we remember who we have met before and how they have treated us, so called. ‘tit for tat’ behavior. Signaling and decoding the personality and minds of others was central to survival.

It is not all just about social signaling of course. Out on the savannahs, avoiding predators and finding food would have been important adaptations as well. Perhaps that’s why negative emotions like fear and disgust can be so salient and powerful. Which is more costly, a false alarm or a slow predator detector? No wonder it’s easy to get phobias of snakes and spiders. It also explains why something strange like eating chicken feet is hard to digest in my western mind, whilst over binging generally on the now plentiful supplies of fat and sugar is hard to resist.

So when we think of the motivations that underpin consumer behaviour we are likely to find additional insights when we place them in their biological and evolutionary perspective. What are we trying to signal and to whom with the brands we buy? In what way do we use consumer products to help us select mates, to form alliances, or to help relatives? How might our desire to enjoy or avoid foods be related to our food preferences in the past? Where have adaptations created in our biological past become hindrances in modern society?


Spent – Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior – Geoffrey Miller

Introducing Evolutionary Psychology – Dylan Evans and Oscar Zarate

Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind – David Buss

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