By Kym Loeb & Sarah Jay
Evolutionary psychology is increasingly becoming part of any conversation about behavioural economics. And rightly so – after all, behavioural economic biases exist because they are part of our evolutionary survival kit.
Studies have shown that worldwide, people in certain situations behave similarly. In today’s climate of strong opinion, we could do with understanding what we share as human beings – indeed, as animals. While changing culture certainly impacts behaviour, evolutionary psychology gives us the other side of the coin – it’s the ‘nature’ to culture’s ‘nurture’. And while cultural attitudes change relatively quickly with time, evolutionary instincts don’t.
Evolutionary psychology has a number of core tenets:
- Humans still exist today thanks to a series of biological adaptations which allowed our genes to survive and reproduce. If you’re unsure about the significance of biological adaptation in enabling your survival, consider this: of all the species that have ever existed on earth, it is estimated that 99% are extinct.
- Evolutionary adaptations take place over thousands of years. Our modern-day minds resulted from adaptations designed to maximise fitness in the hunter-gatherer society. We weren’t designed to commute in an underground tin box or fly 1000s of feet above earth. No wonder so much of modern life is so disquieting for us.
- We are acutely aware of our role in the wider group. We identify and affiliate ourselves with approved social behaviours in our cultures. Our behaviour is most often a means to a social end – the clothes we buy aren’t just about functionality and quality of material, but about who makes/sells them, how fashionable they are, and so on. These extrinsic qualities matter because of their social currency.
- Emotions are the executive arm of evolution. They exist to prompt or reward behaviour that benefits certain evolutionary goals. Feeling happy? You’ve probably just done or thought of something which supports one of your fundamental needs for survival/reproduction
In 2013, Vladas Griskevicius and Douglas Kenrick, wrote a paper outlining 7 “fundamental motives” that underpin human behaviour. They suggest that people give proximate motives for their actions that they are willing or able to acknowledge and express. However, there are usually deeper, fundamental (or ‘ultimate’) motives lying beneath these. This echoes behavioural economic theory i.e. people rarely know why they do what they do.
Unlike Maslow, their model acknowledges that our needs don’t exist in a linear hierarchy. Maslow’s contention that we satisfy basic physiological and safety needs first and foremost makes sense on paper, but isn’t quite right:
- Status/affiliation meets most of today’s basic needs. So, we don’t always put safety first.
- We vacillate between needs throughout the day. They’re like apps in our brain, each designed to deal with a specific problem.
- Different needs can be in conflict. For example, our discomfort with data privacy (self-protection) conflicts with our desire to be on social media (status/affiliation). In these instances, we choose which fundamental need to prioritise. This results in seemingly irrational behaviour that actually makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
Like behavioural biases, context is king – a motivation can be activated by external cues. For example, research shows that activating self-protection, through watching a crime documentary, compels people to follow others and play safe with their choices. Conversely, activating mate acquisition prompts people to want to stand out from the crowd. This has profound implications for brands and the brand environment they create.
So, what can we take from this?
- It’s time to ditch Maslow, replacing it with frameworks which acknowledge the fluidity of human motives. The 7 Fundamental Motives model is one of the best we’ve seen so far
- The interplay between evolutionary instinct and culture is a complex one. People are messy, unfixable beings. Thinking in terms of what Wendy Gordon coined ‘the me that I am when…’ in relation to your category is often more helpful than thinking about a broader, more static framework e.g. ‘millennials’
- Identify who a brand’s audience is striving to impress in a given context. What motives underpin this? Consider and explore the gap between one’s given, proximate motive and the fundamental motive at play. People don’t know why they drink Guinness, for example. But their stated reason for doing so is still revealing – it sheds light on how that person wants to be seen by others
- Use a more holistic approach to identifying people’s different motives and personas. We need to be better at triangulating multiple sources of enquiry to build a fuller and more accurate picture
Evolution may be slow but that doesn’t mean we as an industry should be slow to grasp its implications. Let’s not be afraid to leave defunct marketing models behind and replace them with more fit for purpose, 21st century thinking.
By Kym Loeb & Sarah Jay Acacia Avenue