Marketing and Evolutionary Psychology

Colin Tudge reviews Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism, by Geoffery Miller in this month’s Literary Review.

Acknowledging the limitations of evolutionary psychology, Tudges writes about what Miller’s observations could mean for the marketing of products:

Evo psy has not had a good press, nor done itself many favours – but in principle Miller is surely right. As the Ukrainian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky commented in 1973, ‘Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution’ – and biology includes animal and human psychology.

[…]

Evolutionary psychologists seek to identify what we really need to do to get by and produce offspring, and what states of mind we need, and to trace the selective forces, deep in our past, that have shaped our predilections and capabilities. Such thinking suggests that the Freudian and behaviourist psychology now applied to marketing and to the economy in general is too eccentric or crude by half. For all its apparent success, marketing does not really press the right buttons, and most economic systems do not make us happy even when they are intended to.

So in our consumer economy it’s assumed above all that people like stuff. ‘Darwinians’ (albeit the kind that Darwin would surely disown) then tell us that it is ‘natural’ above all to compete – consumers flaunting bigger and better stuff, and producers vying to produce more stuff than anyone else. Stir in the device of money – cash can buy anything – and we finish up with a dogfight, with everyone battling to outstrip the rest, and marketeers helping the process along.

Tudge concludes that Miller’s book argues for human goodness, but not for the goodness of marketers:

Miller’s thesis is encouraging. Basically we are nice – or at least we want to seem nice, and are impressed by niceness. Marketing would be far more successful if geared to the big six manifestations of niceness – we might call them virtues. Contrary to the general impression, marketing does not have to lead to rampant consumerism and a gobbling up of precious resources. Its techniques, rooted in accurate psychology, can just as soon promote good ideas as damaging ones.

But Tulge says,

Yet I am left uneasy. Is it really true that astute marketing could in practice sell good ideas as readily as big and shiny stuff? Marketing is expensive. So the people who can afford to do it best are those who set out, not to spread sweetness and light, but to make as much money as possible.

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One thought on “Marketing and Evolutionary Psychology

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