By Dr R Balashankar
The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraries, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal about Human Nature, Gad Saad, Pometheus Books, Pp 374 (HB), $ 2 5.00
Consuming has become a global phenomena. People no more buy what they need. But what they want. So, what exactly drives people to buy? According to The Consuming Instinct by Gad Saad, there are only four basic reasons: survival, reproduction, kin selection and reciprocity. Saad’s book is an attempt to explain consumption patterns. “Whereas culture is important in understanding consumer behavior, of equal importance are the biological and evolutionary forces that have shaped our consuming minds and bodies.” Continuing his arguments, Saad says that the food we eat and the choices of foods we make are related to our survival instincts. Witness the growing food industry. Or just count the number of food-related idioms in any language. Sample this: apple of my eye, cool like cucumber, sweet like honey, bite the hand that feeds, couch potato, eat one’s words, fruit of labour, going babanas, the list goes on and on.
When it comes to consumer goods, like clothes, automobile, the choice is gender-specific. While men are much more likely to purchase sports cars, women are more likely to buy products to beautify themselves.
Giving gifts and privileges is a practice common to all cultures. In India, almost all occasions are used to draw and re-draw the community kinship. Like offering the head-gear to the blood kins, distributing sweets, or even the gesture of tonsuring head on death has kin significance. This is the third instinct that guides consumption according to Saad. “Given the importance of the family in catering to our innate need for sociality, it is not surprising that the kin-based investments we make, … manifest themselves in innumerable ways within the consumer arena.”
Reciprocity is a major emotional imperative in humans, says Saad. That is also a reason why people keep pets. The recent explosion of social networking sites are a proof of the human beings’ need to search for people who share their interests and pleasures. We give gifts that reflect a common interest to a person we vibe with. In a world where family sizes are shrinking, these outside home friendship are assuming more and more significance.
The author also discusses such issues as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), known as hoarding. “… many OCD manifestations occur in largely sex-specific manners because they map onto issues of sex-specific evolutionary import.” One of the manifestations of OCD is compulsive buying. Findings show that compulsive buyers “may have lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, possess lower self-esteem, have a stronger interest in appearence-related issues, have greater fashion interest, and utilize purchases as a means of regulating their moods.” Similarly there are eating disorders, pathological gamblers, compulsive scandal mongers and those who constantly seek physically dangerous sports and activities.
In a sub-chapter titled Hormones fuel the financial markets Saad says, “The Wall Street financial crisis of the late 2000s is a reminder of the human propensity to succumb to the “deadly” sin of greed. He adds that most economists until recently largely ignored how our biology affects our preferences and choices. “Instead they have construed humans as cold, calculating machines that follow invariant algorithms such as utility maximization.”
Evolutionary psychology has emerged as a serious branch of study that has direct applications on human behaviour. This includes the economic, social, political and emotional decisions made. And these have an impact on the consumption pattern. “Most business phenomena, be it those relevant to consumers, employees, or employers, are manifestations of the indelible forces of evolution in shaping our minds and bodies,” asserts Saad.
Gad Saad’s book is an interdisciplinary approach. The evolutionary psychology may give a clue as to why one part of the world are compulsive consumers and the other compulsive savers and conservers. It may explain why people in the cash-starved economies are refusing to read the writing on the wall and accepting spending cuts. While Asians save, put things to maximum re-use, the wastage of the West is famous now. With unabated consumerism being elevated to the status of science, would it bring solutions to the economic mess and show the way to solving potential future issues is an interesting point to ponder.
Saad’s book offers a new and engaging point of view. Saad is a professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business of Concordia University and has authored several scientific papers and a book.
(Pometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, New York 14228-2119)
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