The psychology behind consumerism: how humans became consumers?

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Consumer culture, an imperative tool of globalization has influenced societies’ world over. The phenomenon became popularized in the beginning of twentieth century constructing the structure of ‘modern capitalism’. Today no society remains untouched from its influence. However a significant variation is seen among different regions, in absorption of ‘consumerism’ due to their specific socio-cultural and political frame.

Picture it. The year is 2027. A spacecraft descends upon on a modern shopping mall carrying an alien behavioral scientist sent to collect data on Earthlings. The alien enters a store full of a dizzying array of opulent trinkets foreign to her eyes. She settles in to record observations and attempt to make sense of the smells, sights, and peculiar Earthling behaviors — from the aroma of heavily scented liquids being sprayed on passers-by to women perched upon elevated chairs while heavy paint is applied to their faces. This alien would likely wonder what (on earth) is going on.

Like our alien visitor, Charles Darwin was similarly puzzled by many of the strange characteristics and behaviors of the beings he encountered in his travels around the world. Darwin became a detective of behavior and through decades of observations formulated the theory of natural selection. Darwin’s theory became the unifying theory of behavior‐guiding research in the life sciences. The theory of natural selection is a meta‐theory that helps us understand the characteristics and behaviors of all living organisms, including humans. Today this interdisciplinary framework is the bridge between the social and the life sciences, regularly incorporated into modern psychology, anthropology, and other behavioral sciences.

Applying an evolutionarily informed lens does not mean throwing away other approaches to consumer research. Rather, an evolutionary lens is a keen theoretically driven tool for making novel discoveries within any behavioral research area. Thinking about behavior in an evolutionarily informed way also does not mean a researcher must re‐brand themselves as an evolutionary researcher. Instead, an evolutionary perspective can often shed new light on important questions.

An evolutionary explanation of behavior concerns the behavior’s adaptive function. All human behaviors include an evolutionary explanation because, on average, all behaviors result from a neural (brain) and/or physiological (body) mechanism designed to produce a particular behavior (output) given a particular stimulus (input).

Without prior exposure to evolutionary biology, it is reasonable to assume that a few human behaviors might be related to evolution and that many others are probably unrelated to evolution. But this assumption is false. In reality, all behaviors include an evolutionary explanation because all behaviors have multiple explanations at different levels of analysis.

Here is a concrete example. Most people love to eat cake. But, why? One way to answer this question is that cake tastes good. But a different way to answer this question is that an attraction to the sight, smell, and taste of foods rich in sugars and fats helped motivate our ancestors to obtain calorie‐dense foods in order to survive in an environment that was often scarce in calories. It is also equally accurate to explain that people love to eat cake because they are born with a specific mechanism that activates the pleasure centers of the brain when tasting sweet foods. And more broadly, people love to eat foods rich in sugar and fat because this is typical behavior for all primates and can be traced back to a common ancestor.

An evolutionary psychological perspective stresses that the human mind is an integrated assembly of psychological adaptations — a premise shared widely by evolutionary biologists in understanding animal behavior. Psychological adaptations are information‐processing circuits that take in units of information (from both our external environments and our internal physiological systems) and transform that information into outputs designed to solve a particular adaptive problem. Psychological adaptations enhanced fitness by solving distinct adaptive problems. Just like physiological adaptations evolved to solve distinct problems in the service of survival and reproduction (think about the distinct problems solved by the heart, liver, lungs, etc.), psychological adaptations also evolved as solutions to qualitatively distinct adaptive problems.

The contemporary human being evaluates individual success in society from a totally material perspective and in terms of the potential for consumption. If consumption is the criterion for a successful life, happiness and even politeness, the flaws of human wishes are updated. There is no standard for satisfying the needs. The finish line moves forward simultaneously with the movement of the runners. Goals are always a few steps ahead. We always witness breaking of the records, but human wishes have no limit.

As with all things psychological, the relationship between mental state and materialism is complex. Indeed, researchers are still trying to ascertain whether materialism stokes unhappiness, unhappiness fuels materialism, or both. In simple terms, a strong consumerist bent — what William Wordsworth in 1807 called “getting and spending” — can promote unhappiness because it takes time away from the things that can nurture happiness, including relationships with family and friends, research shows.

Based on the literature to date, it would be too simplistic to say that desire for material wealth unequivocally means discontent. Although the least materialistic people report the most life satisfaction, some studies indicate that materialists can be almost as contented if they’ve got the money and their acquisitive lifestyle doesn’t conflict with more soul-satisfying pursuits. But for materialists with less money and other conflicting desires — a more common situation — unhappiness emerges, researchers are finding.

Today we own twice as many cars per person, eat out twice as often and enjoy endless other commodities that weren’t around then — big-screen TVs, microwave ovens, SUVs and handheld wireless devices, to name a few. But are we any happier?

How — indeed whether — people can adapt to a world of consumerism remains the big question for the 21st century. Consumerism is its own monumental challenge, but there may be lessons that can be learned from that earlier history of the consumer. Consumers were identified as important players in tackling social blight and economic injustice. As buyers, they had some influence over what was produced, its quality as well as quantity. Organizing their interests added an important voice to the arena of public politics. These remain valuable insights: Consumers may not hold the answers for everything, but that does not mean they should be treated as merely individual shoppers in the market.