Brain Evolution and Human Drives (Consumer Understanding #1)

Mar 10 2011

A new mindset for research

Advances in neuroscience, psychology and related fields such as behavioral economics have changed our understanding of our minds over the last 10-20 years.  Over the next 12 articles, I would like to build a complete picture of what makes us what we are, and what this means for marketing and market research, incorporating the latest understanding from these fields.  The material is taken from a two-day training workshop, and if you want to learn more about these ideas, then please join us here.

Man has been interested in the workings of the brain since history began, seeking understanding through the arts, sciences and, in recent years, the development of technologies for scanning the activity of the brain, and the study of brain abnormalities and injuries has identified some profound (and sometimes counter-intuitive) learnings about how our brains function and how this is manifest through our interacting minds.

Market research still largely depends on research methodologies invented more than 50 years ago (although there are some exceptions), and while the technology used to collect questions has changed dramatically, the questions themselves have remained largely intact.  It’s time to catch up!

What does it all mean?

What do we all care about most in our lives?  Family, health, house, food and clothes. And then comes meaningful work and relationships and social esteem, but the drivers of our key goals are around survival and reproduction!  Until the very recent past, these were the only things it was worth worrying about.

Charles Darwin argued that all living species arrived at their current biological form through an historical process involving random inheritable changes.  Some of those changes are adaptive, and increase an individual’s chances of survival and reproduction.  Changes like this are more likely to be passed on to the next generation, while changes which reduce the chances of survival and reproduction are likely to be lost.

The evidence for Darwin’s theory is overwhelming: man’s use of artificial selection (eg GM, selective breeding of domestic animals), family trees of animals, the development of human embryos and the fossil record including our own.

The evolution of the mind

Although we think of evolution as a theory in biology, it is also being applied successfully to better understand the development of human minds, societies and culture.  Evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker argue that human morals, like more basic human emotions such as fear, have an evolutionary basis and a selective advantage.  And the discipline of evolutionary psychology has provided great insights into human motivations, emotions, preferences and relationships.  You can’t watch the TV or walk past a newsstand and not miss the number of popular programs and magazines which talk about many of these ideas.

So what makes us “smart arse” humans different from other animals?  Steven Pinker argues that there are four key traits which helped us to get where we are in the world today (largely dominating our fellow creatures):

  1. Visual perception
  2. Opposable thumbs
  3. Richer diet
  4. Sociability

Related to these traits, psychologists have shown that we are driven by four key motivations:

  1. Defend
  2. Acquire
  3. Bond
  4. Learn

These strategies lie at the core of the various motivational models used in market research, and we will see that they are also related to universal human traits, emotions, metaphors and meaning (watch out for later posts in the series).

Getting ahead

These traits and drives help us to get ahead in life.  We are social primates who survive and reproduce with the support of family, friends and mates, and in order to get that support we have to offer desirable traits which fit the needs of those around us.  Although these traits evolved on the savannah, we are now surrounded by a very different environment with very different challenges.  But these fundamental traits have not changed as fast as our environment!

The most common and widely accepted system for measuring these personality traits is known as the “Big 5″, developed by Beatrice Rammstein and Oliver John.  They are sometimes referred to by the acronym OCEAN, standing for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.  We all need a little of each of these to get along in life, but we all differ depending on our life experiences and relationships.  The traits can be measured with a few straightforward questions.

These traits are expressed in the brands and products we by as well as the way we interact with others.  As well as fundamental personal drives they are also the way we “signal” our desirability to others and make our way in the world (often very successfully).  They are the basis of our behaviour, and that of the consumers we seek to understand.

The most important theory for any market researcher to understand is the Theory of Evolution!

In the next article I will explore the anatomy of the brain and the central role of emotions.  To learn more about the topic, why not join our training by clicking here?


On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life by Charles Darwin (1859)

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2003)

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