Warm Gun: What Makes Consumers Tick

by Luke Wroblewski October 8, 2010

In his opening keynote on Evolution & The Central 6 Traits that Make Consumers Tick at the Warm Gun Design Conference in San Francisco, Geoffrey Miller described how evolutionary psychology explains why people put their possessions on display for others. Here’s my notes from his talk:

  • Why is there so much conspicuous display of wealth in our society? In pre-history there were no elites. We spent 35 million years as apes and only in the past 10,000 years had the money and means to show off our tastes. Yet we seem to have instincts to display wealth and taste. To show off what we have and why. What’s behind these instincts?
  • Evolutionary consumer psychology can help provide answers by looking at how our past shaped our ancestral selection process. This has implications for designing products as it tell us what drives consumers to buy.

Product Types

  • Practical products: survival commodities that are useful in life like ham and blankets. Economics drive the profitability of practical products down to zero.
  • Pleasure premium products: associated with private vices (chocolate, porn). These are products you would be embarrassed to be caught using. As a result, they have a limited market place.
  • Display premium products: what you buy to show off to others. This is where the money is and where brands are dominant.

Display not Consumption

  • People don’t buy products just to consume them. They buy them to display them.
  • Consumption (as in consumer) is a misleading term. While it’s true most animals spend all their time foraging for things to consume, display reaches much more deeply. Display is a highly natural instinct it pervades the animal world in mating, territory marking, and more.

Display In Nature

  • What is display used for in nature?
  • Attract mates: sexual ornaments, morphological displays to advertise genetic qualities, and behavioral displays to attract mates. Evolution builds in wisdom on how to display even in small bird brains.
  • Deter rivals: display features keep rivals away
  • Impress parents: baby birds competing for food are saying they are fitter and more optimized for food.
  • Four principles of display: nature favors things that are conspicuous and will be registered by their intended audience. These include conspicuous: cost (size, materials, energy), precisions (typicality for the species, symmetry) creativity (novelty, utility, symbols), reputation (status, fame, brand).

What People Display

  • What do consumers want to display about themselves?
  • Central six mental traits: we are driven unconsciously to display these traits to anyone who will listen: intelligence, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, extraversion. The last five are “the big 5” personality traits.
  • All 6 of these traits are fundamental and ancient across all species; they are genetically heritable; stable across life & cultures; attractive to mates, friends, kin; and can be judged and measured accurately.
  • If you are unhappy with someone it is usually because they fall short on some of these traits. We have evolved thousands of words to describe these traits.
  • Intelligence: verbal, spatial, social, emotional. All of these are correlated.
  • Openness: novelty, fantasy, aesthetics, liberalism, globalism. Most product creators are more open then their audience. Any advertisement that feature openness will appeal to some and alienate others. Openness drives rapid acceleration of new brands.
  • Conscientiousness: discipline, planning, ambition, order. The ability to plan ahead.
  • Agreeableness: kindness, honesty, modesty, tenderness.
  • Extraversion: last surviving trait from Myer Briggs. Shy vs. outgoing. Get positive feedback from act of talking. Plays out in consumer world through analytics, word of mouth, etc.
  • Everyone in business will overestimate openness, conscientiousness, etc. as they tend to over index on these traits.

How the Web is Influencing Display

  • The typical human process for displaying your wealth and tastes: you have talent, you display it, you get skilled employment, you earn income, you engage in conspicuous consumption, which gets you mates and friends. This is a LONG process that used to take a lifetime.
  • With social networking and smartphones –you can display the six central mental traits directly. You can do an end run around the traditional process (which demanded patience and investment) and jump right to attracting mates and friends. This may be partially to blame for our global recession!
  • What trait display norms will emerging economies adopt? China/India, etc. Will they use conspicuous consumption or emigrate to other forms of trait display? Time will tell...