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Making sense of the seemingly senseless: Professor Griskevicius schools on consumer (ir)rationality

Vlad Griskevicius is the McKnight associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management and the author of an upcoming book release, “The Rational Animal: How evolution has made us smarter than we think we are.”
He has authored more than 40 academic papers analyzing the reasoning behind why people make the choices they do, focusing on evolutionary aspects of these decisions. Griskevicius will present at this year'sAdvertising Weekconference as part ofDRAFTFCB's Institute of Decision Making session,“Why consumer irrationality isn't so irrational.”
AllVoices recently had the chance to interview Griskevicius. Here is the takeaway:

Q. What are some things your audience could be mulling over to prepare themselves for what you will be sharing at this year's conference?
A. Consider why people overspend, underinvest and make otherwise poor decisions. Why do so many folks buy cars they can't afford (1.8 million vehicles are repossessed each year), gorge themselves on calories they don't need and put $57 billion of their savings into something that has an expected negative 80 percent return rate – the lottery?
These kinds of behaviors might seem proof of a communal human stupidity. But puzzling behaviors raise an important question: Why did the human mind evolve to make people behave this way? It turns out that instead of making us foolishly irrational, evolution made us smarter than we think.

Q. Without giving too much away, what are some of the key points of discussion in your upcoming book, “The Rational Animal”?
A. “The Rational Animal” challenges prevailing views of behavior by looking at the animal inside the rational animal. Rather than finding us to be dim-witted, it reveals that deep within us lurks a surprisingly brilliant beast. Although our choices are sometimes puzzling, they are actually well-designed to serve deep-seated evolutionary goals. Once we start looking at modern behavior through the lens of our ancestral goals, many decisions that appear foolish at the surface level turn out to be smart at a deeper evolutionary level.
This new perspective has important implications for understanding consumers’ many irrational biases. Although a “bias” is often viewed as a deficiency and equated with poor decision making, many of our modern-day biases stem from adaptive tendencies that helped our ancestors. We humans are born to be biased – but for good reason. Instead of being design flaws, many of our biases are actually design features. Understanding how these biases work helps marketers harness our evolutionary tendencies to better predict how consumers will behave.

Q. How can marketers use the idea that people’s behavior serves evolutionary goals? Are people consciously aware of these goals?
A. All humans pursue a set of very different evolutionary goals, such as attaining status, caring for family, acquiring a mate, making friends and protecting ourselves from danger. Research shows that these goals can be activated subconsciously by our environment, such as by being at work, at home, on a date, or on a dark street corner. What is rational when your goal is wooing an attractive mate is very different from what is rational when your goal is fending off the bad guys or climbing up in the local status hierarchy. The divided nature of our mind often leads people’s choices to appear inconsistent and even hypocritical. We are predictably inconsistent.
To predict what a consumer will prefer and what bias he or she will have, marketers must be aware of which evolutionary goal has been activated in that consumer. Depending on which goal consumers currently have on their mind, consciously or subconsciously, consumers will have different preferences, different biases and make different choices.

Q. Much of your best-known work looks at ways to encourage behavior for the good of the environment. How did the learnings from that research play into your thinking for "The Rational Animal"?
A. In my research on sustainable behavior I discovered something puzzling. The reasons people behave pro-environmentally are the same reasons why they behave anti-environmentally. This was initially baffling, until I realized that the same evolutionary needs drive all sorts of human behavior, including the ones that help or hurt the environment.
Consider the evolutionary need for status. People often compete for status by trying to outspend their peers, which produces wasteful conspicuous consumption that contributes to the depletion of natural resources, pollution and waste. Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, for example, had a yacht larger than a football field and featured bathroom fixtures made of solid gold and barstools covered in garishly expensive soft leather custom made from the foreskin of whale penises.
But while our evolutionary need for status can’t be eradicated, it can be harnessed and redirected toward pro-environmental behavior. This is where marketers play a critical role. Instead of facilitating competitions for who can be the most wasteful, marketers can help facilitate competitions for who can be the most sustainable. For example, marketers could publicize “green lists” that rank the top greenest companies, celebrities, or ordinary citizens. Such publicized lists of “least polluting companies” in India have been remarkably effective at motivating firms to voluntarily reduce pollution, suggesting that people worldwide are willing to engage in environmental behavior to avoid being at the bottom of a status hierarchy.

Q. Sustainability is a huge issue for all of us and increasingly a critical area for marketers. How can they use a better understanding of human nature to help influence more sustainable consumer behavior?
A. The key to changing human behavior is to understand the underlying drivers of human behavior. Human behavior is driven by a set of ancestral goals, albeit people aren’t always consciously aware that their choices are being steered by evolutionary needs.
Consider the evolutionary goal of affiliation – the desire to be liked by our friends, colleagues and neighbors. My research finds that this goal is a powerful driver of environmental behavior, with people’s need to be liked leading them to behave more like their neighbors. For example, although home residents say that the behavior of their neighbors has the least effect on their own conservation behaviors, studies show that the behavior of neighbors is the strongest predictor of actual energy conservation. And when people learn that their neighbors are not conserving, they increase their own energy consumption.
The ancestral need for affiliation and imitation suggests that a powerful method for spurring pro-environmental behavior is to use social rather than financial incentives. For example, hotel cards imploring guests to reuse towels could indicate the prevalence of this behavior, which might trigger others to do likewise. In fact, compared with standard messages, when guests are informed that the majority of other guests reuse their towels at least once during a stay, towel reuse goes up by 34 percent.

Q. You talked about key discussion points earlier that your book and presentation will prompt — if there is one point that you feel could have the most impact for marketers, what would that be?
A. To fully understand the present, it is essential to understand the past. Our choices today reflect a deep-seated evolutionary wisdom, honed by our ancestors’ past successes and failures. By connecting modern consumer behaviors to their ancestral roots, marketers are better able to predict the seemingly irrational tendencies of modern rational animals.
Thisarticlewas originally written by Chase Collum and posted on as part of their coverage on Advertising Week, the world's largest and most important advertising gathering.
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