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3 Marketing Lessons from Evolutionary Psychology

Throughout high school we all paid our dues and learned the basics. These basic classes, (whether it be American History or Biology) provided a foundation for our future education that ultimately would help us chose a career path. During my time in high school, math and science came easy to me, and I spent my free time working in labs doing research to better understand how to apply what I was learning, and decided to major in Evolutionary Biology (with an emphasis on Psychology) in college. Though I am grateful for my education and various lab experiences, I eventually realized the world of academia and research is not necessarily for me. As I now transition from academia to the business world, I am realizing that much of what I’ve learned from biology and evolutionary psychology -- two fields that people might view as unrelated to business and marketing -- is anything but unrelated. Many of the topics in these academic fields can provide new perspectives in the workplace when trying to solve real world problems. Evolutionary psychologists may not be the first people you’d expect to provide insight into the world of marketing, but I’ve extrapolated three ideas from my coursework in this area that I’ve found extremely valuable in daily marketing routines.

1) Take chances, make mistakes!
The theory of evolution depends entirely upon the presence of mutations: little changes in the genetic code that affect some aspect of an individual. At a very basic level, if this mutation proves to be beneficial and help that individual out (in terms of reproductive success) then he or she will breed and the mutation will spread. It the mutation is not beneficial, it soon dies off out of the gene pool (again, this is a very simplistic view of genetics and evolution.) Now you may be thinking, “Well, wouldn’t it be great if we could just get rid of all mutations?? Then we won’t risk the chance that some of them are harmful!” This is true, but it is missing a crucial piece of insight: sure, with no mutations or changes there is no risk of getting worse. BUT there’s also no chance of getting better! OK, so maybe evolution doesn’t happen on an individual level, but the lesson remains the same: while you are maintaining status quo, mutation free, others are potentially getting better!  And the same goes for your marketing strategy. Just because you’ve hit on a good technique does not mean you’re done. Evolution does not settle. It is a forward driven process fueled by trial and error, and a successful marketing strategy is too: stay current, try new (potentially risky) things, apply old ideas in a new way, etc. Embrace mutations.

2) “I go with the flow, but the tempo varies” -- The Beastie Boys
So we described a main principle of evolution, that is, mutations that lead to useful adaptations spread through a population. But what we now must add is that these adaptations are by definition useful only in the environment in which they first arose. Imagine this: a bunch of bacteria are living in a petri dish at room temperature. Suddenly, the thermostat is turned up a few degrees. There are a few bacteria that have a mutation that makes them especially robust at this new temperature and so they are more likely to survive while the others start to die off. Now, the temperature suddenly drops! Those heat-resistant bacteria are now defenseless against the cold and a whole new set of mutations will be favored instead. Seems simple enough, but it is often easy to forget that what works in one arena might not work in another. Once you have accepted the necessity of change (See #1), it’s time to learn about when to change, and how to adapt to a new environment. Each new marketing challenge deserves and demands an individualized approach. Sure, the mechanism behind these different approaches might remain the same (i.e. what factors you think are important to analyze, which aspects of design you’re best at working with, etc.) but you have to be prepared to break away from formulas and “what works.” You don’t want to be a heat-resistant individual in a cold environment. Another way of putting this is that there is no “holy-grail” of marketing: success comes from being dynamic and knowing what works in which environments.
A great example of this comes from this study. Many marketers are familiar with common persuasion heuristics like “Limited edition!” (a scarcity appeal) and “Find out why hundreds of people love this product!” (a social proof appeal), but this study strives to explain an interesting nuance of these types of marketing: they are very context dependent and their effectiveness depends on the emotional state of the viewer. For example, in our evolutionary past, ‘fear’ generally signalled a 'stick together' mentality the researchers of this study predict (and show) that persuasion heuristics emphasizing social proof (ex: millions of users every year!) are especially effective under a fear condition whereas persuasion heuristics emphasizing scarcity or distinctiveness (Try our unique product!) actually backfire, since we wouldn't want to stand out with danger nearby. Knowing what techniques work when and why is a crucial skill to have in marketing.

3) Learn from the past, but don’t live in it
Modern day scientists are intrigued by what our ancestral past was like. One method they use to try to figure out these ancient living conditions is via deductive reasoning: they hypothesize what selective pressures would have led to some of the adaptations we see today in both humans and other species. For example, a shift from arboreal behavior to bipedalism eventually shaped the morphology of the human foot. We were not around to witness this shift in behavior with our own eyes, so we have to use biological markers to deduce what we can’t first handedly observe. This way of thinking can be useful in marketing as well. You have at your fingertips tons of data: the success rates of various companies, historical accounts of marketing campaigns etc. It’s not a perfect science, hypothesizing unknown forces, but observing what is actually working is the first step to understanding why it’s working.
On the other hand, this methodology can also serve as a cautionary tale if we remember #2 above. What we see today is what was created by evolution for past environments. While it can definitely be a useful and thought provoking exercise to tease apart the ‘why’ of something working, we should take patterns with a grain of salt. As we’ve seen, evolution is a forward moving process, not a static one. To make use of the aforementioned deductive reasoning activity remember that, once you have your answers or theories about the causes of some outcome, the best course of action may not be to immediately apply that outcome to your own strategy. Rather, if you have figured out driving factors, try to figure out what’s different about your current situation and adapt your strategy in kind.


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Posted by Madeline Ford on Jul 23, 2013

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