By on March 19, 2018

consuming instinct saad coverGad Saad is an evolutionary behavioral scientist who is a professor of marketing at Concordia University in Canada. He’s also an associate editor of the journal Evolutionary Psychology and writes a popular blog for Psychology Today. Some have called him part of the “intellectual dark web”, a diverse group of heterodox academics who are willing to tack against the prevailing winds of thought conformity on today’s college campuses.

Saad applies the principals of evolutionary biology to consumers, but he uses the word consumers in its broadest definition, not just buyers, as humans make many choices about how we use many things. One area of his research has been how hormones affect consumers and also how consuming can affect hormones, in both sexes. For example, when men drive Porsches, their testosterone levels go up.

Professor Saad has a long list of academic publications, but he engages with regular folks via YouTube and his book, The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal about Human Nature, 2010 Prometheus Books, which was written for a general audience. The basis premise of Consuming Instinct is that all acts of consumption can be fit into an evolutionary framework of four basic human pursuits: survival, reproduction, kin selection, and reciprocity.

Where do Ferraris fit in that framework? Reproduction. Sex indeed sells and there are gender differences in terms of what sells. Fewer than one in 10 Ferrari buyers is a woman. In Saad’s eyes this makes a supercar akin to a male peacock’s feathers as a sexual signal of a mate of high fitness, but it gets more complicated than that.

The book’s chapter on sex, “Let’s Get It On” (Dr. Saad is a big fan of American soul music), talks about various sexual signals, from buying flowers for a date to wearing high heels. He uses a term from animal behavior, lekking, where males display for females, to describe what you and I might call the automotive cruising that takes place in downtown Montreal on weekend nights. The behavior there is very sex specific. Young women stroll the sidewalks in attractive clothing and makeup while men drive around and around in flashy cars with the windows rolled down, blaring music.

Saad notes that this behavior and the gender stereotyping, if you will, is consistent around the globe. Guys cruise cars to show off to women, whether it’s Detroit or Dakar. Saad asserts that in contradistinction there are no cultures where women drive around and men strut their stuff. He also notes that while there are many notable male celebrities from a variety of professions who have great car collections (e.g. Jay Leno, Eric Clapton, Ralph Lauren, and David Beckham), female celebrities may be seen being driven in high-end automobiles, but few of them seem to collect such cars.

To test some of his theories, Saad and a graduate student of his at the time, Jon Vongas, designed an experiment where they had men driving either an expensive Porsche or beat-up Toyota station wagon in both Montreal’s crowded downtown and on a relatively empty highway and then measured their testosterone levels after each drive. Their prediction, that T levels would go up when driving an expensive car in a crowded area because of sexual signalling, but not elsewhere, turned out to be wrong. In fact, driving a Porsche raised male hormone levels in men significantly in either environment.

There is even some evidence that driving a Porsche (or, presumably, some other expensive sports car) affects peoples’ perceptions of men’s height and likelihood that they will be philanderers.

That evidence is reinforced by a study performed by Michael Dunn and Robert Searle in the UK. They tested how driving a luxury automobile affects how attractive the driver is perceived to be by others. They took photos of a man and a woman of equal attractiveness sitting behind the wheels of a Bentley Continental GT and a Ford Fiesta ST. Male and female test subjects were then asked to rate the attractiveness of the drivers. Dunn and Searle found that while women’s rating of men’s appearance went up when they were in the Bentley, men apparently don’t care what kind of car a woman drives, at least when evaluating her for her looks.

While car enthusiasts don’t generally rave about the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, it’s a higher status car when parked next to a beat-up Dodge Neon. A study cited by Saad used photographs on the Hot or Not website with men standing alone or with one of three cars, including a Neon and a C 300. That website allows users to rate others’ photos and the experiment showed that women rated a man whose listing showed the Benz to be more attractive than the same man who ostensibly owned the Neon or even when standing by himself. Apparently, some women think that it’s worse for a man to own a low status car than to own no car at all.

Humans are social as well as sexual creatures and cars are used to project social status as well as sexual desireability (though male status signals obviously also function as sexual signals). Perhaps you have muttered, “he drives like he owns the road,” when you see someone driving a luxury car acting in an entitled manner. For those of us who don’t drive expensive cars, in those situations, sometimes deference to our social superiors is the prudent path to avoid a collision. Both of those reactions seem to be supported by the science.

Researchers in the U.S. put a low-status or high-status car at a stop light and then measured how long it took for drivers behind the test car to start honking after the light turned green. People were more likely to honk at the low-status car, and they honked at it more quickly, too. A followup experiment in Germany used only one “blocking” car, a relatively low-status VW Jetta, while observers recorded the status levels of the cars behind them and their drivers’ aggressive behavior like honking or flashing headlights. Drivers of high-status cars were more likely to exhibit such aggression.

Saad does discuss the possibility of deceptive signaling, such as when a harmless species carries the coloring of a toxic, but unrelated, animal. He mentions an Audi driving friend of his who replaced the A4 badges with markings for the A6. While it’s hard to fool someone about a Ferrari, it’s possible that Audi owner’s mating strategy could work. That theory could be easily tested, however, without even using photos of men. Just show women photos of a debadged Audi A4 and a similarly denuded A6 and ask them which is the more expensive car.

Image Sources: Gad Saad, Prometheous Books.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of Consuming Instinct. 

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51 Comments on “The Saad Truth About Sex, Cars, and Consumers...”

  • avatar

    “It’s a miracle these people ever got out of the 20th century.”
    -Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy

  • avatar

    Human behavior, especially sexuality, is more interesting when you look at how advertisers use it to their advantage. There was a book called ‘The Clam-Plate Orgy: And Other Subliminal Techniques for Manipulating Your Behavior’ that came out in the early ‘80s, it dealt with advertising that can affect your subconscious mind. Kind of interesting. I wouldn’t be quick, btw, to beep at a beat up Crown Vic in front of me, not if it had red and blue lights on the roof.

  • avatar

    When it comes to vehicles I actually think reciprocity is the biggest of the listed factors.

  • avatar

    Good to put some science behind what our guts already tell us.

  • avatar

    Sheesh I’m not a professor and I could have told them all that in a few short sentences.

    Women have nesting instinct. They look at a man’s ability to provide for their offspring. Money provides. Even it means that they marry a condescending alpha male, they will be provided for. Looks only outweigh success when it’s just casual sex and not long term family stuff.

    Men… men don’t care about a woman’s car. All they care about is dat azz.

  • avatar

    The Fiesta ST is a far better car than the Bentley continental anyway, and every car fan knows that, or at least every TTAC reader.
    So at least those experiments would have been useful in picking TTAC readers amongst the Montreal evening crowd!

  • avatar

    Back in the early 2000’s there was some website that I found hilarious. It was 2 side by side pictures, one of a super hot blonde and the other a pretty but plain, girl-next-door brunette. Each page would ask, “Which girl would you rather f##k?”

    The catch was, with each successive page, more (clearly fake) personal info would be added about each girl. Some examples were things like:

    Girl 1 (blonde) is a drug addict. Girl 2 (brunette) doesn’t do drugs, and is a casual drinker

    Girl 1 is a high school dropout. Girl 2 has a bachelor’s degree and a successful career.

    Girl 1 has 2 kids from 2 different men. Girl 2 has no children.

    It just kept piling on and on, worse for the blonde but better for the brunette, with each page.

    But the hot blonde always got more votes. And it wasn’t even close.

  • avatar

    Guys drive exotic or flashy cars for different reasons. Some certainly are into cars as means of impressing potential mates or feeling more manly (testosterone), but I think there are other, more plausible reasons that the rest of us like sports cars.

    That is, cars are an unusual hobby because different guys have different reasons for being interested in them. Some like showing off to women on the street or guys at C&C. Some like to know they have a valuable material object in the garage. Some like the feeling of control over horsepower. Some like to go fast. Some enjoy fine engineering. Some like to tinker.

    Which one are you?

  • avatar

    Marketing from the standpoint of evolutionary biology is interesting but ultimately useless.

    Unintelligent member of our species tend to have several basic characteristics. They spend most of their time trying to survive. If they have good genes from a sexual standpoint, they often have a plethora of children, sometimes with multiple partners. More likely than not their basic evolutionary behaviors make it impossible for them to form non-kin alliances, and for many it seems alliances with kin are equally difficult. They also rarely have money. Not ideal consumers.

    Intelligent members of the human race tend to have discretionary income, and they spend most of their time building alliances, mastering skills, experiencing new things, etc. Survival, sex, and reproduction are basically implied, and if they do not have a family, it’s usually by choice, not by evolutionary biology.

    My point is that most of the marginal consumption and most of the purchasing power is in the reciprocity category, which means reciprocity is the field of study. Consumers with purchasing power will naturally filter most of their behaviors through the reciprocity function, even if they are seeking something else. None of the other categories lead to happiness or contentment. They are compulsions.

    Marketers can easily manipulate people via their compulsions, but that’s how you destroy consumers. The key is to reconcile mankind’s biological compulsions with their upper level reasoning and sophisticated social norms so reciprocity is not threatened.

    For instance, Porsche might make your testosterone levels rise, and it might get you lots of cheap sex with available women, but what keeps the $100,000 Porsches flying off the lots is the status, the motorsports legacy, the sophistication, the social clubs and networks, etc. That’s how a sophisticated man’s subconscious desire to drive fast and bang pornstars becomes socially acceptable.

    Building a reciprocity structure on top of the evolutionary foundation is the real game. It’s hard work.

    • 0 avatar

      A fool and his money are soon parted.

      BUT – I want to know – How did the fool get money in the first place?

    • 0 avatar

      “Intelligent members of the human race” are more likely to spot manipulation. Critical thinking tends to be part and parcel of advanced education. “Common sense” on the other hand is based upon what you develop “day to day”. Recent news stories (i.e.Facebook/Cambridge Analytica) have shown that one’s “day to day” exposure to information can easily be adjusted to change our behaviors. Humans do like to be seen as rational but we are emotional and easily driven by base primal mechanisms.

      • 0 avatar

        As was explained to me: humans use logic to justify decisions based on emotion.

        On the subject of Facebook: good point. Watch the current season of “Homeland”, which has zeroed in on information warfare as the topic.

        Facebook is a good demonstration of both the human herd behavior mentality, as well as the willingness to look the other way when something free is handed to them.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’ve never owned a sports car, and my wife wouldn’t have married me if I had. We ended up with 5 kids by choice. The fastest car I’ve ever owned is a minivan.

    Not sure where I fit in the stereotypes, but cancelling my Model 3 reservation keeps me consistent, anyway.

  • avatar

    I read another similar book called Spent that had a concept that could potentially be applied to car culture, which is called “costly signaling.” Costly signaling means that someone is so evolutionarily awesome that they have a lot of time to waste on ridiculous pursuits that do nothing to enhance their survival value and in fact may undermine it; the male peacock is the prime example. So when you see someone with a beautifully restored and/or customized car, according to the theory of costly signaling, you sense that this person has moved far beyond mere survival and they therefore look attractive as a mate because they’ll have the resources to care for your offspring. Yes, demonstrating the ability to purchase a fancy car probably has a similar effect — your ability to afford the “cost” of the car is signaled by driving around in it. But there is some trading between resources, time, and skill. Where good taste comes into it I am not sure. I am always struck by all the costly signaling going on in a Jack Baruth story: time to practice the guitar? check! time to learn how to drive fast? check! money to acquire awesome cars, motorcycles, and guitars? check! time to drive around in awesome cars to random places to play the guitar, with the implication that it’s usually for little if any renumeration? check! And mostly, time to write an entertaining account of the whole thing? check!

  • avatar

    My personal experience with make and models of vehicles. Toyota Camry and Tundra owners tend to not have great personal relationships, Or highly sexual lifestyles. Toyota owners in general are more worried about retirement rather than living for the moment.

  • avatar

    I always thought that I was interested in cars for the same reasons that I was interested in say, steam trains. I never thought that having an interest in Union Pacific’s restoration in No. 4014 would get me laid.

  • avatar

    Dr. Saad’s research, at least as presented here, seems as heterodox as a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches.

    • 0 avatar

      Dr. Saad is persona non grata in many intellectual circles because he has challenged everything from feminism and gender fluidity to race/cultural issues.

  • avatar

    I don’t let sex determine what I purchase, or for that matter, any other external factor. I drive what I like. My 2013 200 is the ultimate granny car, so is my ’93 Concorde. I’m 26 years old and I never cared for fast, “sexy” cars. My ’06 Ram 2500 could be a chick magnet, well, except it is bone stock and you could barely hear the Cummins unlike some of the others where it could be heard a block away.

    When I get my J-body LeBaron restored and out on the road this spring, people may assume I’m homosexual, but you know what? I don’t care.

    • 0 avatar

      “I don’t let sex determine what I purchase,”

      I busted out laughing when I read that because it reminded me of those Caribbean vacations advertised on TV that show all those half-naked young people looking sooooo good, dancing and prancing around, having a merry old time.

      Well, one year my wife said, “Why don’t we go to the Bahamas and Jamaica and the Caymans on an extended cruise. I was game, and it was after all for our wedding anniversary.

      Ahhh, but when we got there…… no young people. Just old codgers sitting around on beach chairs, drinking fancy drinks, basking in the sun. This was late November. It was snowing on the East Coast!

      The sexy visuals got us interested but the old and wrinkly reality was what we had received for our money.

    • 0 avatar

      On the contrary, driving a restored LeBaron would actually show confidence and security. This will probably get you some. On the other hand if just modified your 4Runner to look butch, this would show some compensating for some major insecurities.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure what I enjoyed more- the post or the replies. I’m not sure what to think, but this is what I know.

    Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I was driving a fairly new Jeep CJ5 (think Wrangler), but worked at a Chevy Store. White (when not muddy), V8, Wheeled and Tired… fun little rig. On really nice days, I’d take the top off of the CJ, but park it in the Service Area. Anyone who’s worked at a dealership knows the easiest & fastest way to hide a car is to park it in the service area. We also had this really pretty brunette working on the Service Cashier counter. One day I asked her over to my place for dinner. She accepted, and that’s how we started dating. At least that’s what we called it back in those days ;-)

    Fast forward 30 years. That same pretty brunette is telling our kids (thinking I was out of earshot) that she had seen this White Jeep in the service lot, and kind of hoped she would meet the boy who drove it. Maybe he’d even take her out wheeling in it.

    She’s always sworn it doesn’t matter what a guy drives. She’s wrong- and I rest my case… but it isn’t necessarily a “luxury” car that gets the ladies attention.

    • 0 avatar

      wranglers and motorcycles if you want to attract a girl. proven time and time again. the right kind of dog can help, too.

      • 0 avatar

        @S197GT – My brother had a golden retriever in his youth and loved the “chick magnet” effect that dog had. A friend was pizzed when his girlfriend got a chihuahua and asked him to walk it. He learned to love that thing since it was a monstrous babe attractant. I have a chocolate lab and the ex’s poodle/pom/shihtzu cross. Women faun over the little rat dog every time I go out. Makes the useless little shitz almost tolerable.

  • avatar

    My xB is the modern Toyota wagon. Which explains so much….

  • avatar

    A limit to the applicability of this sort of “research,” is that people are self aware. Hence adjust their behavior based on feedback they receive from others. And, self awareness is, in and of itself, a fitness signal. Corollarily, while everyone is subject to marketing along the article’s lines; those who are most so, tend to be those least self aware, hence least “fit,” hence least able to recognize how laughably predictable they appear by going all in on a very base drive. Which is where the stereotype about how everyone driving sports cars are compensating, arises from. Effectively limiting how much of a “benefit” a Porsche really provides.

    Anecdotally, based on “research” performed on undergrad UCLA hotties, as long as a middle aged guy dolls himself up sufficiently to leave some doubt that he just may still be in his thirties (40 seems to be a bit of a universal eeehw-creepy line in the sand amongst the undergrad set…), the ST would more often than not trump the Bentley for half-their-own-age punters. Simply because the latter plays to the old-and-compensating stereotype. While “flashy” Sport Compacts are more likely to be associated with 20 and 30 somethings of a carefree persuasion; Which a 20 year old wouldn’t feel the need to explain away to her clique.

  • avatar

    so… i need to get my mustang back.

    i don’t regret selling it. i wanted an anonymous vehicle that can still “make up time”, won’t attract the police or juvenile-minded drivers who want to race (cause i can’t sometimes help myself…), and comfortably taxi my 7-year old son around. my fusion fits the bill nicely and cheaply.

    i will say this for any young man out there looking to attract women. you need to own two vehicles and the beauty of them is they don’t have to be new:

    1. jeep wrangler
    2. any motorcycle

    if you can’t get a date with those two vehicles the issue is YOU.

  • avatar

    Yes, the outside wrapper will influence others…..
    Driving a BMW, the left lane scatters, but no one wants to let you into a merge.
    Driving a VW Golf, no one notices you, but will let you into a merge no problem.
    Driving a Caddy, you are assumed senile, no one moves over for you and moms in minivans shut you down, but you can get into a merge, no problem.

    When I’ve taken out fun cars, (NSX, Porsche, GT-R) the rest of traffic moves over and you’ve set yourself apart from the pack.

    The social signalling also transfers to location. If I drive a status car in the NYC area, no one notices. Get past the money line, and your snob-mobile will get a different reaction. I even got flipped off once for merely sitting in a status car, outside Seattle. My daily is specifically not too noticeable, as work takes me to the best, and worst, zip codes in random order.

    Dating ? I’m too old and married, but back in the day, a 320i was going to get you more dates than a Chevy Nova, so nothing changes. Men are pigs and we don’t care about the car for the girl….

    As far as testosterone, once you are in the sportscar/status car, folks move for you and assume things about you. It is easier to “be that way” than to not. All I know is that 400 plus HP turn my driving from careful steady pressure to moar powah….

  • avatar

    I’ve owned a Ferrari and still have two Porsches. This book is straight up bullshit. They get you no girls. Art cars and Cadillac Eldorados are much better for that purpose.

  • avatar
    Shortest Circuit

    I like the guy, really do, but his youtube channel is repetitive at best. Every other video is a story either about a crazed leftist or somebody calling him a Nazi. It is like reading a Colin Flaherty book on black violence, yes we know it’s happening, yes we know MSM keeps quiet about black-on-black violence, but when do we get to the revelation? What is the solution here?
    Eg. can I simply drive a fast and nice (yes both!) car without somebody of lesser economic status automatically assuming that I am a scumbag?

    • 0 avatar


      I don’t think there necessarily is a solution – but what folks like Saad are trying to get people to do is to open their eyes and understand part of what is driving their thoughts and ultimately, actions.

  • avatar

    My daily driver is a POS Civic. If fits into my financial planning, not to mention that I’m not looking for a date. Anyway, I also have a very nice Jeep TJ, which my wife says that I look good in. She’s never said that when I’m in that Civic … haha!

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Enjoy a

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    I didn’t realize that ‘cruising the strip’ (a phrase to be used carefully after that awful Al Pacino movie), still existed.

    Certainly not anything that any of my children, their friends or any of the kids that I coached or taught have done in the Toronto area, this century.

    In Toronto in the 1970’s the place to cruise was Yonge Street (the longest street in the world for most of the 20th century) and then in the 80’s Yorkville Avenue.

    However, I cannot recollect one guy ‘getting lucky’ by cruising in his car and trying to find a prospective partner on the street (at least without some money changing hands). You actually had to get out and go into a bar, restaurant or disco.

    However, I must admit that during that time, I changed vehicles more often than many people change toothbrushes and generally got the flashiest most expensive vehicle I possibly could. And I was never ‘more interesting’ to the other gender than when I was driving a new Corvette or a Mark IV.

    Once I settled into marriage, and raising children, I outgrew that and acquired vehicles based on their utility.

    As for testosterone production, that is one thing that I inherited from The Old Man, and the fact that I am still producing it in prodigious quantities may eventually kill me, either due to my prostate or my temper.

  • avatar

    Evolutionary Psychology is always good for a laugh, but not much else…

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