The Saad Truth About Sex, Cars, and Consumers
Gad 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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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.
Evolutionary Psychology is always good for a laugh, but not much else...