Decoding Desire: A Foresight Strategist’s Opinion

In the summer of 2014, a man drove around Beijing’s nightlife district in an $800,000 Lamborghini and invited random club-going women to climb in and take a ride. While a few of the women turned the offer down, most of the women that the driver approached needed little convincing to get into the car. One woman even offered her phone number to the driver without being prompted, while another invited him back to her apartment on the spot.

A while later, the same man drove down the street in a small SUV made by Chery, a Chinese brand not especially associated with luxury. None of the women he approached took him up on the offer to go for a spin in his compact, practical ride.

The Beijing spot – which was produced as a “social experiment” by Tudou, a large Chinese video sharing site – has been viewed millions of times in the country, and has generated a lot of conversation and controversy. When discussing the video, many Chinese explained the uncomfortable findings by pointing the finger at China’s loss of traditional values and the post-Maoist backslide into crass materialism. For them, the experiment was evidence of an ongoing cultural problem that is eating away at the fabric of Chinese society. Commenting on the video, Ye Kuangzheng, a cultural critic based in Beijing, explained the results as follows: “The Chinese Communist Party emphasizes political education, but not the cultivation of a value system. China is still in a state where there is no foundation for a national philosophy.” 

Others pointed the finger directly at young opportunistic Chinese women who are supposedly pursuing China’s new rich as a shortcut to the good life. “This is too common in Shanghai, because I know people like this,” said 28-year-old electronics salesman Sky Wu, who also related that one of his young female co-workers abruptly quit and became the mistress of a wealthy, middle-aged man as further evidence of the gold digging epidemic among young Shanghainese women.

The problem with an explanation rooted in the alleged moral short-comings of the burgeoning Chinese consumer culture, or young Chinese women in particular, is that this same informal experiment has been replicated over and over with virtually identical results in many different countries that presumably possess very distinct “national philosophies,” including Canada, Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, Senegal, Brazil, and Korea. 

In fact, a cottage industry of whimsical viral videos as well as serious academic research has sprung up around observing and parsing the striking regularities that appear when women, men, and luxury cars are combined. A study by Cardiff University psychologists Michael J. Dunn and Robert Searle found that men pictured sitting in luxury cars received a “bonus” to their perceived attractiveness among women compared to when they were seated in unremarkable mass-marketed vehicles. In an incredible feat of transmutation, the prestige of the car somehow boosted the allure of the men’s physical features. The effect, however, did not translate when the genders were swapped. Men rated women’s attractiveness similarly whether they were seated in a lemon or a luxury sedan. Given this result, is it any wonder that the vast majority of luxury car buyers are men?

Since the effects of luxury automobiles on people at once cut across cultures and are divided cleanly along gender lines, any attempt to understand these findings by examining how people are different across the globe will be limited at best. Such an analysis could only circle back around to the same insights about socialization and culture that point to a Chinese phenomenon, or an artifact of how young Chinese women are socialized; or a Brazilian phenomenon, or an artifact of how young Brazilian women are socialized – albeit dressed up in the language of theory rather than condemnation. 

But it just isn’t so. As evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad points out, if culture and socialization were the only determining factors in this phenomenon, then we might expect to find at least one culture in which women incessantly drive around club districts for hours in Aston Martins, Porsches, and Ferraris, trying to pick up attractive men. But we don’t expect that. And no amount of marketing muscle could ever flip the script this way. 

Perhaps some of you have started to squirm uncomfortably in your seat as you read this. It’s time to acknowledge what it is we’re talking about.

There is a specter haunting the business world: the specter of human nature. All the powers of modern consumer research are amassed against it. The current orientation to consumer research – rooted in a brand of cultural anthropology that embraces the incommensurability of cultures as an axiom – tells us that every emerging consumer group must be examined anew as an unprecedented incursion into the universe. Yesterday it was post-war boomers and hippies and Gen X-ers; today, it’s millennials, digital natives, lumbersexuals, and so on.

It’s only by setting aside our modern research obsession with cultural differences and peering through the lens of human nature – that evolved set of human traits that underpin not only our respiration and digestion but, more controversially, our beliefs, desires, and decision-making processes – that we can understand the unwavering elements of consumer behavior. Otherwise, we are only getting, at best, half of the tale. And we are missing the part that is as old as time.

Understanding human nature should also serve to make businesses more modest about their ability to actively manufacture desire. Luxury car manufacturers are not creating men’s desire for objects that signal high social status and other traits that women find attractive. Instead, they are merely responding to those desires by creating products that the cultural climate du jour highly values as indicators of those traits. For men living in developed market economies like Korea and the United States, those products are high-end automobiles, expensive smartphones, and Visa black cards. In traditional Lakota societies, they’re extravagant headdresses, beaded saddlebags, and ornate Buffalo masks. The references and idioms may change, but the story remains the same. 

Let’s be clear: it’s never been a choice between understanding humans as beings whose nature is unalterable, or as beings subject entirely to the vagaries of culture and socialization like a leaf in a wind. Understanding human behavior as the result of interactions between genes and their environment has always been the only viable explanation for both the complexity and predictability humans exhibit. It’s just that we are apt in today’s consumer research environment to dispense with our evolved nature with a wave of the hand as being hardly worthy of mention. 

But even as we wave our hands, researchers have discovered that adolescent rhesus monkeys exhibit sex-specific toy preferences that parallel the stereotypes associated with human babies. Given the choice, male capuchins prefer to play with wheeled vehicles, while female capuchins showed greater variability while slightly preferring dolls. Unless we are prepared to implicate capuchin culture or gender socialization norms to explain this finding, it should give us some pause. There are other factors in play.

We’re nowhere near prepared to come to grips with just how deeply informed human culture is by the inheritance of our biology. That’s for researchers working years or decades from now, in a more enlightened period, to sort out. In the meantime, take note of Orgel’s second rule: Evolution is far, far smarter than we are. Horace’s edict also applies: You can drive out nature with a pitchfork – or, in this case, with sophisticated theory and strident politics – but it always comes roaring back again.

Jayar La Fontaine is a foresight strategist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

Continue reading Decoding Desire, where a behavioral economist reflects on the ways that human beings are wired to want.

the author

Jayar La Fontaine

Jayar La Fontaine is a senior foresight strategist at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.