What can our evolutionary heritage tell us about how and why we make decisions? Anna Lakomy, Associate VP at System1 New York, explores the lessons of evolutuionary psychology.

For marketers, evolutionary psychology is a huge, exciting and sometimes misused subject. At its more deterministic end it can be dangerous – ignoring cultural and social factors in a misguided quest to explain all behavior. But it can truly shed light on a lot of what makes us human. A lot of what made us who we are stems from evolutionary adaptations, many of which are universal.

Not everything we do in every situation can be traced back to our life as upright apes on the veldt, or as ice age mammoth hunters. But the evolutionary principles of adaptation and survival identified by Darwin are still a solid foundation for understanding behaviour. And evolutionary psychology can help us realise why we act and think in particular ways.

For a start, it answers the very fundamental question about Systems 1 and 2. If we’re capable of making more accurate, considered choices, why don’t we? The answer is that fast, low-energy, decisions are mostly “good enough”: in a dangerous environment quick, instinctive choices based on familiarity and previous experience can keep you alive. Spending time and energy weighing up options can be fatal.

This is why we love familiarity so much – familiarity meant survival. If we recognize the place we’re in and the things around us we feel safer. It’s why we gravitate towards familiar brands even if they’re more expensive.

Familiarity is also social – we feel safer when we recognize the people we’re with, too. It’s this social, cooperative dimension which has been so vital to humanity’s ascent, and it underpins the development of both language and emotional communication.

It’s now believed that language began as hand gestures and facial expressions – so being able to interpret these accurately and quickly was critical to survival and effective co-operation. This is at the root of the work Paul Ekman did in identifying universal emotions across cultures by studying facial expressions – and explains why he found such a high level of recognition for most emotions in most cultures.

At System1 we’ve taken Ekman’s work as the basis of our FaceTrace system for measuring emotion at scale. Because there is sometimes cultural drift and individual difference in interpretation, we label the faces we use, but by using faces we get faster recognition and more accurate reads on the particular emotions an ad, idea, or brand evokes.

Evolutionary adaptation also explains why so many of the universal emotions Ekman identified are negative. While there are different types of happiness, the core behavioural response to something that causes happiness is an approach response – you are open to more of the experience – which doesn’t vary much by type. When it comes to things that create negative emotions, though, there are huge differences in response: fear might lead to flight, anger to attack, disgust to avoidance, sadness to comforting. Which means that brands evoking those negative emotions may find that there are very different tactics needed to resolve each of them.

These are some of the most basic ways in which we’ve evolved to decide and communicate. There’s much more to be said – about the feedback loops between emotion and behavioural response, for instance, and between individuals. Hopefully this very brief overview has given some insight into how and why we measure emotion as marketers – and how it’s founded in the deepest roots of what being human means.

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