Ever stop to wonder why we, the human race, like shopping so much? It doesn't seem to match with any behaviour or instinct we've evolved over the last millennia... or does it?

Here's an interesting idea, by no means backed up by any science, but it's always fun to find evolutionary explanations for our behaviour[1]. What if our love for shopping was based on behaviours that we had learned over the millenia, brought into a totally new context they aren't suited to. Think of driving - our instincts and reflexes are not evolved to function well at speeds of 100km per hour, and it's part of what makes driving so dangerous. Over thousands of years of evolution we never had to move faster than a horse could ride, only in the last hundred years were cars invented, forcing us to react and plan at speeds faster than ever before.

So, the predator instinct. You're out on the plains hunting lions (your favourite food being lion-burgers). At first, you feel hunger, and the need to satisfy that hunger with food keeps you looking for the next kill. Then when you spot your prey, obsession, tunnel vision, ignoring everything else. These emotions, hunger and obsession, are the same ones triggered by advertising. They show us appealing images to trigger hunger and then through repeated exposure to the same images (whether they be of food or of a nice car), trigger obsession and fixation.

You chase the prey down, until you see it stumble, and then feel a rush of euphoria as you realise you're about to take it down. This same euphoria is intentionally triggered by a sale; seeing something that's just out of reach of your budget, then finding it at a discount. Normally priced items don't cause the same emotion because they don't give the same feeling of something out of reach being brought into reach, and you better believe shop owners notice this. Taken to its extremes, Black Friday is a day in the US with massive discounts on all items. Every year people camp outside waiting for hours to get in there first when the doors open, and every year people die in the name of these sales.

You've caught your prey and feel a rush of bloodlust as you kill your prey and 'lock in' your victory - the same emotion as signing on the dotted line or swiping a huge purchase onto your card.

Later, after cooking up your lion burger, comes gluttony, the emotion of eating your prey, satisfaction in consumption. Have you noticed that some companies[2] go to great lengths to make the unboxing experience special, tactile, and satisfying?[3]

Finally satiation - you've eaten your fill and over time the satisfaction starts to wear off. You get hungry again, or in the case of shopping, decide that maybe it's time to upgrade your car to the next model...

Maybe those are some tenuous analogies but it's a fun parallel to draw, and the first satisfactory explanation I've found for the age old question: Why the fuck are there 24 million views on this video of someone taking a phone out of it's box?

  1. The ability to come up with an evolutionary narrative for almost any phenomenon is part of what makes me extremely skeptical of evolutionary psychology as a field. A lot of 'evolutionary' theories aren't based on research, and humans are notoriously good at coming up with rational sounding explanations. ↩︎

  2. Particularly Apple were the ones to start this trend but other companies have caught on by now. ↩︎

  3. I was going to link to an Apple unboxing video but I couldn't go past this ↩︎