“Freudarwinian” Consumers?

It’s probably true to say that if one was to compile a list of the most unpopular theories in the history of psychology then classical psychoanalysis and neo-Darwinism would probably top the table every time. In some ways this is perhaps understandable, there are aspects of each which people find unsavoury or distasteful, though it must be said that this is often more a result of common misperceptions or misinterpretations than anything else.


Both paradigms can arouse strong feelings either way, so it’s a brave move on the part of those who would seek to not only engage with them on a deep level but also to integrate them to achieve a new synthesis. A particularly well-articulated attempt at just such a synthesis is made by Geoffrey Marcaggi and Fabian Guenole in a recent edition of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The authors set the scene with some fascinating historical context, noting that Freud was around three years old when Origin of the Species was first published and so was heavily influenced by Darwin’s writings, before proceeding to consider how many of the central tenets of Freudian theory may be reinterpreted through a neo-Darwinian lens. Considerable attention is devoted to the concept of the Id, it has to be said, though this is perhaps to be expected given the drives and instincts Freud outlined (hunger, thirst, sex, etc.) are so obviously evolutionary is origin. There are also some nice anecdotes along the way around aspects of everyday biology Freud and Darwin both struggled to explain.

I particularly liked the account of why dogs wag their tails in this part of the paper. My border collie Martha does the classic ‘question mark’ tail when she feels threatened or angry, a very elegant rigid warning to ‘back off’ that is highly adaptive and indicative of natural selection pressures. The downside of this wagging for Martha, however, is that her tail involuntarily reveals she is happy too, something of a disadvantage in survival terms if it signals to potential predators that she is relaxed, happy and feeling unthreatened! To Darwin, this is a similar trade-off to the peacock’s tail and its tension between natural and sexual selection pressures. To Freud, both forms of tail-wagging in Martha are simply a displacement of emotional energies, one purposeful and under voluntary control, the other involuntary and a product of our dynamic unconscious.

The tail-wagging example highlights the potential of combining the two perspectives. Evolutionary psychology gives us an explanation at the level of the species, highlighting why all dogs wag their tails under various circumstances, while an evolutionary approach to psychoanalysis can shed light on why the tail of a specific dog – Martha – may wag at a particular moment in time. It’s not a quantum leap to see how this multi-layer approach could be used by consumer psychologists, too. It’s winter and getting colder, I need something to keep me warm in order to survive (the species level). At the same time, however, it is personal learning and the effects of my cultural upbringing that determine that my own solution to the problem is to buy a coat and probably one of a socially acceptable style and brand (the individual level). Two explanations of the same behaviour, both simultaneously correct, and very consistent with the different levels of explanation that Nico Tinbergen outlined in the early 1960s that both psychoanalysts and neo-Darwinists typically subscribe to.

Many aspects of Freudian thinking are amenable to evolutionary interpretation and “Freudarwinists” are only really scratching the surface at present. Psychoanalytic concepts such as Ego Defence Mechanisms, for instance, have long vanished from mainstream psychology but are very relevant still when viewed through a neo-Darwinian lens. Repression buries potentially-threatening thoughts and feelings deep in the unconscious to protect us from anxiety, for example, but it can equally be seen as simply a version of the evolutionary concept of self-deception, the tendency to keep threatening thoughts and emotions operating at an unconscious level in times of danger so that they do not consume limited information-processing capacity until the threat has passed.

A psychoanalytic perspective may well be an invaluable (re-)addition to the consumer psychologist’s toolkit. The problem with evolutionary psychology on its own is that while it can shed light on universal human tendencies such as the craving for junk food or the tendency to prefer (and pay more for) holidays in evolutionary-significant landscapes, very few direct insights that would actually be helpful to marketers have emerged from this paradigm. It’s a perspective dominated largely by macro-level “just so” stories, grand meta-theories and retrospective analyses of marketing artefacts using predetermined themes. Interesting, yes; basis for a marketing campaign, not really.

To really connect with the consumer, we need a way to explore wants, needs and desires at the level of the individual too, whilst still retaining a compatible Darwinian framework. If we start to see the unconscious as a series of biological and psychological imperatives (basic needs, mate attraction, parenting, etc.) that occasionally come into conflict with each other and/or external pressures – the view from evolutionary psychoanalysis – then we rather neatly bridge the gap. Moreover, by reframing the individual unconscious in these terms, we also arm ourselves with a whole host of psychoanalytic tools with which to undertake evolutionary consumer research.