Consumers In The Wild

Your world is a much different place than the African savanna. But over 100,000 generations of evolution that started on those plains still dictate a remarkable degree of our modern behavior.

Take foraging, for example. We evolved as hunters and gatherers. It was our primary survival instinct. And even though the first hominids are relatively recent additions to the biological family tree, strategies for foraging have been developing for millions and millions of years. It’s hardwired into the deepest and most inflexible parts of our brain. It makes sense, then, that foraging instincts that were once reserved for food gathering should be applied to a wide range of our activities.

That is, in fact, what Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card discovered two decades ago. When they looked at how we navigated online sources of information, they found that humans used the very same strategy we would have used for berry picking or gathering cassava roots. And one of the critical elements of this was something called marginal value. 



Bounded Rationality & Foraging

It’s hard work being a forager. Most of your day -- and energy -- is spent looking for something to eat. The sparser the food sources in your environment, the more time you spend looking for them. It’s not surprising; therefore, that we should have some fairly well-honed calculations for assessing the quality of our food sources. This is what biologist Eric Charnov named marginal value in 1976. It’s an instinctual (and therefore, largely subconscious) evaluation of food “patches” by most types of foragers, humans included . It’s how our brain decides whether we should stay where we are or find another patch. It would have been a very big deal 2 million -- or even 100,000 -- years ago.

Today, for most of us, food sources are decidedly less “patchy.” But old instincts die hard. So we keep doing what humans do. We borrowed an old instinct and applied it to new situations. We exapted (that is, co-opted a trait that originally had a different use) our foraging strategies and started using them for a wide range of activities where we had to have a rough and ready estimation of our return on our energy investment. Increasingly, more and more of these activities asked for an investment of cognitive processing power.  And we did all this without even knowing we were doing it.

This brings us to Herbert Simon’s concept of bounded rationality, which I believe is tied directly to Charnov’s theorem of marginal value. When we calculate how much mental energy we’re going to expend on an information-gathering task, we subconsciously determine the promise of the information “patches” available to us. Then we decided to invest accordingly, based on our own “bounded” rationality. 

Brands as Proxies for Foraging

It’s just this subconscious calculation that has turned the world of consumerism on its ear in the last two decades. As Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen explain in their book "Absolute Value," the explosion of information available has meant that we are making different marginal value calculations than we would have 30 or 40 years ago. We have much richer patches available, so we’re more likely to invest the time to explore them. And, once we do, the way we evaluate our consumer choices changes completely. Our modern concept of branding was a direct result of both bounded rationality and sparse information patches. If a patch of objective and reliable information wasn’t apparent, we would rely on brands as a cognitive shortcut, saving our bounded rationality for more promising tasks.

Google, The Ultimate “Patch”

In understanding modern consumer behavior, I think we have to pay much more attention to this idea of marginal value. What is the nature of the subconscious algorithm that decides whether we’re going to forage for more information or rely on our brand beliefs? We've evolved foraging strategies that play a huge part in how we behave today.

For example, the way we navigate our physical environment appears to owe much to how we used to search for food. Women determine where they’re going differently than men, because women used to search for food differently. Men tended to do this by orientation, mentally maintaining a spatial grid in their minds against which they plot their own location. Women did it by remembering routes. In my own research, I found split-second differences in how men and women navigated websites that seem to go back to those same foundations.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, however, you need to have some type of mental inventory of information patches available to you to in order to assess the marginal value of those patches. This is the mental landscape Google plays in. For more and more decisions, our marginal value calculation starts with a quick search on Google to see if any promising patches show up in the results. Our need to keep a mental inventory of patches can be subjugated to Google.

It seems ironic that in our current environment, more and more of our behavior can be traced back millions of years to behaviors that evolved in a world where high-tech meant a sharper rock.

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