How Evolutionary Instincts Drive Modern Day Shopping Behaviors

Fifty years ago most Americans bought around 20 clothing items a year, and a couple of pairs of shoes – fast-forward to today, and it is up to almost 70 items plus 8 pairs of shoes. That means on average Americans buy more than one item of clothing each week. It is not because we are spending more – in fact we are spending less on clothing. In 1990, 12% of our budget went towards apparel, however, in 2011, it was down to 4%. We have ramped up our levels of consumption, but somehow managed to carve out a smaller piece of our annual spending pie! How is this possible?

Intro fast fashion: cheap, low-quality, trend based items that are here today and gone tomorrow. Picked up from the runway and re-engineered for the everyday consumer in a matter of weeks. We go wild for this type of fashion. Like crazy-mad-can’t control ourselves from buying MORE followed by self-justification of why we needed that exact same t-shirt we bought last year. We used to value longevity and craftsmanship and where our garments were made. Now we are in a fast-paced rat race that is filling our closets with unnecessary and often unworn clothes. In fact we only wear 20% of the clothes in our closets, and as a nation, Americans throw away 11 million tons of textiles per year! What has happened that has driven us towards quantity over quality?

It turns it out it has a lot to do with our ancestral brains. In the book The Rational Animal, the authors argue, “What seems foolish and even delusional from a traditional perspective can be smart from an evolutionary vantage point.” Humans have spent over 95% of their existence on earth fighting to survive – running from snakes, searching for food, looking for mates, trying to reproduce – all in the face of extreme challenges. There were no modern conveniences like fast food or fast fashion. And even though today we live in a modern world, we are still hard wired to respond to these instinctual drives.

Fast fashion retailers like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M are heavy weight titans when it comes to knowing the human mind. They have figured out ways to tap into these evolutionary instincts to drive us to make impulse purchases on a much higher frequency than our parents’ generation.

Think about this all too common situation. You walk into H&M and you see a trendy dress for $20. You know it will likely only last one season, but you don’t care because you can buy it immediately and wear it later that night. There is a $100 dress you’ve been wanting to buy, but it requires you to save up. This is called “Delayed Gratification” and we are terrible at it. Instead, we do the opposite. We keep buying multiple $20 dresses and never save enough to buy the $100 dress. Economists call this tendency to choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward, “Hyperbolic Discounting.”

In today’s world this is totally irrational behavior, but when it comes to our ancestral brains it’s actually smart. We evolved in a world where we often wouldn’t live to meet our grandchildren and we didn’t have to think about retirement or heart disease. From an evolutionary standpoint, it made sense to go for the sure thing right now instead of waiting for a larger reward that may or may not come. Which is why that $20 dress is compelling and waiting for the $100 dress seems insanely hard. But there are other evolutionary driven biases at play beyond Hyperbolic Discounting.

As humans we hate to miss out. Think about that feeling you get when you are tired and don’t feel like going out, but your friend is heading to a party. You don’t really want to go, but what if you miss out on something really fun? Fashion retailers do a great job of tapping into this FOMO. By releasing limited release items, or putting items on sale, you are forced to consider if you don’t buy the item now, you might miss out on the best price or the item will be no longer be available.

This fear is particularly strong due to something called “Loss Aversion,” a decision theory principle that demonstrates people are more motivated by avoiding a loss than acquiring a similar gain. It was first discovered by economists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, when they did a series of experiments; one such experiment showed that people would be more upset at losing $100 than they would be satisfied at gaining $100. As hunter-gatherers we often lived close to the edge, so losing a day’s worth of food could lead to death, whereas gaining a day’s worth of food meant more comfort rather than actual increased life expectancy. According to Kahneman and Tversky “People hate losses so much that merely framing a choice in terms of a potential loss can shift their preferences.”

That is what fast fashion retailers do. They let you know items are only going to be available for a short time and in limited quantities and this drives our primitive brains crazy, and we buy for fear of missing out.

Our brains are primed for new. When we see something novel, an area of the brain called the substantia niagra releases the reward chemical, dopamine. If you put yourselves in the shoes of our ancestors this makes sense. Finding something new was either an opportunity for something better, like shelter, food, or a mate, or was something dangerous that should be avoided. Either way, coming across a surprise, meant they had to give it some attention. Recent genetic studies have found that humans who migrated the furthest from Africa to places deep in South America or those who crossed the Bering Strait actually possess a gene that predisposed those people for novelty. Pursuing novel opportunities, like migrating out of Africa, led the human species to grow and thrive. So new is kind of a big deal in terms of human evolution.

We have evolved to be complex animals able to program computers, build skyscrapers, and fly across oceans, but we still elicit responses from our ancestral brains. Next time you go shopping, think about whether your ancestral brain is being primed – do you really NEED that $20 dress or cheap pair of flip-flops? Can you fight the feeling and save up for the better quality item? Is the item REALLY new or a variation of something you saw last season? It is not going to be easy, because you are fighting thousands of years of natural selection.

But you are in luck, because you might be able to hijack our evolutionary desires for good. There is a slow building movement towards buying less by buying better. In a 2015 Neilson study, 66% of consumers said they were willing to pay more for sustainable brands—up 55% from 2014. Increasing numbers of companies are designing and manufacturing apparel and accessories in ways that are better for the environment and the people making and wearing them. For example, Everlane makes ethically produced clothing essentials with transparent pricing, Shinola is bringing quality craftsmanship back to Detroit with its watches and other leather goods, and EILEEN FISHER pledged all their cotton and linen will be organic by 2020. The success of these companies and a growing list of other socially and environmentally conscious brands are causing fast fashion giants like H&M to rethink their business models.

You can’t remove yourself from 2.5 million years of evolution, but I challenge you to think about what primitive drives are at play as you go about your daily life. Maybe with awareness we can push ourselves to make better choices when purchasing our next fashion item.

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.

Laura Moffat is the co-founder of Kirrin Finch, a conscientious clothing company that meets the growing demand for gender-defying fashion by creating menswear-inspired apparel designed to fit a range of women’s bodies.