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The Evolutionary Explanation for Prius Envy

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Lindsey Wedewer

Managing our image is a big part of our lives as human beings. From our virtual personas on Facebook and Twitter to our physical appearance, we are essentially obsessed with what others think about us. But rest assured; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s all a part of human nature, complete with an evolutionary basis. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we are not so different from animals in that our lives still revolve around survival and the propagation of our particular genes. In other words – mate seeking. So, our image management habits, whether we’re aware of it or not, are a part of evolutionary behavior.

Those working in the field of evolutionary psychology make these connections. Ultimately, they are attempting to explain our current behavior by delving into the selective forces buried deep in the past, which have contributed to shaping the inner workings of our brains. Psychologists have identified the specific traits we strive to exhibit, which have been dubbed ‘The Big Six’ qualities. They include: intelligence, openness to ideas, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extroversion.

The quest for ‘The Big Six’ is a factor in many areas of our lives, and is especially apparent when it comes to consumer behavior. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption, wherein we seek to use signals like fast cars and sparkly jewelry to indicate our success to others. Similar to the peacock growing a flashy tail with no practical application, the theory goes that those with the extra resources to acquire such wealth are likely to rank high in terms of evolutionary “fitness.” For conspicuous consumers to be in this position, it is reasonable to assume that they would have had to employ many of ‘The Big Six’ qualities, and thus, have the highest probability of being good mates.

Although conspicuous consumption is still pervasive in our culture, a new signaling trend is emerging, bringing the ‘Big Six’ trait of conscientiousness into the spotlight. We are beginning to show off our “greenness.” As time goes on, we are finding increasing value in publicly displaying our environmental concern, from reusable bags at the supermarket to solar panels on our rooftops.

Nowhere is this “conspicuous conservation effect” more apparent than in the hybrid vehicle market, as is so clearly exemplified by the Toyota Prius. A study conducted by economists Alison and Steven Sexton noted that although there were at least 24 other hybrids on the road in 2009, the Prius alone had 48 percent of the hybrid market, and it had nothing to do with the car’s environmental friendliness. In fact, the Honda Civic Hybrid had nearly identical green ratings from multiple sources. But the Prius, unlike any of the other hybrids, looked different, and this unique design became a signal for the driver’s environmental concern. In fact, the number of Prius owners who purchased the car based on how it reflected on them outweighed those who purchased based on superior gas mileage. With the Prius, Toyota used its unique product design and marketing to spin the concept of environmental concern into a status symbol. Whether intentional or not, this integrated harmoniously with the evolutionary tendencies of Toyota’s consumers, ultimately boosting the Prius to the top.

That is well and good for Toyota, but what about the planet? Although our showing off is ostensibly trending toward protecting the environment, is it actually doing so? Conspicuously conserving through the purchase of green products is still consumption at its core – and consumption as we know it is inherently unsustainable. The key will be finding a way to use our burgeoning understanding of evolutionary psychology to market eco-conscious ideas and promote sustainable behavior instead of selling shiny things.

Lindsey Wedewer is an MBA candidate in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Contact her at lindsey.wedewer@presidioedu.org.