Featured image for the different types of consumer needs depicting evolution.

If you want to do good marketing, you must know your customers. Without understanding the needs that are motivating them to buy, your business won’t reach its full potential. Instead of pinpointed marketing campaigns, you’ll be hurling stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Unless you have an endless budget — which startups and SMBs don’t — it’s simply not sustainable.

On first look, consumer choices might appear to be driven purely by contemporary culture and personal preferences. We buy because we’re hungry, thirsty, bored, insecure, and so on. But, we can actually think of the different types of consumer needs on a much more fundamental level and form a broader understanding of why people buy the things they buy.

In this article, I will explain why people act in certain ways through the lens of evolutionary psychology. If nothing else, you will see how marketing — which is typically considered among social sciences — can be related to hardcore biology.

What is evolutionary psychology?

When asked: “why do you eat cake?” most people would simply say “because it’s delicious”. It’s certainly a valid explanation, but why do you think cake tastes good in the first place? Taking it further, why is it the foods that taste the best that fatten us up?

Evolutionary psychology would argue that it’s because our ancestors needed calorie-rich food to survive in environments where nutrition was scarce. In other words, good taste provided an effective motivation to fulfill a critical need that ensured survival. It was so effective that the taste for cake was passed on to future generations through natural selection, all the way to the drastically different present environment.1Durante, K. M., & Griskevicius, V. (2016). Evolution and consumer behavior. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 27–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.10.025

This is the premise of evolutionary psychology. That humans have inherited psychological mechanisms that prompt them to behave in ways that helped our ancestors survive, thrive and replicate.2Kock, F., Josiassen, A., & Assaf, A. G. (2018). On the origin of tourist behavior. Annals of Tourism Research, 73, 180–183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2018.04.002 In other words, modern consumer behavior can be linked to essential behavior our ancestor needed to live and pass on their genes.

It’s somewhat a legacy system. Our environments have changed so fast in recent centuries that our internal systems can’t keep up, leaving us biologically incompatible with modern society. Kind of like using Windows XP to operate a quantum computer.

Proximate & ultimate motives

An evolutionary perspective states that all behavior has both proximate and ultimate causes. People are motivated by proximate and ultimate needs.

In the example above, taste is the proximate reason and nutrition is the ultimate reason of the behavior. A proximate reason for why babies cry could moreover be that they are uncomfortable, hungry or feeling separation. In contrast, the ultimate explanation could be that babies cry because it prompts their parents to care for them, thus increasing their chances of survival.

Bottom line, proximate motives are the immediate and easily observable triggers that prompt people to behave in a certain way, such as purchasing certain products or forming specific habits. The ultimate motive, on the other hand, is the reason why the proximate motive arises. This is more elusive and tends to happen beneath consciousness, and thus operates much like unknown needs — which I covered in the guide on customer needs.

To fully bring it home, here are a couple more examples:

  • Proximate reason: Birds migrate south as the days start getting shorter.
  • Ultimate reason: Birds migrate because the best food and mating sites change with the seasons.
  • Proximate reason: A consumer buys skincare to look younger.
  • Ultimate reason: Youthful appearance is associated with health, fertility and overall attractiveness, thus increasing the probability of finding a mate.

6 types of evolutionary consumer needs

Vlad Griskevicius and Douglas Kenrick are both influential researchers within the evolutionary psychology space. In 2013, the two Americans published an article outlining several fundamental motives stemming from evolutionary needs.3Griskevicius, V., & Kenrick, D. T. (2013). Fundamental motives: How evolutionary needs influence consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23(3), 372–386. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2013.03.003 I’ll use these needs as the basis of this article going forward and explain each motive below.

An example behavior for all the fundamental needs
An example of trigger, motivation and purchase behavior for each type of consumer needs.

#1 Protection from physical harm

Our ancestors lived in constant danger of physical harm, such as from wildlife and, to no lesser degree, other humans. The harm protection motive is thus closely related to fear. It’s typically activated by cues such as angry expressions, interacting with strangers, spiders, news reports, loud noises, and being in the dark.

When people are geared to avoid physical harm they are more likely to prefer the status quo and take fewer risks. People may also display greater loss aversion, i.e., they are prevention-focused and value the things they have more — as losing them would change the status quo. Seeking to protect oneself from physical harm can therefore lead consumers to invest in safety equipment, home security systems, insurance policies, and even vehicles known for their safety features.

#2 Avoiding diseases

Infectious disease have plagued humanity for centuries, and with substantially higher casualty rates than we experience today. As a consequence, our ancestors went through great lengths to avoid exposure to diseases using a type of psychological immune prevention system. Though some of these methods are less elegant than others, the underlying motive was (and is) critical to keep pathogen threats at bay.

The emotion associated with disease avoidance is disgust. Disgust helps to activate the motive when we’re faced with disgusting stimuli such as sneezes, foul odors, abnormalities, feces, etc. Simply seeing someone that might be sick, or thinking of a person from a foreign country (under the assumption that they are more likely to carry dangerous diseases) can trigger our disease avoidance .

The proximate responses that follow are versatile. Xenophobia tends to increase as people favor the in-group, seeing it as less risky because we know the people well. The effects of this have been studied in the tourism sector where xenophobic tourists have been shown to be more likely to book travel insurance, prefer to travel in group and through an agency. In addition, they demonstrate a stronger preference for vaccination and are less inclined to try the local food.4Kock, F., Josiassen, A., & Assaf, A. G. (2019). The xenophobic tourist. Annals of Tourism Research, 74, 155–166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2018.11.005

Generally speaking, people also have a preference for new versus used products, and are biased towards things that look particularly clean and healthy.

#3 Affiliation

Humans have always lived in groups to increase their chances of survival. Though it comes across differently today, affiliation is still a core need. Friendships serve as a valuable support function, and help us develop as individuals.

The emotions that signal affiliation are liking, attraction, harmony and sentimentality. These can arise under circumstances of social rejection, loneliness and when interacting with people. In contrast to disease avoidance (which makes people introverted), affiliation makes people extroverted. As a consequence, we see socializing as an important benefit rather than potential danger. This makes affiliation a promotion-based need, whereas disease avoidance is prevention-based.

When triggered, we seek to reinforce our friendships and form new ones. We are more susceptible to word-of-mouth and seek our reviews. We are also more likely to give gifts, and to purchase products that we believe will help us fit in with certain reference groups.

#4 Status

Humans don’t only want to belong to groups, but also to stand out within those groups. We want status and prestige. This is nowhere as prominent as in the global luxury market. Expected to reach $419 billion in 2028, this sector massive exists almost entirely to cater for status — and that’s not even counting other luxuries like cars, yachts, business class travels, etc.

The status motive is triggered by cues of dominance, prestige (e.g., highly regarded people and products), competition, rivalries, and upon losing status or power. As a result, the emotions associated with status are pride, respect and awe; but, also envy and arrogance.

Unsurprisingly, status-driven consumers seek out luxury goods and premium brands. They may overall also become less price-sensitive, allowing luxury brands to significantly ramp up their prices. A large part of the status, after all, is in the price itself. Moreover, status-driven people are more likely to seek out exclusive and novel features, and reinforce their associations with other high-status people.

#5 Acquiring a mate

No evolution would happen if we did not find a partner to pass on our genes with. For that reason, one of our fundamental motives is acquiring a mate. This motive is triggered when we are near real or potential partners, either in real life or our thoughts. Romantic ads, movies, TV shows and songs may also trigger mate acquisition. Consequently, the key emotions are love, lust and sexual desire.

The mate acquisition motive causes people to focus on things relating to the desirability of others as romantic partners, as well one’s desirability to others. This comes forward in wanting to be noticed, which often pairs with status. For example, men become more willing to spend on luxury goods and expensive brands in general. But, they also become more charitable and may chose less popular options to appear more unique. Women also seek to stand out but do so a bit differently. They focus on showing their beauty and spend a great deal of time on finding the right clothing, accessories and cosmetics that enable them to best do so.

In general, this motive can influence purchases related to personal grooming, fashion, dating services, and even luxury items that signal attractiveness and desirability. Products that promise to enhance physical appearance or social desirability can appeal to consumers driven by this need.

#6 Keeping a mate

Not only do we want to attract a mate, but also to keep one. The motive to retain our mate is triggered by things that celebrate or threaten relationships. Typical cues include reminiscing about the past, romance in popular culture, upcoming events or anniversaries, or catching a rival eyeing your partner. The motive shifts attention away from the opposite sex to the same sex (in most cases), because same-sex individuals are considered a potential threat to the relationship.

Keeping a mate is therefore very prevention-focused and involves significant loss aversion. When people this motive is activated, people seek out romantic getaways, couple’s experiences, gifts, and even relationship counseling. You could further argue that Valentine’s Day is all about keeping a mate. However, grooming and personal health products and services are also relevant, as self-development is an effective way to keep a mate around.

Applying this information

Evolutionary psychology is a fascinating field. But, it’s major drawback is that findings can be difficult to apply to business situations due to its theoretical nature. With current technology we can only hypothesize about the ultimate motives looming below the behavior we observe on a daily basis and draw inferences.

Nevertheless, it is a great alternative angle to examine your customers’ needs and is likely to help you understand them better. Like with other writings on this blog, the goal is to give you ideas to test in your context. That’s the essence of marketing work: concept, test, iteration. If you someone is telling you something is guaranteed to work for your specific case, that person is likely trying to sell you that something. I’d be skeptical in those situations.

When trying out these principles, be subtle. Don’t overtly go “If you want to keep your partner around by my stuff” or “Here you can buy status”. These needs are mostly unconscious and addressing them so publicly won’t do you any favors. Rather, try to call them forward with cues that make sense given your business and positioning.


The six fundamental needs covered here are not exhaustive. Researchers have also identified exploration and kin care. The six are, however, the most thoroughly researched and have the strongest ties to consumer behavior. Evolutionary needs are by nature rather intangible and don’t have a lot of scientifically proven cause-effect relationships, but they are incredibly useful to understand customers and their motivations better.


  • 1
    Durante, K. M., & Griskevicius, V. (2016). Evolution and consumer behavior. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 27–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.10.025
  • 2
    Kock, F., Josiassen, A., & Assaf, A. G. (2018). On the origin of tourist behavior. Annals of Tourism Research, 73, 180–183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2018.04.002
  • 3
    Griskevicius, V., & Kenrick, D. T. (2013). Fundamental motives: How evolutionary needs influence consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23(3), 372–386. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2013.03.003
  • 4
    Kock, F., Josiassen, A., & Assaf, A. G. (2019). The xenophobic tourist. Annals of Tourism Research, 74, 155–166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2018.11.005

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