Evolutionary Psychology Meets Advertising: An Interview With Eaon Pritchard
Evolutionary psychology is the study of the innate programs of the human mind. Due to its meta nature, evolutionary psychology represents a very broad field, with implications in business, public policy and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. In today's interview, we are talking with Eaon Pritchard.
After unsuccessful attempts at neo-expressionist painting, punk rock stardom and, later, Balearic/acid DJ superstardom (although he did achieve one global techno-house hit in the mid-90s) Eaon finally turned to advertising as a last-gasp creative outlet. Initially (and equally unsuccessfully) as a Creative Director he eventually found his calling in Account Planning and Strategy when he found out who Tessa Pollitt’s dad was.
Eaon’s 20+ year advertising career includes multi award winning spells at Weapon7 in London and Clemenger BBDO in Melbourne. He is widely regarded as an ad industry authority on consumer psychology and is author of two books ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’ from 2018 and ‘Shot By Both Sides’ in January 2020. Eaon is now the founder and principal of ArtScienceTechnology, an applied evolutionary psychology business consulting firm working with global clients out of Melbourne, Australia.
When and how did you encounter evolutionary psychology?
Around 2008 some sections of the advertising community in London latched onto Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, and I was among them. I’d been working as a creative/tech hybrid since the rise of digital media in the early 2000’s but Ariely’s book switched me on to the human psychology component to advertising and comms. I become a proponent of applied behavioural economics and suchlike in the following years, however, there was a point about 6 or 7 years ago where it occurred to me that advertising planners invoking cognitive biases had taken on ‘magical’ properties. It seemed too easy to me for every planner and their dog now like to point out how human decision making had become bamboozled by biases. To paraphrase Feynman, knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing something.
I’d already figured out that these cognitive biases do not ‘produce’ or ‘cause’ behaviour, all they do is describe behaviour that’s already happened. And it follows that there must be a more fundamental, or ultimate, cause of behaviour. I read Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained and the Dawkins Selfish Gene and then I was off down the rabbit hole. I then invested in a couple of textbooks, the David Buss one and Tooby/Cosmides and decided to take some time learning about EP properly as it seemed to be such an elegant theory and proved to be revelatory in how I approached my advertising work.
How do you apply evolutionary psychology to improving advertising? Can you give one insight as an example?
There are many ways that even a basic understanding of how the mind works could improve advertising. In a simple sense, understanding mind is a collection of evolved, domain specific programs and whatever a person are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship. This fact alone has big implications for things like brand positioning, targeting, segmentation and selection of media. In segmentation of audiences, for example, most segmentation studies are based only on proximate needs. These are typically specific to the category, so not transferrable.
In any case the methods used to try and uncover these consumer ‘insights’ (e.g. focus groups, surveys) are unlikely to reveal anything of importance. By giving much more the ultimate motives driving consumer behaviour and preferences communicators could speak more directly to what consumers really want, even if the consumers themselves don’t know it and those motives are almost certainly not identifiable through traditional self-reporting methodologies.
What are some key insights you wouldn’t have discovered void of evolutionary psychology?
Many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing this evolutionary ’mismatch’. A mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fastchanging environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.
We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we’re not. These are evolutionarily novel sources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears - spiders, snakes and the dark - have more ancient origins. When I was working with a government road safety department I wanted to put pictures of redback spiders on road safety billboards to get attention – in Australia we have nearly all of the top ten most venomous and lethal spiders in the world. Unfortunately the didn’t buy it but I stand by the idea.
Pick one of these three groups — businesses, consumers, policy makers — and give your best piece of advice.
For policy makers, I’ve been disappointed with almost all the COVID comms from governments around the world. Messages about ‘we are all in this together’ and ‘save other lives by staying home’ etc are out of step with human nature. The desired behaviour framed around self-interest and status motives would have been much more effective. Although it would have to be cleverly disguised as few people like to believe that they are acting out of self-interest or competitive altruism.
Which evolutionary psychologists would you love to read an interview by?
Robert Trivers. He’s not strictly a psychologist but is one of the greats in evolutionary biology and quite a character. Probably the only white scientist to be a getaway driver for the Black Panthers, he’s been arrested numerous times, in prison at least once and almost got killed in a yardie attack in a Kingston brothel while living on and off in Jamaica since the 70s. And when a couple of machete-wielding burglars had tried to get into his house, he stabbed one of them in the neck. Not your typical professorial behaviour.
Perhaps his most influential theory - that self deception evolved to facilitate the deception of others – was introduced as an almost off-the-cuff remark in the foreword to The Selfish Gene for Dawkins. Apparently, he’d planned to flesh out the theory a bit in a proper paper but didn’t get around
to it because he was smoking too much weed at the time.
What is a message that you want to spread across and where people can find you online?
The best place to connect with me is via the website artsciencetechnology.com, we are always looking for new clients or projects to help with. Or on LinkedIn. Both of my books are available on Amazon worldwide in paperback or for Kindle. Readers may find the odd spelling mistake, I call it jazz-grammar.