A Conversation with Gad Saad, “The Gadfather” of Evolutionary Psychology

We experience our physiology and psychology in different ways.  I inhabit my body, whilst I am me.  This distinction is perhaps, why I am happy to accept my physicality is a result of evolution, an act without my own agency – whereas in my own perception my ‘self’ surely, cannot be anything other than a product of the inputs I have received since entering this world.

As with many intuitively held (rather than empirically verified) beliefs, scientific method comes along and casts a new light.  In his seminal book, ‘The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption,Professor Gad Saad notes that, “…evolutionary psychology posits that the human mind has evolved via natural and sexual selection, a point that Darwin had originally alluded to. Hence, in the same way that our liver and kidneys have evolved to solve very specific survival problems, many of the affective, cognitive, and conative components defining the human experience have been forged by the same selection mechanisms. In the same manner that bodily organs are function-specific (e.g., the heart pumps blood), the human mind has evolved a set of domain-specific Darwinian modules, as adaptive solutions to recurrent survival problems. Some of these problems include gathering food, avoiding predators, finding and retaining mates, protecting and investing in kin, and building and maintaining friendships, coalitions, and social networks.”

More recently, research has shown that evolution has created the psychological mechanisms which have enabled, and emboldened the spread of faux-intellectual movements (anti-vaccination, climate-deniers) and which can explain most of our deep rooted preferences, beliefs, and consumption instincts.

To learn more, I spoke to Dr. Gad Saad a professor, evolutionary behavioural scientist, author, and public intellectual.  Gad has become one of the world’s most sought after commentators in this field, his YouTube channel, ‘The Saad Truth’ has close to 145,000 subscribers and has been viewed over 14 million times.

[bios]Dr. Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada), and former holder of the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption (2008-2018). He has held Visiting Associate Professorships at Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and the University of California–Irvine. Dr. Saad received the Faculty of Commerce’s Distinguished Teaching Award in June 2000, and was listed as one of the ‘hot’ professors of Concordia University in both the 2001 and 2002 Maclean’s reports on Canadian universities. Saad was appointed Newsmaker of the Week of Concordia University in five consecutive years (2011-2015), and is the co-recipient of the 2015 President’s Media Outreach Award-Research Communicator of the Year (International), which goes to the professor at Concordia University whose research receives the greatest amount of global media coverage.

Professor Saad has pioneered the use of evolutionary psychology in marketing and consumer behaviour. His works include The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (translated into Korean and Turkish); The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption; Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences, along with 75+ scientific papers, many at the intersection of evolutionary psychology and a broad range of disciplines including consumer behavior, marketing, advertising, psychology, medicine, and economics.  His Psychology Today blog (Homo Consumericus) and YouTube channel (THE SAAD TRUTH) have garnered over 5.7 million and 14.8 million total views respectively.  In addition to his scientific work, Dr. Saad is a leading public intellectual who often writes and speaks about topics as varied as postmodernism, radical feminism, cultural and moral relativism, political correctness, freedom of speech, the thought police, and Islam.

He is currently working on his fourth book tentatively titled The Parasitic Mind: How Idea Pathogens Are Killing Common Sense—And What We Can Do About It scheduled to be released in 2020.[/bios]

Q: How did you get into the field of evolutionary psychology?

[Gad Saad]  In my first semester as a doctoral student at Cornell University, I took a course in advanced social psychology, taught by a social psychologist called Dennis Regan.  It was about halfway through the semester when he assigned us a book which changed my scientific trajectory –   Homicide, by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson.  In this book, they argue that many patterns of criminality transcend cultures and time periods precisely because they are rooted in certain biological and evolutionary mechanisms that are universal.  That was mind-blowing, an epiphany, and right away I decided to follow the framework they were studying in criminality, and apply it to consumption, the idea was then born of applying evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology to study consumer behaviour.

Q:  What does consumption mean to you?

[Gad Saad] I don’t want people to be anchored in the most obvious forms of consumption.  It’s not that we just consume Starbucks, Coca Cola, and our jeans… those are all consummatory choices but everything we do in one sense or another is consummatory.  We consume religious narratives, we consume literature, we consume friendships.  Our mate choices are the ultimate form of consumer choice.

I can pretty much fit most of our purposeful behaviours under the umbrella of consumption – it’s a wonderful place from which to study our shared biological heritage and our human nature.

Q: Do we need a psychological firewall to protect us against people manipulating these evolutionary universals?

[Gad Saad] It’s interesting you talk of the word firewall.  If we’re trying to sell chewing gum or cereals to kids, the moral, legal and ethical argument is that you shouldn’t be able to do that because children don’t have a built-in firewall (to use your term) to protect them against persuasive intent – and therefore you should only target them once they have the psychological and emotional make-up to be able to counter-argue your persuasive attempts. Yet, the single most powerful product in our lives, religion, is one that I can advertise to my children straight out of the womb.  I can’t advertise chewing gum to my children because it’s unethical, but I can feed them all sorts of narratives that will have a profound impact on their personal trajectories.  It’s quite an extraordinarily hypocritical position.

Q:  Why are we susceptible to faux-intellectual narratives?

[Gad Saad] There are many organisms in nature that can be attacked by actual brain worms, this is called neuroparasitology – so you could have a worm which, rather than being intestinal, goes to your brain and attacks it in such a way as to cause all sorts of maladaptive behaviours.  One example is Toxoplasma gondii which infects the brain of a mouse, causing it to not only lose its innate fear of cats, but to become sexually attracted to them (specifically to a cat’s urine).  There’s another type of brain parasite that attacks ungulates (deer, moose, elk) – when they are parasitized, they start engaging in circling behaviour.  They start going around in the same spot, in a circle, and they can’t extricate themselves from that pattern – despite the fact that predators may be looming.

Humans can be parasitized by actual brain worms, but also by idea pathogens that cause them to behave in profoundly maladaptive ways.

Using the model of an epidemiologist, I therefore look for patient-zero – where the infection began.  I argue that the ecosystem where idea pathogens originate from is the university; it takes intellectuals to come up with some of the most moronic ideas possible.

In postmodernism, there are no absolute truths; everything is relative, of course other than the one absolute truth that there are no absolute truths.  This is a form of intellectual terrorism, nihilism, it takes the edifices of reason and logic and says no! everything is relative!

We are being faced with full-frontal attacks on our most foundational edifices of reason by parasitic ideas such as postmodernism and radical feminism.  In this latter case, let me be clear, we absolutely should strive for the equality of men and women, but it’s nonsense that we should make men and women become indistinguishable creatures.   The average lobotomized two-year-old knows that males and females come in distinct categories.  Not better, not worse, but we are a sexually dimorphic species.

Many of the faux intellectual movements and parasitic infections of our minds are precisely because there has been a 40-50 year frontal attack in our universities – a rejection of reason and science.

Q:  What are your views on political correctness in todays’ university narrative?

[Gad Saad] It feels like the main currency on our campuses has become the management of hurt feelings.  There is a field called operations research (OR) – the idea that you can use mathematical algorithms to optimise, maximise, or minimise something.  In OR, there is a classic problem called the travelling salesman problem.  If you have a salesman who has to visit 10 cities, going to each once and ending back at the starting city, how should he or she go to these cities, returning to the original point, whilst minimising travel costs.  The objective function of this problem is to minimise travel costs.  What is the objective function of a university? If it’s the pursuit of knowledge, unencumbered by obstacles, then we have a particular ethos that we adhere to… if the objective function is to minimise hurt feelings? We get to a different trajectory.

Imagine you and I are in a classroom, and we want to talk about the epidemiology of violent crime.  If research turns out that young men are overwhelmingly more likely to commit violent crimes than elderly women, it’s a fact – an epidemiological fact.  Here’s the problem, in today’s university campuses I could raise my hand and say ‘wait a minute Professor, I’m a young guy, and I feel marginalised and disenfranchised by your hate facts…’

Once you have a tension between hurt feelings and truth, that’s when the edifice of truth collapses.

Q:  How did we get this collective disconnect between culture and truth?

[Gad Saad] I’ve coined two maladies; I refer to them as Collective Munchausen syndrome and Collective Munchausen by proxy.  Back in 2010, I had written a scientific article in a medical journal where I sought to explain something in evolutionary terms that is quite difficult to explain from that perspective; Munchausen Syndrome by proxy.

Munchausen Syndrome is where a person feigns illness, or medical conditions, to garner empathy and sympathy.  Munchausen Syndrome by proxy is when you take someone who is under your care (your biological child, your pet, your elderly parent) and then harm that person or entity that’s under your care so that you can then garner the empathy and sympathy by proxy.

Today, you see the hysteria of people saying, ‘I’m a victim because Trump won. I’m a Brown woman. Will it still be safe for me to go to my university?’ Sure, Trump’s death squads and militia will come and get you….and take you to a gang-rape centre….

It’s intoxicatingorgiastic for people to build a narrative of victimhood.  ‘I’m a victim!,’ no… ‘I’m a bigger victim!’ – it’s victimology poker…. Who holds the biggest hand in victimology…. It’s very difficult for all these cretins, all these social justice warriors, to come after me.  I hold a strong card in victimology poker. I’m a war refugee, I’m from the Middle-East, I’m Arabic, I happen to be Jewish, in most victim narratives, you will lose.  And incredibly, that makes these idiots run away!

How idiotic is it to use my victimhood to strengthen my argument rather than the veracity of my argument?  We’ve gone from an ethos of truth, reason, logic and evidence-based thinking to an ethos of victimology – and until we’re able to redress that, we’re going to keep sinking into the abyss of infinite lunacy.

Q:  How have social networks impacted parasitic and faux-intellectual narratives?

[Gad Saad] 400 years ago, if you and I wished to communicate, I had to send you a letter, it might take several months to reach you, and then for you to reply.  Now? We can have this conversation live, globally, and hundreds of thousands of people can view it instantly.  I think there are wonderful elements to social media, and as someone who deals in the currency of ideas, I’m like a kid in a candy store.

On one hand social media has been liberating, but on the other it’s allowed bullshit to spread at the speed of light, and has allowed us to build very entrenched echo chambers.

It’s also important for us to talk about intellectual diversity.  There’s a neuropsychiatrist in Australia, Steve Stankevicius, who wrote an article on the lack of diversity of thought and linked it to evolutionary medicine.   The fact that there isn’t diversity of thought on campuses has consequences somewhat like the hygiene hypothesis.  Research shows that if children who suffer from inflammatory diseases (e.g. asthma) had grown up in environments where they faced pollutants, or pet dander, or more dust… they were actually less likely to suffer from asthma.  Their immune system was triggered to work!   If you grew up in a very sterile environment, you’re actually more likely to be asthmatic!

If you take this brilliant idea from evolutionary medicine and apply it to intellectual diversity, how can we possibly expect young minds to develop critical thinking if they are only exposed to ideas that support their a priori positions?  If you look at the professoriate in the USA for example, the ratio of Democrat to Republican professors can be as high as 44:1 and 80:1 in some disciplines – and I know that some idiots will write to say, ‘Professors are smart, of course they will be democrats…’   and that’s just wrong.

Here’s the thing, when it comes to scientific truths, like the theory of evolution you might get some conservative Republican who denies it, but they’re going up against a scientific fact.    But when it comes to debating fiscal policy, foreign policy, whether the death penalty is just or not, or what a nation’s immigration policy should be, there is no absolute scientific fact.  There are valid and plausible arguments on both sides of the aisle and I as a young student should have the right, if not the expectation to be exposed to both sides.

Q:  How can we build a more intellectually resilient society?

[Gad Saad] We benefit psychologically and emotionally from being anti-fragile (a term coined by my good friend Nassim Taleb).  We should have our positions challenged once in a while.  If you presume that I’m such a fragile creature that I could never be challenged on my positions, then you really are not doing me any service.

Every single one of us needs to make a commitment to participate, in however small or large a way, in the battle of ideas.  When you hear your professor spouting something that you disagree with, challenge him or her politely, don’t be afraid.  When someone on Facebook posts something that you disagree with, challenge them.  When you’re sitting at a bar having a conversation, don’t shy away from a conversation because that might have an adverse effect on your friendship.  If your friendship can’t withstand a disagreement on some important issue, then screw that friend, they’re not worthy of your friendship.

Do not succumb to the Tragedy of the Commons; Let me describe it with an actual example.  Let’s say you have a bunch of farmers, each of whom is using a particular plot of land for their livestock to graze on that land.  They realise the land is really suffering, it needs a couple of years to recover, so they come to a gentlemen’s agreement that no one will be using that plot of land for their livestock to graze on it.  They agree on that, then one farmer says you know what would be the best solution actually?  If I were to cheat on my agreement, if I were to let my livestock graze on that land while the other ones remain honourable… well, the land will still recover, and at least I get a bonus… right?  Now, the Tragedy of the Commons is every single one of them thinks along those lines and then they all end up raping the land that was meant to remain off limits to allow it to recover.

The Tragedy of the Commons in our case is that everybody says,  ‘…let Gad Saad, he’s got big shoulders, let him fight on my behalf and I’ll go on worrying about my daily life, and buying my tomatoes at the grocery store… let others do the heavy work, I’ll just kind of clap from the sidelines and say good job professor’.

No, don’t diffuse the responsibility.  You don’t have to have a popular YouTube channel or be a fancy professor to have a voice.  You have one, use it.  Once enough people do that, then the small number of intellectual terrorists that hold the discourse hostage will be drowned by the awakening of the heretofore silent majority.

People write to me and say, ‘well professor aren’t you overestimating, aren’t you exaggerating the number of social justice warriors there are on campuses?’ – I say no I’m not.

You only needed 19 really committed people on 9/11 to do a lot of damage.  You didn’t need 19 million.  You needed 19 people, so you don’t need a million social justice warriors to keep the rest of us hostage on campus.  Fight against the idiots.

Q:  Why do we have so much faux-activism?

[Gad Saad]  In biology we have something called signalling theory.  The classic example of a costly signal (though there are others) is the peacock’s tail, which has evolved despite the fact that it reduces the survival of the peacock.   It increases his visibility to potential predators, makes it more difficult for him to take flight, so from a natural selection perspective the peacock should not have evolved that tail.  But he has evolved that tail because it actually confers upon him a mating advantage; specifically, that peacock’s tail, because it is burdensome, because it reduces his survivability, because it is so wasteful, is actually an honest signal of his phenotypic quality.  It is basically a neon sign saying, ‘look, despite the fact I’m carrying this very wasteful appendage here, I’m still standing here so you should really pick me because I’m the big dog, I’m the top dog’.  It’s actually a profound point.

Virtue signalling is not a costly signal.  A costly signal is going to a protest in the Middle East, where you’re going to end up disappearing in some hell hole to never be seen again.  That’s impressive in terms of the required courage.  Going to London with a bunch of other idiots so you can get a little dopamine hit that you are a virtuous person is worth nothing.

People sometimes write to me and say, ‘well but Professor, you’re protected by tenure’.  Well, when it comes to the death threats that I receive, tenure doesn’t protect me from those.  When I have to file a report with the Montreal Police, when I have to go to campus and check in with security, when I don’t receive many other professorship offers because people are afraid to associate with me because I am outspoken, tenure did not protect me from those dire consequences.  No, tenure is not something that protects me from the endless amount of negative consequences that I’ve had to bear on both a professional and personal level.

For you to have skin in the game, you have to bear a cost.  If you don’t, you’re a bullshitter.

Q:  Where do you find the courage to fight?

[Gad Saad] My personhood does not allow me to be exposed to bullshit, to endure attacks on truth, and to not respond.  I am personally offended by falsehoods- in the true sense of the word ‘offense,’ not as a manifestation of the culture of victimhood.  I am psychically injured when I see the endless attacks on truth.  And that carries more weight in my personal conduct than careerist aspirations.

Am I just being a martyr? No –  When I go to bed at night and I lay my head down, I need to – before I fall asleep – feel that there is nothing that I could have done that I chose not to do because I was cowardly.  That allows me to go to sleep because I’ve cleared my very high threshold of what I consider to be proper personal conduct.

The minute I fail to speak out because of career aspirations, I will become a cheat, and the worst thing for me is to not have a very high moral conduct.

You have to set your bar high enough to be defending the truth rather than your own selfish goals… look, all the people in the world that have affected profound change looked beyond themselves, right?  Great people rise to the occasion.  You don’t have to be great in that you become a famous professor, but you could be great in your personal conduct so when you lay your head down on your pillow you say ‘I did all that I can’. Until we can foster that exacting personal conduct in everyone, they will keep deflecting the responsibility on the few of us and then we will lose the battle of ideas.

Q:  How do we examine what truth we should follow?

[Gad Saad] There are different ways to measure the truth.  There are axiomatic truths; for example, the transitivity axiom posits that if I prefer car A to car B, and I prefer car B to car C, I must prefer car A to car C otherwise I am being irrational in that sense.  Mathematical logic has axioms of truth, there are truth tables.  The world though is not made up of these black-and-white axiomatic truths.

We have to build a mental hygiene of good decision making.  Something I like to use are nomological networks of cumulative evidence – the means by which you demonstrate that some phenomenon is an adaptation in evolutionary psychology.

For example, imagine that I want to prove to you that toy preferences are indeed innate, that there are biological bases to toy preferences… so, contrary to the social constructivist argument (that it is socialisation that causes little Johnny to prefer trucks and little Linda to prefer dolls) there is actually a biological basis to sex-specific preferences.  How would I go about demonstrating that to you?  I need to build for you a nomological network, this big network of cumulative evidence which, when you are confronted with it, drowns you in a tsunami of evidence.  So how do I do that?  I might for example get data from many different cultures, that vary greatly from each other, and show that little boys and little girls have that exact preference across those cultures.  I might get data across time periods, so for example there is data from ancient Greece where on funerary monuments, mausoleums – you see little boys and little girls playing with sex-specific toys.  Now this is from roughly 2,500 years ago.  You have other data coming from paediatric endocrinology where, for example, little girls who suffer from congenital adrenal hypoplasia (which is an endocrinological disorder that masculinises little girls) exhibit toy preferences that are akin to those of boys.  Bit by bit, I can build you this network that makes your position completely impossible to hold.

I don’t get into hysteria, I don’t call you names, I put on my scientist thinking hat, I say what would be the evidence that I need to show this individual to hopefully sway them?  This is the only way to get to the truth.

Once you are able to interrupt me and say ‘I don’t want to hear the truth because it offends me’, that impartial process has been violated.  So, get rid of hurt feelings, nobody gives a shit about your hurt feelings…. and develop a framework for understanding how to navigate through data like a scientist.  Not everybody is a professional scientist, but everybody can use the methods of the scientific method in navigating through the world, and we will all be better armed and informed citizens.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.