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Executive Education

Consumers Revert to their Ancestral Instincts in a Recession


Vladas Griskevicius


BA 1996
Gustavus Adolphus

PhD 2000
Psychological and Brain Sciences
Dartmouth College

Post-Doc 2003
Research fellow (funded by NIMH) 2000-2003
Case Western Reserve University and University of Utah 

After his second year in graduate school, Department Chair Vlad Griskevicius was stressed out. So, he bought some popular science books which were completely unrelated to his study of persuasion and influence. Those books, about how humankind’s evolutionary past influences modern psychology, started him down a whole new research path, and still sit on his office bookshelf. 

Currently, Griskevicius’ research focuses on three areas. One, persuasion and influence, deals with altering consumer behavior – for instance, how small changes in wording a message can influence behavior. A second related area is green marketing and pro-environmental behavior. Griskevicius has examined how to motivate people to be environmentally conscious, even when it means they’ll have a worse experience or product. The third area is the evolutionary roots of modern consumer behavior, and whether a look at humankind’s ancestral past might provide insight into how people behave today.

Griskevicius enjoys how multi-disciplinary the evolutionary research is, allowing him to think about what the business world is doing, what’s going on in the psychology world, the anthropology world, with biologists, etc. Most research that happens at a university is very narrow.

“It’s a much bigger picture of research where we have to figure out how does what we study in the business school matter to biologists,” he said. “And the answer is that it all fits together, just not many people are looking at all of these things together. So to me that’s very exciting, that big picture sense.”

For instance, there is a theory in biology that predicts when animal parents are going to favor male or female offspring. If resources are scarce, parents devote more effort to females because females nearly always have offspring in their lifespan. A huge number of males, however, produce zero offspring, and only a small number produce many. Animals don’t necessarily think about this, but over thousands of generations natural selection has led them to make decisions that maximize their number of offspring. This animal behavior research led Griskevicius, along with fellow marketing Associate Professor Joe Redden, to wonder if people behaved similarly. So they asked a group of parents, with both boys and girls, if they treated their children differently. Over 90 percent said they treated them equally.

To find out if this was true, the researchers had people read news articles, some of which said the last recession had made things really tough, and things in the future are going to be even worse – meaning jobs and resources would be scarce. Reading this puts people in the mindset that they live in an uncertain time. They were then asked to make choices about (usually) hypothetical children, a boy and a girl. They were asked questions such as how they would split items in a will, or who would get braces if they can only afford one set. The researchers found that when people are thinking about recessions, they prefer girls over boys. Just as it is in the other mammals.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Griskevicius said. “Because if you ask people if they favor boys or girls, they say, ‘No – I treat them equally.’ It’s only when you put them into situations where they really have to choose that you see these effects pop out.”

Now, in cultures with strong gender preferences, this research suggests that when resources are really scarce, preferences should shift closer to girls. It doesn’t mean they’ll be treated really well, but they’ll be treated slightly better.

This research has implications for why shopping preferences change in times of recession or economic booms. Griskevicius and Redden reviewed data of shopping expenditures over the last 25 years and looked at how it relates to unemployment or GDP. He found that when things are going poorly, people really cut expenditures to boys; no new clothing or other items. Not so for girls. When times are good, spending for boys increases, but not necessarily for girls.

“There is lots of individual differences, but it’s shocking to get these effects at any level,” he said. “That’s why I love the multi-disciplinary approach where by knowing something that happens in a completely different area of the University helped inform how we understand humans and financial decisions.”

As department chair, Griskevicius views research as the greatest strength of the Marketing department. Compared to other departments around the world, which often have some faculty members that aren’t very engaged, Griskevicius said it surprised and impressed him how active this one is in cutting-edge research. In fact, the department’s tied for second in the world in this area.

“The expression that comes to mind is, we’re hitting way above our weight,” Griskevicius said. “If you ask people how good should we be, and then you actually look at some of the hard numbers in terms of impact, we’re just off the charts outstanding.”

Another strength Griskevicius sees within the department is good teaching. There are many superb teachers who students just love and who get great evaluations.

“I was really pleasantly surprised that we’re not just a research department sitting in the ivory tower, but we’re making a difference in the classroom,” he said.

The Marketing department is also exemplary at experiential learning for the MBA students through the Carlson Brand Enterprise. It provides MBA students with great projects to work on with real companies and they learn a tremendous amount. Moving forward, Griskevicius would like to bring more of that hard-core learning experience to undergraduate students, but it may take a while with 2,500 undergraduates. The department is also hoping to expand the Institute for Research in Marketing.

“We’re looking for ways to move it forward,” Griskevicius said. “I think the potential there is near limitless.”

Contact Institute for Research in Marketing