Are We Hard-wired for Chocolate and Hybrid Cars?

A Ford Mustang in 3D-printed chocolate.
One key to creating successful fiction of any sort is the author's ability to create believable characters and then to put them into situations where their humanity is put to the test. As science continues to provide explanations of how people function it's becoming an easier task, especially on whether our behavior is learned or programmed into our genes.  Simply put, as a writer, the better you understand the human animal, the more likely you are to find success with your work.

The Nurture vs. Nature Debate
There is a long-running debate both in science and with the rest of us over whether our behavior is genetic in origin, or if our behavior is learned through experience. Ask one person, and they'll swear up and down that their love of something, say jazz, is something they chose over the years. Yet there is research that shows that a love of jazz runs in families, and not because of training or exposure. The same thing applies to risk taking, political orientation, certain mental and physical illnesses, food preferences, in short, all of the cards in the hand we are dealt.

This debate is not unlike the old Free-will and Predestination debate between Biblical scholars across many religions.  With today's ability to identify specific genes in a person's DNA and to link those genes to specific behaviors, the debate itself is moving away from opinion to scientific evidence. Someday we may no longer have to try to second-guess what an omnipotent God intends; we can see it clearly in our genetic programming.

How genetics affect consumer choice
This extends to the products we purchase as well.  According to a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers discovered that people tend o inherit the following:
  • A tendency to choose a compromise option and avoid extremes; 
  • A tendency to select sure gains over gambles; 
  • A tendency to prefer an easy but non-rewarding task over an enjoyable challenging one; 
  • A tendency to look for the best option available; and 
  • A tendency to prefer utilitarian, clearly needed options (like batteries) over more indulgent ones (gourmet chocolate).
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Liking chocolate, mustard, hybrid cars, sci-fi movies, and jazz is in your genes.
They also found that people's preference for ("likings") for specific products seemed to be genetically related: chocolate, mustard, hybrid cars, science fiction movies, and jazz.

"We examine a wide range of consumer judgment and decision-making phenomenon and discover that many -- though not all of them -- are in fact heritable or influenced by genetic factors," write authors Itamar Simonson (Stanford University) and Aner Sela (University of Florida, Gainesville).

The authors studied twins' consumer preferences to determine whether or not certain behaviors or traits have a genetic basis. "A greater similarity in behavior or trait between identical than between fraternal twins indicates that the behavior or trait is likely to be heritable," the authors explain. The researchers also found that some tendencies did not seem to be heritable -- for example, a preference for a smaller versus larger product variety or likings for ketchup and tattoos.

"The current research suggests that heritable and other hard-wired inherent preference components play a key role in behavior and deserve much more attention in marketing and decision-making research," the authors write.

Humans are either born mainstream or on the edge
The authors believe their work may reveal some important information on the genetics of "prudence." "Some people may be born with a tendency to 'be in the mainstream' whereas others tend to 'live on the edge," the authors conclude.

Related stories:
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Story Source: Itamar Simonson and Aner Sela. On the Heritability of Consumer Decision Making: An Exploratory Approach for Studying Genetic Effects on Judgment and Choice. Journal of Consumer Research, April 2011


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