Our behavior — especially in the age of social media — is inextricably linked to how we believe it will be perceived. I’ve outlined this argument in the context of brands to make it easy to understand (read: “People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves,” or “The Approval Economy”), but brands are just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, approval shapes not just the brands we engage with, but everything we engage with. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand two things: first, why approval matters so much to us, and second, that everything that exists is a product of evolution — i.e., natural (or unnatural) selection.
Let’s start with approval.
Approval’s Effect on Decision-Making
Humans evolved in small groups, typically of no more than 150 people. Any more than that and we would’ve been unable to maintain familiar, stable relationships with people, and the bonds that held the community together would’ve broken down. In these groups, it was vital to have a method of identifying and expelling someone toxic to the rest of the group. Thus, out of these early groups emerged gossip, or conversation between members of the group about another member behind their back. It was a mechanism to expel someone from the group with as little friction as possible.
Gossip enabled groups to formulate common knowledge about individuals within them. It wasn’t just that everyone knew an individual needed to be expelled, but everyone knew that everyone else knew. Thus, everyone could be counted on to act when the time came for expulsion. Since expulsion from the group meant almost certain death, it follows that those of us still around today are evolutionarily programmed to fit in with the crowd. Those who didn’t are dead and didn’t procreate, so there aren’t any of them left.
Thus, we have an evolved ability to understand what others will and won’t approve of. This ability has a profound effect on our decisions.
As an extension of this idea, it’s worth examining how the selection processes that occur in both evolution and markets are, at their core, approval-distributing processes. To understand why, we must first understand how evolution works.
How Evolution Works (But First, How It Doesn’t)
For years, I believed — incorrectly — that evolution happened “to” us, like growing or aging. This could not be further from the truth. Evolution does not happen to us. Rather, it happens slowly, constantly, all around us — and we are not as much a part of it as we think.
Each of us represents a strategy that exists along an unimaginably broad spectrum of other strategies.
We — individual humans — are not “evolving.” In fact, it feels wrong to say that any one “thing” actually evolves. Rather, each of us represents a strategy that exists along an unimaginably broad spectrum of other strategies, all of which are deployed serendipitously by the body’s inability to copy itself perfectly during reproduction. We call the traits that characterize the imperfections in these copies mutations, and they explain our species’ vast biodiversity. These mutations — traits like opposable thumbs, or that we have two of them — are tested by the market (i.e., reality) and either selected (passed along reproductively because the individual bearing them was able to reproduce), or not.
Our economy works the same way.