A marketing evolution

Assistant Professor of Marketing Josh Ackerman brings an evolutionary perspective to consumer behavior

Joshua Ackerman Professor Joshua Ackerman


In some ways Josh Ackerman considers himself a newcomer to the world of business and consumer behavior. His graduate training was in social and evolutionary psychology. But still he feels the ideas he is grappling with now are in many ways the same ideas he has always been grappling with. “A lot of the work I did in evolutionary psych is actually influenced by what you would call ‘implicit economic concerns.’ They are not necessarily market based economics, but the economics of genes and evolutionary fitness. So I think that was some preparation for becoming interested in more market-based economics.”

It was during his postdoctoral work at Yale University that Ackerman first became more serious about moving into a business school. The lab he was involved with studied unconscious processing and focused on the ways in which the environment and other people shape our behavior without us realizing it. “There is a lot that can be said for taking that perspective in a marketing context,” he says. “Whether it is through advertising or through consumer environments there are a variety of ways in which the behavior of consumers is influenced outside of their awareness. And I really got interested in a lot of the projects that were going on at the intersection of psychology and consumer behavior, and became more actively involved with talking to people about their experience in business school.”

So far he says the transition has been a smooth one. “I am really liking it so far,” he says. “It has actually been easier than I thought it would be. Especially in the realm of consumer behavior, the kinds of things that people in marketing are interested in are the sorts of things that people in social psychology are interested in. Sometimes they apply them differently, but really I think the underlying mechanisms that people study are one in the same.

An evolutionary perspective

Professor Ackerman’s recent research has focused on applying a number of concepts from evolutionary psychology to understand consumer behavior. These include research on memory and attention, self-control, and, most recently, how physical experience affects people’s perceptions, judgments and behavior.

In one study on weight, subjects asked to evaluate a job candidate were given a résumé on either a very heavy or a very light clipboard. “It turns out,” says Ackerman, “that a lot of physical experiences are mentally tied to metaphors. What happens is that you activate something physically and it starts up the metaphor related to that experience in people’s heads.” For this reason, he says, people who were given the resume on the heavy clipboard actually rated the job candidate as being more serious about the job and more likely to succeed.

A new home

“Of course one of the things that drew me to Sloan is that MIT is an excellent institution. It is especially highly ranked. It is well respected, and all those sorts of things. But I think personally a large part of the reason that I decided to come here was the attitude that the fellow marketing faculty had towards their jobs and my potential job. The main focus was just that people do good work, and they allowed me, as someone who had limited business background, to maintain my interests and keep studying the kinds of things that I was interested in. I think that is not typical of all business schools.”

“It’s been great so far. I love living here. I love my work everyday, and the people I work with. In the future I see myself becoming much more an expert in the realm of consumer behaviors, getting a much bigger picture of how the psychology I studied in the past plays out in contexts that people really care about, which are things related to marketplaces and business environments.”