Between our unique DNA, upbringing, and life experience, each of us is our own person. And yet, we have something in common. We all want things. It starts when you’re a baby crying for food, vying for attention, reaching for objects. And it never stops.

Why do we want things? Survival.

Our instincts make sure we always want what we need: food, shelter, companionship (safety in numbers), sex. Those are the four survival imperatives. When we fulfill those needs, the limbic system — the part of the brain responsible for response to emotional stimuli — provides reinforcement in the form of powerful neurotransmitters like Dopamine that make us feel good.

Most of what you want falls into one of those four categories. It may not be obvious, but if you think about it, you’ll see that it’s true.

If you wonder why smartphones are such a life necessity, think about how many of those four survival imperatives can be met by a smartphone. Actually, all four. Name another product that fulfills all those needs in the palm of your hand and a few clicks. You can’t.

Most consumer behavior can be ascribed to a part of the brain that’s millions of years old. When the limbic system evolved, humans had no higher-level brain functions. The frontal lobes of the neocortex did not exist yet. We were creatures of instinct and not much else.

That’s why we want. It’s instinctive. It’s survival. If you understand that, you understand consumer behavior. You understand marketing. You understand much of human behavior. You understand why people do the things they do. More important, you understand why you do the things you do.

To quote from the Tao Te Ching:

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

Image credit Lauren Rushing via Flickr