Monday, January 17, 2011

The Savanna Effect

        Like every other human appendage which has been shaped by evolution to perform a specific role, so too has the brain. Evolutionary psychologists argue however, that like our hands and feet whose form and function has remained relatively unchanged since the end of the Pleistocene epoch, the human brain and psychological mechanisms associated with it are also innately biased to perceive and respond within that very same environment. When assessing and attempting to explain human behaviour, this means that the average human brain still assumes that it lives in the African Savanna roughly 10,000 years ago. As a result, humans frequently have difficulty comprehending different entities and situations that did not exist in our ancestral environment. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazwa of the University of London coined this phenomenon the ‘Savanna principle’, with his theory frequently cited to better explain the behaviour of modern day humans in a variety of processes and occupations, from microeconomics and architecture to marketing and advertising.

        Psychologists argue that as a result of millions of years of evolution, the human perceptual system is largely hardwired, with different visual scenes triggering varying affective states. For example, if early humans came across a stretch of turbulent water or a threatening predator, this triggered negative affective reactions. However, if a visual scene provided opportunities for survival or reproduction, positive affect would be experienced. Geographer Jay Appleton was one of the first to explore mans emotional relationship with the external environment. In Appleton’s theory he states that human beings’ preference for landscapes correlates with two environmental properties, prospect and refuge. The concept of prospect refers to elements within an environment that provide information, such as a landmark to navigate from or hill from which to inspect the surrounding area. In addition, refuge refers to environments that provide shelter, protecting against predators and inclement weather. In short, humans prefer landscapes which consist of a balance of these two environmental properties.

Optus 'Harmony' (2005)

      The African savanna, which is claimed to be the environment in which early humans spent a substantial part of their evolutionary history, appears to display an ideal mix of both prospect and refuge. Scattered trees provide refuge and shelter, while the openness of savannas facilitate the detection of predators and potential game. In addition, most people across cultures and geographic regions instinctively find clear flowing water more beautiful than stagnant water, grassy landscapes more attractive than arid landscapes, and mountains and hills in the distance more attractive than flat terrain. Ultimately, during our evolution certain features of landscape were more adequate for survival and reproduction than others and due to the importance of recognising these visual features, humans have evolved to associate subtle but non-trivial affective states with external environmental properties.

      Importantly, theories regarding human preferences to visual scenes are not limited to those of the sparse African savanna. Kaplan and Kaplan suggest an expanded matrix of visual preference whereby, while people are still largely attracted to environments that are prehistorically survivable, four structural properties of aesthetic evaluation; coherence, complexity, mystery and legibility, also enables an assessment of human preferences for more modern environments. Kaplan and Kaplan describe coherence as the degree to which a scene hands together (the higher the degree of coherence the greater the preference for the scene), legibility or distinctiveness as enabling the viewer to understand or categorise its contents, complexity or the degree of variety within a natural scene, and mystery, the degree to which a scene contains hidden information which entices the viewer to find our more information. In this model, coherence and legibility relate to our understanding of the environment (being able to comprehend what is going on), while complexity and mystery can be considered as aspects of the environment to which someone may be motivated to explore more deeply.

A long winding road evokes mystery and a desire to explore further.

      While evolutionary and environmental psychology is gaining credibility in explaining human behaviour, it is also commonly validated in assessing consumer behaviour and the influence of advertising. Visual representations of nature are widely used in both print and TV advertising to evoke positive emotional associations. However, one thing that our ancestors did not experience was watching TV. In fact, research has outlined that people who spend more time watching particular TV shows are actually more satisfied with their social life and friendships, just as they are if they have more friends. Ultimately, all visual scenes our ancestors saw were real and therefore, when it comes to materials on television, the Savanna Principle tells us that at a deeper level the human brain is tricked and comprehends these images as if they are in natural environment. And, just as humans find it difficult to emotionally distinguish between real friends and those on TV, for brands and products that emulate real and ‘idealistic’ landscapes, the use of certain images will also have a positive impact on consumer associations.

Pure Blonde (2007)

       In a recent Spanish study which assessed consumer attitudes towards advertising it was reported that people were more favourable in their perceptions of ads containing natural scenery than those depicting urban environments or vegetation free scenes, with ads that contained images of free flowing clean water and lush green vegetation also leading to the highest consumer attitudes towards the ad and brand. Thus, through repeated exposure of cohesive advertising images, brands clearly may gain positive emotional conditioning, with brands able to profit off their alignment with idealistic natural settings.

Practical Implications:

      Evolutionary psychology research indicates that marketers who decide to leverage off images of the natural environment can influence the affective states of their consumers. The Savanna Principle provides a theoretical framework indicating that manipulating or tailoring natural images to coincide or deviate from our innate visual preferences, while a seemingly subtle production change, may have non-trivial influences on consumer’s emotional perception of a product, potentially influencing attachment to a product or even brand recall.

        Clearly, it is important for marketers and advertisers to account for, or at the very least acknowledge, innate reactions that have stemmed from our ancestral past. Research indicates that these affective states are foundational to our conscious thinking, and to benefit from thousands of years of evolution, marketers may tailor their campaigns to capitalise on these implicit preferences. By aligning brands and products to content which has been found to influence our affective states automatically and efficiently, such as savanna-like natural scenes, marketers and advertisers may benefit.


Appleton, J. (1975). The experience of landscape. New York: Wiley.

Bell, P. A., Greene, T. C., Fisher, J., & Baum, A. (2001). Environmental Psychology. Orlando: Harcourt Inc.

Hartmann, P., & Apaolaza-Ibanez, V. (2010). Beyond the savanna: An evolutionary and environmental psychology approach to advertising. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 119-128.

Joye, Y. (2007). Architectural lessons from environmental psychology: The case of biophilic architecture. Review of General Psychology, 11(4), 305-328.

Kanazawa, S. (2004). The savanna principle. Managerial and Decision Economics, 25, 41-54.

Kanazawa, S. (2007). The evolutionary psychological imagination: Why you can’t get a date on a Saturday night and why most suicide bombers are muslim. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 1 (2), 7-17.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.