eCommerce Psychology: A framework to understanding online shopping

As with most of our behavior, we can stem the patterns from evolution. Shopping is no exception.

Jelle Fastenau | Jul 10, 2018

ecommerce psychology

As with most of our behavior, we can stem the patterns from evolution. Shopping is no exception.

Humans may come in many different shapes, sizes, colors, cultures, and beliefs. But, at the end of the day, we all share one common denominator that ties us all together: evolution.

We all started off in the same spot, on the same Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago. We all share the same instinctive drives that helped our species to get to the point where it is today.

But what’s still left of all those instincts that got us this far - especially when it comes to eCommerce? Are we hardwired to think and behave in specific ways? Are our choices the result of a rich history of natural selection?

At Crobox, we love to take a close examination of what secretly drives our shopping choices and understand all the little quirks of our buying behavior. In our latest edition, we investigate if there is a broad, universal drive that dictates consumer psychology. Based on our insights, we propose a new framework for categorizing online shopping behavior.

Why evolutionary psychology?


By now you’re probably wondering what something as ancient as evolutionary theory has to do with a relatively new phenomenon as eCommerce. I know, it sounds like an odd combination at first. To clear things up, let’s start with a quick 101 on the emerging science of evolutionary psychology.

While evolutionary theory has been around since Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species back in 1859, it has taken more than a century for his school of thought to make the jump over to the field of psychology. In fact, recently, evolutionary psychology has been gaining popularity, but much like Darwin back in his day, the theory hasn’t been without controversy.

For starters, many academics have issues with the lack of verifiability to evolutionary hypotheses, making it impossible to put them to the test. And there are some ethical complaints to be made as well.

Evolutionary psychology makes room for too many deterministic expectations that don’t always stroke current societal norms. A prime example of this is the age-old misconception that all men are providers by nature and women are predestined to look after the offspring.

Taking note of these concerns is important. When it comes to science, nothing should ever be set in stone, and everything is open for scrutiny. Luckily, there are still plenty of upsides left to consider as well.

Evolutionary psychology’s biggest strength is its universality: it identifies shared traits across different groups of people and applies to all all fields of psychology. For a science with so many diverse areas of specialization, it’s useful to have something that helps us to connect the dots.

Evolutionary consumerism

Evolutionary consumerism

(Credit: Jomjakkapat Parrueng)

Now, let’s take a moment to consider how evolutionary psychology can be applied to the area of behavioral economics. For all our choices, financial or not, we can identify both proximate and ultimate motivations.

Let’s say you just bought yourself a fancy new sweater. When asked why you chose this particular one, chances are you’ll come up with one or more proximate reasons. Maybe the color looked flattering on you, or you liked the quality of the fabric. All valid points, but not quite there yet.

Subconsciously, it’s likely you’re driven by a deeper, more primal urge that connects to a hardwired evolutionary goal. In the case of buying clothes, the ultimate goal is often tied up with attractiveness - a fancy sweater could be a display of status, which might increase your chances of finding a mate.  

Which brings us to the keyword of the day: functionality. According to evolutionary theory, all of our actions should in some way contribute to either one of evolution’s goals: survival or procreation. We don’t even have to think about it actively, these are things we just instinctively know to do.

Just like the fight-or-flight response, which you may remember from your high school biology class, is functional for getting us ready for action. There are several tendencies in our shopping behavior that serve an evolutionary purpose as well.

Evolutionary framework for the psychology of online shopping

Evolutionary Pillars

While there are plenty of different proximate reasons for behavior, ultimate reasons are usually limited to a handful. This makes evolutionary motives particularly suitable for categorizing choice behavior.

In fact, there’s already quite a bit of literature out there attempting to do just that and even some that connect evolutionary psychology to consumer behavior. However, there is still some room left for improvement - especially since none of them are particularly suitable for the digital age of commerce.

Taking bits from the existing frameworks, fine-tuning them, and combining the results with a little input of our own, we created a brand new evolutionary framework aimed at online shopping behavior. So without further ado, let’s dive into the four pillars for evolutionary eCommerce!

1. Evolutionary eCommerce: Risk Aversion

Imagine yourself back in the Stone Ages for a second. You’re out scavenging for food and come across a big bush full of berries. Most of the berries look more or less the same: blue, round, roughly the same size. Except for one that is slightly bigger, red, and weirdly shaped. Chances are you’ll take every berry with you, except that last one.

This would make sense, since our first objective in life has always been, well, staying alive. Which means we’re hardwired to steer clear of anything that looks like a possible threat or source of wellbeing.

And while we may not be confronted with as many life or death situations as we were back then, we do instinctively approach things that look too much out of the ordinary or slightly untrustworthy with more caution. Call it our built-in spider-sense.

Risk aversion in online shopping

Nowadays, we mostly find ourselves scavenging from the safety of an electronic device, but that doesn’t mean our spider-sense is lost. The internet can be a dark place full of lies and deceit, so we like to be a 100% sure a place can be trusted with our money.

If the website we’re browsing looks a little too shady or the deal sounds too good to be true, most of us have the common sense to walk away.

And when we do decide to do business, risk aversion will likely still affect our decisions. Generally, when we feel a little unsure, we’ll pick safe, familiar options over riskier ones. After all, we don’t want to lose money on something that might disappoint, do we?

Practical advice

Checkout Trust Symbols

Make your customers feel safe on your webshop. There are many different factors that customers and webshops can take into account to establish feelings of trust.

Eliminate their doubts and concerns:

  • Show you’re a legitimate business by displaying verification marks on your website.
  • Offer a reasonable warranty on your products.
  • Guarantee secure payment options.

In some occasions, it’s not the salesperson the customer refuses to put their trust in but their own decision making ability. Insecurity about which product is right could lead to inaction. This is something you want to avoid.

Direct your customers to the “safest options” by highlighting the products that are known for their quality, fabricated by a well-known brand, or long-time top-sellers.

2. Evolutionary eCommerce: Group Membership

Back in the day, survival was hard enough as is. So why would you do it alone when you could have the help of others? Humans are social creatures by nature, which explains our natural desire to be part of a group.

Not only does it make our lives a little less boring, there are also several strong evolutionary advantages to living in a group. Societies are built on key concepts such as trust, reciprocity, safety, and security.

This means resources and favors can be exchanged for our mutual benefit and that all members have each other's backs, making it easier to defend ourselves from threats.

On top of foreseeing us in our basic needs, group membership comes with a deeper, psychological meaning as well. Being able to call ourselves part of a group is what gives us a sense of identity, belonging, and even a life’s purpose. These are concepts that are generally higher up on Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Living in a society where most of our basic needs like food and security are covered, these are the goals we spend most of our time striving for.

Group membership in online shopping

Perhaps now more than ever, we base our shopping preferences on what others are doing. The internet has significantly decreased our boundaries, making it easy for us to stay up-to-date with the interests of our peers.

Before making a purchase decision, most of us actively seek out the opinions of those within our network - either via social media or by looking up user reviews. The in-group bias bias leads people to value messages that come from people similar to us as more important because buying the stuff that they like will help us to become part of that group or secure our position in it.

On top of that, social proof is a vital persuasion tool for eCommerce. When in doubt, we often go for the products that are most popular. If a lot of others enjoyed the product, it must be the right choice, right?

Practical advice

Product reviews

It goes without saying that it pays to let your customers know what others are doing. Use product tags to point them toward your bestsellers or products recommended by people they admire or identify with.

Display positive user reviews to inform your visitors that others enjoyed your product as well, which will cue social proof and nudge them to purchase. If you happen to have access to their demographic data, display reviews from similar people first (same gender, age, nationality, etc.).

And, if you’re looking to go all the way, try to set up a connection with your audience that goes beyond a simple customer/retailer relationship. Make them like you more by treating them as if you were their friend. Most people prefer doing business with someone who they can relate to.

3. Evolutionary eCommerce: Competition

Cooperating with others is important, but a bit of competition is also healthy. Competition facilitates us in gaining the resources we need to survive and finding a partner to reproduce. These two elements are the core of our existence and have helped us survive and evolve in the manner we have.  

Does the term “survival of the fittest” ring a bell? To have the best chances of survival, we need to stand out in a crowd.  Either by having quicker access to (better) resources or by making ourselves more attractive to potential partners.


Competition in online shopping

Our natural drive to outperform makes us sensitive to specific triggers. For example, we act faster when offers are limited and are attracted to special editions.

On top of that, some seek out expensive goods in hopes of increasing their status. This is called conspicuous consumption - the act of trying to make ourselves look more attractive by showing off our material goods.


Practical advice

Scarcity product detail page

Emphasize the scarcity of the items that are almost out of stock. Using prompts like “Hurry up, only a few left!” or “Act quickly, someone else might take the last one!” will urge your shoppers to order faster.

Alternatively, you might offer your customers a premium membership option that gives them first access to new and limited editions, or unique personalization options that helps them to distinguish themselves from others. Moreover, you can set higher prices for your exclusive products to convince shoppers of its exclusivity.

4. Evolutionary eCommerce: Stress Reduction

Stress reduction is one factor that most of the older frameworks of evolutionary psychology forget to take into account. This, in part, makes sense because life used to be a lot simpler back when we were still living in caves and wooden huts. Our daily activities consisted of hunting for food, making fire, providing for our families, and making sure we didn’t get killed.

Of course, those tasks were so consuming that our ancestors didn’t have much time left in a day to think about anything else. A sharp contrast with today’s society, in which we’re constantly being bombarded with millions of stimuli. On a daily basis, the average person is exposed to over 5,000 advertisements or brand images.

Can you imagine what would happen if you actively tried to take in and process all those shots of information that are being fired at you? It would be exhausting. That’s why our brain (sub)consciously chooses which points deserve our direct attention to reduce the massive cognitive workload that we already have to deal with.

Stress reduction in online shopping

One way to prevent stress overload is to look for the easiest solutions. When it comes to online shopping, most consumers are looking for ways to do just that - making sure our choice process takes as little mental effort as possible.

As such, it’s no surprise we favor simple and easy to understand designs over complex ones with too much information to make sense of. No-one likes to spend hours on a website making sense of how things work nor do we like to put too much time and effort into finding the products we’re looking for.

Practical advice

choice overload product tags

Design your website in such a way that it guarantees your visitors the most streamlined and carefree experience. Luckily, we’ve got you covered there: just read our expert advice on how to design your website to best fit your user fluency.

Another important point of action is preventing your customers from running into choice overload. At Crobox, we often recommend using product tags to highlight several products on your overview page. Alternatively, you could consider making use of a chatbot to guide your users through their buying process.


That’s it folks, your go-to guide for understanding the evolutionary drives behind our online shopping behavior. We know, it’s a lot to take in at once - to be fair, there was about a few hundred thousand years of human history to condense in a single blog post - so to make things easier, here’s the quick rundown:

  • Consumers have both superficial, proximate reasons and deeper, ultimate reasons underlying their shopping choices and behavior.
  • While the scientific field has its flaws, evolutionary psychology can be a useful tool to narrow down a wide range of behaviors to a handful of hardwired behavioral tendencies universal to all people.
  • We propose a new framework for categorizing online shopping behavior based on four (modern) evolutionary pillars: risk aversion, group membership, competition, stress reduction.


New call-to-action