Clotaire Rapaille on the reptilian brain and how the PT Cruiser was born

“My theory is very simple: The reptilian always wins. I don’t care what you’re going to tell me intellectually. I don’t care. Give me the reptilian. Why? Because the reptilian always wins.”

 When the PT Cruiser by DaimlerChrysler was introduced in 2000, its futuristic-retro design created a sensation in the marketplace. Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, French-born psychoanalyst and medical anthropologist, was a major influence in the the design of the car.


He delves into the intellectual, emotional and “reptilian,” or instinctual, reasons why people buy consumer products. He says most companies have scientific data on the wrong problem. Market research will never give you the answers you need and focus groups only give you the answers you want to hear.

One of the problems he had to confront with Chrysler, was its lack of identity in a sea of boring American cars. Rapaille says if you want to create a truly global product, the hot button will be reptilian. How do you get the ‘wow I want it response’? Rapaille argues the reptilian always wins in the marketplace. Evidently we don’t buy cars based on price or colour, we buy based on our reptilian response.

What is the reptilian brain? The reptilian brain, the oldest most primitive part of our brain otherwise known as the amygdala, governs our instincts of attraction and survival. The limbic brain governs emotions (i.e. love and hate), and the cortex governs intelligence, including rationalization (price and money).

Getting that wow response is the root of Rapaille’s work. Rapaille’s technique of “archetype research” stems from the psychoanalytic methods pioneered by the Viennese psychologist Ernest Dichter. This technique doesn’t ask what people want, but why.

Rapaille posits that sublimated emotional memories occupy a place between each individual’s unconscious (Freud) and the collective unconscious of the entire human race (Jung). It is a “cultural unconscious,” which is closely associated with language and therefore differs from culture to culture, country to country.

“When a man and woman have a child, they always have a human being,” he said. “And when an American man and woman have a child they always have a little American. But there are no genes for ‘American.’ So culture is completely acquired. “

The key question relative to designing the car was, “what is the first imprint?” He applies Conrad Lorenz’s theory on ducks and imprinting, to human beings.

“There is always a first time we imprint something, and when we do we create mental highways. We make use of these highways all the time and they become unconscious.” These highways are different from one culture to another. Our first imprint to something, be it a car or coffee (one of Rapaille’s other studies) creates an instinctual response to that object.

To find that first imprint, a prototype car (like the blank from which a key is made) was set down in the midst of a roomful of people. The participants were asked to provide their first impressions of, for example, its size, and the feeling of being inside it. Rapaille then led them through a combination of dreamwork and regression therapy to get their deep responses.

What he uncovered were codes for the way people experience cars and being on the road. These codes were used in the design of the car. Rapaille uses biology metaphors to explain human behaviour– women are the gatekeepers; we control what’s inside and the way things get in; men control the outside and getting out.

The code for the outside of the PT Cruiser is masculine: Mad Max road warrior, Al Capone gangster-it’s a jungle out there. To create a mental connection to the car, it had to have a familiar structure, hence the retro-futuristic design.

The inside of the car on the other hand is feminine. Everything is curvilinear and enveloping. A key feature of the car, is you can completely remove all the seats. You can sleep inside the car — another first reptilian experience in America.

The results of this psychoanalytic creation? In 2000 the PT Cruiser was the hottest selling car on the market, worldwide.

For more about the reptilian brain read the PBS interview with Rapaille