All of what follows should should be nothing more than a truism, known to all marketers: That human decision making is far from rational. It’s been argued, elaborated upon and more rigorously examined by other, far more expert minds.
But there is enough infrastructure, paraphenalia, received wisdom and plain old bad practice to suggest that we need to keep revisiting it.
Homo sapiens 1.0
Whatever Plato and Descartes might have told us – and whatever some marketers might tell themselves – we are at our core, driven not by reason and choice, but by far more ancient, intuitive, and often irrational emotions, impulses and instincts.
Reason and consciousness are but a thin veneer on top of the much older hardwiring and workings of the mind. For all the wonders, sophistication and advances of our modern age, we are still very much homo sapiens 1.0, driven by age old hungers, drives and responses.
Of course the world has changed radically since our mental foundations were laid, and the complexities of modernity work to both exacerbate and frustrate these impulses. And it is in this coming together of the ancient and the modern that the opportunity to overcome indifference lies.
It is perhaps the curse and thrill of every age to believe that we are living through unprecedented change. And we today are no different, seemingly surrounded by change on ever side, both ephemeral and significant. But our story of how to survive and prosper amidst our age’s wonders and complexities begins with what has not changed.
The belief that any one thing (like the internet) or phenomenon will Change Everything Forever encourages us to focus on the superficial surface of things, which do of course change all the time. Yet as the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey reminds us:
Cultural and technical innovations can certainly alter the trajectory of individual human lives. But, while human beings continue to reproduce by having sex and each new generation goes back to square one, then every baby begins life with a set of inherited dispositions and instincts that evolved in the technological dark ages… Let’s dream, if we like, of revolution. But be prepared for more of the same.”
The surface trappings of life and culture may have changed, yet the choices, predicaments and motivations of the characters of Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens are as vividly meaningful and recognizable as they were when audiences first encountered them. The stuff of story, myth, and human biography – love, sex, sacrifice, war, politics, redemption, jealousy, ambition, heartbreak, altruism, heroism – is enduring and universal. As Edward Wilson – one of the world’s most preeminent biologists and naturalists – puts it:
We have created a Star wars civilization, with stone age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
When it comes to understanding those stone age emotions, it is perhaps fair to say that we know next to nothing about how the mind works. This should probably not surprise us. There are after all, 100 trillion constantly changing connections in the brain – more than there are atoms in the entire universe.
In contemplating the mysteries, complexities and marvels of the brain, the psychologist Steven Pinker cites Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘The brain is wider than the sky’:
In its staggering complexity, its explosive combinatorial computation, and its limitless ability to imagine real and hypothetical worlds, the brain, truly, is wider than the sky. The poem itself proves it. Simply to understand the comparison in each verse, the brain of the reader must contain the sky and absorb the sea and visualize each one at the same scale as the brain itself.”
Anybody who claims to have conclusively worked out how the human brain works is either deluded, or a charlatan. Or both.
That said, neuroscience and psychology have begun to open up a small window on what interests and moves us. And what this reveals is that while we have undoubtedly come a long way as a species, we are still very much homo sapiens version 1.0.
A tale of two systems
The notion of ‘evolution’ suggests a process of wholesale change and transformation. In our case from animals, to sophisticated creatures of consciousness and reason. But the story of the the human brain’s development is less one of transformation and more one of accretion, addition, and enhancement.
As a result, the brain is a patchwork of different circuits and structures built upon our original brain. And this is the key point. Our primitive brain and its workings has not disappeared. It still continues to act as the home of our unaware, emotional and intuitive thought processes. Wilson puts it thus:
The more we learn about our physical existence, the more apparent it becomes that even the most complex forms of human behaviour are ultimately biological. They display the specializations evolved across millions of years by our primate ancestors. the indelible stamp of evolution is clear in the idiosyncratic manner in which humanity’s sensory channels narrow our unaided perception of reality. It is confirmed in the way hereditarily prepared and counter-prepared programs guide the development of the mind.”
The older and the newer parts of the brain are enmeshed and wired together. So rather than function as an entirely separate process, what we characterize as ‘reason’ is fundamentally dependent on these more basic and older processes. The implications are significant. For despite all the accomplishments of civilization, our powers of reason are but a thin veneer on top of something much more primitive and instinctive.
The work of the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman for example, has shown how we are capable of two modes of thought, and how our responses and decisions are shaped by the interplay between what he characterizes as ‘System 1’ and the newer ‘System 2’.
System 1 is always on, constantly originating impressions, intuitions, and feelings in response to the outside world’s stimuli for System 2. And as Kahneman’s work has shown, System 1 does not provide us with a clear and objective view of the world, but rather works to edit, filter and interpret it. It actively works to create a coherent pattern of ideas in the memory, enjoys illusions of truth, infers and invents causes and intentions, is biased to believe and confirm, exaggerates consistency, and is more sensitive to changes than to states.
We’ve long been accustomed to think of reason and emotion as being in conflict with one another. Plato started it, characterizing the mind as a chariot pulled by two horses – one well-bred the other obstinate – with the rational brain acting as charioteer, holding the reins and keeping the horses in check and on course. And later we had Freud arguing that the mind was locked in perpetual conflict between the primitive id and the conscious and reasoning ego. And of course the popular notion of a brain ‘divided’ into separately functioning left and right sides endures still in our collective consciousness.
But the truth is that our older mental systems and processes work with the newer ones.
As Kahneman, argues, System 1 provides System 2 with the raw material. And in contrast to System’s 1‘s constant activity, System 2 is fundamentally lazy. Most of the time, it adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification, turning impressions into explicit beliefs and impulses into deliberate and voluntary actions.
Navigating our way past indifference
It was heresy when he first wrote it, but the neuroscientists and psychologists of today are demonstrating quite how prescient the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume was when he declared, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
What Edmund Wilson calls “the indelible stamp of our animal ancestry” is inescapable – “we are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct.” It is impossible for us to escape the inheritance of our genetic and cultural evolution. As Wilson notes, “they shape the way we perceive the world, “the options we open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make.”
So if we want to create demand for our work and overcome the hurdle of indifference, then it is our older nature and selves we must connect with.
Push strategies that rely on brute force can and do work. But creating a pull effect is significantly more efficient. You get a far bigger effect in return for the same amount of effort.
Creating that pull effect – overcoming people’s indifference and creating content that people find interesting, relevant, compelling irresistible, fascinating – demands we connect with System 1 for it is this mental system that interprets and makes sense of the the world.
In other words if we want to involve people in what we create, then we must arouse, interest, and connect with our older brain and more ancient instincts. If you want to move people’s behaviors, you have to emotionally move them. As Dan Wieden put it in an interview, “Just move me, dude.”
(We should distinguish here between stimulus and response. For it is emotional responses that we should be seeking. And there are all manner of ways in which we can evoke that. That might be a well-timed relevant piece of rational information. It might be a brilliantly delivered piece of customer service. And yes, it might be a piece of emotive storytelling).
We can ignore this truth about human nature at our peril. In his analysis of why the Democrats consistently failed to achieve electoral success, the psychologist and political strategist Drew Westen has argued that the root cause of the party’s failure was its insistence on treating the electorate and voting behaviour as being driven by reason and analysis. Consequently according to Westen – and in sharp contrast to what the Republican party had long instinctively grasped – the Democrats inundated voters with the complexities of policy detail, rather than framing them in the context of an emotionally compelling, intuitively appealing narrative.
Westen’s advice for politicians and political strategists is that if you want to influence voting behavior then the key lies in activating the older, emotional brain:
You can slog it out for those few millimeters of cerebral turf that processes facts, figures, and policy statements. Or you can take your campaign to the broader neural electorate, collecting delegates throughout the brain and targeting different emotional states.”
Similarly, the advertising veterans Paul Feldwick and Robert Heath have urged advertisers to let go of the belief that advertising works as a rational communication vehicle. It’s time they argue that advertising professionals recognize that most advertising simply does not work through planting rational messages in people’s memories. Instead, it works to create networks of associations in the brain through visuals, sounds, symbols, music, gestures, context and a host of other things that are too often simply treated as a means of gaining attention or ‘recall’.
While many in marketing- and adland still seem to struggle to accommodate themselves to this truth, the fact of the matter is that people do not rationally process advertising. Advertising, as Feldwick and Heath argue, works through activating the emotional (and usually subconscious) processes of the brain. As they put it, this perspective offers “a more plausible explanation of how 30 seconds of apparent nonsense, watched through half-closed eyes, can affect brand preference and buying behaviour, than the old idea of the ‘selling proposition’.”
Indeed the complexities of our modern age make connecting with our older selves all the more pressing for cultural producers. For the fact that we operate with 1.0 brains in a 3.0 (ever more post-industrial) world inevitably results in tensions, hungers, needs and desires. The rolling back of tradition, the relentless expansion of urbanization, the central place of celebrity in popular culture, the liberation of individual choices, the acceleration of culture, the cataclysms of the last century and the complexities of the current… All of these characteristics of our modern age can both exacerbate our ancient and deep-seated appetites, drives, and impulses as well as frustrate and challenge them.
And where there is a tension, there too lies the possibility of people being not indifferent but actually interested.
It is commonplace to make the distinction between artistic and commercial endeavors. The poet versus the salesman. The painter versus the ad man. Meaning versus entertainment. The gallery versus the shopping mall. The muse versus the market. Commerce versus art. Objectivity versus subjectivity. But these are false distinctions. For as cultural participants – as meaning creators, and weavers of magic – both the artist and the salesman must seek to overcome the challenge of indifference.
And whether our cultural agendas are commercial or artistic in nature, success – creating pull rather than relying on push – lies in finding and understanding the tension between modernity and this older yet enduring version of our selves. For amidst the complexities and paradoxes born of the intersection and struggle between our ancient selves and our modern lives emerges a timeless and indeed inescapable story about who we really are and what we really need, want, and desire.
The science writer Stephen Pinker has made the plea that we see ourselves for what we truly are. Not as products of culture and nurture. Not even as the product of the interplay between nature and culture. But rather, that we see through to our real, fundamental, and universal human nature. Not least of all because it’s a perspective that emphasizes as he puts it, “the psychological unity of our species beneath the superficial differences of physical appearance and parochial culture.”
And if we want to connect with and move people (and however we choose to do that) if we wish to enthrall them, captivate them, seduce them, and yes, move them, then so too must we grasp and embrace our true nature.
Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick, ‘Fifty years using the wrong model of advertising’, International Journal of Market Research, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2008
Nicholas Humphrey, Edge World Question Center, http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_3.html
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (126.96.36.199)
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Stephen Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature
John Ratey, A User’s Guide To The Brain: Perception, Attention, And The Four Theaters Of The Brain
Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion In Deciding The Fate Of The Nation
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest Of The World