The Real Why. The Real Who
Christopher Graves, President and Founder of Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science, shares in this article how to use science to understand what consumers are thinking.
Brains Today Operate Pretty Much The Same Way They Did 40,000 Years Ago
In the communications industry, we are always creating profiles of our audiences so that we can better communicate with them. But most of the time, we are going about it all wrong. We are much too general.
Utilizing behavioral science allows us to be more specific, and build a more accurate picture of individuals, letting us know how they think and why they act, and thus, how we can reach them.
Our brains today operate pretty much the same way they did 40,000 years ago, when humans first began to develop concepts such as art and advanced language. Our minds at that time were wired for the needs of basic survival of ourselves and our species. Our priorities were to fight enemies, flee danger, reproduce, and eat.
Of course, today we face a completely different world and have many different and more complex challenges in our lives. But our fundamental thinking patterns remain unchanged.
Unlike a computer, we can’t simply update our software, so what can we do? Well, we can start by better understanding how and why we think and act the way we do.
Science shows that the most powerful part of the brain is the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that houses the 「 fight or flight 」reflex – it’s all about survival. This survival instinct, along with our other instincts, is the main driver behind our actions.
We like to imagine that we are logical creatures, but most often, we make our decisions based on instinct and emotion, and then use logic to make these decisions appear rational.
In our lives, our decisions are guided by many hidden biases:
- Gain Frames and Loss Frames
We value avoiding loss 2 to 3 times more than we value gaining. So most often, it is more effective to convince someone by emphasizing the risks of them not making a decision, than it is to emphasize the benefits of doing it.
- The Identifiable Victim
We are more impacted by people rather than data, and more impacted by a single individual than by a group. For example, to demonstrate the strength of its ecosystem, Google ran a very successful campaign telling the story of a dad using Google’s interconnected services to preserve the memories of his daughter.
- Power of Group Identity
We all have a strong desire to belong to a group, to fit in. In one experiment, a psychologist found that when all six people in a group of seven gave an obviously wrong answer to a question, the last person chose the same answer, even though this person knew it to be wrong. Brain scans have shown that the feeling of being outside of the group activates the part of the mind connected to physical pain.
- Confirmation Bias
We tend to accept facts that agree with what we already believe, and ignore those that don’t fit our worldview. The secret to breaking through this is connected to the power of group identity mentioned above. If you want to convince someone to change their mind, first establish a connection and identify yourself as a member of their group, so they will see you as an ally, not an enemy.
- Concrete vs. Abstract
We believe and remember concrete examples rather than abstract concepts. Consider how Donald Trump’s bold statement "I will build a wall" compared to other presidential candidates vague talk about new laws and policy reforms. This is something that all of us can easily learn from, but what often holds us back is the fear that speaking too frankly will not sound eloquent or wise enough.
Personalities Never Change Insights and Challenges
While nearly all of us are affected by these biases, it is of course not so simple to say that we all think the same way. Our personalities also determine a great deal about how we think and how we process information.
Personality Science has identified five characteristics that largely define our personalities: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Where we are on the spectrum of more/less open, conscientious, extraverted, etc. says a lot about how we act and think in general. Likewise we are also guided in large part by our Cultural Cognition: whether we are more hierarchical or egalitarian, and whether we are more individualist or communitarian. By knowing these things about an individual, or group of individuals, we can get a clearer picture of their outlook and values, so we know how to communicate with them better.
But while today, behavioral science provides us with these powerful new insights and tools, we are also being confronted with unprecedented challenges.
Today, we are living in a post-truth era. Lies go faster, farther, and deeper than the truth on social media, and one study has shown that false information is 70 percent more likely to be shared than correct information. What’s even more concerning, when confronted with the fact that they have been sharing false information, many people express that they don’t really care.
We are seeing the technological ability to create Deep Fakes, realistic photos and videos that are entirely fabricated. 'Bullshit Receptivity' has become a phrase showing up in academic research, as scientists attempt to determine what kind of people are most likely to be duped by fake news. But in reality, all of us are susceptible.
A second related problem is the death of expertise. We no longer trust authorities and institutions, and seek out information that fits our worldview without considering its accuracy.
So, what can we do?
The first step is simply awareness. Know what threats are out there. Understanding what we think and why we think it. Teach our children critical thinking skills and media literacy starting from an early age. And practice being a better communicator.