Behavioural Economics

I have left it too long to write about this new, fashionable school of psychology. I believe its fascination is based upon the appearance of marrying strict experimental procedure with acknowledgment of the effects of drives and forces which lie outside of awareness on our everyday thoughts and actions.

This is something we are all only too aware of: “I can’t imagine what came over me. I never push in normally!” Such realisations are very common, almost daily events.

So, to have a discipline that acknowledges and accounts for these forces is both comforting and allows a whole new audience to access and use the magic of psychology.

Two particularly successful ideas from Behavioural Economics are much favoured by marketers as they seem to reflect so accurately what marketing is aiming to do: to influence. These are nudging and priming; ideas that a gentle shove will push people into doing what they may already be inclined to do anyway, and that creating appropriate feelings before you meet a marketing message or opportunity, may increase your chances of striking a chord with customers. People who are already feeling warm are more likely to feel warm towards your offer.

This is not much different from the favourite maxim of NLP: Match > Pace > Lead which set out to explain how the process of influence worked in practice.

For me Behavioural Economics is really Applied Social Psychology, powered by some very elegant experimental demonstrations and some acute thinking, particularly from the mind of Daniel Kahneman. I am most fond of Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking, detailed in his wonderful book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

In this modern digital world, somehow thinking fast seems the cooler of the two: less time wasted, less fuss, less ambivalence, faster results. Yet, paradoxically, thinking fast (System 1) turns out to be not really thinking at all. Rather it is responding using embedded patterns and associations that have been practiced in the past in response to apparently similar triggers. Largely, these patterns operate outside of consciousness, yet my experience shows that with careful facilitation they remain accessible to analysis by consciousness even though the results are not always flattering. Our System 1 often turns out to be knee‐jerk reactions, more appropriate to other goals, or other times or places.

In branding, System 1 patterns are usefully thought of as embedded brand associations, which can be accessed by both conscious and unconscious routes. Wishing to appear cool, decisive and timely, we are prone to rely upon System 1, hardly realising that it is not a choice at all ‐ at least in the conscious, cognitive sense.

It may be that for 95% of actions and decisions System 1 reactions work as well as they did last time, so in this way we are all slaves of our past successes, unconsciously repeating the patterns that we have used before. But I would advocate that qualitative researchers always explore the embedded brand associations before introducing new material.


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