1. The Story Trap (1): Why Now?

    I started writing a blog post about the relationship between data, power and storytelling, and it became obvious it was too long to post as a single thing. So I’m experimenting with posting it as a series: here’s part 1. The whole piece will end up on Freaky Trigger, in semi-edited form.

    In the last few months, I’ve been involved in an increasing number of conversations about “behavioural economics”. I work for a company which is developing ways of the learnings of this vogueish, elusive discipline to market research, and so a lot of said conversations are about that. But some of them centre on a slightly different question: why now?

    Within research, this question is a particularly sharp one. The idea that if you ask someone a direct question, you won’t always get a correct answer is not new. In fact when I started working in research it was one of the first things drummed into me. Research has blamed a lot of things for this – faulty memory, imprecise questioning, social norms, interviewer effects, and so on. And it’s used an awful lot of tactics to get around this – indirect measurements, qualitative probes, numbingly precise question language. And in a sense, yes, the current bugbear – our innate irrationality – just puts a new costume on the same challenge.

    But that isn’t really what makes the “why now?” question interesting. The behavioural science that writers like Dan Ariely have popularised over the last few years is rooted in studies which span several decades: the cognitive biases that shape human thinking aren’t new discoveries. What is it that’s made their implications so urgent and fascinating to businessmen right now? Why is irrationality hot?

    In one sense, the roots are fairly obvious. The success and celebrity of Malcolm Gladwell at the end of the 90s brought social science into publisher focus: Predictably Irrational and Freakonomics were beneficiaries. So far so frothy, but the knock-on effect meant that more prescriptive titles, like Nudge and The Black Swan, got into the headspace of policymakers and marketers alike. You don’t actually need to look much beyond copycat effects to answer the question.

    But there’s more than that going on. The effect of all these ideas, all this irrationalism on that marketer’s headspace is to give it an intoxicating injection of doubt: ‘consumer behaviour’ – that flat old phrase denoting a smoothly ironed reality – suddenly becomes treacherous and, at the same time, fascinating again. Secret techniques manipulate our choices. Common sense is a lie. World-changing events lurk, dragon-like, at the edges of our models. And this thinking becomes popular at the same time as Western financial stability seems to buckle and corrode.

    Behavioural economics – or the populist cousin of it which invaded airport book racks and business reading lists last decade – tells a double story. First, it tells the story of how unconscious forces and biases act on people – but in revealing this story it’s also beginning a second one: how understanding this can help you master consumer behaviour all over again. This second story – a tale of secret knowledge, a kind of marketing gnosis – is a very old one, but no less seductive for that.

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