1. Perverted By Language

    One of the interesting things about the work I’ve been doing on “behavioural economics” is that thinking about heuristics, dual-system thinking, implicit decisions &c. inevitably leads me into noticing things about the language research and marketing use.

    One gist of the behavioural fashion - I mean no insult in calling it this, fashion is awesome - is that people are poor at recalling or predicting their behaviour, and not as good as we think we are at acting independently or working through stuff cognitively. To balance this, we’re bloody amazing at justifying and explaining stuff. So far so good. But researchers and marketers have evolved a language which makes implicit assumptions about the way we think, plan, and make decisions. Mostly, it assumes that we DO think, plan and make decisions.

    So, for example, the customer journey. Marketing loves journeys, it’s full of journeys. The thing about journeys is that they’re planned to some degree - they have a destination in mind, and probably a route. When they don’t we don’t really call them journeys - we call them “wandering” or “strolling” or “drifting”. Calling a series of brand encounters or whatever a “customer journey” is priming you to think about planning and straightforward routes. But what if the “customer journey” is more like a bumblebee’s apparently erratic flight - complex zig-zags and backtracks guided by triggers we barely understand? And that the plans and touchpoints we talk about are essentially post-rationalisations? It doesn’t seem unlikely!

    Of course you could argue that the “customer journey” is actually an aggregate and an individual’s actions matter as little as the movement of a molecule inside a balloon: the thing gets inflated no matter what. But in that case we’re guilty of pointlessly anthropomorphising data - turning an aggregate into assumptions about individuals which then skew how we communicate with those individuals. We’re scared of ideas and words like reflex or whim, and we shouldn’t be.

    Or take another example: market research’s endless pursuit of “deeper insights”. Research has a real thing for vertical metaphors - we’re forever PROBING, DIGGING, trying to get the “deep” insights, and the deeper they are hidden the truer they must of course be. It’s all tied in with the idea of authenticity (on which don’t get me started…), with our anxiety over how replaceable our knowledge and skills might be, and also reflects what we do in our analysis - going into the data, mining it for patterns and significances.

    Pattern recognition is incredibly important, but I don’t think the hermetic, almost mystical ways people talk about “deep insights” are healthy. To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a “deep insight” I thought was useful. People’s choices may not be the result of anything deep - they are more likely to be entirely shallow. An immediate response - “I don’t know”; “It’s what I always do” - is arrived at quickly and most likely true. Patterns emerge by looking on the surface as well as at depth - we need more horizontal metaphors maybe.

    Even if you’re working in this field you end up slipping back into bad habits. I keep saying “decision-making process”, for instance, even though it’s often as much habit as decision, it’s often not consciously made, and it’s surely not a ‘process’. It’s also true that - because we’re borrowing from academia perhaps - that the emerging language of behavioural research is awfully stiff-necked, full of heuristic this and cognitive that.

    And - let’s be honest - the phrases "system 1" and "system 2" are themselves not exactly instinctively memorable, let alone beautiful. The last great metaphor of mind which revolutionised marketing and research - Freud’s structure of the psyche, which is ultimately to blame for our ‘depth’ fetish - also embedded itself in the culture. Freud’s original formulation - “Es”, “Ich”, “Uber-Ich”, translated as “the It”, “the I” and the “I-Above” - is poetically, instinctively clear. But even the translated forms - “id” and “ego” at least - have become household ideas. It’s difficult to imagine that happening to systems 1 and 2 - a proportion of you are scratching your heads even now - which may be a problem in years to come.

     
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