Behavioural Economics (BE) dominates the strategic thinking in many agencies today. Hardly surprising, as BE focuses on human behaviour being non-rational / emotional. Much of modern advertising focuses solely on eliciting emotional responses via brand advertising over product features and benefits.
Perhaps BE, over recent years, has done a too good a job at reminding those of us who are interested in human behaviour that people aren’t completely rationally actors? Although the suggestion that previous to BE thinkers claimed people were solely rational actors, is really a straw man, set up by followers of BE, very few theories on human behaviour have seen people as purely rational beings.
Has BE surpassed its usefulness to remind us that we are both emotional as well as rational decision makers? Has it tilted the scales so much that now we have a situation where we are staring at binary thinking? I.e. we are emotional beings that can’t be rational but in fact only post-rationalise our decision-making to fit our emotional thinking. As Daniel Kahneman might say System 2 simply rationalises the decision made by System 1. There is no way to disprove whether someone is post rationalising or not.
BE is the most common way that scientism can be seen at work in agencies today.
Scientism subscribes to two main issues, that science can explain everything (including human consciousness and behaviour) and secondly the appearance of science where there is none.
The scientific method of forming a hypotheses and testing it over and over to attempt to disprove it is what scientism lacks. Scientism is the daddy of confirmation bias, where a belief searches for evidence to support it, not to disprove it. That’s not science.
A scientific theory must show a method where by it can be disproved. It is replicable.
BE calls on psychological experiments that often struggles to be replicable, in fact many of the effects / biases that BE describes have a replication crisis. And yet some agencies and marketers depend on them as if they were scientific.
Because science is held in such high esteem, some agencies attempt to appear scientific in their presentation of insights in pitches, despite the lack of the scientific method used to derive those insights. This is a problem because they may well end up selling advertising that has little chance of working in the real world.
It’s ancient thinking to know that it isn’t one or the other, emotional or rational – but both. Style and substance. Or as Aristotle would have it logos and pathos.
The problem is that the heuristic thinking that people use to make quick decisions are idiosyncratic. However, on some occasions we think decisions through better than others. Often depending on the size of decision itself. And sometimes our heuristics are quite good and other times they fail us.
If agencies really believe that people are largely emotional decision makers then they will end up making work that is style over content, ring any bells, and fails to understand the plethora of problems a brand faces to grow. Advertising will focus solely on being emotive with zero rational content so brand owners may well forgo product development, subscribing to the belief that people are not ever attracted by features or benefits. If agency teams don’t consider features and benefits at all when writing briefs but solely focus on people buying emotionally, then why should brands develop their products? Which is what brands have actually done successfully to help them grow historically.
If agencies want to be able to appeal to all departments within a brand and compete with the rise of management consultancies they would be more successful in pitches if they made that case that people are both emotional and rational decision makers.
Finally, who really wants to be advised by someone who doesn’t believe at all in rational thinking?
Next open course, Structured Thinking and Presenting – 14th and 15th September. Bisham Abbey, Marlow. £550 per person (exc. VAT)