Noam Chomsky asked a question on free will.
This blog post is my response to Tom Rhodes who responded to a short piece I wrote in Marketing. Here is Tom’s response. My initial article – Why Marketers should beware the rise of Neuro-B*llocks in Marketing is here . Thanks Tom, I hear you and not a bad summary of my article at all. I am not sure even if we disagree on much really?
Just to be clear it is not as if I don’t believe in cause and effect – determinism. In fact I think marketers may have a problem with this see here.
Determinism exists in fact, it always has, but is it compatible with free will? Or is what you doing right now simply a consequence of the big bang?
What I think some neuro-marketers sometimes fail to grasp is that our minds are products of society and not just physical entities i.e. biology. They may fail to understands determinism as being caused by history, politics and economics.
We are both objects and subjects.
And in a sense although our minds and thoughts are private creations (you can’t hear me think can you? Please say no) our thoughts are effected by what happens to us within society and our individual interpretation of those events which are both private and once again according to our personal interpretation of the norms of our culture. So do we own our thoughts can we make choices. Many neuroscientists say no and many Philosophers say yes – See Dennett v Harris. If you were looking for an easy answer I am afraid we are still stuck – the meaningless universe didn’t come with one – damn.
Their debate is the best in town. Dennett even pulls out the slam-dunk of a comment regarding Harris’ work – ‘Not even wrong” – that was uncalled for by the way. In fact some of his comments do not cover him in glory especially as they are friends and 2 of the remaining 4 horseman along with Dawkins.
Anyway when it comes to marketing rather than talk about say how a product or brand fits into one life today in modern culture – there maybe a tendency for modern-day marketers instead to focus on what effect advertising has on the material brain (at least in a lab) rather than its immaterial thoughts. Not how do we explain a benefit say but how do we trigger an emotional response like that of love in the amygdala.
They’re mad for the amygdala aren’t they Tom? We have all see the amazingly coloured fMRI scans haven’t we in the press with captions like – chocolate just like sex – drinking coke just like meeting your best friend and so on. All out of social context. It’s all what and no why?
Why even improve products at all – just make the advertising or brand stories better as long as the amygdala lights up we are happy – we are home and dry right?
So marketers could be led to think that if an ad (or brand story) lights up the brain in the same place as love or any other desired emotion then bingo. But importantly that does not understand emotions in context that only humans can really do. It is under valuing what it means to be human and have emotions. It is like the common idea today that people love brands, They don’t. People are not even half as loyal to brands as marketers would like them to be- see Byron Sharp.
And yes it does scare me – not because it is unsexy – but because the end conclusion of writers (who I really enjoy reading btw) like Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore. Which is we can’t really have moral responsibility. That we are not really author of our actions and their logic seems very good, doesn’t it? And why would they make their cases as Chomsky points out anyway?
In times where people have no faith in human agency or progress and where people don’t trust others or even themselves it seems these ideas have traction.
Today way too often humans are seen as viruses with legs or only motivated by self-preservation or greed. We live in times where human agency and potential is not celebrated, so to abandon free will and the subjective quality of humans is more in line with already fashionable thinking that scientific fact.
So what if nobody is really responsible for their actions – not really really. Is that a moral problem for how we organise ourselves in society – particularly say in law or even in marketing agencies – why should anyone really get promoted rewarded or fired?
So I think there needs to be more dare I say philosophical discussion about whether we should treat people as zombies or autonomous decision makers.
Has neuroscience added that much to the ancient philosophical debate on persuasion? Well, yes, yes it has let’s be clear about that – but it’s easy misinterpretation may hinder more than it clarifies if people (what they call consumers) are viewed as biological objects rather that thinking subjects.
And way more importantly the effect that fMRI scans will have on treating brain diseases is and will continue to be phenomenal. In fact I think its effect will be more on treating humans as objects than subjects, if that makes sense.
Finally freedom arises from the ability to reason and overcome impulses, to be able to think twice. So freedom is not behaviour that is undetermined but actions that have been chosen over others and that one is responsible for. Freedom is linked to our ability to think rationally something that much of advertising backed by neuroscience and cognitive scientist are fashionably saying we lack. If we were never rational and reasoning we would indeed lack free will giving way to impulses.a ad never learning from our mistakes. The reason why it is worth defending (choice and free will) is because it is freedom and choices and improvements that creates a better world.
So early beer on a Friday or do more work and stick to my drink free January?