Because I'm worth it


  • Social brain

Our desires, aspirations, and impulses often lead in different directions. Having had a hard week, and feeling a bit sorry for myself, my lunchtime desire was a pepperoni pizza while I knew I ought to have a salad (without the dressing). But when I got to the sandwich shop something about the marketing led me to the till with a tuna melt.

My lunchtime dilemma could be mapped on to a simplified Freudian distinction between ego (what I want), super-ego (what I think I ought to have) and id (what my instincts lead me to). Speaking yesterday, at RSA Thursday, Psychology Professor Robert Kurzban described the multiple modalities of the brain to explain why, in the words of his book title, ‘Everyone (else) is a hypocrite’. Kurzban argues not only that the different modalities lead us to be inconsistent but that we have evolved to be blind to our own failings while loudly critical  of others’ hypocrisy.

The complex, unpredictable and even internally contradictory nature of human decision making is obvious to any intelligent human being. It is also inconsistent with the views of conventional economists. Free market theory suggests that individual wants are at some level unitary and predictable. The need to defend this myth led generations of economists to develop more and more contrived and futile formulaic sieves in which to try to catch the fluid matter of human desire.  Thus to this view, time, love, guilt, status can all –like money - be given a fungible quantitative weighting in order that human motivation should be reduced to the simple pursuit of perfectly informed self-interest.

As Rory Sutherland has entertainingly opined in various places, advertisers are well aware of the complex nature of human desire. Some businesses, for example, pension or insurance providers, are selling something which requires us to think long term (although they often appeal to our short term desire to buy a cheaper product), but the goal of most advertising is to persuade us to want something and to satiate that want by buying it now.

So two different models of man stalked our our corporate corridors. While business leaders, generally being inclined politically to the right, signed up to the myth of homo economicus, their marketing departments had to deal with human beings as they actually are. This enables businesses selling things of dubious social value (fatty foods, cheap booze, expensive credit, crap financial products, shoddy goods bound to fall part or go quickly out of date) to use homo economicus to claim they are merely responding to revealed preferences while their marketeers are busy getting inside our heads creating those preferences out of the many other possible intentions we may have had.

Subliminal advertising is the process of flashing up images in films so quickly that the conscious mind doesn’t register them but we unconsciously react (for example, it was claimed that flashing a frame of a chilled drink in a warm cinema would lead people to rush to the bar). Whether it works has been a matter of continuing speculation but, surely, banning subliminal advertising is a ludicrous idea? Nearly all sophisticated advertising is, at least in part, subliminal. It uses the techniques of social psychology and the insights of behavioural economics to rearrange what Sunstein and Thalor (of Nudge fame) call our ‘choice architecture’. To give one example, '95 % fat free' sounds healthier and more appetizing than '5% made of fat'.

These fiercely unoriginal thoughts have occurred to me as I ponder a possible speech about corporate responsibility in the Big Society.  It seems that we might finally be burying homo economicus (perhaps in a coffin made from the papier mache of pulped unread papers by neo-classical economists?). But will a growing public awareness of the idiosyncratic, malleable nature of human desire lead to greater scrutiny of the messages pumped out by retailers, and greater pressure on those firms to engage our longer-term more socially benign aspirations as well as our short term individualistic wants? After all, if we can go in twenty five years from virtually no to virtually all milk drinkers buying semi-skimmed (as distinct from full fat), surely we can, in a tenth of the time, go from almost nobody to nearly everybody buying fully recylclable mobile phones?

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