Lost bets and revealed preferences - RSA

Lost bets and revealed preferences


I’ve got an idea which excites me, but is it right and is there enough substance to be the centre ground of my annual lecture?

I should start with apologies to anyone who followed my tip for the Grand National. If it makes you feel any better, I am pretty sure I would have backed the winner had I not been given the tip, so for me it was a double whammy. And, in terms of penance to the RSA, I am writing this on the way to Bristol and won’t get home until 1.00 am. This means I have plenty of time to repeat to myself the mantra ‘in future, big mouth, keep your useless tips to yourself’.

While Tidal Bay may have unseated his jockey, an e-mail this morning has acted as a spur for the ride towards my annual lecture. It came from my colleague, Ben Dellot, who is undertaking some invaluable background research for the lecture. Ben directed me to this blog post by Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab.

The key paragraph was this:

Marketing can do better. Here's how: Instead of talking down, start listening up.

Here is what I don't mean. Listening up doesn't mean surveilling your customers, and then discovering slightly cleverer ways to trick them (yet again). Listening up doesn't mean holding five thousand focus groups a year, and then price discriminating the daylights out of hapless customers. Listening up doesn't mean delving into mines studded with billions of seams of "data" about "consumers." Listening up definitely doesn't mean techno-stalking people in creepy, weird, and slightly sinister ways.

Here's what I do mean by "listening up."

 The "up" is the really important part. It means having dialogues about what elevates and betters people, what raises them up to higher standards of living, doing, having, and being, what really makes them better of in meaningful ways that matter — and then igniting a movement to make it happen.

A few days ago – in an even more convoluted post than usual - I explored the idea that new thinking about human nature and decision making may have implications for corporate responsibility.

Two different models of man stalked 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.

Human preferences are complex. Our different motivations – what our instincts lead us to do, what we want now, what we want for the future, what we think is right for us and others - rarely line up neatly.  A cacophony of external factors can change the weighting of those motivation, as can we through the people we choose to be.

The economists’ idea of revealed preferences pushed all this stuff into a black box. What we wanted was what we chose, end of.  But however useful this is as a heuristic device (probably not nearly as useful as economists claimed) it has lost all credibility as a sufficient account of human decision making.

The revolutionary consequence is that people who sell things to other people can no longer get away with saying – as has been the cry of hucksters through the ages – ‘we are only giving people what they want’. Instead the question is ‘to which of your many customers' many different motivations are you appealing?  This substantially cranks up the legitimacy and leadership challenge for many businesses.

In my lecture I want mainly to explore the creative potential of this idea for new models of value and business. On the flip side – if you are willing to pass over my double standards – we are back to the Grand National.

Gambling is probably something which most people would associate with our lower motivations. It certainly isn’t easy to justify in terms of rationality or the long term good of the gambler or wider society. Yet over the last few years the gambling industry has successfully invested millions of pounds in a concerted campaign to normalise their industry trying to make it feel just like any other innocent pastime, not a piece of blind irrationality sometimes leading to disastrous consequences for those who get the betting bug. For good or bad, business doesn’t just respond to our choices, it shapes them.

I hardly need say that the fact I may not have written the last paragraph had Tidal Bay won a stunning victory on Saturday rather than throwing off its jockey is evidence of how malleable and irrational our judgement can be - not that I am a sour grape chewing hypocrite.

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles

  • Leading for a brighter urban future

    Joan Munro

    UK Urban Futures Commission Leadership Researcher Joan Munro discusses how long-term government support could help council leaders and their partners move further and faster.

  • Sophie Hague: me and my education

    Sophie Hague

    Sophie Hague, a 2022 Student Design Award winner, explains how design helped to identify the learning techniques that worked for her.

  • Zita Holbourne: Featured Fellow Q&A

    Gamini Sethi

    Zita Holbourne discusses her inspiring work, the fight to achieve equality and representation, success and what it looks like for her, and her advice to aspiring activists.