Companies, consumers and comic turns


  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain

I spent some of the bank holiday weekend working on my annual lecture. Regular readers (hi mum, really looking forward to watching you get your civic award from Southwark this weekend ) will know there have been a few false starts along the way, but I have a pretty clear plan now and have even written quite a lot of the first draft.

The basic thesis is that behaviour change is an important new territory – and opportunity - for corporate initiatives. Although conventional economists have argued that human motivation need only be understood in terms of revealed preferences (what we do and what we buy) and that such preferences should therefore be assumed to be rational and self-interest maximising, very few people who actually study human behaviour agree.

There are very many versions of the idea that selves are modular or made up of competing systems (a sharp critique of modular reductionism appears in the current LRB).   However, we don’t need to be brain scientists or psychotherapists to agree

(a) that there is often a difference between what we want now, what we want for the future and what we think is the responsible thing to do


(b) in some cases we find it hard to change our habits, do the right thing or think straight even when we want to.

The nature of consumerism is - as Neal Lawson pointed out in his book ‘All Consuming’ and ‘John Naish in his ‘Enough’ (both featured in past RSA events) – that it relies on persuading us that we want and need more stuff, indeed that we should feel unhappy because we haven’t yet got enough stuff.  The problems with this are pretty obvious. Everyone endlessly having more stuff isn’t sustainable, especially on a global scale. Beyond a certain level it simply isn’t true that having more stuff makes you feel better about yourself. And status competition based on having enough stuff causes lots of problems from playground bullying to excessive personal debt.      

So those who rely on consumers to make a buck need to think pretty hard about how they can encourage forms of consumerism which are better for people and better for the planet. The case for how businesses help us to be better, more fulfilled, people in a way which works commercially is a big – but as yet insufficiently convincing - part of the draft speech.

Ironically, one problem for businesses in trying to do the right thing is precisely the cognitive frailties which consumerism plays upon. So, for example, our limited attention span leads us to compare the headline price of an item (which can give us the warm feeling that we have been clever enough to spot a bargain) rather than the hidden charges. This incentivises companies to treat us badly and makes the idea of a creative relationship between companies and customers seem like idealistic pie in the sky.

All of which is just a huge rationalisation for encouraging you to watch this.

It’s tough to go back to work after all the holidays and celebrations so here’s something to make you smile through the sweat and tears.

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