Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Propagandists and marketers agree: emotions may be more reliable when making choices

Here's yet another "study" that purports to show "gut reactions" are "better" than logical analysis in decision making. (Recent discussions of this are here, here, here.)

It's about how sales and marketing people and propagandists have learned to take advantage of your emotions for their own benefit.

Of course, that's not how it's presented....

Note the bait-and-switch technique going on in the research report: "reliability" is what the study seems to promise, but the fine print says that what you actually get is consistency.

Admittedly, "reliability" and "consistency" are nearly synonymous in terms of outcomes that marketing people want. But they may not be synonymous at all in terms of what decision-makers (i. e. you) want.

Trust Your Heart: Emotions May Be More Reliable When Making Choices (2/23/09)
"We investigated the following question: To what extent does relying on one's feelings versus deliberative thinking affect the consistency of one's preferences?" write the authors. To get at the question, the authors designed experiments where participants studied and chose among 8-10 products, sometimes relying upon their emotional reactions and sometimes calling upon cognitive skills. Their conclusion: "Emotional processing leads to greater preference consistency than cognitive processing."

Beware of marketing people who presume to advise you about, well, almost anything. But especially about either research conclusions or products they want to sell you.

Note the basic – and rather flagrantly expressed – dishonesty.

On one hand, the objective summary that the researchers offer of their study is: "Emotional processing leads to greater preference consistency than cognitive processing." In other words, the benefit attributed to reliance on emotion for decision making is consistency.

This isn't all that surprising: when people just go with their "gut feelings", the result is more likely to be the same each time the same decision is presented than if the actual specifics of the situation, which may vary from case to case, are analyzed.

This is also the outcome that marketers naturally prefer: predictable, consistent responses to marketing pitches.

But on the other hand, and this is the dishonest part, the authors also write "Indeed, our results suggest that the heart can very well serve as a more reliable compass to greater long-term happiness than pure reason."

This is a specious claim: where in their study did the researchers actually measure the happiness that experimental subjects experience as a result of their choices, as opposed to the consistency of the choices?

In other words, the unspoken idea they're pushing is actually this: you will enjoy more happiness if you allow your decisions to be determined according to how marketing has manipulated your emotions. (E. g.: Just go ask your doc for that Viagra prescription and have more fun in bed! And don't worry about whether your real problem in bed is something Viagra doesn't fix.)

If you think there may be some logic to that, just ask yourself whether letting yourself be manipulated by the greed of others is a good path to your happiness.

The sad truth of human behavior, despite illusions that humans are "rational" creatures, is that emotions are quite often much stronger motivators than reason. And they are generally a lot easier to control and manipulate than rational thinking about facts and logic.

As a result of that, people who stand to profit or otherwise benefit from the actions or beliefs they are able to persuade others to embrace have made a concerted effort, first of all, to persuade people that decisions are best made on an emotional basis.

What's their alternative, if facts and logic do not support whatever such people are advocating? They can always simply lie or engage in misdirection, and that's often done too, of course. But lies can occasionally be exposed, and in extreme cases can even be subject to prosecution (for fraud).

Think I'm making all this up? I suggest reading about one of the masters of propaganda techniques in the 20th century: Edward Bernays. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and literally wrote the book: Propaganda.

Here's how that book begins:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized…

I'll try to summarize some of the history and thinking of Bernays when time permits, but here are some things to read for now, if you're interested:

Stunt Man – book review of a biography on Bernays

Karl Rove & the Spectre of Freud’s Nephew – an essay on Bernays by Stephen Bender

Tags: ,

Labels: , , ,

Links to this post:

Create a Link


Post a Comment

<< Home