Advertisers spend much effort psychoanalyzing consumers, trying to understand why consumers make the decision they do.
It is rare that they turn those same analytical tools on themselves—to understand why they make their own decisions, especially when those decisions have led to trouble.
There is much to be learned in an honest study of how advertisers can make wrong choices in their work. Too often, advertisers look at the past with rose-colored glasses or with the intent to place blame elsewhere for the failures they have experienced. They have a hard time looking truthfully into themselves for the sources of their own troubles. Advertising is about image, after all.
While advertisers tend to lack introspection about their failures, other professions do not. In the last 40 years, the study of failure has grown into robust line of scholarship fed by the efforts of military strategists, physiologists, engineers, survivalists and economists.
The insights garnered from this scholarship have a lot to say about how to improve decision making by advertisers. This is especially true for those insights concerning how to avoid the common psychological underpinnings of poor decision making.
What has emerged from the study of failure is an understanding that a great number of our failures result from the very psychology underlying human decision making. That process, while appearing rational in the moment, is often prone to lapses of judgment created by instinctual and emotional responses, which can sow the seeds of disaster for otherwise sound endeavors.
One key to doing better advertising is to avoid this kind of unsound decision making by being aware of it and learning to second-guess it. We need to remember that like our consumers we are creatures governed by both rational and emotional minds.
Understanding the Psychology of Mistakes
The human mind works in odd ways. While being capable of very logical thought, our mind is equally capable of being driven by emotions and instinct.
There is a good reason for this dual nature. The world we live in is just too complex to navigate using pure logic alone.
The human mind has dealt with its information overload problems by allowing for the creation of mental shortcuts for decision making that require no explicit logic. This cognitive trick works by handling a countless number of decisions in our lives using hardwired responses and learned emotional cues, called somatic markers, while reserving the mind's more labor-intensive logical faculties for involved problem solving
These somatic markers act like crib sheets for decisions in order to keep our minds free to do other things.
This solution is a mixed blessing. Although they are very effective, somatic markers are very prone to decision errors, especially when we are under stress or when our logical facilities become taxed.
They rely on a coarse matching of stimuli to response, which can readily misinterpret stimuli resulting in improper responses to a situation. It is in these moments that trouble can result and we can begin to make some very stupid decisions despite all our better judgment.
Furthermore, our hardwired instinctual responses were developed in a past environment of hunter-gatherer adaptation that is not reflective of our present world. That means they are often poorly situated to provide correct responses in the environment in which we work today.
Once created, somatic markers are capable of directing the human mind and body to do a set of actions if an appropriate stimulus is received and the logical mind does not intervene. The complexity of the resulting action can range from simply feeling good about something to doing very complex tasks.
If you have ever "spaced out" while driving your car, you have experienced how your mind can go into its autopilot mode and handle a fairly complex task without needing your higher powers of reason.
Just like Pavlov's dog creating an emotional connection between a bell and the anticipation of food, people are constantly creating emotional cues as they go through their days linking stimulus to response.
If a decision we make leads to a positive result, we will bind a good feeling to the memory of that decision; and, in the future, if we have a chance to repeat a similar decision, we will be emotionally disposed to it. The reverse is true of decisions with negative results.
These mental cues can be very hard to ignore once they have been ingrained.
Their strength was brought home to me a number of years ago when I was driving along a familiar stretch of road only to come upon a newly installed stop sign. Despite the fact that I saw the sign and understood it, the unconscious part of my mind still drove through the intersection without stopping.
The world had changed, but my mental map of it had not, which resulted in a conflict between my rational and unconscious minds. My unconscious mind won, and I almost had an accident.
Normally, these mental markers allow us to make countless sound decisions in our lives without needing to use higher-level logic; and, more often than not, that's a very adaptive and successful approach to our complex lives. But not always.
The risk of relying upon somatic markers is that, especially under stress, wrong decisions can be easily made, without realizing it, as our minds go on autopilot and fail to think through the facts at hand. We can become suddenly blind to logic. The actions we are taking might feel completely right, but in objective reality they are clearly leading us right into disaster.
Many of troubles that we experience regularly in advertising result from this very psychological phenomenon, when our emotional memories and hardwired instincts work to mask our sound judgment.
One key to doing better advertising lies in improving our understanding, use and management of our emotional selves.
Most of us have a hard time admitting that we are not fully in control of our decisions. The culture of business today tends to look down on signs of weakness in its practitioners, so the idea of emotions affecting our ability to reason clearly is not easily swallowed. This is especially true for advertising, where image is king.
Regardless of what we want to accept, the truth is that emotions are inseparably part of who we are, and therefore these emotions are part of how even the most logical of us make decisions.
Note: Next week, part two of this article will go into detail about how these limitations of the human mind can negatively affect our advertising efforts—and what can we do to limit their undesired influence.