In the first part of this two-part article, we discussed how the emotional side of the human brain can subtly influence our decision making as advertisers, despite all of our logical capacity. The human mind is governed in part by emotional memories that can easily lead us to make problematic choices in our work, despite all our efforts to be rational.

The negative impacts of this psychological reality on advertising decision making are widespread, but some common macro-level themes are readily discernable:

  • A pathological attachment to plans regardless of reality

  • A tendency to distort facts that contradict existing beliefs

  • A propensity to become frozen in our decision making during crisis

Plan Fixation

Plans are an important part of doing advertising. Without planning, advertising would be doomed to just stumble around hoping to get it right.

Plans provide us the rigor to achieve our goals and keep ourselves on a gainful path. Where plans get us into trouble is when we become so attached to them that we are unable to see clearly the moments when they are letting us down.

I have seen this happen countless times in my advertising career: the marketing team continues to execute a plan long after it becomes clear that the campaign it defines is not working (and is definitely not worth saving). It seems, in such moments, that many of us have a hard time cutting our losses and moving on.

Our tendency to become deeply attached to our plans comes from an innate emotional drive within to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. This drive appears to be hardwired right into the mammalian brain, specifically the amygdala region, which is within the temporal lobe and is related to the emotions of fear and curiosity.

This section of the brain appears to reward us for achieving our goals and punishes us for missing them, which tends to make us goal obsessed as a species. This feedback mechanism also tends to create a bunch of somatic markers that make us feel good about striving for and reaching our goals.

It's a mixed blessing. These cues for goal seeking will motivate us toward enacting our plans and succeeding. But this same emotional motivation can cloud our reasoning if things do not go as planned.

It is easy for us to go on autopilot in our goal seeking and not question our actions. Given our emotional selves, we are prone to continue seeking goals regardless of whether they remain relevant to our success, or are even achievable, as our plans confront reality.

Reality has a way of making our plans fall short. When I used to work as a geographer, we joked that the only true map of the world is the world itself. Plans have the same relationship that maps have to reality. Both are mere representations of an existence too complex to model perfectly.

The Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was one of the first strategists to recognize this important truth about plans versus their execution. He gave a name to difference between plans and reality: friction.

Friction is at work everywhere around us, spelling trouble for the smooth execution of our plans. It takes the shape of chance happenings, miscommunication, misaligned assumptions, and a host of other forms that challenge our execution of plans at every turn.

With our intense focus on the end goal, we are prone to ignore the friction inherent to our efforts and continue along toward our intended goal as if that friction does not exist. Our minds are capable of doing this even when reality has deviated fully from what was expected.

This attachment to plans kills plenty of hikers and climbers every year who follow their plans to their deaths despite the warning signs all around them. They become so attached to their intended paths that they disregard the impending storm clouds closing in on them, forget their training, and engage in actions they rationally know to be unsafe.

This is what kills many climbers on Mount Everest, specifically. Those fateful climbers, like the ones described in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, become so fixated on their plans of reaching the highest summit in the world that they soon disregard their safety protocols and what are otherwise clear indications of fatal danger.

Plenty of good advertising is killed the same way. And our precious marketing budgets are squandered in the process. We can find ourselves in a place where our original plans for a campaign will need to be abandoned, but we are emotionally unable to do so.

In my experience, it is the rare advertiser who can readily overcome these internal forces trying constantly and unconsciously to move us to some arbitrary end point. Friction happens, and if it gets really bad there is no rational reason to throw more good money after bad. Yet, we need to watch out for our emotional desire to keep doing just that.

The Distortion of Unexpected Truths

The tendency to become pathologically attached to plans is often enabled by another feature of our minds, which is our ability to distort or fully ignore information that does not fit our existing understanding of the world.

The human mind has a marvelous capacity for sorting noise from signal within the volume of information it receives. The mind learns through experience what constitutes important stimuli, and uses this learning to enable a series of mental cues to either focus our attention to a stimulus or become blind to it.

Additionally, stimuli that make it past this initial noise/signal gateway are pre-processed in a manner akin to data normalization for direct marketing, which further cleanses the input of even more supposed noise before any information reaches our conscious mind.

The upshot of the wonderful noise filtering capabilities of our minds is that we cannot fully trust our senses, since our logical mind is not receiving its information in a raw format and without bias. It is very easy for our minds to discard important information we are receiving if the pattern of that information is novel or otherwise deemed unworthy by our unconscious mind.

I remember, a few years ago, having a meeting with a senior account director to discuss a statistical analysis I had done of one of her relationship programs. The program was understood to be a success, but my analysis revealed that consumers, once in the program, did not act in any way remotely as intended.

Most distressingly, this analysis indicated that beyond the acquisition numbers the program was failing dramatically to meet every one of its other myriad goals, including its ultimate goal of creating a long-term advertising relationship with consumers.

After presenting my case, the director smiled crookedly at me and said that I was wrong. The program really was a success despite everything I was saying. Pushing aside all of my objections, she kept saying, “It's a success… just take a look at the acquisition numbers.” It was as if her mind was choosing to see only what she wanted to see, and it really did not matter what evidence I had to the contrary.

What I had experienced in that frustrating meeting was a classic example of the human mind being unable to accept new information that contradicted an existing belief. The account director understood her program as successful, so she became blind to any new insights that countered that established view.

She could see and hear only those facts that reinforced what she knew already to be true. Her mind had filtered out what was considered noise, in hopes of preventing unnecessary information from overwhelming the logical section of her mind.

In most situations, this is a beneficial approach, since the complexity of the world floods the human psyche with input. The only way that the human mind can function in this onslaught is to be selective about the information it processes.

This is fine—until our mental models that driving this information filtering stop being reflective of the world around us. At such times, what should be signal can easily be discarded as noise, or signals can become distorted by one of our mind's pre-processing filters.

The ability to conform new information to an existing mental model is a fascinating feature of our minds. When confronted with new data, our mind attempts to fit them to an existing understanding of things until forced to do otherwise. This can involve a significant amount of distortion of the input, since the mind finds it easier to distort information than to create a completely new model for what is being observed.

This is why spin-doctoring is such an effective tool, since if a recipient already believes in an idea it is much harder to remove that idea from his or her mind than to create a distorted narrative that nullifies any objections to the idea.

This also explains the story of Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashômon, in which each character recounts a mutually witnessed event in radically different ways, depending in part on their preconceptions. All of them believe that they are telling the truth. But in reality each is telling a filtered interpretation of that truth.

Wilderness experts call this psychology of manipulation of new facts “bending the map,” which is the tendency to attempt to conform the world to our perception of it, rather than the reverse. Once we have a mental map in place, it is hard to pry it loose, since it has become engrained into our somatic memory.

Bending the map plays a prominent role in how many hikers become lost as they cling to a map of the landscape that does not actually work for where they are. These hikers think they are somewhere else and will ignore facts that contradict that understanding. Doing so is psychologically easier for many people than embracing the truth that they are lost. And it usually results in the hikers' only getting more lost and finding themselves in greater trouble.

I have spent much time in my career in advertising pleading the facts at hand to peers who just cannot allow themselves to accept a reality other than what they believe it to be. I am often told to forget the numbers and other empirical facts, because "it just does not feel right."

Worse, I have seen many marketers (like the above-described account director) who just stare blankly at the truths before them, unable to see them. I am sure there have been times when the tables have been turned and I have done the same.

Sometimes, our instincts not to trust the facts at hand are absolutely correct. But, often, the instinct to reject new facts is just an illusion of our minds, trying to find our place in an outdated mental map of the world.

I am a firm believer in being skeptical about the validity of our information, but care should be taken to understand whether this skepticism is serving our decision making—or just our pre-existing assumptions.

Becoming Frozen

We have all experienced moments in our lives when we become overwhelmed to the point where we cannot make any decisions. Panic rolls over us, and we freeze. All we can do is stand there like a deer caught in the headlights, wondering why we are unable to do anything.

When a crisis occurs in our advertising practice, we can easily find ourselves frozen in this same frustrating state.

I have seen psychological paralysis overcome even experienced advertisers at a moment of crisis. I know seasoned creative directors who have completely frozen in the face of a client's product tampering emergency. I have observed group account directors staring into space at their desks, unable to pick up the phone when a client has threatened to walk due to copy mistakes that slipped out the agency's door.

These moments typically require a speedy response to limit damage and get things back on track, but they also tend to attract decision paralysis.

This psychological paralysis comes from panic, which is an emotional response that rises up in us when we are confronted with strong feelings of disorientation and danger. Panic awakes in us when we face a situation where both our mental map of the world and logic fail to provide us with an adequate means of getting out of perceived danger.

In that situation, our minds can give into a set of deep, hardwired primal directives that encourage us to fight, flee, hide or do nothing.

Each of these instinctual responses is its own form of decision paralysis, since they all make it nearly impossible to make informed and sound decisions to mitigate the crisis at hand.

The idea behind such paralysis is that it will extricate the individual from trouble; but all too often it is the wrong choice in the business world. These responses were developed for aboriginal survival needs, which do not align well with the needs of our contemporary business lives.

Instead of keeping us safe, panic today tends to mire us deeper into trouble by inhibiting our ability to solve problems. In times of crisis, the modern business world requires logical solutions more than panicked responses.

Strong leadership, crisis training, and planning can break the hold that panic and its resulting paralysis can have over us. It is no accident that the military spends so much effort training troops in simulated combat environments. This training works to widen the comfort zone of soldiers, to create a host of useful learned responses to the stresses of the battlefield, and ultimately to limit the negative impact of combat panic.

It also helps to be surrounded by those rare individuals who are not as prone to this kind of panicked response. It is said that fewer than 10% of the population is able naturally to work cool-headedly in crisis. The psychological profile of these unshakable individuals is one of difficulty seeing oneself as a victim, a drive to help others in the middle of a crisis, and a pronounced openness to new ideas.

Confronting Our Psychological Limits

Although we cannot completely trust the psychology that underlies our advertising decision making, we can work to make it more reliable by lowering stress, institutionalizing skepticism, living in the moment, and training and preparing for friction.

Lower stress

As stress increases, the chances for decision errors increase as the brain becomes taxed. In industrial contexts, it is recommended that overtime be limited to prevent on-job accidents—to ensure that the workforce is not stressed to the point of being accident-prone. This same recommendation holds true for advertising. One of the worst disasters that I have ever had to resolve resulted from working my crew far too hard and with too little sleep. It is very easy to drive a team recklessly in order to make a deadline, only to miss that deadline through stress-induced mistakes and poor decisions.

Institutionalize skepticism

As discussed, it is easy to let your assumptions rule the course and evaluation of your efforts. One way to mitigate this human tendency is to encourage skepticism when examining the effectiveness and viability of our plans, rather than encouraging individuals only to defend the existence of their programs.

The distortion of truth by the mind is the reason for the existence of the scientific method, which forces scientists to place the burden of proof away from defending their own hypothesis and puts it on rejecting a null hypothesis. The goal of this seemly odd approach is the institutionalization of skepticism about our beliefs, since in demonstrating something to be true the mind can easily bias the information at hand to fit what the mind already assumes to be true.

Advertisers could greatly benefit from adapting this skeptical philosophy to their own work.

Live in the moment

Self-awareness is the most powerful antidote to poor decisions. If you are able to sit down and take a look at things afresh in the moment, the error of our ways is often revealed in time to repair them.

It is common in the narratives of survivors of fatal disasters that they take time to see the beauty around them in the midst of their survival trials. This might seem trivial, but it is an indication of a mind that is focused on seeing the moment it is living in rather than giving into the emotions of crisis and preconception. The result is much-needed fresh insights and an open mind when it is needed most.

Train and prepare for friction

One way to better handle the decision making in our work is to be prepared for it. This includes being prepared for making reliable decisions under stress by having trained for these troubled moments and having clear contingency plans in place for what to do if a crisis should arise.

This is how soldiers are trained for combat. They are sent through training that simulates the sights and sounds of the combat experience to engrain appropriate instincts into soldiers and make sure new soldiers are as comfortable with the chaos of battle as they can be.

In this way, the military assures itself that its troops can make good decisions in the heat of battle. I am sometimes astounded by the pervasive absence of similar training in the business world, especially as the tenor of marketing competition has continually risen in the last decades.

It is often assumed that employees will just know how to make good decisions, or that friction and crisis simply will not happen as we work on our campaigns.

Assuming so is just another way of denying reality.

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image of Matthew Syrett

Matthew Syrett is a marketing consultant/analyst—a hybrid marketer, film producer, technologist, and statistician. He was vice-president of product development at the LinkShare Corporation and vice-president at Grey Interactive. Reach him via syrett (at) gmail (dot) com.