A rat inspired this post. I know that sounds ludicrous. (Actually, if you've read my posts for a while, it may not seem so ludicrous.) While reading The New York Times this weekend I was taken aback by a rat and the interesting findings shared by the author. First, I need to excerpt some of the article to explain the author's premise. Let's start with the rat...
"Technically, a Skinner box is an operant conditioning chamber – in other words, a cage that automatically trains a laboratory animal to associate flashing lights and levers with rewards and punishments. A green light flashes, or the animal pushes the right lever, and it is rewarded with a morsel of food.
But some operant conditioning chambers were built with electrified floors: a red light comes on, and zap! It doesn't take long for a rat to figure out which light goes with the shock and which goes with the food pellet. All animals, including we primates, are good at making these associations. Pretty soon, we don't even need the light – the mere sight of the cage can send some of us into a state of apoplexy."
The author, Dr. Gregory Berns, conducted a like experiment on humans. Never fear, the humans consented to the experiment and no one was harmed. The test subjects just experienced some discomfort– but the surprise is what gave them the most discomfort, as Berns explains:
"My colleagues and I conducted a brain-imaging experiment with our version of a Skinner box. Instead of a box, our participants were inside an M.R.I. scanner. Instead of using an electrified floor, we attached electrodes to the tops of their feet. Although not unbearably painful, the shocks were designed to be unpleasant enough that the individual would prefer to avoid them altogether.
The kicker was that they had to wait for the shocks. Every trial began with a statement of how big the shock would be and how long they would have to wait for it: a range of one to almost 30 seconds. For many people, the wait was worse than the shock. Given a choice, almost everyone preferred to expedite the shock rather than wait for it. Nearly a third feared waiting so much that, when given the chance, they preferred getting a bigger shock right away to waiting for a smaller shock later. It sounds illogical, but fear – whether of pain or of losing a job – does strange things to decision-making."
How do these findings relate to us?
The market's collapse which has sent shock upon shock across so many sectors combined with the disruption that was already forcing industries to re-think or kill-off old business models (like publishing, as many now get their news on the Web vs. in print, or automakers having to retool from gas-guzzling SUVs to fuel-efficient hybrids) has given us all much pause. And in its wake it's left a lot of fear.
We've been stunned into submission wondering how things will ever get back to normal–and in the meantime, we're left fearing for the next shock. Thus, uncertainty and jitters seem the "new normal"– with reports signaling there's only more uncertainty ahead.
So, where to from here?
As marketers we're responsible for identifying opportunities, strategies and programs that will move our companies and clients ahead. That role has not changed; but it has expanded. Now we're not only tasked with moving strategies forward but moving executives past their fear.
You're bound to see a lot of articles exclaiming, "Now is not the time to cut back on marketing!" I agree. However, with so many companies having to cut their workforce, the reality is that they have had to cut their marketing spend, too. Hence, the choice becomes how to invest the budgets and brainpower they still have.
And our first priority is ensuring that fear isn't guiding those choices. Because, as adeptly reflected by both the rats and the humans, fear of the unknown (or fear of more shocks!) impairs our decision-making. After all, fear usually results in either standing still or running away–yet innovative, sound decisions are the way we climb out of our electric cages.
As I've experienced with a few clients over the past couple weeks, there's a great sense of relief in moving ahead, even with small steps and slim budgets. It replaces the energy one otherwise spends fearing with energy spent on creating. It also helps to make things feel a little bit more normal.
And while the world may feel stalled right now, once we isolate fear from our decision-making process, we are reminded that, indeed, the world only spins forward.
Plus, I don't want to be a rat.
Take the first step (it's free).
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