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Stop asking 'why' | The Encounter Business

Stop asking 'why'

A visit to Acacia Avenue’s Word on the Street event. Thoughts.

Our every choice is loaded.
Your brain is like a fighter aircraft.
We need to make peace with our addictions.


These were just three of the intellectual firecrackers thrown into the room.

The theme was Behavioural Economics – does the Emperor have any clothes?
And the answer was yes He does, many of them are useful, and some of them have got fantastic names. Hyperbolic discounting for one.
Wendy Gordon described how the stuffed dummy of Rational Economic Man had been landed enough punches to send him reeling.


As humans, we rarely make choices by determining the utility and cost of the different variables available to us. Of course we intuitively know this, using short cuts, gut instinct, scratchy or made up evidence. We’re walking dodgy dossiers. But we find it convenient to retro-fit our decisions into rational ‘believable’ accounts of behaviour. Many of these  are trotted out when someone – such as a market researcher – sits us down and asks ‘why?’


Wendy is dong something rather brave. She’s giving up asking people ‘why?’ having spent a lifetime, doing so. As the Acacians later made clear, why people behave as they do is much better inferred from observation, projective techniques and from people’s accounts of what they’ve done, where, how and when.


Acacia Avenue’s project is to de-cloak some of this. They are trying to figure out how people make decisions in times of uncertainty.


Behavioural Economics helps this de-cloaking in two basic areas. First, how we judge the likelihood of something happening. We have a number of routine biases or quirks that come into operation. If something is high profile in our short term memory, we give it undue weight. (Hence the quiver of concern in Europe about radioactive fallout from Japan.) Hindsight bias stops us fully considering a choice that might be a good one but that went wrong before.

Second, how we choose things. This is of particular concern to marketers who want to make their product easier to choose. It turns out that our choices are loaded – by how these choices are presented to us by canny retailers (or producers of the X Factor.) We are loss-averse – more exercised by the thought or actual pain of loss than of gain. And the wonderful ‘endowment effect’: we attribute much more value to things we ‘own’ or are heavily invested in. For example, the marketing profession is very invested in the idea of asking individuals why they are do things, even when it turns out this is not a very useful way of spending your insight dollars.

The research implications of this were developed by Caroline Hayter. It means returning to the core discipline of being very clear about your hypothesis: what behaviour are we examining here, and what is it we want to change? Other implications tumble out: placing less onus on those who claim or plan to do something; sitting alongside decision making where possible, and listening to post-rationalisations with a kind of generous scepticism; conducting experiments in forced change or forced abstinence.


For a very different take on behavioural change, we met Dr John Marsden, a researcher and psychiatrist with Kings College London, based at the Maudsley Hospital.  He specialises in addictive behaviours; and strategies for getting people out of the particular holes in which they find themselves. He does heroin, cocaine, and a bit of gambling.
John’s  pitch to us was that as a society, we need to make peace with various forms of addiction. As organisms that tend to follow the needs and wants of the moment, we’re not going to get rid of it in a hurry.

His core definition was addiction as a disorder of thinking and impulse control. As humans, our systems of impulse control are constantly in a delicate balance. We’re the sentient equivalent of the European Fighter Jet, which has been designed to be exquisitely flexible in combat but as a consequence  has little basic stability: everything is being micromanaged, it its case by computer power. In our case, it’s our brain, which is more easily led by the prospect of immediate pleasure than your average toddler. Human behaviour is an potentially chaotic state: we hold it together by a reasonable balance of our control, memory and reward functions. When these slip or flip, so do we.

John is in the business of encouraging a sense of agency over our own behaviour. As one conscience-stricken audience member said (I paraphrase) ‘Hang on. We’re in marketing – aren’t we in the business of encouraging impaired decision making?’. Cue a good debate on what intelligent consumption might involve, and who’s going to encourage it.
When addicts move into recovery, the patterns of change vary. John’s taxonomy is instructive for anyone contemplating the difficult business of behaviour change. Recovery / change happens:

Suddenly – and for no apparent reason.
Suddenly – and because of a significant event (a health incident or relationship irruption)
Gradually – because of a small trigger (enabling an developing sense of agency and identity)
Gradually – because of sustained changes of  input (tapering off, aided by other drugs or support)
Gradually – an absence of input (cold turkey)


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