Part of the fun of working for a great agency is being encouraged to think. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about.

The Psychology of Public Relations: Fast and Slow

June 14, 2015 Jeff Bradford

Humankind has long known that we are complex creatures, a combination of at least two different selves. The Greeks identified them as Apollo and Dionysus, the god of reason and light and the god of feeling and darkness. Freud called them the ego and the id, our rational conscious self and our irrational unconscious self. St. Paul called them spirit and flesh.

No matter what you call them, or even if you don’t call them at all, these two facets of your being exist, and whether you like it or not, or know it or not, how they interact largely dethinking_fast_and_slowtermines who you are and what you do.

Since public relations – and all marketing, for that matter – is about causing people to do something, effective public relations practitioners should know something about our two selves. Specifically, we should know how they interact to motivate us to do something.

In Thinking: Fast and Slow psychologist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman does an incredible job of analyzing our Apollonian and Dionysian natures and providing a roadmap (perhaps inadvertently) that marketers can use to chart the route of prospective customers to a sale.

His basic premise is that we have two ways of interacting with the world: System 1, which is how we automatically process information, and System 2, which is effortful thinking about objective facts. They roughly correspond to Dionysus /id and Apollo/ego.

The job of a marketer is to tap into System 1, preferably by simultaneously convincing the prospect that he is being guided by System 2 – which is not at all difficult, as we frequently think we are using System 2 when we are actually being led by System 1.

Here’s an example, drawn from the book, of how this is done:

You see a person reading the New York Times on the New York subway. Which of the following is most likely?

  • She has a PhD.
  • She does not have a college degree.

Most of us (including me) would bet on the PhD, because this coincides with our intuitive impression that people who read the Times are likely to be fairly well-educated. Furthermore, if asked how we arrived at this conclusion, we would say that we thoughtfully considered what is most likely to be true, that is, that we used System 2. However, we are likely to be wrong, because there are, in fact many more non-college graduates than PhDs.

If you chose then PhD versus non-graduate answer, you were using System 1, which under many cases, is not a bad way to get along in the world. For example, if you believe that most people who act friendly are indeed friendly and that young men are more likely than elderly women to drive aggressively, you’ll be right in most cases – but not always, and you could be led far astray from the truth.

Professor Kahneman points out that the movie Moneyball is an example of how people can be led astray by System 1 thinking. Traditional baseball scouts forecast the success of recruits by their build and look, that is, by the scouts’ experience of being around successful ballplayers. However, the hero of the book, Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland A’s, overruled his scouts and chose players instead by analyzing the statistics of their past performance – using System 2 – and he won.

In essence, what Professor Kahneman has done is recast the age old marketing truism that our buying decisions are based on emotional factors, not rational ones – but that we almost always use reason to retroactivity justify our purchasing decision. He’s just done it more elegantly and precisely, which saves marketers a lot of taxing System 2 time in coming up with compelling headlines. Key lessons from the book are:

  • Stereotypes work, particularly if the message is not obviously stereotypical, as in the “PhD subway” example.
  • The law of least effort; thinking is hard and we don’t do it unless we have to. We are particularly likely to revert to System 1 when we are tired.
  • If we believe a conclusion is true, we are likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound. (If System 1 is involved, the conclusions come first and the arguments follow.)
  • Exposure to a word, concept or image primes us to think, feel and behave in a way consistent with this impression. For example, exposing people to images of classrooms and lockers increased their tendency to support a school initiative.
  • When we are at ease, we are more receptive to information and more likely to accept what is said as true without reflection. When we are under strain, we are more likely to be vigilant and make fewer errors (but also be less creative).
  • As a corollary to the above, effective messages should be simple, because understanding them takes less effort, thus readers are at ease and, therefore, more predisposed to accept the message without question.
  • “What You See Is All There Is:” we are predisposed to jump to conclusions based solely on the information in front of us. It is the consistency of the information that matters, not its completeness.
  • When confronted with a difficult (System 2) question, we often substitute an easier (System 1) question without realizing it. For example, when asked, “How should financial advisors who prey on the elderly be punished?” we might unconsciously substitute and answer the simpler, System 1 question, “How much anger do I feel when I think of financial predators?”

Happy hunting.



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