So we all know that Behavioural Economics is all about cognitive biases – but the word cognitive is really a misnomer because it suggests something rational is going on, at the conscious level. The reality is that behaviour is driven by emotions.
And of the seven universal human emotions – those that are recognised across all cultures – look, five of them (anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and contempt) are very definitely negative. The jury’s out on one – the emotion of surprise (I suspect we’ve all experienced both sides of that one) and only one resides in the purely positive emotional palette – joy. So you’re looking at a bias right there. You’d expect negativity to disproportionately drive human behaviour – and it does…
In human behaviour negative drivers are more prevalent, more forceful and more urgent. Let’s look at how this works in practice
More prevalent because they drive more of our actions than we think. Loss aversion is the classic example – that well-documented human foible that drives us to place higher value on potential loss than on the equivalent potential gain. And we see versions of it everywhere – even in our imagined future states. New research by Professors David Faro and Simona Botti of London Business School is showing that when we are expecting a reduction in income in the near future we immediately reign in our spending – smoothing out our consumption patterns in anticipation, but when the converse happens – when we are expecting an income increase – we don’t do the equivalent and ratchet up our spending. That tells us that our imagined future negative status is more readily mentally available, more prevalent, easier to act on, than the corresponding positive one.
Classic behavioural economic theory of ‘maximisers’ and ‘satisficers’ shows us that people are more driven to not make a mistake than they are to achieving the absolute best result. So you know those psychometric tests so loved by our friends in HR – well they’re not about finding the best candidate – no, the more vital job is to root out the total nutters, neurotics and no-hopers who could disrupt the organisation; if you end up with the journeyman rather than the star, then that’s a price worth paying.
And finally, negative drivers are more urgent. The investor George Soros observed that in classic boom and bust cycles, the rise is very long, incremental, it takes a while to get to the ‘pinnacle’. In contrast, when things begin to turn, fear kicks in with an urgency that results in a speed of decline that can feel so scary at the time.
So, what does all this mean for marketers?
Well, we like to hang out with these guys – we like to promise joy, we like to surprise and delight. We avoid negativity of all types…
…but immersing ourselves in positivity means that we tend to forget that in order to get people to a positive emotional space, we have to get past the Pretorian guard of negative emotions first. And what that means is we have to get involved, we have to work harder at understanding the negative emotions. I think there are three distinct ways we can do this:
Respect the negative self
We’ve all got one – get to know it for your customers because it can be a powerful force
And you can deal with it at the whole brand level or more tactically. Virgin is a brand that has built its brand on understanding negative feelings, targeting complacent sectors – like pensions and financial services – and vowing to put right the things people hate about them. Fascinatingly, new academic research currently in the field is exploring how stronger emotional connection is created through sharing ‘bad stuff’ than it is through sharing ‘good stuff’.
The second thing we need to do is take barriers to purchase more seriously – we all see them on the quant research, but we tend to not go much beyond acknowledging them; we look for and emphasise the positives. How often do we dig into them and really seek to understand why people feel the way they do, let alone actively do something to address them?
Here’s a brand that did. The ‘cough’ category has one big barrier: one of the reasons people don’t enter the category is because they are not sure what type of cough they have – wet, dry, tickly – so don’t know what to buy. If you get beneath the surface of the barrier what you see is that the emotion that is driving this is fear – fear that if they get the wrong medicine it could actually make the cough worse. So BI created the Husten Tester app – you basically cough into it and voice recognition software instantly identifies your cough and gives you reassurance about what to buy. By eliminating the fear, they help worried people enter the category.
Finally, understand negative nuance. There are five negative emotions creating a strong negative force on behaviour, they work in complex layered combinations – harder to truly understand and unpack than positivity – so we need to understand and respond to the nuances.
Rory Sutherland uses this example – we all know people hate waiting, but when you work to understand the negative nuance, you see that what people actually hate is the uncertainty (a mix of fear, anger and contempt kicking in here). That’s why we now see waiting times at bus stops, and hear them on call holding messages.
The Koreans have gone one further and done something really clever on their red lights – indicating how long until you can make a break for it. This small measure – removing the uncertainty involved in just waiting – has reduced the number of instances of jumping the lights.
And one of the reasons I love the ‘This girl can’ work is because the team got beneath the superficial to understand what it is about sport that women don’t like. What they found was ‘fear’ – fear of being judged – so the campaign celebrated courage. The achievements so far have been relatively modest – which shows us the power of the negative emotions – but it shows that inroads can be made if we dig in and understand the negative emotions that are driving behaviour.
This has been shamelessly negative – about how we as marketers would do well to spend a bit more time in the negative space. Why? Because emotion drives behaviour and because five out of seven of the universal human emotions are negative – they sit there residing as a big barrier that can stop us ever getting to make the case for surprise and delight. So we need to understand negative emotions better, recognise that imbalance of power: that means taking barriers to purchase more seriously, it means respecting the negative self that exists in everyone and it means working harder to understand the negative nuances behind that, that drive behaviour.
Plunging ourselves into the negativity of human emotions and truly understanding them is a first step to encouraging them to relent, and to give us safe passage to engage in the positive side of the spectrum – to surprise and delight. Which will be good news not just for our consumers, but for our bosses, stakeholders, colleagues…and ourselves.