James Thompson
Jul 27, 2015

Neuroscience shows all we know is wrong

Scientific findings about how humans makes decisions challenge marketers to throw away the century-old map they've been using.

James Thompson
James Thompson

What if everything we know is wrong? What if the truths and skills learned and practised, the received wisdom sought out and applied, and the whole framework for how we go about our work were all as useful as a century-old map?

Two themes in scientific thought would seem to suggest just that. One is the growth in understanding of neuroscience, which challenges the premise of most economic theory since Adam Smith supposed that markets and economic activity were based on rational actions.

BBDO’s Andy Wilson told the AMES conference in Singapore last month, “We think we are Spock but in fact we are Homer Simpson.”

Wilson cited Professor Antonio Damasio, who writes: “We believe we are thinking beings that feel, whereas we are actually feeling beings that think.” Evidence that we make decisions using the spaces in our brains that power emotions, rather than cold logic, grows all the time, and our understanding of how the world works, and how communication persuades also needs to evolve.

Science also challenges the notion of deriving satisfaction from buying ‘things’. Over a decade’s work by Cornell Professor Thomas Gilovich suggests that experiences provide more and longer-lasting happiness. Even buying luxury goods only gives fleeting pleasure as we quickly need to assimilate them as being normal in our environment. Those of us who make or market ‘things’ had better sit up and take notice. 

What we sell and how we sell it are being challenged, and the pace of change is logarithmic rather than linear. There’s never been a more intriguing time to be in marketing—or one where trusted navigation systems often lead us down blind alleys. More than ever brands need to open a window into what moves people. 

James Thompson is global managing director of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio). Follow or tweet him @JamesThompson1


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