Adam Ferrier
Jul 13, 2015

Unobvious Observations: Psychology 101

Five psychological experiments every marketer should know.

Unobvious Observations: Psychology 101

I kind of wish everyone in advertising has studied psychology. In fact it’s not even psychology you need to study. It’s just one unit of first-year psychology called something like ‘Experimental Psychology’.

You see, in that one unit at university I learned more about human behaviour than I’ve ever learned since. Each week we’d be exposed to another crazy unethical experiment done on unsuspecting undergraduates in the 1950s and 1960s, often by American Jewish psychologists trying to make sense of the holocaust. It was a time before ethics committees and (in some cases) common sense.  Big fundamental learnings about human behaviour were uncovered during this time, and it makes everything subsequently feel rather derivative and granular. 

I thought it might be a fun to show you some of these wonderful/horrifying psychological experiments, what they were meant to elicit about human behaviour and how we can use these findings in marketing communications today.

Experiment 1: Conformity

We are all herd-like creatures, and we are much more likely to go along with what others do than we are likely to admit to ourselves. Half of our motivation for everything is just copying everyone else. We like to think as little as possible, and other people modelling what to say and do, helps us think less. Perfectly exemplified by Solomon Asch’s experiments.

Marketers Tip: Focus groups are a waste of time for evaluating creative work and ideas. No one in that forum will say ‘well if they all like it I do too’. Make your communications look and feel popular before they are, and if you can use a popularity claim in some way—then make sure you do.

Experiment 2: Obedience

It’s easy to get someone to do what you want them to do. All you’ve got to do is ask them. You can even make someone electrocute someone else if you ask them forcefully enough. Just have a look at what Stanley Milgram did in the 1960s across a series of shocking experiments. We replicated this study, sort of, for Worksafe—you can see it here:

Marketers Tip: Often we forget the most important part of our communications, what are we asking them to do, and have to be clearly asking them to do that. For a bonus point put a ‘because’ in there. The most powerful word in influencing human behaviour is ‘because’. Give them the reason why they should comply to your request (any reason, it doesn’t even need to make sense) and they’ll be more likely to comply.

Experiment 3: Post-rationalisation

I’ve said many times that ‘action changes attitude faster than attitude changes action’ (What? It’s uncool to quote yourself? Don’t be so silly.) This experiment by Leon Festinger is the first of its kind to uncover the power of cognitive dissonance.

Marketers Tip: Get people involved in your communications. Get them to name your burger, or come up with the next flavour of potato chip. Your agency wont be happy as this has been done before, but your consumer will love to get involved and help out. Michael Norton (who is speaking at MSIX), uncovered a similar principle with The Ikea Effect. Give consumers something to do, and they’ll love you even more. Stop talking at them, talk with them.

Experiment 4: Commitment

I love this and love how it works. Door-to-door salespeople call it ‘the foot in the door technique’, the chuggers you meet on the street call it the ‘can I ask you something’ technique. As soon as you engage in something you are much more likely to engage in the whole shooting match. Make a pledge to vote, lose weight, or join a sailing club, and you’ll be much more likely to do it. You’ll even let complete strangers into your house to go through all your cupboards. Have a look.

Marketing Tip: Pledges are now such common hackneyed marketing ploys that it’s increasingly hard to get consumers to take the pledge. This doesn’t mean the pledging (commitment) device doesn’t work, just that you have to be realistic and creative about what you are getting them to pledge to. The #Ipledgetoeatmargarineeveryday pledge won’t work just because it has a #. You still need a good idea.

Experiment 5:  Classical conditioning

This experiment was conducted by one of the most unethical psychologists of all time, John B. Watson, who was shunned by the psychological community, so got into advertising and joined JWT way back in 1920.

His most famous ‘study’ was making a little baby called Albert scared of anything white and fluffy, by presenting the baby with a white rat, and then banging a loud gong at the same time. This is called classical conditioning and it works well. Before Watson, it had only been proven on (Pavlov’s) dogs.

Marketing Tip: Don’t worry, you’re doing it all the time. Every time you pair your conditioned stimulus (e.g. a beer brand) with an unconditioned stimulus (e.g. a sexy girl) you’re creating a conditioned response (e.g. the guy will desire the beer as it is associated with the sexy girl). This is classical conditioning, and one of the hallmarks of how advertising works.

So there you have it, our industry is standing on the shoulders of giants. For more of this kind of thing, you can buy my book (see below).

Adam Ferrier (@adamferrier) is global chief strategy officer and consumer psychologist at Cummins&Partners. See all of his 'Unobvious Observations". He is the author of The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour (Oxford, 2014).


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