A view from Russell Davies

There is nothing weird about questioning your marketing assumptions

You’ve probably seen the Müller-Lyer illusion. There are two vertical lines next to each other. Each has lines making an arrowhead at the top and bottom. The arrowheads on the left-hand line point inwards; the ones on the right-hand line point outwards. And here’s the illusion: the centre lines appear to be different lengths but, actually, both are of equal length. It illustrates fundamental things about the way the mind draws conclusions and fools us all.

Well, it used to. It turns out that only people who grew up in industrialised societies see lines of different lengths. If you grew up in the Kalahari, you’re likely to see them as equal. It seems that if you were raised in the West, in rooms with square corners, you’re more likely to be fooled. If your brain hasn’t become accustomed to assumptions about lines and corners, it affects you less.

It’s becoming clear that many facets of human behaviour we had assumed previously to be universal are, in fact, highly cultural

This is an example of an effect first described in a research paper a couple of years ago. Most social science research is conducted using the WEIRD system (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) and we’ve tended to assume its results are universal – hardwired into human biology.

But it’s becoming clear that many facets of human behaviour we had assumed previously to be universal are, in fact, highly cultural. If you grow up in a market economy, you’re likely to have different ideas of what constitutes fairness than if you grow up in a gift-based society. If you grow up largely detached from nature, you are more likely to anthropomorphise animals. If you live in San Francisco, your sense of self-worth is less tied up with community and educational status than if you live in Boston.

I was reminded of all this by an article at psmag.com. It made me wonder how much global marketing practice has changed since the original 2010 paper. Not much, I’m assuming. Marketing thinking is probably even "weirder" than social sciences, so it may be worth having a read and asking whether your assumptions about branding should change. You’re probably pretty weird yourself.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Services