Marketers are used to wondering what it is that other people want or how to make people want something that they are trying to promote. But how do we know what we want?
The past few decades of psychological research have revealed that even our most basic intuitions about what we really want are astonishingly unstable and arise from "improvised stories" invented on the spot. We want to make coherent sense of how we think and act, but these stories we tell ourselves can't always be trusted. The implications for understanding customers are alarming.
Power of attraction
Let's begin with a classic study. In 1974, Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron, psychologists at the University of British Columbia, looked at the oldest story of them all: the basis of romantic attraction.
Female experimenters were stationed at the end of two bridges on the University of British Columbia campus: one bridge was a solid, low-altitude crossing; the other a high, and apparently rather flimsy, suspension bridge. The experimenters asked male and female bridge-crossers to do a small and, as it happens, irrelevant task. The bridge-crossers were told they could follow up by phone call later if they had any further questions. The female experimenters, apparently rather rashly, but crucially, handed out their phone numbers.
We create stories to help us decide what we want and how we feel.
Not surprisingly, the male bridge-crossers phoned in with a lot more questions than female bridge-crossers. But here's the real shocker: the male bridge-crossers who phoned in most of all were the ones who had just crossed the high bridge. Why? When you have just crossed the high bridge, you are, of course, full of adrenaline. You then meet an attractive person at the other end of the bridge. You notice the adrenaline and you tell yourself the "obvious" story: that this must be someone you really like.
Having formed this (erroneous) conclusion, the hapless male bridge-crossers then phone the female experimenters later, hoping that the conversation might lead somewhere.
The terrible truth is that we don't know directly what, or who, we like: we have to figure it out from whatever clues are available. We are continually inventing stories about ourselves and what we want, and we're not very good at this.
In a recent study, my collaborators and I asked people which pair of faces they preferred. We presented them with lots of pairs of faces and, deviously, in a few cases, we gave them the false impression that they chose the face that they actually rejected.
Then they were given the same choices again, and they also had to rate the faces for attractiveness. It turns out that if we are told we like a face, when we see it again, we are more likely to choose it and rate it as more attractive.
Dutton and Aron's subjects invented a story to explain their adrenaline rush; our subjects invented a story to make sense of what they thought they just did.
We understand ourselves through creating stories that make sense of our behaviour. These stories help us decide what we want and how we feel. These stories might not be reliable, but the ability to find order and reason when there is none is something we can't turn off. We have to have a story.
This has two implications for marketers. First, we crave stories. We want to hear them and be part of them. Without a narrative structure, we can't understand the world around us.
Second, we should be sceptical of just asking people what they want, through surveys or focus groups. The real trick in understanding what people will do next is understanding what they did before. The stories that make sense of our past will guide our future. A combination of big data and large-scale online experiments may, we hope, be a starting point for uncovering the narratives underlying customer choice.