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In 2005 Seth Godin took a poke at the marketing profession by releasing a book called All Marketers Are Liarsii. Writing about that book in his blog, Godin said:

The truth is elusive. No one knows the whole truth about anything. We certainly don't know the truth about the things we buy and recommend and useiii

While it may seem unfair to single out marketers with this criticism, it’s hard to escape the facts. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of all new products launched fail to thriveiv. The failure rate is even higher for consumer packaged goods, where 75% of new products fail in the first year and only 3% achieve what the Harvard Business Review calls “a highly successful launch”.

Given the global spend on advertising alone is over US$500 billionv, this does seem like a poor return on the marketing investment. If we were to judge marketers on the success of products, it would be easy to conclude that marketing is much more hit-and-miss than the industry would like anyone to believe. Maybe Godin is right after all? When a product fails, it’s common to find experts to helpfully explain what can be learned from the wreckage of failurevi. Yet what marketers need is not more wise-after-the-fact hindsight but better foresight. In this regard, the real problem for marketers might be with their insight partners. After all, the whole point of insight is to give marketers foresight. Put this another way: The insight industry provides marketers with a series of predictions about how consumers will respond (be it to a new product, campaign, or pricing strategy). But what if they (and us) have been thinking about consumer behaviour in the wrong way?

What if our assumptions about how consumers think, feel, and behave have had us all looking in the wrong places and asking the wrong questions? What if the failure of their predictions aren’t a problem of resourcing, or timing, or application but of something much more fundamental? What then?

There are two important developments in psychology that suggest this might just be the case. The first is what some have called the ‘the behavioural turn’, and draws on behaviour and brain science to offer a very different view of how humans process information and make sense of the world. The second is called ‘the adaptive unconscious’ and provides a window into how little any of us can really know about how our feelings and attitudes are shaped. Taken together, what these two developments demonstrate is that human behaviour is much more enigmatic, and far less certain, than we previously believed. 

Let’s start with the easier part. Have a look at this image, and pay special attention to the squares labelled A and B.

checker shadow illusion by butisit d4cs46b

If you haven’t opened a psychology textbook in a while, the chances are that squares A and B will appear to be very different colours. But they’re not. They’re identical. The easiest way to see this for yourself is to cover up the rest of the checkerboard. Better yet, find some scissors, cut out the labelled squares, and place them side by side. It really is worth taking the time to do this because the squares will appear to change colour as you do this. Even more bizarrely, the squares will ‘change ‘back’ to being different colours when you put the checkerboard back together. How can this be? Edward Adelson, who created this example, provides a full explanation of what is happening on his websitevii. But for our purposes the important point is that how we ‘see’ (and perceive) the world is a result of interpretation rather than observation. In other words, perception is something your brain constructs as much as processes. In this example, those processes are fooled because they use context and boundaries to judge colour.

Here’s another great example.

Given what we’ve said above, you will be less surprised to hear that these two tables are the same size. And by ‘size’ we don’t mean that they have the same area but that they are both the same size and width. Rather than take our word for this, find a ruler and measure the two tables for yourself.

Again, the specifics of why your brain is so easily tripped up by this illusion isn’t relevant hereviii. What is relevant is that now you know beyond doubt that they are the same size, the tables still look very different. The cues your brain uses to construct those images trumps any amount of empirical data about their properties. Or as Daniel Kahneman put it, not only can we be blind to the obvious but we can also be blind to our blindnessix.

We can round out this part of our argument with one final example. Close your eyes and touch the end of your nose with your index finger. Notice how the sensation in your nose occurs at the same time as the one in your finger? While that may seem obvious, consider the fact that the tip of your finger is perhaps a metre farther away from your brain than your nose. How can those nerve impulses arrive at the same time? Obviously they can’t. Instead what happens is that your brain waits for the nerve impulse from your finger and then stitches the two sensations together. In other words, even the most basic sensations (like touch) involve an element of construction. In a very real sense, what you think of perception is really an illusion. But even more importantly, cognition (what we think) turns out to be a construction just like perception. What the ‘behavioural turn’ has shown us is that all of us are all cognitive misers (who think only as much as we need to); who conserve our cognitive energy by talking shortcuts wherever we can; and who are profoundly influenced by how things are framed, and the social context we experience them in. As a result, we fall for thinking traps just as readily as we fall for the illusions presented above.

These illusions are what psychologists call ‘heuristics and biases’. There are too many to list herex but the sum total of these biases is that none of us are really as smart as we think we are. A major reason why this is the case is that the shortcuts our brains take means mistakes are often made not because the right answer is too hard but because the wrong answer is too easy. It also means that, as Bob Hoffman noted in his peerless Advertising Week Europe 2014 address, “if you expect people to be logical, you’re barking up the wrong species”xi.

You can see the problem this poses for collecting insights into consumer behaviour. Taken on its own, the behavioural turn suggests that the insight industry has been thinking about how consumers consume and process marketing messages in the wrong way. If nothing else, it suggests that we need to find ways to ask better and more penetrating questions.

Except the second important development in psychology we introduced earlier, the rise of the ‘adaptive unconscious’, argues that the real problem is that consumers never really understand why they think, feel, and act in the way they do. Even more damning, this line of research suggests that the explanations people provide for their feelings and behaviour come after the fact, and are interpretations rather than clarifications. Fiery Cushman captured this best when he said “we are shockingly ignorant of the causes of our own behaviour… the explanations that we provide are sometimes wholly fabricated, and certainly never complete”xii. Cushman labelled these pseudo-explanations ‘confabulations’. Is it any wonder that the ‘insights’ we’ve been collecting using conventional market research methods have proved so lacking in foresight?

The notion that we are (in the words of the title of one of the best summaries of the research on this topic) ‘strangers to ourselves’ seems preposterousxiii. The explanations we offer for our attitudes and behaviour by definition feel right. But the evidence is clear that we’re just fooling ourselves. In particular, a number of experiments demonstrate how we all underestimate the context that our behaviour occurs in (and our attitudes are created in). The classic example here is Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron’s ‘love on a suspension bridge experimentxiv. In this experiment men were intercepted by a female researcher as they walked across the Capilano Canyon Suspension Bridge in Vancouver and asked to complete a short survey. They were also given the researcher’s phone number, and told she was willing to answer any questions the men had about the survey. The Capilano Canyon Bridge was chosen because it is the epitome of vertiginous. It is a narrow slat bridge that sways in the wind, wobbles when you walk on it, and is about 250 feet above the water.

Dutton and Aron repeated the experiment on a conventional bridge in the Capilano Park, one that was much sturdier than the suspension bridge and only about 10 feet above a small stream. Under these conditions, only about one-in-eight of the men surveyed called the researcher while over half of the men intercepted on the suspension bridge did. Dutton and Aron argued that the men on the suspension bridge misread the nervousness experienced on the suspension bridge for attraction to the researcher. This idea sits behind what psychologists call ‘non-specific arousal’. This argues that when our bodies experience a state of arousal we look for the most available explanation to understand the emotion. In other words, the same sensation of arousal gets labelled ‘fear’ or ‘anger’ or ‘passion’ depending on what is going on around us. We can see another example in the work of John Bargh from Yalexv. This demonstrates that how we perceive others can be influenced by something as unremarkable as the drink we have in our hand. Bargh’s research shows that people judge others to be more generous and caring while they hold a warm cup of coffee. Even more bizarre, people tend to act more generously if they have just held something warm (and less generously if they have held something cold). As Daniel Kahneman pointed out, what these examples demonstrate is how our ability to make sense of the world rests on “an almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance”.

Three Major Takeaways About Psychology, Insight, and Marketing

  • Park your assumptions about your customers and let the insight emerge from the research. Instead of testing hypotheses, use a ‘grounded theory’ approach where theories are built from the accretion of observations.
  • Accept that insight is not about finding the ‘true’ cause of behaviour but about understanding the stories consumers tell themselves about their behaviour.
  • Bring your insight partners into conversations about product and service development to socialise and test ideas about how these will be interpreted by consumers. Remember Richard Feynman’s advice to marketers everywhere “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool”xvi


And this is where the insight industry has largely failed marketing. What the evidence from psychology clearly demonstrates is that people are very poor at understanding their current feelings and behaviour, and lousy at predicting how they will feel and act in the future. And yet market researchers continue to ask them, treating the answers to their questions not as commentary but as gospel. Marketers need to demand more from their insight partners. To start with, they need to better understand the social context in which attitudes are formed and behaviours occur. Instead of asking, researchers need to spend more time observing. The key is to find ways to get as close to the attitudes or the behaviour you want to understand in their natural setting. As well as helping make sense of those attitudes and behaviours, this approach also opens the door to behaviour-based segmentation. Indeed, there is a strong argument that segmentation studies should start with behaviour rather than such bland attributes as demographics and purchase history.

Ironically, given that the impetus for this rethinking of marketing insight has been driven by psychological research, the paradigm here should be anthropology.  In particular, ethnography seems the obvious way to get up close and personal with consumersxvii. This approach involves the direct, first hand observation of daily behaviour where the researcher may even participate in those social settings as a participant observer. This kind of observation involves the use of what Gerald Zaltman calls “skillfullskilful listening”xviii which places a special emphasis on the stories consumers construct about themselves and a new product or service. These stories are not seen as definitive explanations but as part of the rich tapestry of myth-making that consumers use to order their lives.

What psychology teaches us is that everyone is the star of the movie that plays inside their heads. What marketers need to do is understand how the scripts to those movies get written, and where the opportunities for product placement exist. As for market foresight, it seems that the best we can hope for is to see through the glass darkly. As Churchill reminded marketers everywhere “it is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see”xix.

Five Things to Remember about Consumer Ethnography

  • Make sure you include consumers from the fringe of your market. While conventional market research looks for ‘typical’ consumers (and reports average results), the most key with ethnography is to include as much divergent thinking as you can.
  • Magnify the divergent thinking by being open to surprise. Resist the temptation to dismiss outliers.
  • Practice “skilful listening”. Once you have asked a question, don’t rush to fill the silence. Make a habit of waiting for 15 or 30 seconds after each question.
  • Ask lots of ‘why?’ questions. And treat the explanations you hear not as accurate descriptions of causation but as part of a rich narrative the consumer is creating for the behaviour and attitudes.
  • Reframe what you hear and test with the consumers you’re with. Try providing alternative narratives to see how who well your consumers can accommodate these into their personal stories.

Bonus Tip: Insight Masterclass

One of the key findings of the research into the Adaptive Unconscious is that we are consistently ignorant of the causes of our own behaviour (and the origin of our attitudes). But while it is hard for individuals to see beyond these confabulations, our friends and peers are able to. By being able to see our behaviour in context, and against the backdrop of our habits, those closest to us can provide far more penetrating analyses of our behaviour. As a result, if you really want to predict a consumer’s behaviour, it may pay to spend less time with them and more time talking to their nearest and dearest.



With apologies to Charles Mackay
ii Godin, S. (2005) All Marketers Are Liars, Penguin, New York
iv See Crawford, C. Merle (1987) “New Product Failure Rates: A Reprise” Research Management 30 4 and Adams, Marjorie (2004) “Findings from the PDMA Research Foundation CPAS Benchmarking”
vi For instance, Gordon, M; Musson, C; Rebentishc, E; and Gupta, N (2010) “The Path to Successful New Products”, McKinsey Quarterly, January 2010.
ix Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York.
xi Bob Hoffman - The Golden Age of Bullshit - Advertising Week Europe 2014. ttps://
xiii Timothy D Wilson (2002) Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The Belknap Press, Harvard University, Boston
xvi Adpted from a 1974 Caltech commencement address; also published in Feynman, Richard (1997). Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!. W. W. Norton & Company. New York.
xviii Gerald Zaltman (2003) How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market, Harvard Universtiy Press, Boston.
xix Churchill By Himself, ed. Langworth, PublicAffairs


Carl Davidson – Strategic Partner, Research and Insight