Who needs to lie when you’ve got psychology

If the experts are right and people really do change their attitudes to fit their behaviour, what does that mean for marketing?

Richard Madden
Richard Madden

In advertising there’s no such thing as a lie. Merely expedient exaggeration, according to Roger O Thornhill, Cary Grant’s original mad man in the movie North By Northwest. If one school of thought is to be believed, our industry’s capacity for playing fast and loose with the truth pales into insignificance beside that of another group: the innocent consumer.

According to Robert Feldman, professor of psychology and author of The Liar in your Life: How Lies Work and What They Tell us About Ourselves, the most compulsive liar you know is probably the person you see staring back at you out of the mirror every morning.

Like everything else that’s shady in our make-up, from violence and promiscuity to gluttony and (probably) bad breath, there is an evolutionary explanation for the ubiquity of the lie. Self-deception, it seems, is actually a form of self-defence.

For example, one reason why we lie to ourselves is to maintain our self-esteem. Most healthy people maintain a functioning level of self-confidence by selectively editing a rolling mental biopic, highlighting the good bits and leaving the less edifying sequences on the cutting-room floor.

There is an argument that clinical depression is caused by a failure of this editorial capacity. We see the raw footage of our lives, not the final cut, which usually comes complete with rousing soundtrack and flattering visual effects. This is probably why being depressed is like watching a biopic of your life made by Ingmar Bergman.

All this is very interesting, but of only tangential relevance to the marketer. Luckily for us, there’s another form of self-deception which, when discovered, prompts a visceral response akin to the ringing of a gigantic cash-register somewhere deep in your soul.

Cut to Michigan, December 1954. Members of a flying saucer cult led by housewife Marian Keech gather to await the end of the world. Which, rather irritatingly, fails to happen at the predicted hour. Is Mrs Keech discredited by the failure of her prophecy? Quite the reverse. Through its display of faith and dedication, so the newly-minted myth goes, the sect has averted the end of the world. Mrs Keech’s followers stay loyal. Indeed, new members continue to join.

Watching this drama is a psychologist called Leon Festinger. He wonders whether this retrospective rationalisation of human behaviour is actually as extraordinary as it seems. So he and a colleague design an experiment.

A volunteer participant is set a boring task. After a while, an experimenter arrives who asks the volunteer a favour. In exchange for a dollar, would they be prepared to tell the next participant that the task is actually very interesting? They agree to go through with the deception.
Following the completion of the experiment, the original subjects complete a survey on their attitudes to the task. Amazingly, the lying subjects appear to have been taken in by their own deception. The task was fascinating, absorbing. Fun, even.

This classic experiment led Festinger to postulate the theory of cognitive dissonance. Its essence is that we humans cannot cope with the intolerable anxiety of holding two contradictory ideas in our minds at the same time. To defend ourselves against this stress, we will happily adjust our attitudes so that they do not contradict our behaviours.

The notion that our attitudes adjust to fit our behaviour flies in the face of much of what we like to believe about communications. For example, it seems sensible to believe that, like a World War One artillery bombardment, a barrage of advertising is necessary to soften up consumers’ attitudes before the promotional infantry can close with the audience and change its behaviour at bayonet-point.

Direct marketers have known for decades that a behavioural inducement as obvious as a free pen can lead a consumer to embrace a previously unknown or unconsidered brand. For many brand managers, such a tactic understandably sounds like a cheat’s answer to the marketing challenge. After all, aren’t you just buying attention by bribing the customer rather than winning them over using the power of the brand?

“If Feldman and Festinger are to be believed, we don’t have to be liars to work in advertising. We simply have to create the circumstances in which consumers do the lying to themselves.”

Not if you follow Festinger, you’re not. What you’re doing is creating a state of dissonance within the consumer’s mind which they can best resolve by adjusting their attitudes to fit their behaviours. They don’t want to give back the pen. So they tell themselves that, yes, an ISA that tracks the Kabul stock exchange or a nuclear-powered nasal hair trimmer might not be such a bad idea after all.

However, before Festinger is adopted as patron saint of the incentive tat industry, there is a footnote to his experiment that is worth bearing in mind. Alongside the group of volunteers who were offered a dollar to lie to their fellow subjects was another group. These were offered $20. Predictably, they were even more willing to tell the lie. But when it came to assessing their true beliefs, their attitude to the task was largely unchanged.

The reason is simple. The $20 group suffered less dissonance. They were able to tell themselves that they were lying for money, plain and simple. The one dollar group had no such rational get-out, so they had to shift their attitude to match their behaviour. Which is kind of good news for brands with a limited promotional budget.

The good news for the rest of us is that if Feldman and Festinger are to be believed, we don’t have to be liars to work in advertising. Or even resort to expedient exaggeration. We simply have to create the circumstances in which consumers do the lying to themselves. If only we could look as good as Cary Grant while doing it.

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