‘Understanding the why behind the want comes a step closer’

Behavioural psychology has offered fascinating new insights into how customers buy. But does it go far enough to explain what drives people to want things in the first place?

Another book about behavioural economics has been published, this time Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy by Phil Barden,a former top marketer at Unilever, Diageo and T-Mobile.

For those of you who haven’t heard about behavioural economics, here’s a quick update.

For nearly two centuries, economists had been operating under the misguided assumption that humans are rational beings. Late last century, they became aware that we’re not rational at all.

It seems we react to environmental stimuli with the instincts that helped our ancestors to survive on the savanna, not with the cool, calm deliberation of an academic economist relaxing over a dry sherry in the senior common room.

In the past few years, marketing academics and the writers of airport business books have appropriated behavioural economics and other developments in cognitive science as a way of explaining consumer behaviour.

At one level, Decoded is an accessible and practical introduction to the applied marketing science of behavioural economics. Loss aversion, reframing, choice architecture: all these concepts and more are lucidly explained and illustrated with examples from experimental psychology and marketing best practice.

But there’s more. Barden organises his survey of recent thinking around the framework proposed by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-winning psychologist who showed how we have two ways of thinking: instinctive and reflective.

Barden powerfully argues that as consumers, we spend a lot of our time thinking instinctively, and it’s at this level that communications and brands need to operate.

All this is great stuff but perhaps it’s time for me to come clean. I have a bit of a problem with behavioural economics. Not because I disagree with any of its assertions. Far from it; as a former direct response copywriter, I know they are true.

My problem is that although behavioural economics is brilliant at helping us to understand why people make the buying choices they do, I have always found it limited in its ability to explain what drives people to want things in the first place.

Which led me, before heading off on holiday, to visit my favourite online antiquarian bookseller to track down a copy of Handbook of Consumer Motivations by Ernest Dichter.

Dichter is regarded as the father of qualitative market research, or as it was sinisterly christened by Vance Packard, ‘the depth method’. A native of Vienna, Dichter applied Freudian principles to the study of consumer behaviour using an approach he called ‘motivational research’.

Today, Dichter’s book is a great comic read, a bit like Samuel Johnson’s dictionary as rewritten by Woody Allen. It takes a psycho-analytic view of consumers’ relationships with a vast array of diverse products, from car horns to raisins.

For example, Dichter sees asparagus as an especially sexually attractive vegetable, not just because of its shape, but because “it pushes through in the spring in a rather sudden fashion, growing rapidly, almost visibly”. No wonder, then, that it is often “handled by hand before being plunged into the mouth”.

It’s easy to mock this stuff. But we shouldn’t forget that in the 1950s and 1960s, Dichter achieved remarkable things for his clients.

When Betty Crocker’s instant cake mix (‘just add water’) bombed in the stores, it was Dichter who advised the makers to reconstitute the formula in a way that required the user to add an egg to the mix. Why? Because baking is about caring, and a woman who only adds water to make a cake doesn’t feel like she’s caring enough.

What Dichter attempted, and sometimes achieved, was to understand the motivations that lie behind our desire for things. This is something I find lacking in much recent writing on cognitive psychology.

Which is why I was delighted to find that Barden has devoted a large section of his book to what he describes as “Goals”, or “the driving forces of purchase decisions”.

Here he describes how experimental psychology and neuroscience is catching up with the Vienna-school musings of the early motivational researchers, while providing an element of quantitative proof, which those motivational theories often lacked.

For example, he cites a University of Toronto experiment in which two groups of respondents were offered a choice of a cup of coffee, a Coke, a cracker and a bowl of soup. Beforehand, one group had been asked to recall situations when they had felt socially excluded, while the other had been asked to recall times when they had fun with friends.

Significantly more of the socially excluded group chose a hot drink than the socially accepted group, who chose a cold snack. The researchers theorised that hot drinks represent comfort in a potentially unfriendly world, perhaps because warmth is associated with childhood parental hugs.

Barden makes a strong case for brands to ask what fundamental motivational goal they exist to address rather than focusing on more superficial issues. As Barden concludes: “Customers do not buy a brand’s personality traits but its expected instrumentality to achieve a certain goal”.

Decoded is by no means a comprehensive inventory of consumer behaviours and their drivers. Compiling such a work would in any case be a fool’s errand. What it does offer isa view of consumer behaviour that embraces

the question of why we want things, not simply the small choices we make in our path to acquiring them.

And on that note, I’m off to buy some asparagus.

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