Brain Proxies

Whew, I’ve been doing all my writing over at CaringBridge, so it’s nice to be back in my own space! I like to draw some business lessons from my personal experiences occasionally, so today’s post highlights some of the lessons I’ve learned during this family crisis. Let’s chat about brain proxies, shall we?

Essentially, the brain uses short cuts to make decisions all the time. We live in such a complex world with information overload on a daily basis, and powerful as it is, the human brain simply cannot parse all that information effectively by sifting through each item one at a time. Since the brain is incredibly smart, it came up with some short cuts to process all that information efficiently. Now, most of the time, these short cuts are great, particularly for marketers. These short cuts make things like branding effective. For example, it’s cumbersome and low-stakes for the brain to try to decide if one hamburger is better than another. Sure, you could go to 5 different burger places every time you’re hungry, or you could just rely on the brand recognition and past experience to guide you to the right choice. Or, when you’re staring at 20 SKUs of laundry detergent, you might remember that commercial that promoted a brand known for color protection, so you use a short cut to choose your detergent. The problem is, sometimes we implement those short cuts incorrectly, or too frequently when making high-stakes decisions. Here’s a few that I’ve witnessed recently:

Authority. One major proxy is that of authority. Studies have shown that we assume truth or validity if it comes from someone or something that we perceive to be an authority. The problem is, we often use proxies like symbols and uniforms to determine who or what is authority. Doctors wear white coats to portray authority, police officers carry badges to represent authority, and the media writes en masse to convey authority. So, our brain assumes that if these people are authorities, then surely, whatever they say, must be truth. However, as shown in the Milgram study linked above, people will often forgo their own best judgements in favor of authority, and the authority may be wrong. So, I’ve been watching the uniforms and symbols wield their power to play mind games on even the most educated people. Heck, my sister is a psych major, and even SHE found herself resorting to the authority proxy!

Conformity and Groupthink. Humans are social creatures, and as such, we like to go with the group and remain harmonious. However, studies have shown that humans will agree with an obviously incorrect choice to avoid going against the group. Nobody likes to stand alone, unsupported, so the brain will tell us that if the group thinks it’s correct, we should agree. This proxy is particularly powerful when combined with the authority proxy. Since the police and media are a large group, and they are both perceived as authorities, surely anything they say must be truth. Thus, it’s extremely difficult to objectively analyze information presented from both of these groups, particularly if you’re the only one questioning the information.

Uncertainty and Cognitive Dissonance. Finally, the brain hates uncertainty and dislikes reconciling opposing sides. Human nature tells us that we should seek certainty, stability, and understanding. So, when faced with situations that cause uncertainty or dissonance, we immediately seek to remedy that issue. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the remedy is accurate, valid, or truthful, as long as it mitigates the discomfort caused by uncertainty. This proxy dovetails nicely with authority and groupthink to produce a sense of certainty. If the group, who also happens to be perceived as an authority, thinks a piece of information is true, and the authoritative group presents this information with certainty, the brain wants to latch on to the certainty to remedy the cognitive dissonance. It’s much more difficult to evaluate each piece of information individually on its merits, so whatever gets us to a feeling of “certainty” quickest will likely be accepted.

So what do these mind games and proxies have to do with business? EVERYTHING! Proxies are the reason offensive marketing campaigns make it to print or TV. Surely, if the Marketing Director (authority) says it’s a good idea, it must be. And, if the creatives agree (groupthink), then I can’t be smarter than the group. If the board (authority and groupthink) approves this position and says the candidate is acceptable, but I think they are incompetent (cognitive dissonance), then I should probably stick with the group’s opinion. This is why there’s such a movement for diversity in the corporate world, focus groups prior to product launches, and general encouragement to offer up outrageous solutions. These actions challenge our proxies and force us to consider the ultimate truths, both in business, and in life.

I’ve been evaluating my proxies at every level, and I plan to bring this questioning nature into the workplace. What proxies are you using? Are they right? Have they lead you astray?

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