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A better understanding of the consumer mind

Tina McCorkindale

Remember when companies were seen as vehicles to drive commerce? Today, the gauge of success is doing good, and demonstrating how your company or brand impacts your community and the world.

Tina McCorkindale, Institute for Public Relations


Communicators are always seeking ways to truly impact consumer behavior. One way to do so is by learning more about what really drives the decision-making process. This means understanding how or why consumers think or behave the way they do.

Countless examples exist of how our gut instinct gets it wrong, how we make poor decisions because we fail to understand our stakeholders in the marketplace, or that we put too much confidence in error-free human judgment. We assume humans make rational, predictable decisions – the concept personified by the “Homo Economicus” or “Economic Man” – when, in fact, people can make irrational decisions with predictable mistakes.

Understanding cognitive and behavioral science helps us grasp how the brain functions, how people make decisions, and how and why people behave the way we do.

A great place to start is by familiarizing yourself with the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who have been studying thinking, decision-making, and cognitive biases for more than 40 years. In their book Thinking, Fast and Slow, they compare the differences between two types of human thinking: System 1 and System 2.

Fast decision-making

System 1 is characterized by fast decision-making. These decisions might be habits or ones that we do without much thought (for example, walking to the office, adding one plus one). We may also make them on a subconscious level, in which we rely on mental shortcuts or rules of thumbs. These types of decisions represent about 95% of our decision-making.

Comparatively, System 2 thinking is slower, more logical, deliberate, and thoughtful, such as buying a car.

The more you look into Kahneman and Tversky’s findings, it becomes clearer that our industry might not be hitting the mark in terms of our research capabilities. Communications and marketing research primarily focus on appealing to System 2 thinking, even though the majority of decisions are made in System 1 – those fast, automatic, everyday decisions. This means we are appealing to the wrong types of decision-making processes. This is why self-report surveys, or those that ask respondents to explain or recall their thoughts and motivations for behavior, may be flawed or skewed. This is because people might not be aware of their behavior and influences on their decision-making processes, which float under the surface of recognition.

Of course, PR professionals should learn more about this field of study, but they can also expand their research capabilities. Combining surveys and experiments with eye tracking, EEGs, facial expression, heart-rate tracking, or even more sophisticated techniques such as MRIs, will make research more robust. The days of throwing ideas to the wall to see what sticks or solely relying on our gut instinct should be over.

Kahneman and Tversky’s systems-based approach is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cognitive and behavioral science. PR would be well served to incorporate fields, such as neuroscience, to help arm us with research about nudges, habits, and other ways to maximize our effectiveness.

Tina McCorkindale is the president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, a nonprofit research foundation devoted to research that matters to the profession. IPR launched its Behavioral Insights Research Center in 2016.


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