We all see what we want to see

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Math won’t help you, little fella.

CONFIRMATION BIAS IN MARKETING

Last week there was a sad story in the New York Times about a respected particle physicist at the University of North Carolina, Paul Frampton, a PhD from Oxford, falling for one of the oldest scams in the book. He’s now languishing in an Argentine prison for drug smuggling (actually, he’s just under house arrest at a friend’s). You have to read the original story for details (the Physicist, the Bikini Model, and the Suitcase Full of Trouble). But the gist of it is, here was this brilliant scientist, undoubtedly a measurable genius, who believed he was having an online love affair with a gorgeous, European model forty years his junior. They never met in person or spoke on the phone; only chatted online or texted. When she wanted to meet him in Bolivia, of all places (she was going to be on a photoshoot in La Paz), he leaped at the chance. And then, after he flew to La Paz to meet her, she texted him that her plans got changed (OMG) but could he pick up a suitcase of hers at the hotel and meet her in Brussels, flying through Argentina? She said an e-ticket was waiting for him at his connection in Buenos Aires and…

“ALRIGHT!” YOU’RE THINKING, “HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!”

How could a Beautiful Mind like this fall for such a blatant, old scam? Of course, any half-wit could see he was being set up as a drug mule. And of course, the Argentine authorities saw it as well. That’s why they were waiting for him when he landed in BA. But how could he not see what was happening? Even his friends were urgently shaking his shoulders that this was a scam; that he was being “catfished.”  But he wouldn’t believe it. Oh no, this twenty-something, gorgeous Czech model he’d met through online dating was madly in love with a 68-year-old particle physics geek. Why isn’t that plausible? What’s not to trust?

It’s because, genius or no, Professor Frampton was subject to the same tendency we all have when it comes to judgment; we see what we want to see. Don’t confuse him (or us) with the facts. It’s almost like we want to be rolled. So thousands of otherwise perfectly intelligent people every year still fall for Nigerian 419 scams. And college football players have what they think are real, online love affairs with young women they never met. And, of course, there’s snake oil we buy from DRTV ads, promising that our “Low T” can be cured by smearing this gunk on our armpit (just don’t get near any women or children).

MATH WON’T HELP YOU

Our hapless, lonely professor even used his prowess at math to “prove” he was right about his love object. This was the same person who had developed an algorithm to determine, to five standard deviations of certainty (99.99994%), that the experiments being conducted on the Large Hadron Collider were, in fact, seeing evidence of the Higgs Boson. He used (or misused) the same algorithm to determine that the probability that Ms. Czech Republic 2010 was in love with him had the same level of certainty. I’m not kidding.

Guess what. Math can’t prove everything. I got a C+ in Statistics 312 in college and I could have told him that.

BUT THE SECOND UNBREAKABLE RULE CAN HELP

In our book, The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing (now on Amazon! shameless plug), this almost self-willed blindness falls under Rule #2: Perception is Reality. People believe what they want to believe, and they see the world the way they want to see it. They’ll even select data and facts to fit their belief. This is a well-researched and proven behavioral phenomenon called Confirmation Bias. And it can be used for good. Or –as with the Professor and the Model–evil.

In marketing you obey this rule to cultivate loyalty in your customers, recognizing what they want to believe and gently reinforcing it or nudging them away from it. The application of the rule doesn’t itself constitute a scam, because you can (and should) use it to persuade people to believe beneficial things, or genuinely improve their lives. But you can use it to snooker people, too. Even PhDs.

The Second Unbreakable Rule is ethically neutral. It just describes how confirmation bias applies to marketing.

THE SMARTER THEY ARE, THE HARDER THEY FALL

The educational level or IQ of the person you’re cultivating doesn’t have any bearing on whether they can be influenced or not. In fact, I would contend, through personal experience, that the higher the degree, the more prone they are to manipulation…er…persuasion. That’s because, besides hobbled like the rest of us with confirmation bias (seeing what we want to see), they also suffer from over-confidence in their perspicacity. I call it the Rock Star syndrome. Success in one, narrow field leads to the self-delusion that you are an expert in all fields. Just look at me.

I’ve sat in on marketing focus groups with PhDs, listening to them describe themselves as being unswayed by the blandishments of brands; they pick their instruments based on hard, cold data. Then we all watched them get emotional about why they hated (not just didn’t prefer–hated) this brand of scientific instrument over another. When presented with the cold, hard data about the brands they favored or disdained, they said they didn’t believe it. Or, they picked out the data that conformed to their emotional prejudices. We all do.

So I love advertising to scientists, bless their hearts. Wrapped up in their intellectual hubris, they tend to be some of the more persuadable people because they are completely unaware of the role (or, in the case of poor Prof. Frampton, the roll) of emotion in their decision-making. They tend to think they are all Mr. Spock.

I know a sales-engineer with one of my hi-tech, B2B clients who describes a technique he uses called “The Illusion of Data.” Stick a chart or a graph in your ad, load it with irrelevant numbers like Throughput Rates, Torque, AXT (Alien Crosstalk–this is a real measurement), or Noodles per Furlong, and engineers won’t even look carefully at it; they’ll just assume that, “OMG! Look at the stats on that baby!”

I would never do such a cynical ploy, though. No. I respect the intelligence of my audience.

Wanna be my girlfriend?

2 comments

  1. Laura Hammond

    Jeff tells the truth! I’ve marketed to engineers all my life. I’ve actually seen them pound the table defending that they don’t pay attention to brand, only to turn around and defend one based on nothing but personal bias. And yes, I’d be your girlfriend any day.

  2. Lincoln Brigham

    I’ve seen the “Illusion of Data” first hand. There was an article going around in my industry full of references to science studies. When the references were looked up, they turned out to be irrelevant, imaginary, contradictory to the author’s view, or flat-out falsified. The reaction was, “Doesn’t matter, I’ll keep quoting the article because the conclusion agrees with my principles.” Hoo boy.

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