Where the Whys End: Two Books Worth Reading

First published January 17, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I talked about the importance of asking why in marketing. I also talked about human hardware and operating systems — where I eventually find the end of my “why” trails. This week, I want to discuss two books that look at why we’re wired the way we are. One is a deeper dive than the other, but they’re both well worth the effort.
Descartes’ Error – Antonio Damasio
If Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” tantalized you, Damasio spreads out a 7-course feast to consider. Damasio provides the psychological and neurological underpinnings for the “Blink” phenomenon.

A neurologist, he was first drawn to the role of emotion in our decision-making process by two curious cases that shared much in common — that of Phineas Gage, a 19th century rail worker, and Elliott, a modern patient of Damasio’s.

Both men had severe damage to their prefrontal lobes; Gage because of an iron rod that was driven through his cheek behind his left eye and out the top of his skull by a mistimed gunpowder explosion, and Elliot as the result of the removal of a brain tumor. The two cases were remarkable because neither patient lost any of the mental abilities we normally associate with intelligence or competence. Gage never lost consciousness and talked rationally with his doctor throughout the entire incident. Elliott was subjected to a battery of intelligence and psychological tests after his surgery and scored normal or above normal in every one. Prior to their brain lesions, both had led successful lives and were admired individuals. Yet, after their misfortunes, both made a string of horrible decisions, leaving them unable to function in their social environments. Damasio wanted to know why, and the answer is the heart of his book.

“Descartes’ Error” probes fascinating territory, looking at how our bodies, emotions, environment and brain all make up our “mind” and our ability to make valid decisions. All these elements are inextricably linked in a network of feedback and feed-forward loops. Damasio doesn’t pull any punches, going into detail about the neurological and biological mechanisms, but he does so in a lucid and elegant writing style.


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini

Cialdini starts with a rather bizarre example of a conditioned response from the animal world: a turkey hen is programmed to protect her chicks when they cheep. If a turkey chick is cheeping, the hen is a model mom, gathering, nurturing and protecting her young. If the chick isn’t cheeping, the mom will ignore it and will sometimes even kill it.. But it gets more bizarre. The cheeping is the only thing the hen responds to. It doesn’t really care what is cheeping. Experimenters put a small recording playing the cheeping sound inside a stuffed polecat, a natural enemy of turkeys, and dragged it towards the turkey. Without the recording, the polecat was attacked with a fury. But with the recording, it was gathered to the turkey’s breast and protected.

Before we get too smug in differentiating ourselves from the easily duped turkey, Cialdini finds several examples where humans have similarly conditioned responses to certain situations and behaviors. Cialdini calls it the “click, whirr” response, where we have scripts that automatically play out when the right buttons are pushed. Through the years, salespeople and con men (Cialdini euphemistically calls them “compliance professionals”) have learned to activate these conditioned responses by setting up the right situations. He draws on examples as diverse as the Hare Krishnas and how the Chinese brainwashed American prisoners of war. After reading this book, you’ll never buy a car in quite the same way again. And heaven help the time-share salesperson that manages to rope you into one of his pitches. You may start seeking such salespeople out, just for the fun of it.

Cialdini’s tone is lighter than Damasio’s, but he’s no less diligent in doing his homework. He cites numerous studies and provides examples that are easy to relate to. And he does it with a self-effacing and engaging humor.

There are two to get you started. I’ve got a bookshelf filled with other candidates, so I’ll probably loop back in a few months and stock up your reading list again. In the meantime, if any of you readers have suggestions of books that probe the whys, please take a moment to share them with a quick blog post below.

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