Needs, Beliefs and Search

First published August 7, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In the last few weeks, I’ve looked at how we gather information, depending on how complete the information is we already have. But it’s not just information that colors the search interaction. Like all human interactions, we are governed by our desires, our objectives and our beliefs, and this is certainly true in search.

Computing Concepts

Steven Pinker is one of the foremost proponents of a computational theory of mind. Following in the footsteps of Alan Newell, Alan Turing, Herbert Simon   and  Marvin Minsky,  Pinker argues that our “minds” lie within the patterns of information processing and functionality founds in the specialized modules of our brains. Like a software program being executed step by step, our minds break down the incredibly complex concepts we are faced with each day and feed them through these patterns. We create objectives that get us closer to our desires, and in order to get there in the most efficient way possible, we depend on a vast library of heuristic shortcuts that include our beliefs. We don’t think everything to death. We make quick decisions and create short cuts based on existing beliefs. Simon called this  bounded rationality.

Irrational Short Cuts

The challenge with these short cuts, as  Amos Tversky,  Daniel Kahneman, and more recently,  Dan Ariely, have discovered, is that they’re often quite irrational. Our beliefs are often driven by inherent patterns that have evolved over thousands of years. While they may be triggered by information at hand, the beliefs lie within, formed from a strange brew of inherent drivers, cultural influences and personal experience. In this brew, it’s almost impossible to see where one belief shaper begins and another leaves off. Our beliefs are largely formed in our vast mental sub-cortical and subterranean basement, below the hard white light of rational thought. But, once formed, beliefs are incredibly stubborn. Because we rely on beliefs to save our cognitive horsepower, we have an evolutionary interest in keeping them rigidly in place. Heuristic shortcuts don’t work very well if they’re based on ever-changing rules.

And there you have the crux of marketing. Every time we’re presented with a symbol that represents a concept, whether it be a word, a picture, a sound or a logo, it unlocks a mental concept complete with corresponding beliefs. Unless it’s a brand we’ve never heard of before (in itself a significant marketing challenge), that brand comes with corresponding belief luggage, some of it undoubtedly highly irrational. We are built to quickly categorize every new presentation of information into existing belief filing cabinets or “schemas.” The contents of those filing cabinets are difficult to explore, because they exist at a subconscious level. Consultants such as  Gerald Zaltman and  Clotaire Rappaille have carved out lucrative careers by creating methods to unlock the subconscious codes that lie behind brands.

Search and Our Subconscious Baggage

So, when we interact with a search engine, it’s important to understand that this is not entering new information onto a blank canvas. Each word (or now, image) on a search page has the potential to trigger an existing concept. This is especially true for the appearance of brands on a page. Brands are neat little labels that can sum up huge bundles of beliefs.

It’s actually amazing to consider how quickly we can filter through the degree of information presented on a search page. We quickly slice away the irrelevant and the items that don’t fit within our existing belief schemas.

It’s not just the information on the page that we have to filter through. It’s all the corresponding baggage that it unlocks within us. Somehow, through the power of our subconscious mind, we can scan 4 or 5 listings, let the words we scan trigger corresponding concepts in our minds, quickly evaluate which listing is most likely to get us closer to our objective (based on beliefs, aligned with our desire) and click, all within a few seconds.

This simple act of using a search engine is actually a very impressive and intricate cognitive ballet using the power of our conscious and subconscious minds.

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