The Prerequisites for Being a Student of Human Nature

First published October 1, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week I asked for input on the upcoming Search Insider Summit. Of the seven possible topic areas I presented, the highest level of interest was in the role of human behavior in digital marketing. You, the Search Insider faithful, have made me very happy. But being an avid student of human nature, I feel it’s only fair to warn you what to expect as you continue down this path.  Some years ago, I too was intrigued by human behavior and thought it would be interesting to “learn a little bit more.” But learning about human nature is pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. Think of it as having a baby. The first few minutes of the process might be fun, but soon you learn you’ve just signed on for a lifetime commitment. You’d better make sure you’re ready.

The True Meaning of Customer-Centricity

I’ve been criticized in the past for using the term “customer-centric” (the practical application of studying human nature), but I suspect it’s because the term has lost its original meaning as it’s been adopted into the lexicon of “Dilbert-speak.” Customer-centric is one of those terms bandied about in board meetings and corporate retreats, along with “synergistic” and “holistic.”

But customer-centricity represents much more than a quick paragraph in the annual report. It’s the core you build a company around. It’s a commitment that lays the foundation for everything an organization does: the people it hires, the way it develops products, the way it formulates business processes, the way it markets and even the way who sits beside whom in the office gets decided. Customer-centricity is a religion, not a corporate fad.

There Aren’t Any Shortcuts

As I found out, if you are going to commit to learning more about human behavior in the goal of becoming a better marketer, don’t be surprised when you discover that this commitment can’t be met in a one-hour session or by reading a book. Humans are a lot more complex than that. There’s a lot of weird and wonderfully quirky machinery jammed in our skulls.

I was humbled to learn that people devote their entire lives to exploring just one tiny part of why we humans do what we do. Joseph LeDoux, one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, has spent years exploring how fear is triggered in rats. Ann Graybiel  at MIT has made a similar commitment to exploring the role of the basal ganglia in how habits form and play out.  Antonio Damasio’s  extensive work with patients with pre-frontal cortical lesions led to his somatic marker theory, foundational insight into the area of human behavior Malcolm Gladwell explored and popularized in his book “Blink.” These are all tiny little pieces in the overall puzzle that is human behavior, yet each of these is integral in understanding how we respond to marketing messages.

Beyond the Cocktail Party Quip

Today, several years after I started down this road, I hope people find my insights on human behavior interesting. There’s that brief light bulb moment that happens when “what” is matched with a plausible “why” — when a psychological or neurological trigger for a puzzling human trait is identified.  “Hmm – that’s really interesting,” is the common response, and then it’s on to the next thing (possibly mumbling something about me being a “pedantic bore”). Yes, it is really interesting, but it wasn’t a quick or easy path to get here.

Sometime ago I decided a quick primer in human behavior would be interesting. I started with the more accessible books (such as Gladwell’s) and was instantly hooked. I next moved to books by academics doing the actual research that provided the fodder for Gladwell and other’s popularizations: LeDoux, Damasio, Edelman, Rose, Pinker, Chomsky and others.  Before I knew it, I was wading through academic papers. Today, the bookshelf in my home office is packed with fairly hefty tomes on everything from evolutionary psychology to the social patterns of the 20th Century. My wife and kids can’t remember the last time I read a book that didn’t have a brain on the cover.

I share this as a warning. I discovered developing even a basic understanding of human behavior is at least a multiyear commitment. I’ve never regretted it, but I also know that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. But here’s what I also discovered along the way. Even a basic understanding will give you a whole new perspective on pretty much everything, including marketing. The one common denominator in all marketing is that it’s aimed at people. If you’re ready to start the journey, I’m sure you won’t regret it.

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