Archive for the 'Consumer Behaviour' Category

Cause and effect in human health

Despite what most of the medical profession would have us believe, they have very little understanding of  the actual causes of or best treatments for the obesity epidemic currently sweeping the West.   What little scientific evidence there is on the relationship between exercise and body weight indicates that increasing exercise leads to increased weight (presumably because more activity makes the exerciser hungrier).   And the extensive scientific evidence on the relationship between dieting and weight indicates very strongly that this relationship is complicated, subject to contextual factors, and highly non-linear, with so-called “set points” that result in increased fat storage when calorie intake goes down significantly, for instance.

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Postcards to the future

Designer & blogger Russell Davies has an interesting post about sharing, but he is mistaken about books.   He says:

A mixtape is more valuable gift than a spotify playlist because of that embedded value, because everyone knows how much work they are, of the care you have to take, because there is only one. If it gets lost it’s lost. Sharing physical goods is psychically harder than sharing information because goods are more valuable. And, therefore, presumably, the satisfactions of sharing them are greater.  I bet there’s some sort of neurological/evolutionary trick in there, physical things will always feel more valuable to us because that’s what we’re used to, that’s what engages our senses. Even though ebooks are massively more convenient, usable and useful than paper ones, that lack of embodiedness nags away at us – telling us that this thing’s not real, not proper, not of value. (And maybe we don’t have the same effect with music because we’re less used to having music engage so many of our senses. It’s pretty unembodied anyway.)

No, it’s not that we value physical objects like books because we are used to doing so, nor (a really silly idea, this) because of some form of long-range evolutionary determinism.  (If our pre-literate ancestors only valued physical objects, why did they paint art on cave walls?)   No, we value books because they are a tangible reminder to us of the feelings we had while reading them, a souvenir postcard sent from our past self to our future self.

And no African would agree that music is unembodied. You show your appreciation for music you hear by joining in, physically, dancing or singing or tapping a foot or beating a hand in time. Music is the most embodied of the arts.




GTD Intelligence at Kimberly-Clark

I started talking recently about getting-things-done (GTD) intelligence.  Grant McCracken, over at This Blog Sits At, has an interview with Paula Rosch, formerly of fmcg company Kimberly-Clark, which illustrates this nicely.

I spent the rest of my K-C career in advanced product development or new business identification, usually as a team leader, and sometimes as what Gifford Pinchot called an “Intrapreneur” – a corporate entrepreneur, driving new products from discovery to basis-for-interest to commercialization.  It’s the nature of many companies to prematurely dismiss ideas that represent what the world might want/need 5, 10 years out and beyond in favor of near-term opportunities – the intrapreneur stays under the radar, using passion, brains, intuition, stealth, any and every other human and material resource available to keep things moving.  It helps to have had some managers that often looked the other way.

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Argumentation in public health policy

While on the subject of public health policy making under conditions of ignorance, linguist Louise Cummings has recently published an interesting article about the logical fallacies used in the UK debate about possible human variants of mad-cow disease just over a decade ago (Cummings 2009).   Two fallacies were common in the scientific and public debates of the time (italics in orginal):

An Argument from Ignorance:

FROM: There is no evidence that BSE in cattle causes CJD in humans.
CONCLUDE:  BSE in cattle does not cause CJD in humans.

An Argument from Analogy:

FROM:  BSE is similar to scrapie in certain respects.
AND: Scrapie has not transmitted to humans.
CONCLUDE:   BSE will not transmit to humans.

Cummings argues that such arguments were justified for science policy, since the two presumptive conclusions adopted acted to guide the direction and prioritisation of subsequent scientific research efforts.  These presumptive conclusions did so despite both being defeasible, and despite, in fact, both being subsequently defeated by the scientific research they invoked.   This is a very interesting viewpoint, with much to commend it as a way to construe (and to reconstrue) the dynamics of scientific epistemology using argumentation.  It would be nice to combine such an approach with Marcello Pera’s 3-person model of scientific progress (Pera 1994), the persons being:  the Investigator, the Scientific Community, and Nature.

Some might be tempted to also believe that these arguments were justified in public health policy terms – for example,  in calming a nervous public over fears regarding possible BSE in humans.   However, because British public policy makers did in fact do just this and because the presumptive conclusions were subsequently defeated (ie, shown to be false), the long-term effect has been to make the great British public extremely suspicious of any similar official pronouncements.   The rise in parents refusing the triple MMR vaccine for their children is a direct consequence of the false assurances we were given by British health ministers about the safety of eating beef.   An argumentation-based  theory of dynamic epistemology in public policy would therefore need to include some game theory.    There’s also a close connection to be made to the analysis of the effects of propaganda and counter-propaganda (as in George 1959), and of intelligence and counter-intelligence.

References:

Louise Cummings [2009]: Emerging infectious diseases: coping with uncertaintyArgumentation, 23 (2): 171-188.

Alexander L. George [1959]: Propaganda Analysis:  A Study of Inferences Made from Nazi Propaganda in World War II.  (Evanston, IL, USA: Row, Peterson and Company).

Marcello Pera [1994]: The Discourses of Science. (Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press).

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The future is not what it was

The Internet, as imagined in 1969, complete with free sexism. (Hat tip:  SW).




In these times

You are a man of leisure, a sleepwalker, a mollusc.  The definitions vary according to the hour of the day, or the day or the week, but the meaning remains clear enough: you do not really feel cut out for living, for doing, for making; you want only to go on, to go on waiting; and to forget.

Such an outlook on life is generally not much appreciated in modern times:  all around you, all your life, you have seen the esteem in which action is held, and grand designs, and enthusiam:  man straining forward, man with his gaze fixed on the horizon, man looking straight ahead.  A clear gaze, a powerful chin, a confident swagger, stomach held in.  Staying power, initiative, strokes of brilliance, success:  all of these things map out the too transparent part of a too examplary existence, constitute the sacrosanct images of the struggle for life.  The white lies, the comforting illusions of all those who are running on the spot, sinking deeper into the mire, the lost illusions of the thousands left on society’s scrap heap, those who arrived too late, those who put their suitcase down on the pavement and sat on it to wipe their brow.  But you no longer need excuses, regrets, nostalgia.  You reject nothing, you refuse nothing. You have ceased going forward, but that is because you weren’t going forward anyway, you’re not setting off again, you have arrived, you can see no reason to go any further” (pages 142-143)

Reference:

Georges Perec [1967]:  A Man Asleep.  (Translation by Andrew Leak published 1990 in London, UK by The Harvill Press.)




Knowing and understanding The Other

I have previously defined marketing as the organized creation and management of perceptions, which I am sure is not a controversial definition among marketers.   Effective perception management requires you to know and understand all the other entities in your business environment —  your customers, your competitors, your upstream suppliers, your downstream distributors, other partners (such as providers of credit to your customers), and your regulators.  What does it mean to “know and understand” someone?

Well, you can listen to their words and observe their actions.   But words may not provide much guidance to actions – people are notoriously unreliable predictors – or even recallers – of their own behaviour, and they may have many reasons (legitimate or not) to prevaricate, dissemble or distort reality when speaking about their own past actions and intentions.   And observing their actions may be too late if you have a major investment decision to make, such as Go-No Go decision for new product development or new venture launch.  So, “understanding” people means you need to know their intentions, perhaps better than they do themselves.   And for this, you need to understand people’s personalities, their attitudes, their cultures, and the environments in which they make their decisions.   None of this easy, and it requires a great deal of empathy and sympathy with the people you are trying to understand.  Marketing research might be defined as an organized attempt to identify and deploy rigorous methods aiming to know and understand a target group of entities.

The same deep challenge arises for intelligence agencies, who are also trying to know and understand a group of people.    As CIA veteran Robert Baer (among many others) has argued, all the sophisticated satellite imagery and data-mined mobile phone calls in the world won’t tell you about what is inside people’s heads, and what intentions they have.  For that (he argues), people on the ground are needed, able to operate seamlessly within the culture of the targeted community, listening and talking to the enemy.    Empathy and sympathy are necessary here too, although these attributes are often disparaged by many involved as “taking the side of the enemy” or “going native”.     I have long been struck by how much the people leading CIA and successive US administrations in the 1950s and 1960s were able – sometimes more so and sometimes less – to empathize with their opposite numbers in the Kremlin (eg, during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but completely unable to empathize with the supporters of the Vietminh and the Communist Party of Vietnam in the same period.  Former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, to his lasting credit, seems to have realised this, if only in retrospect.  (This failure to empathize with the Vietnamese is even more remarkable given the USA’s own armed struggle to achieve Independence from colonial rule.)

Seeing last week Uli Edel’s film, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (a film treatment of Stefan Aust’s book) brought these thoughts to mind again, because the film portrays the primary intelligence official leading the West German Government’s anti-terrorist efforts against the Baader Meinhof Group (aka the Red Army Faction, RAF) in the 1970s as quite able to empathize with the RAF, or at least to understand with sympathy their reasons for turning to violence.   When 10% of the population in northern Gemany (according to some polls) felt able to say to a pollster that they would be willing to hide members of the RAF in their homes if asked, then considerable tactical cunning and subtlety would be required to defeat the terrorists.    Such tactics do not come from nowhere, but require empathy and sympathy of the terrorist cause for their ideation and effective execution.

Alex Goodall, over at A Swift Blow to the Head, has a new post trying to understand the historical motivations of the terrorists likely to have been behind the Mumbai atrocity last week.   Such efforts at understanding are to be applauded.  Were President-elect Obama to nominate me to the post of Director of CIA, my first action would be to commission independent historical analyses of Catholic resistance to the Protestant rule of Elizabeth I’s police-state in 16th century England (among whose victims was Robert Southwell), and of the anarchist and revolutionary socialist campaigns of terror and assassination in the second half of the 19th century common across the developed world.  My aim in this would be to ask what lessons have been learnt from these past experiences.   Which leads me to wonder:  where is the intelligence community’s Centre for Lessons Learned?

Postcript: An immediate objection to the relevance of these ideas to contemporary events may be that the Catholic recusants in Elizabethan and Jacobean England were not, in general, suicide bombers.   While it is correct that they were mostly not bombers, a characteristic common to the English Catholic priests illegally returning to England to work underground in this period was apparently a great personal desire for martyrdom.  And in this desire they had  – and perhaps still have – considerable sympathy in the Catholic community.   The nearest Roman Catholic Church to where I am writing this post (in England), and built just 40 years ago, has a side chapel devoted to The English Martyrs.

References:

Stefan Aust [2008]:  The Baader-Meinhof Complex.  London, England:  The Bodley Head. (Translation by Anthea Bell.)

Robert Baer [2002]:  See No Evil.  The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.  New York, NY, USA:  Three Rivers Press.

Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex.  Germany.

Errol Morris [Director, 2003]:  The Fog of War:  Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. USA.




The network is the consumer

Different Network Topologies Economists use the term network good to refer to a product or service where one user’s utility depends, at least partly, on the utility received by other users. A fax machine is an example, since being the sole owner of fax is of little value to anyone; only when others in your business network also own fax machines does owning one provide value to you. Thus, a rational consumer would determine his or her preferences for such a good only AFTER learning the preferences of others.   This runs counter to the standard model of decisions in economic decision theory, where consumers come to a purchase decision with their preferences pre-installed; for network goods, the preferences of rational consumers are formed instead in the course of the decision process itself, not determined beforehand.   Preferences are emergent phenomena, in the jargon of complex systems.

What I find interesting as a marketer is that ALL products and services have a network-good component. Even so-called commodities, such as natural resources or telecommunications bandwidth, can be subject to fashion and peer-group pressure in their demand.  You can’t get fired for buying IBM, was the old saying.   Sellers of so-called commodities such as coal or bauxite know that the buyers make their decisions, at least in part, on the basis of what other large buyers are deciding.  Lest any mainstream economist reading this disparage such consumer behaviour, note that in an environment of great uncertainty or instability, it can be perfectly rational to follow the crowd when making purchase decisions, since a group may have access to information that any one buyer does not know.  If you are buying coal from Australia for your steel plant in Japan, and you learn that your competitors are switching to buying coal from Brazil, then there could be good reasons for this; as they are your competitors, it may be difficult for you to discover what these good reasons are, and so imitation may be your most rational strategic response.

For any product and service with a network component, even the humblest, there are deep implications for marketing strategies and tactics.  For example, advertising may not merely provide information to potential consumers about the product and its features.  It can also assist potential consumers to infer the likely preferences of other consumers, and so to determine their own preferences. If an advertisement appeals to people like me, or people to whom I aspire to be like, then I can infer from this that those other people are likely to prefer the product being advertized, and thus I can determine my own preferences for it. Similarly, if the advertisement appeals to people I don’t aspire to be like, then I can infer from this that I won’t be subject to peer pressure or fashion trends, and can determine my preferences accordingly.

For several decades, the prevailing social paradigm to describe modern, western society has been that of The Information Society, and so, for example, advertising has been seen by many people primarily as a form of information transmission.  But, in my opinion, we in the west are entering an era where a different prevailing paradigm is appropriate, perhaps best called The Joint-Action Society;  advertising then is also assisting consumers to co-ordinate their preferences and their decisions.    I’ll talk more about the Joint-Action Society in a future post.