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UnthinkingReview - Unthinking
The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy
by Harry Beckwith
Hachette Audio, 2011
Review by Anthony R Dickinson, Ph.D.
Oct 18th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 42)

A book describing the 'triumph of assuming over thinking', this latest volume by Beckworth combines the explanations of Marshall McLuhan and the more recent Crowdsourcing by Howe (see my earlier Metapsy reviews of 2008) and written in the style of Malcolm Gladwell, to better understand how and why the average consumer makes the choices that they do, in offloading their disposable incomes. The principle findings have much of value to inform today's marketers and advertisers, Beckworth's results (the 'surprising forces' of the subtitle) taking much account of real market-place data, but also the long neglected results of 30yrs research in the field of experimental psychology. Indeed, to the academic psychologist and neurologist, some of the findings of this volume may appear rather predictable. However, the book is no less important, nor any less significant, for its timely appearance in our new 'inundation age' (see last chapter), in which advertisers and marketers are fiercely competing for each of our individual, reducing, attentions towards their efforts to have us buy their particular items, products and services.

Several of Beckworth's chapters relate examples of consumer decision-making as being based upon 'gut feelings' and brand loyalties rather than the most relevant available data with regards real personal preference for product use and experience (think the Pepsi Challenge, in which 2/3 say they prefer Pepsi, yet still buy Coke, given the choice), with the additional observation that even given the most relevant data to their own logical explanation, most consumers will instead re-assemble those facts in a way consistent with their choices. This has for long been knows in Experimental Psychology as an example of Fessinger's Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Likewise the more familiar Placebo effect (cleverly called the 'No See bo' effect here), can be seen to be in action with regards research concerned with consumers' choice of 'best' hair restorers (control group users believing they are using known Branded samples report increasing hair density/length), and tasting 'superior' food quality (high end New York restaurants satisfying their diners though using pre-prepared dishes from Pizza Hut). The same expectancy theories, long since discussed in psychology 101 textbooks, reappear here, but written for the professional marketer sound a warning: we need to "develop, nurture, and manage great expectations' (Audio track 6.8), in wooing their customers, as they so often 'buy' the idea of a product, not its real substance -- and instead, use their 'expectations' (of the product) to change the way they perceive and feel about their purchases. Consider the 'power' of the big banks, for example, it is certainly NOT the real world data that influences so many IPO and M & A handlers to work with the leading brand names in banking (the smaller fund houses perform as well, if not better, on average), but our 'expectations' that they will perform better that nudges our commitment to do such business with them. Such thinking, or rather 'unthinking', is the core of Beckworth's thesis throughout this book, and reflects the average person's lack of metrics (or at least their lack of willingness to use such) with which to compare the real options available.

Of less welcome news to many readers, will be the several examples of simple 'gut feeling' and socially-influenced 'crowdsourcing' effects upon our purchasing decisions. Not simply the 'a million customers cannot be wrong, can they ?' variety, but of the more disturbing 'I do not wish to be regarded foolish for making the wrong choice/decision' variety -- less often realized, and seldom admitted when it is ! Beckworth's examples are excellently chosen, familiar products, and popular choices -- themselves key components of the personal (and all of the average American's) preference criteria set that we each employ so often in affecting our consumer purchase decisions. Without spoiling the story for you to read for yourself, Beckworth's key findings reveal that, in making our decision to buy -- we love the familiar (if not outright popular), and playful, especially if it is also clean, simple, smooth, and symmetrical,… but also a little surprising and pleasing at the same time. Other influences, again with great examples provided throughout the text, involve the consumers' desire for good cognitive fluency (marketers' stories need to be true, or at least believable) and appeal to our perceptual adaptation times (the new becomes the old remarkably fast today), whilst also helping them to feel 'a part' of the happening consumer scene and all that 'fashion' (in all its various guises) has to offer our self-esteem (or fear of loneliness !).

So, much of experimental psychology is indeed validated in market place behaviour, but what of our new neuroscience contributions to the better understanding of our purchase preferences and decision making ? As seen in the MRI scanner, we do indeed appear to be 'unthinking', at least when taking the 'Pepsi Challenge': when we do NOT know which we are drinking, it is the ventral putamen which lights up (x 5) when tasting the Pepsi -- an area involved in reward processing; in contrast, when we KNOW what we are drinking, it is the medial PFC (executive control) area which lights up differentially, in contrast to when tasting Pepsi colaAlso available in print and ebook formats, the current reviewer enjoyed the audio presentation very much -- heard 3 times, each during two straight sessions, and athough a little reminiscent of the voice often used by George 'W' Bush on occasion (as read by L. J. Ganser), is a book that I will be recommending to anyone interested in social psychology, consumerism or marketing, but also to anyone considering to start up, plan, or reevaluate, the performance of their own business enterprise.

 

© 2011 Anthony R. Dickinson

 

Dr. Anthony R. Dickinson, Academic Research Laboratory, KB EduTech Training (USA/China).


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