There’s a great story in the October issue of US Wired.
It focuses on research conducted by Ralph Keeney, a decision analyst at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. He studied the proportion of deaths in the US that are attributable to personal choices – things like smoking, overeating or unsafe sex.
What he found is that 55% of deaths result from a behaviour that people choose to engage in. And for each of those behaviours there is a clear, well-established alternative. So, as the research notes, ‘most people are the agents of their own demise’.
I think this is interesting for a couple of reasons.
The finding does rather reinforce that people can’t be relied on to make rational decisions. In the face of significant evidence that something is unsafe (and not just unsafe, but potentially deadly) people still choose to do it. That’s surely the definition of irrational. (I find this interesting as someone who has regularly confronted the stupidity of his own decision-making and been alarmed to realise that despite overwhelming evidence that something was a bad decision he’s done it anyway. So I find some consolation in finding that I’m not alone, but I lose some consolation in realising that my stupidity might well kill me.)
And it’s a clear example of Optimism Bias (one of my favourite of all the psychological principles), the process by which we grossly underestimate the odds of something bad happening, but grossly overestimate the odds of something good happening. We convince ourselves that speeding won’t kill us (despite the fact that it has killed plenty of people before) just as we convince ourselves that there is a chance that we will win $22m in a Powerball jackpot (despite being made aware of the extraordinary odds against us winning).
Which I find interesting because it shows how deep-seated the bias is. At a certain level you can understand how just a natural sense of optimism allows you to believe that good things will happen and bad things won’t. On a day-to-day basis this is probably a very desirable behavioural trait. But when dealing with matters of life and death, decisions that are as significant as they come, we still exhibit the same bias.
Which has real implications for the role of marketing in trying to encourage people to modify behaviour. So much of what we do is predicated on the idea that success lies in finding the most interesting way to present facts. Quite reasonably it’s why we get really enthusiastic when presented with a product that lasts longer, a service that’s demonstrably quicker or any other situation in which ‘the facts speak for themselves’.
But what happens when the facts don’t speak for themselves? What do we do when the facts have a pretty compelling story to tell (compelling, as in ‘this could kill you’, compelling) and that’s still not enough? How do you ‘market’ your way around that?
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