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Mapping Human Behavior for Business

May 20, 2012 • Marketing & Consumers, STRATEGY & MANAGEMENT

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By Alexander Bentley, Mark Earls and Michael J. O’Brien

Brand data often show that “I’ll have what she’s having” is a better default setting than “I’ll select the rational option.” But when everyone just shrugs and says, “I’ll have what she’s having,” there is no guarantee that the best things are what rise to the top. So how can real market data be used to “map” decisions along the dimensions of social influence and information?

It has become commonplace in recent years for marketers to dip into the social sciences to see what tools they can borrow to better understand human behaviors. The current mania for neuroscience is an excellent example. One rarely discussed problem with these carefree forays is that individual social sciences make very different assumptions about the behaviors they describe. To the classical economist, for example, rational actors monopolize the human stage, each with an uncanny ability to maximize benefits and minimize costs. These self-contained individuals rarely depend on anyone but themselves for learning new behaviors. By contrast, evolutionary psychologists assume our choices are driven by ancient hunter–gatherer instincts that can seem irrational in a modern Western society. They would argue that people gobble up sugary snacks because their hominid ancestors needed to grab them while they could. The anthropologist has very different assumptions again: humans as highly social animals, which means that almost all their decisions involve social learning and negotiation—sharing food, learning from prestigious people in the kinship group, and making alliances. Is one discipline right and the others wrong? Not exactly. Part of the answer is that the different disciplines operate at different scales, and that’s why they make different useful assumptions, from the psychology of the pensive, isolated individual to the sociology of frantic market populations. At one extreme, an individual makes a well- (or otherwise-) informed decision. At the other extreme, people effectively copy one another without thinking about it. In the vast area in between these extremes, understanding the individual’s behavior means also understanding the social context.

In our recently published book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior, we show how real market data – the kind most businesses and government bodies already possess – can be used to “map” decisions along the dimensions of social influence and information (Figure 1). It is a simple heuristic map, but it captures the essential elements of human decision-making that should be of concern to businesses and marketers in particular. As we show in the book, brand data often show that “I’ll have what she’s having” is a better default setting than “I’ll select the rational option.”



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