The Prerequisites For Being A Student Of Human Nature

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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.

5 comments about "The Prerequisites For Being A Student Of Human Nature".
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  1. C.t. Trivella from NAS Recruitment Communications, October 1, 2009 at 10:06 a.m.

    Your insight is dead on. Learning about human nature and what makes us "tick" is a life-long learning experience and one of the most interesting topics ever.

    I too believe customer centricity begins with a company philosophy, hires people with the same viewpoint and from this nucleus spreads the " good word" virally through every action and word to the outside world. In other words: see it, be it.

  2. Diane Richards from The Trust for Public Land, October 1, 2009 at 10:21 a.m.

    Three more scientists whose books are full of insight into human behavior:

    You Just Don't Understand-Deborah Tannen
    Forget Venus and Mars. This book is a linguist's science based exploration of the difference between female and male communication--how they differ and what those differences reveal. Lot's of "a-ha" moments.

    The Trouble With Testosterone - Robert Sapolsky
    This doesn't male bash, but rather dissects the physiology of feelings--and thus behavior. Sapolsky (Stanford) studies baboons but writes about people with profound understanding, humor and compassion

    Chimpanzee Politics - Frans de Waal
    A marine mammal expert (dolphin intelligence) at Emory University recommended this book during a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence--but that's another story) conference after I commented on how rudely her a presentation was interrupted by some of her older make colleagues--and how well she handled them. "Read Chimpanzee Politics" she said, "it explains everything." It did, and I read everything this primatologist (also at Emory) writes. His books are fascinating, fun, and humbling.

  3. Douglas Cleek from Magnitude 9.6, October 1, 2009 at 10:45 a.m.

    I like your description of how quirky we all are. That is an understatement. Back in the mid-90's, with the web fairly new on the scene and rapidly maturing into a primary information tool, I too was intrigued by the need to understand human behavior and how to apply that to the digital world. I was inspired by one publication in particular called "Marketing to the MInd." It introduced me to several ideas that we later developed into a set of tools for content organization and usability and how it applied to the digital world. One tool, we aptly labeled "MOM" for mode/objective/motivation, was extremely useful in defining users and tasks. I still use this as a tool to this day. The one constant fact is that human motivation is always the same.

    Now lets step back and look to see how this applies to search. It is certainly a behavior we all do more and more, and to some degree one of the primary addicting tools we use on a daily basis, or maybe that's just me. However, it does serve a basic human need and is therefore hard to ignore or rationalize. There needs to be a total integration throughout the entire customer brand life cycle process in order to be a truly customer-centric marketing organization.
    It can't be learned at a one hour seminar. It needs to be practiced daily. The exciting thing is that the process never ends and is constantly evolving.

  4. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, October 1, 2009 at 11:09 a.m.

    Thanks for further insight. I had a request for any interesting books on the subject. I have my list, but Diane had some great additions. Please feel free to leave a comment with your recommendations.

  5. Nancy Whiteman from The Whiteman Group, October 1, 2009 at 12:46 p.m.

    Hi Gordon,
    I thought this was fascinating. Is your list of "must-reads" on human behavior posted somewhere? (I confess I'm more interested in the accessible, Gladwell-esque type books than the academic tomes).

    I can recommend "How We Make Decisions" by Read Montague as a good one for marketers.

    Nancy Whiteman

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