Aug 6, 2013

Evolution and the hidden cognitive bias that’s sabotaging advertising’s future

It’s a curiosity of scientific progress that black holes were postulated decades before a theory of evolution was¹. Not only is evolution a latecomer to the party, it also happens to be a straggler when it comes to popular appeal.

Why did it take so long for someone to come up with the idea of evolution? And even after 150 querulous years, why is it that so many people struggle to accept it?

According to Ernst Mayr, architect of neo-Darwinism, the blame rests squarely with Plato².

Plato believed that the world we inhabit is but an imperfect projection - a shadow - of an ideal world; a flawed departure from its perfect essence³.

For eg., there are rabbits in the world but there also is the ideal ‘Rabbit’, which is perfect and immutable for all time. Real world rabbits do differ from this ideal ‘Rabbit’ - they may have longer ears or differently coloured eyes. But these, in essence, are undesirable deviations from the ideal 'Rabbit', which serves as a conceptual blueprint for how all rabbits should be⁴.

Similarly, according to Plato, for every living and non-living thing there exists a category type of the same - its perfect version. Every thing in the world ‘strives’ to embody its category type.

As inheritors of the Greek tradition of thinking, we continue to see the world through the lens of this idea - a cognitive bias now dubbed essentialism⁵.

Essentialism has us believe that the categories we assign to things (and people) have a deep underlying basis to them. Instead of viewing categories as a helpful way of understanding the world, we begin to see them as factual features that are actually present in the world.

Based on this, we expect sharp and pronounced divides between different categories - triangles and squares, but also rabbits and non-rabbits. Any intermediates are only temporary anomalies.

To really appreciate evolution, however, one needs to disavow essentialism and see the world through the prism of ‘population thinking’.

There are no ideal types in the world, only real instances of populations with variations in characteristics. There is no perfect Rabbit form. Moreover, today’s commonplace rabbit form is anything but immutable and could have very different characteristics a thousand years hence, depending on selection pressures.

Evolution, if nothing else, is a wholehearted embracing of variation.

* * *

If essentialism has a professional cheerleading squad, it has to be the advertising industry.

At the heart of every advertising or brand-building endeavour is an exercise in essentialism.

Step 1: Define an archetypal experience or consumer: for eg., the tastiest burger, the sexiest man, the healthiest breakfast, the smartest housewife or the bounciest hair. Step 2: Present any deviations from these ‘ideals’ as sharply delineated and deeply flawed. Step 3: Suggest corrective action, buying the brand in question.

That’s not all. The process of creating advertising, from start to finish, rests on driving wedges of categorisation in a spectrum of contiguous variations: generations of consumers (Gen Xers OR Millenials), proficiency in using technology (digital natives OR digital immigrants), consumer affinity (favorability OR advocacy), brand personality (hero OR sage), and so on.

And it goes deeper still. Unlike magicians, we remain convinced in the magic of our own trick, even after the curtains have come down.

So when thinking about the future of our industry, we continue to resort to the categorical clarity of Platonic ideals.

We dichotomise between creative types and everyone else (We have a monopoly on creativity); between professionally produced ads and user generated content (Nobody would do this for free); between bold visionary ideas and ideas that arise out of research and testing (A consumer can have nothing constructive to add); between ads that look like ads and content marketing (Nobody wants to read, everyone wants to be entertained); between stories and data (Everybody loves to listen to stories); between the eternal kingdom of advertising and the end of all advertising as we know it (Nothing will change! Everything will change!)

Our instinctive response to all problems - including our own - is to seek ‘essences’, to leave no room for intermediates. Our reality remains firmly bounded by our ideas of it, rather than the other way around.

While Platonic certainty served us well in simpler times, the present and the future are decidedly messier⁶. To thrive in these interesting times, we need to master an ability to experiment with and vary our response to the world, not impose our mental order on it⁷.

But as long as we continue to see any deviation from the norm as an undesirable (and temporary) aberration and as long as we continue to mistake the map for the territory, we are destined to remain trapped in an essentialist maze of our own making.

References and Notes:
1. John Michell elaborated on the idea of blackholes in a paper presented to the Royal Society in 1793 (John Michell and Black Holes). Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s ideas of evolution were first presented to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858 (Wikipedia: On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection).
2. Ernst Mayr presents this argument in his book ‘What Evolution Is’ (and elsewhere.) Richard Dawkins writes in The Greatest Show On Earth, “According to Mayr, the reason Darwin was such an unconscionable time arriving on the scene was that we all - whether because of Greek influence or some from other reason - have essentialism burned into our mental DNA.”
3. This is the idea captured in Plato's Allegory of The Cave.
4. Richard Dawkins uses a rabbit to explain essentialism and population thinking in The Greatest Show on Earth. Since I discovered the distinction in his book, I saw no reason to change the example animal in my own narration.
5. “Essentialism is a cognitive bias that people across a wide range of cultures seem to have, and across a wide range of ages too. It’s a belief that the everyday categories in the world around us have some deep underlying basis to them.” (An Interview with Susan Gelman PDF link)
6. Nicholas Nassim Taleb writes in The Black Swan, “The Platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide. It is here that the Black Swan is produced.”
7. Gareth Kay in his piece Advertising’s Kodak Moment I.M.H.O. calls on the advertising industry to take on a hacker’s approach to solving problems: “... hacking is about a predisposition and bias towards speed. It’s about solving a problem in a better, faster and easier way. It fights the tyranny of perfection that far too often slows us down. It lets us move and experiment at least as fast as culture.”
Adrian Ho in his Cannes presentation on innovation and agencies references Bruce Lee’s martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do which is “A style without style.” This idea of foregoing hardset techniques is also captured in Bruce Lee’s famous quote : “Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Both Gareth Kay's and Adrian Ho's calls for advertising to adopt a looser, less-wedded-to-technique and problem-solving attitude are, in my opinion, a call for an end to essentialism in the industry.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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