Lessons from Peterson & McGilchrist: what marketers can learn from two prominent public intellectuals?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Recently we have been witnessing a kind-of resurgence of competitive intellectualism. It's now commonplace to find names such as Sam Harris and Bret Weinstein in the headlines, mostly condemning such intellects with labels such as 'libtard' and 'neo-nazi' whilst only showing two-minute soundbites of what they said as its being taken out of context 

          The internet has now given individuals such as these a new platform on which to speak. Podcasts are an old medium which has seen recent growth in popularity, and is one place has now become a library of ideas (we should note that podcasts should also be incorporated more by brands). YouTube has acted as an extension to the new-found intellectual podcast movement, in the sense that podcasters are now filming what would have typically just been an audio-recording, for audiences who'd like to stream the chat. This has given everyday people the opportunity to watch intellectuals speak to each other in extended conversations where ideas are now debated and explored in conversation form. 


I'd like to see what we can learn, from a marketing perspective, from a 30-minute conversation between two prominent public intellectuals: author of 12 Rules for Life, Dr Jordan B Peterson & author of The Master and his Emissary, Dr Iain McGilchrist. 

 

The first interesting point we come across comes straight from the McGilchrist, as a response to Peterson asking him why is book is called 'the master and the emissary'. He explains that the right side of the brain is 'the master'... The traditional thoughts regarding this topic have generally seen the left side of the brain being the more dominant. McGilchrist disagrees. He believes that the right side of the brain is the dominant side. He argues that the reason for this is that humans have more inhibiting neurones in both quantity and variety than in any other animals, having 25% more (yes, proportionally) than any other primate.

 

McGilchrist cites research which indicates that the corpus callosum (the band of nerve fibres which separates the two hemispheres of the brain) inhibits activity in the opposing hemisphere. He believes that, through evolution, the corpus callosum seems to have developed this ability to delegate certain patterns of thought to do two distinct things. Inhibition seems to be the tactic the corpus callosum had adopted. Therefore, McGilchrist argues, that the brain has specialised in two different ways to operate, hence the hemispheric differences. He states that these two hemispheres “have different qualities, and different goals, different values, different takes on what is important, and meaning.” 

 

This idea comes from the familiar left / right brain idea, stating that the left hand side of the brain controls creativity and that the right hand side of the brain controls rationality, and thus influencing our actions and decisions. For who those are unfamiliar with the origins of this theory, it came about in the 1960s and was later popularised by a 1973 New York Times article, titled ‘Two Astonishingly Different Persons Inhibit Our Heads’.

          Since then, intellectuals and practitioners have taken this model and adapted it in different ways. One modern and popular derivative of this theory is psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Dual System’ theory which outlines two modes of thought: fast thinking (system 1) & slow thinking (system 2). Kahneman describes fast thinking as something “that happens to you,” being the thought pattern which is our instinctual way of thinking which takes place immediately and involuntarily. Slow thinking is described as “something that you do,” the effortful mental events that take place, the conscious, methodological and controlled thoughts we have.

 

This idea may put some marketers at ease, or perhaps some will see this as another challenge on their list of challenges. But is it relevant to their job? Maybe not directly, but it certainly is relevant to the general understanding towards the human psyche. If something has two different meanings to us, how can marketers use this knowledge when working for their clients? How much do these two meanings differ from each other? Are any one persons values fundamentally different based on whatever the corpus callosum decides, or are our values an amalgamation of these two apparently different trains of thought? This is a topic which must be further explored by researchers, but it should stand as food for thought. 

          If the right-hemisphere is the one in charge, how should marketers take this on board? If creativity is the process this side processes, this could be the reason why creative advertising campaigns are the more effective ones. It is known that creativity does drive emotional responses, so does utilising this knowledge mean that triggering these neuroprocesses helps to activate the eventual left-hemisphere decision to actively purchase the advertised product/service/brand?

Peterson follows on from this by mentioning Sokolov’s 1963 idea of ‘orienting response’, which he describes as 'when something undesired happens'. Peterson suggests that we all, essentially have a conceptual scheme of our lives. He continues that the orienting reflex directs our attention towards anomalies - subjects that don't fit in properly to our conceptual scheme - that we then have to figure out. Once we identify the anomaly our exploratory systems are activated, and that the first thing our exploratory systems do is to enhance our attention, then that the right side of our brain "generates an imaginative landscape of possibility that could map that anomaly."

 

He then continues to explain, with an example of a strange noise happening at night, what may be occurring in the mind in the time between the noise and the discovery of the cause of it. He says that, "the mind will fill with imaginative representations of what might be in the room," and that this is right-hemispheric function is then constrained until an answer is found, which then puts the brain into a 'specialised or routinised' function. McGilchrist brings up that, "the right-hemisphere is on the lookout for predators right whereas the left hemisphere is looking for prey," and that this can be seen throughout research into animals.

          McGilchrist expands this point by mentioning that "getting and grasping" is left-hemisphere function, and that exploring is a right-hemisphere function. This also ties into our natural physical tendencies, that our left hand generally conducts 'meaningless' exploratory motions, and that our right hand it's conducting 'grasping' motions.

 

Putting this into a modern marketing perspective, a 2014 study showed that advertising recall was higher for online pop-up adverts compared to online banner adverts. This puts Peterson & McGilchrists discussion about the orienting response into real-life application for marketers. Pop-up adverts online usually aren't expected (unless the user is already familiar with the specific channel), and would immediately gather attention to said advert.

          I understand that there may be a huge challenge in trying to manipulate what consumer's hemispheric responses may be to advertisements. However, perhaps there are ways in which certain individuals who fit into psychographic models may correlate in terms of their responses. Of course, it would be impossible to fully map everyone's hemispheric responses to the world around them, but could this response be influenced to think in a certain way? Possibly, more attention-grabbing advertisements could also be sophisticated to some level, where satisfaction from solving the sophistication of the advertisement may then transfer over to satisfaction (or maybe affinity) towards the brand. Would such a tactic help make the messaging more memorable, and therefore the brand?

One example of the orienting response in action could be Cancer Research UK's obesity campaign. Put simply, the advert isn't what you'd expect from an advert (never mind for a charity). The star of the show has been the OOH element (pictured below). 

First, it gathers our attention. Why? When does an advert ever ask us to fill in the blanks? It is truly a simple idea which illustrates the point clearly. The brain doesn't see what it's expecting (a whole word), but now is left to try and figure out what the message of the advert is. The initial response would be to perform a right-hemisphere function by imagining what it should say. The left-hemisphere functionality now accelerates - which word has the letters O B S Y in it? - is there anything around it that indicates what it should say? - and the brain will keep looking for things which gives it an answer. 

          The left-hemisphere then does the rational work of deciding whether or not what we concluded is appropriate to what we're looking at. It will be able to figure this out based on the things we may already know, and what we can now expect to see after having seen the full context to the situation, and whether or not something else could instead be the correct answer to it. 

          I'm sure that we're all familiar with this campaign, and that we also notice that its caused some outrage. But would it have caused as much outrage if it wasn't executed in this style? If it just put the word 'OBESITY' in full, would so many people be talking about it? I am speculating, but I would bet that this advert required more brain processing than most other adverts do. Perhaps this is why we see can see a stronger recollection of an advertisement when the orienting response is facilitated - our brain is more involved and therefore has more to remember. 

Further into discussion, Peterson mentions his take on Jung's thoughts on what he called 'radical personality change'. Peterson describes the left-hemisphere as habitually inhibiting the left, and to imagine the right-hemisphere as what reacts and aggregates the aforementioned 'anomalies'. He says the the right-hemisphere not only collects these anomalies, but can also recognise patterns between these anomalies, now generating a counter-hypothesis of what reality (or a new reality) is compared to what the left has already established as a hypothesis for reality. If that counter-hypothesis gets to the total sum of the anomalies + the already mapped territory, that at some point this counter-hypothesis will 'shift' and the individual will kick into a new personality transformation.

 

This idea is something with enough to delve into in itself. This idea of the 'new whole', a change in personality which is essentially a micro-evolutionary step taken involuntarily in ones mind. The idea that enough anomalies in the reality our brain has decided is causes a this reality to change and accept/adapt to our reality with these changes once we have essentially given them an unconscious acceptance. 

 

It's arguable that it is our job, as marketers, to create new realities for consumers. Rather than convince them that this new toothpaste is by far better than any other toothpaste you have ever had, maybe we should be solidifying (in the minds of consumers) possibilities of new realities where in which this new toothpaste can be a part of their lives. 

 

How could this be done? The idea of storytelling, of narrative, is a very old idea. It's the oldest form in which humanity has sustained and developed ideas. We are all familiar with religion, for example. We've all, likely, heard similar stories with similar messages. To deny that these stories are important building blocks of our personalities and how we perceive the world would be ridiculous, even if we don't necessarily like the stories. 

 

Building a believable reality is difficult. Perhaps this opens up one possible avenue of marketing innovation with emerging media. VR and AR technology has been around for year now, but it's finally getting good.

          Virtual reality is a complete separate experience to what we all know and experience - I personally believe that his will be a primarily entertainment based platform. However, augmented reality devices seem to be at the front of the race in terms of technology which will become part of our day-to-day lives. If brands could figure out a way where their AR platforms work really well, and is really engaging, maybe this technology could help build a narrative-based connection between brands and new realities (not people). If brands employ strategies where they present themselves as a possible  reality enhancement tool (a weaker word would be 'lifestyle'), maybe consumers will start to resonate with this message and incorporate any given brand in the desired manner.

By getting lost in conversation, Peterson and McGilchrist come to a formidable agreement as to where, in terms of 'balance', people may find themselves best. 

          The point of convergence comes when when the two agree that people should be 'encountering as much uncertainty as you can voluntarily tolerate'. From this, the pair come to an understanding of 'what meaning does' in terms of biological function, which is to, "to tell you when you're in the place where you've balanced the stability, let's say of your left hemisphere systems, with the exploratory capacity of your right, so that not only are you master of your domain but you're expanding that domain simultaneously. When you're there, you're imbued with a sense of meaning & purpose, and that's an indication that you actually optimised your neurological function."

 

It's worth noting that this conclusion came to be from, initially, the Peterson's mention of his take on Kuhn's theory of scientific progression applied to psychology. He outlines: one has a theory (of their reality) and now anomalies 'accrue' and once incorporating these anomalies one devises a better theory. Peterson uses this example to iterate his application of Jung's order & chaos idea. There's also mention of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of a learning framework, known as the 'zone of proximal development'.

 

This could potentially be something very important to consider when looking to develop a creative strategy - the balance between order and chaos. This is something which is fairly common in the marketing practise, but it must be worth identifying again here. Striking that balance between order and chaos - showing how a consumer's world may be utterly chaotic until the introduction of a certain brand (or product), where now a sense of order is found amongst the chaos to create a domain. Presenting the brand as a bringer of order in a world of chaos could then bring a sense of meaning and purpose to the brand...

 

This reminds me of one of my favourite ever adverts, Cannes Lion Award-Winning, 'Three Little Pigs' by The Guardian. 

 

 

This advert is quite literally a showcasing of chaos. We're shown a cauldron boil over, an armed police unit going into a home, windows smashed, scandal arise, forensic investigation, media speculation, public comment from all sides, a court case, and protest. All of these things are universally recognisable forms of chaos in the modern world (apart from the cauldron, that's a bit more classical). It's only in the last ten seconds of the advert that we see some representation which The Guardian claims to bring with 'the whole picture', as their publication is where one could possibly consume all this chaos in an orderly format from the safety of their own living room (which is also shown in the advert). 

 

I'm not saying, at all, that this is a sure-fire creative approach for any brand, but it is something which should certainly be considered. Standing back from the theory, we can also see it making sense from a practical point of view: world was a bit bad before, here comes new amazing product from Brand X, now world is better probably thanks to Brand X. 

It's at this part in the discussion that I realise I've hit over 2,500 words for an article I was hoping would be easy to digest and not as long-winded. By luck, Peterson and McGilchrist embark on a topic which delves far deeper into the human psyche, topics which are very complex and would need to be broken down into a far more sophisticated form to see what knowledge could be usefully utilized by marketing practitioners. I wasn't planning on this blog piece to take me a couple of days or end up being this long, but the end result appears to be a somewhat informal essay.

 

In short, what have we learned? We've identified the importance of identifying the different functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. We have also understood how using both hemispheres for their functions could lead to a successful advertising/marketing campaign. I believe that this gives license to practitioners to possibly experiment with these different approaches.

          Gaining attention is the first function of most campaigns, but what should happen from there? Getting the exploratory capacity of the right-hemisphere of the brain seems to be a result of creativity, but harnessing the creative exploration to get the left-hemisphere to identify that a certain action is the correct action is somewhat more challenging. But there is definitely some credit to the argument that getting the whole brain working does lead to better advertising recall. Brands could utilise this is a number of ways - enhancing their way of brand storytelling, considering how they could market particular products, or how they generally present themselves as a brand. 

 

There's also some credence to the idea of creating new realities for consumers whilst incorporating the idea of chaos & order. Creating new realities in the form of stories is one way this could be executed. Another way of presenting this idea could be playing the brand-as-hero card, but more intricately. From what I have experienced, many brands play along the basic model of: world was a bit bad before, here comes new amazing product from Brand X, now world is better probably thanks to Brand X. Which is great, but people's brains are more sophisticated than that.

          Presenting consumers with a reality which lacks brand presence, and showing it as somewhat chaotic could gain attention. This reality could be presented with anomalies (unhappy people, can't get to work on time, breath stinks) and presenting them with an alternative reality where in which the brand acts as an agent for a new, better reality could be effective. It's my belief that this sounds easier on paper. Striking the balance, here, is key. Challenges could arise from presenting realities (both the original or the newfound) in ways which seem achievable by audiences in both a presentable and realistic manner. Having a very smart team working on a project such as this might well be what leads to the success of such an execution. 

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