What’s in your cognitive toolkit?

What’s in your cognitive toolkit?

(Deep geek alert: It’s time to talk a little more about behavioral science theory.)

There was a great article in the New York Times this past week that examined what happens when you ask some of today’s leading thinkers what scientific concept would be most valuable for people to add to their “cognitive toolkit.” Here are some of the nominees.

Path Dependence: That’s when “something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.” So what the heck does that mean? Used to be, typewriter keys got all locked up when people typed too fast – so instead of accommodating speed, typewriter manufacturers designed a totally unnatural, non-intuitive keyboard that slowed people down. And while typewriters have gone the way of the dinosaur, we’re still stuck with the QWERTY keyboard, a relic of our inefficient past. If only we could leave behind things that don’t make sense anymore, new paths for innovation would reveal themselves. What assumptions could you challenge in your marketing? In product development? In your life?

• In a related thought, there’s always the Einstellung Effect, or the idea that our brains try to solve problems based on solutions that worked in the past rather than evaluating new situations on their own merits. Apparently, this is particularly evident in foreign policy situations, but it’s also a quintessential marketing question. How many times have you been in a large conference room and heard the dreaded words, “But that’s not how we’ve always done it.” After an awkward moment, a brave voice pipes up, “But we have different problems now than we’ve ever had in the past.” And the room gets quiet enough to hear crickets.

The Focusing Illusion: This is the idea that “nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.” So here’s how this works, as explained by noted behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, “Education is an important determinant of income – one of the most important – but it’s less important than people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10 percent. When you focus on education, you neglect the myriad of other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.” When you apply a marketing lens to this idea, one of the first things that came to mind was what we at Shelton like to call, “The Moment.” That’s when marketing messages actually penetrate a consumer’s mindset, and they consciously reach for our clients’ brands on the shelf. But, the truth is, there are lots of purchases that are made without much thought at all – they’re ingrained habits, or maybe they’re a symptom of Path Dependence. The Focusing Illusion argues that we assign increased importance to things when they enter our consciousness – and that’s just where we want our marketing messages to be.

Want to read more about these and other cognitive concepts? Check out www.edge.org and you’ll see the other Cognitive Toolkit nominees, including Supervenience, Fundamental Attribution Error and the distinction between emotion and arousal.

That concludes the deep geek alert. You may now return to your regularly scheduled thoughts.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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