By John Marshall Roberts
Observable behavior is always just a symptom of something larger and unseen. Trying to understand someone’s behavior by looking at their surrounding environment is like trying to understand the ocean by looking at a boat. One may find a few chaotic patterns amongst bobs and ripples perhaps, but that’s about it. To get a deeper understanding of the causes of consumer choice making, we must be willing to dive to very bottom of the vast ocean of the human mind and become familiar with the hidden anchors that underlie human perception itself. Fortunately, you can leave your scuba gear on the shore. Psychologists and political strategists have spent decades doing this for us. And what they’ve found is both simple and startling:
Although inherently dynamic and non-linear in nature, a person’s daily behavioral choices are patterned on their core values—those fundamental beliefs, assumptions, and aspirations that they use to make sense of the world around them. A person’s core values act as a gravitational force of consciousness, literally shaping the way the world looks to them, and in turn how they look to the world vis-a-vis their day-today behaviors.
To illustrate by way of analogy, imagine spinning a marble around a bathroom sink. At any given point it would be difficult to predict the marble’s exact location, because its movements are somewhat chaotic and random, fluctuating wildly based upon even the most minute textural gradients in the sink surface. In fact, even the most learned physicist would have a terrible time devising an equation that would predict this marble’s exact path. Yet, anyone with an ounce of common sense can easily predict where the marble will end up eventually—right down the drain.
This metaphorical drain shapes our marble’s path in the same way that a person’s core values shape their thoughts and behaviors. Understand a person’s value systems and you will grasp the size, shape and contours of the mental sink around which the myriad “marbles” of their everyday thoughts are endlessly pulled as they strive to make sense of the data their five senses send them. With such insight comes great power for creating communications that can transform feel-good notions into measurable behaviors. On the other hand, without this insight, we are left without an effective map with which to help our audiences escape the sun-drenched doldrums of ineffectual good intentions.
For example, let’s assume that we want to create a campaign that motivates people to install compact fluorescent bulbs in their homes. At the behavioral level our goal is measurable and clear. The challenging question is this—How will we frame our communications so that they effectively play to the mental landscape of our various audiences? What messaging tactics and strategies will be most effective? Should we appeal to the “better angels” of our audience’s nature, calling upon them to be of service to the planet and their fellow man? Should we apply the tried and true guilt-headlock, calling upon them to consider their children living in an overheated world with soot-blackened skies? Should we pound them in the pocketbook, showing them the money they waste every day by sticking to their old incandescent light bulb ways?
The correct answer to all of these questions is, of course, “it depends.” Audiences are comprised of groups of complex, multidimensional people operating from wildly different core values that drive both their daily decisions and their larger life aspirations.* Communicators ignore this existential diversity at their own certain peril. Faced with such complexity—and lacking a well-tested scientific model of human values—most marketers pushing green, energy efficiency, conservation and sustainability at large have thus far done their best to appeal to everyone, creating generic, washed-out messages that lack any real punch. Or, even worse, they’ve create messages that have unwittingly offend the very audiences they are seeking to inspire.
Great solutions come from great questions. Therefore, the first action item for creating large scale communication programs that solve real-world problems is to finally start asking the right questions, such as: What do our target audiences care about most? What are their core beliefs in life? What is their generic conception of a mature, responsible adult? What offends their basic sense of propriety? In the context of these existing assumptions, what meaningful purpose might energy efficiency reasonably serve? How might they have already grown cynical about environmentalism? How might we strategically engage this cynicism to create an immediate sense of trust? How might we contextualize our behavioral call to action so that it occurs to target audiences as an exciting opportunity to further their own preexisting life goals and aspirations?
From inquiries of this type, we will finally begin to glimpse beneath the veneer of human perception, gaining fresh insight into the hidden causes of human behavior: the core values that people unconsciously use to simplify decision-making processes and organize endlessly complex perceptual data.
Let’s face it: No one cares about a light bulb, really. What people care about is feeling good about themselves, enjoying life, and expressing themselves in ways that align with their core values and beliefs. Get them to see a light bulb as an opportunity to experience these exalted feelings and your job is complete.
*For a specific, scientifically driven breakdown of the major value systems that dominate the US consumer landscape please read my book “Igniting Inspiration: A Persuasion Manual for Visionaries” (available on Amazon) or watch this youtube clip for a brief introduction to science of worldivews.
John Marshall Roberts teaches people and organizations how to overcome cynicism and inspire. He is a communication expert and applied social scientist with a subversive sense of humor, and more than a decade of strategic consulting experience. His bestselling book “Igniting Inspiration: A Persuasion Manual for Visionaries” delivers an innovative paradigm for creating inspirational media and messaging called Worldview Design.
Ali Hart is a sustainability messaging and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and media. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to message green effectively.