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I want to believe

Ask any good salesman the key to making a sale, and they will tell you that there are two parts to a successful sales pitch. The first step is to create or highlight a problem in the mind of the customer. The second step is to provide a “logical” solution to the problem, thus dissipating any anxiety.


The key to the solution being accepted is that the customer has to feel some degree of trust in the salesperson, which makes it easier for the customer to believe that what is being offered will work. Once that happens, the belief becomes an integral part of their identity, so it becomes very difficult to dismiss it.


It’s pretty basic stuff, but it works most of the time.

Salespeople have been successfully using these techniques for many years, knowing that they work, but probably not fully aware of why they work. Research conducted by marketers, psychologists, evolutionary scientists, and neuroscientists provide some insight.


Research in these fields suggests that humans are “hard-wired” to believe, predominantly because it requires significant cognitive resources to test an assumption, so for the most part, it is more efficient to believe in a claim than to reject it.


Daniel Gilbert, of Harvard University, says that the first step in belief is the representation stage, which involves both comprehension and acceptance. The second stage is the assessment stage, which involves certification or unacceptance.


Because people are constantly faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, it is more efficient to accept ideas that they voluntarily accept during comprehension, rather than reject them after they have been accepted.


In other words, the acceptance of an idea is automatic, whereas the rejection of that idea occurs subsequent to, and requires more effort than, its acceptance.


And this is where clever marketing comes in. Into the mix you now throw some professional looking promotional material, an endorsement from an authority figure, perhaps a bit of editorial support from a current affairs TV show, and resistance becomes very difficult.


So, we shouldn’t be surprised when AFL stars Brendan Fevola and Jack Riewoldt, and NBA legend, Shaq O’Neal, fall for the marketing of a product such as the  “Power Balance”bracelet.


All that the marketers of the Power Balance bracelet have done is exploit a basic psychological bias.


So, how is it done?


We know that the first step is to highlight a problem in the mind of your target market. With sportspeople, this is easy. Their entire existence is dependent on them performing at peak condition for a short period. Their life is a hyperactive bundle of anxiety, high-pressure, and stress. They are constantly looking for new ideas or solutions that will make them more competitive than their opposition.


But it is here where we encounter one of those counter-intuitive conundrums. In order to pursue a new thought, idea or solution, we have to believe that the thought is worth pursuing before we seek any supporting evidence that we are making a good choice. Otherwise, we would only consider ideas and solutions that we already know will be successful.


Once we are convinced that the bracelet will work, our mind will tend to automatically accept evidence that supports our case, and reject evidence that threatens our decision. In other words, we look for patterns that support our desired choice, and ignore those that don’t.


And why should we care if a few footy players, jockeys and even movie stars are paying $59.95 (plus postage and handling) for a placebo effect? As The Sunday Age reported on 20 June, 2010, “the players think the bands will improve their performance on the footy field, so they feel more confident and play better.”


But there are times when wanting to believe can be incredibly dangerous, as has been the case with the ADE651 bomb detection devices sold to the Iraqi, Thai and Pakistani defence forces.


An article published in The New York Times on 3 November, 2009 reported that the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, led by Aqeel al-Turaihi, had bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million in 2009.


Ostensibly, the ADE651 is a plastic handle, with an antenna attached to it. To detect materials, the operator puts an array of plastic-coated cardboard cards with bar codes into a holder connected to the antenna by a cable.


According to the marketer of the device, “The ADE651® incorporates electrostatic ion attraction [ESA] technology to target the specific substances. It can accommodate multiple substance detection cards to detect a broad range of explosive or drug [narcotic] substances.”


The New York Times article says that, “The operator must walk in place a few moments to ‘charge’ the device, since it has no battery or other power source, and walk with the wand at right angles to the body. If there are explosives or drugs to the operator’s left, the wand is supposed to swivel to the operator’s left and point at them. Proponents of the wand often argue that errors stem from the human operator, who they say must be rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device.”


In the article, it was reported that a guard and a driver for The New York Times, both licensed to carry firearms, drove through nine police checkpoints that were using the device. None of the checkpoint guards detected the two AK-47 rifles and ammunition inside the vehicle.


But the newspaper reports that the Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them. During an interview, Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives challenged a Times reporter to test the ADE 651, placing a grenade and a machine pistol in plain view in his office. Despite two attempts, the wand did not detect the weapons when used by the reporter but did so each time it was used by a policeman.


“You need more training,” the general said.


We can laugh at people who fall for the marketing when it comes to magical wristbands, but it is not so funny when lives are put at risk because of an evolutionary predisposition.


We need to recognise that we are all vulnerable to these psychological biases, whether we are individual consumers, economists, politicians, and army generals. We look for patterns to confirm our assumptions, choices and beliefs, because it is in our interests to do so. We are not the rational, sensible, utility-seeking decision makers that we would like to think we are.


Unethical marketers know this, and they exploit these biases. Most of the time, they get away with it, partly because it is perceived to be harmless, and partly because no-one wants, or is willing, to admit that we are flawed decision makers.


But we are. We make bad decisions every day, and most of the time we get away with it, or often don’t notice it, because the consequences aren’t too serious. But in some situations, the ramifications are dramatic, and at times can be tragic.


The solution is to be constantly vigilant of the fallibility of the human mind.


Father Joseph Crissman: So you believe in this sort of thing?

Fox Mulder: Let’s just say, I want to believe.

…from The X-Files – I Want to Believe


An edited version of this piece appeared in The Sunday Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers on 18 July, 2010.

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