More despatches on why our intuitions are so often wrong

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight, Research First

If you were to compile a list of the smartest people of all time, Sir Isaac Newton would undoubtedly be prominent amongst the candidates. Carl Sagan described him as “perhaps the greatest scientific genius who ever lived” and even Einstein (who might make the list on his own merits) called him “a shining spirit” responsible for “a turning point in the world’s intellectual development”. Those are some accolades, but they seem fitting given Newton changed the way we think about the universe, helped explain gravity, and has a good claim to inventing calculus. But Newton is interesting to those of us interested in understanding people for a very different reason. Despite his brilliance with numbers and cause-and-effect relationships, Newton lost a fortune investing in the South Seas Company (subsequently, but too late for Newton, known as ‘The South Seas Bubble’). The losses were catastrophic for Newton, wiping out his life savings. He was so angry that for the rest of his life no-one was allowed to mention ‘South Sea’ around him. Reflecting on his loss, Newton famously said “I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people”.

As far as mottos for the insight industry go, that seems to me as good as any. We’ve come a long way since 1720 but – in many ways – we are little better at understanding ‘the madness of crowds’ than Newton was. That might sound like an indictment of our industry, but I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to grapple with the complexity of human behaviour. Indeed, in the 30 years I’ve been working in research, it’s hard to remember a more exciting time to be a researcher. Many of the old certainties about measurement are crumbling, many of our tools no longer have the reach they used to, and our fundamental assumptions about human behaviour are being upturned

For instance, while it feels like you’re reasoning your way through your life, that’s rarely the case. Instead, all our brains are wired to take shortcuts, to be influenced by how things are framed, and profoundly shaped by what others are doing. When we talk about knowing something, we really mean experiencing what the neurologist Robert Burton called a “feeling of knowing”. But this ‘feeling’ distorts our ability to predict how we’re really going to feel about something in future, masks the brain’s tendency to conserve energy wherever it can, and disguises our innate preference for things that are easy over things that are right.

The bigger picture here is that we’re also learning that research, and PR, and any other activity that involves influencing people, are all essentially social sciences. This means we can tap into all those subjects that deal with human behaviour in its social and cultural setting. This includes mainstream subjects such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and economics. But it also includes fascinating new areas of study like social neuroscience, behavioural economics, and human evolutionary biology. Any of these subjects will illustrate the key challenge for all of us as practitioners – recognising just how often (and easily) we delude ourselves about the way we see and interpret the world.