How to create panic

What is the UK government thinking of?

Suggestions to motorists to ‘top up’ their petrol tanks as a contingency before a date has been set for strike of petrol tanker drivers is already making motorists panicky.

People driving by queues of cars at filling stations will readily take this as a signal to put petrol in their tanks now, adding to pressure on supplies.

Research into human behaviour suggests that we have a herd mentality, particularly when we are anxious or perceive a threat. Even though, rationally, we know we might, by our actions, be making matters worse, we are so influenced by the behaviour of others that we can’t help being caught up in the ensuing panic.

A run on a bank is another manifestation of this heuristic.

The difficulty for the Government is that if it had said ‘don’t panic’ no-one would have believed it. In fact, as we know, humans tend to ignore negative commands – by saying don’t panic you’ve introduced the concept of panic in people’s minds.

If the government thought it was being helpful by preparing people for a worst case scenario then they have done so without any insight into human behaviour.

Strange from a government that introduced behavioural economics into its machinery.

Delayed gratification revisited

I’ve previously alluded to the link between delayed gratification (putting off rewards) and economic success. The Chinese and Germans save rather than spend. Max Weber linked the rise of Capitalism with the Protestant Ethic (the reward is not even in this life but the next).

I’m currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – a Nobel Laureate whose insights into the heuristics and biases of (most) human thinking formed the basis for behavioural economics.

In the book, Kahneman talks about the two systems of thinking taking place in our brains – System 1, which is our intuitive, effortless system; and System 2 which is effortful and which is what we use when we have to ‘think hard’ about something like calculating 24×137.

System 2 is the system that attempts to control the constant flow of thoughts and impressions emerging from System 1. Self-control is the degree to which System 2 can override System 1.

But System 2 thinking comes at a cost. It consumes a lot of energy in the form of glucose and there is evidence that it affects our motivation. If we employ self-control for completing one task, we may be less likely to make an effort in another.

And if we are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation (that chocolate cake’s not going to eat itself!) then we are more likely to yield to temptation. Self-control and resisting temptation – delayed gratification.

This makes me think several things. Firstly, System 2 needs to be trained and developed in all of us, but we also need to understand System 1 and acknowledge its strengths and weaknesses. In my coaching practice, it is apparent that the issues presented by subjects are mainly finding ways to control the unhelpful but overpowering thinking of System 1.

The higher up an organisation you go, the greater the requirement for System 2 thinking. But System 1 won’t always allow itself to be controlled.

One of my coachee’s goes into System 2 thinking for everything – even his attempt to lose weight. He writes out a plan and keeps a log. He manages quite well during the week when his System 2 thinking is dominant, but his plans go to pot at the weekends when System 1 reasserts itself. One of my suggestions for him has been to avoid writing things down as System 2 thinks the work is done and System 1 wants to play. See the motivation issue described above.

In my PR practice, it is apparent that organisations communicate in System 2 and their messages are often processed by the audience’s System 1. The gap is where PR disasters occur.




What is branding?

There’s a consultancy in my part of the world which is making a lot of noise about branding – their premise is that all businesses should act like brands in order to improve their chances of success.

I’ve been to one of their events which told me I am Coca Cola (if I think of my business as a brand).

I was hoping for some clear principles of brand-building to be shared. But I actually became more confused and left disappointed.

First of all, it strikes me that it is unhelpful to use existing brands as examples. We fall into the trap of retrospective coherence or hindsight bias. We choose familiar brands as exemplars but we still can’t really explain why Coca Cola is bigger than Pepsi. We start from success and work backwards – never the same as starting at the beginning and working forwards through all the wrong turns, the mistakes, the accidents, the responses to exernal factors.

We seem to think that brand building is all one-way, deliberate and planned, and that consumers of brands are just that, consumers rather than collaborators.

Branding to me is about being clear what you stand for, ensuring every part of your organisation is aligned with that, and reflecting it consistently in actions and words. The perception and the reality should be identical. Create value for others and others will create value for you by co-creating your brand.

Comms helps change habits

“New research has revealed that communication remains the most popular method of behaviour change used by governments for publics across the world.”

So says PR Week (9 March 2012).

Well, yes. But this is (IPSOS Mori) research into public opinion. Legislation and tax were less popular tools of behaviour change. No surprise there.

As Jenny Grey, executive director for UK Government Comms, says in a sidebar: “Better policy design, incorporating the principles of ‘nudge’ theory is also vital” and cites the change of the default in the introduction of the new workplace pension scheme which means that people have to opt out rather than opt in.

PR Week has naturally jumped on the positive perception of the role of communications, but if PR people are lulled into thinking they make the biggest difference then Jenny Grey’s words should be a wake up call.