03 Aug 2016

In my last blog post, I pulled an old economics book off the shelf to share some of the thoughts of classical economist Adam Smith. In his day, Smith talked a lot about the concept of “rational self-interest.” The long and short of Smith’s point was that people tend to act out of their own self-interest and that’s what makes the economic world go around.  I suggested that if Smith is right, marketers should never forget that the question in the back of the mind of prospects and customers is always: “What’s in it for me.”

Well, thinking in the field of economics has come a long way in the centuries that have passed since Adam Smith shared his thoughts. I am currently reading a fascinating book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is a renowned psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work on human judgment and decision-making.

Thinking Fast and Slow sheds a light on how humans perceive reality and what is actually going on in our minds when we make choices. While Kahneman’s work doesn’t completely contradict Smith’s notion that people act with “rational self-interest,” he makes a strong argument that our thinking and decision- making is much more nuanced than that—we are not fully rational nor completely self-interested.

One key premise of the book is that we rely a lot on “fast” thinking. By that Kahneman means we use intuition and familiar associations to negotiate our way in the world much of the time. We are less inclined to use “slow” (deliberative, careful) thinking unless we feel it is really necessary and when we do, we move from a preferred state of “cognitive ease” to one of “cognitive strain.”

Kahneman shares some implications of all this that should grab the attention of those of us who create marketing messages. He says: “When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar. You are also likely to be relatively casual and superficial in your thinking. When you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you are also less intuitive and creative.

As an example, Kahneman points to research suggesting that in printed materials, using high-quality paper to maximize contrast, bright colors for legibility and simple and memorable text will all reduce cognitive strain. I don’t think anyone familiar with graphic design would be surprised by that.

But the interesting thing is the research also shows that using these techniques will not only make your message more pleasing and approachable for those reading it, it will actually make the message more believable! That’s because we are more disposed to be receptive to and believe something when we are in a state of cognitive ease.

I think that is an important thing to keep in mind for all of us who hope to write persuasive messages. As I suggested last time, it’s a good idea to always answer for our audience “What’s in it for them.” But it is equally important to ask, “Am I making my message as easy as possible to consume and understand—and therefore easier to believe.”