#6 The Biology of Habit

Most of the beliefs that marketers have about how humans make choices are flawed. Most theories of consumer behavior rest on the idea that a consumer has complete knowledge of what she is doing, and why she is doing it. These models also posit that consumers can accurately access their memories, like a computer tapping into a hard drive. The result of these assumptions is marketers have been led astray by marketing research that relies upon consumer recall to understand behavior. And as byproduct, consumer satisfaction fails to predict future purchase behavior.

Over the last 20 years, researchers have made dramatic discoveries and strides in their understanding of the inner workings of the human brain. One of the key learnings from this research is that most human actions are the result of automatically executed scripts and templates that are embedded in our unconscious. When a consumer is asked, within a marketing research interview, why they did something – not only it is unlikely that they know the true reason, but also likely they concoct a rationalization that seems logical to them on the spot. Marketers collect vast amounts of such data and utilize it to design their advertising messages and campaigns—wasting billions of dollars every year.

To begin to understand the true workings of the human brain, it’s critical to look at both history and biology. The human brain evolved primarily to survive a harsh environment, not to shop on Amazon. It’s useful to look at the brain in three evolutionary steps. The part of the brain that evolved first we’ll term the ‘dinosaur brain’ which is autonomic and integrative. The dinosaur brain kept us alive without conscious intervention by navigating an unfriendly landscape looking for opportunities and threats.

The second big evolutionary leap was the mammalian brain—the limbic system. The mammalian brain is the seat of emotion, memory, judgement, and habits, all powerful unconscious influencers of behavior. Emotion is essential to memory and judgement and is the primary driver of behavior. And habits are recorded in the striatum inside the basal ganglia at the heart of the limbic system. It feels counterintuitive that these four powerful engines reside in the unconscious part of the brain.

The conscious mind is a more recent evolution as a compliment to the unconscious mind. Consciousness in humans empower more sophisticated reactions to the environment including problem-solving, planning, socialization and a long-term perspective. With the conscious brain, we were able to develop self-knowledge and become self-aware.

Because we can only ‘see’ the working of the conscious mind, we overestimate its importance in understanding our reality, our preferences and our decision-making. And marketers have, for the most part, relied upon this mis-perception of reality as the key input into their design of products, advertisements, pricing, and distribution.

However, marketers who are truly successful (e.g., Steve Jobs and Apple) design products and solutions for the unconscious brain. The unconscious mind likes things to be simple. It does not like to read instructional manuals – it wants immediate feedback. The unconscious mind learns via the mechanism of action and reinforcement or punishment. Actions that are repeated, cued and reliably reinforced rapidly become habits. The more we get away from designing our products, services and advertisements for the unconscious brain, the more likely we are to fail.

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