Last year, I received a perplexing voicemail from the perpetrator of one of the top (alleged) Ponzi schemes of all time. “I want to know your company!,” he chirped. Presumably, the fallen guru was seeking reputation management services. I Googled him: it wasn’t pretty.
You might think it strange that someone thinks they can rescue their reputation when they’ve swindled hundreds of people out of their life savings. Yet, even stranger is otherwise intelligent people’s willingness to participate in Ponzi schemes in the first place. To put it in perspective: in 1997, half of the adult population of Albania was invested in Ponzi schemes (prior to the inevitable collapse). It’s statistically impossible that all of those people were of below-average intelligence. Indeed, evidence shows that complex investment schemes tend to appeal to high-IQ individuals.
The point is that strong cognitive abilities don’t automatically lead to rational behavior. Given the number of forces pushing us toward irrational outcomes, according to author and psychology professor Keith Stanovich (“What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought”), “dysrationalia” will “continue to be ubiquitous.”
To back this up, Stanovich describes thinking dispositions that get the majority of people into trouble — regardless of IQ. One of these is tongue-twistingly called “serial associative cognition with a focal bias.” (See a chapter on that here.) When confronted with a problem-solving challenge, many of us bring not only our biases to the table, but also an aversion to proper experimental design. We should be trying to falsify our initial beliefs through scientific testing. But we don’t. Unless we have tailored training, we don’t have a habit of working abstractly on the construction of alternative models that might help us dig up the “real” truth as opposed to biased half-truths.
The reason we tend to stick to our often-misguided brands of self-guided or corporate groupthink “smarts” is because it’s mentally taxing to detach from our comfortable (highly evolved for survival purposes) ways of thinking, and to follow a more methodical process. (The first is what Stanovich calls the “algorithmic mind,” but we’d be more rational in many cases if we switched over to the “reflective mind.”)
To take an example from the realm of performance marketing: imagine your ad copywriter employing some decent creative methods, gathering impressions of the target market, and trying very hard to “do a good job” of empathizing with that market’s needs.
The result is highly persuasion-oriented, even emotional, ad copy. Affect-laden terms appeal to the potential buyer: “melt in your mouth pesto sauce,” “vintage balsamic vinegar,” etc. Tradition is also invoked: the family started in the confections business 75 years ago, so why not try that as an element of the messaging?
These are good ideas, but it’s too early to start getting attached to them. There simply aren’t enough good ideas here yet. And yet our tendency is to do just that: to cling to our early theories before a full consideration of other possible realities. We’ll ride those ideas like a hipster on a moped, even if the pavement’s wet and we forgot our helmet.
Why? Our brains want to shun extra mental processing. We have a natural tendency, Stanovich argues, to be “cognitive misers.” In natural selection, survival is good enough, so a brain that conserves energy makes sense. It’s not so great if you’re playing chess.
The antidote to dysrationalia in ad testing boils down to more extensive testing. And it should generally be less opinionated testing. Try a variety of parameters (geographic specificity, offers, copy length, dynamic headlines, benefits, third-party endorsements, and simplified wording); be brave enough to admit not knowing which one of them will carry the most weight.
In our real-world tests around the “melt in your mouth” foodstuffs, we made some unexpected discoveries. Mentions of the company’s tradition didn’t directly improve response, but there were weird exceptions. The beauty of search marketing is its granularity. If people in Georgia think differently (about pesto sauce, anyway), go with it!
As anyone who has tried to squeeze persuasive copy into 95 characters knows, the benefits and offers in your arsenal are not additive in terms of response. You have 95 characters to say your piece, and you can’t throw everything into the mix. (Even if you could do that on the landing page, attention is finite there, too.) That’s why extensive testing is so important in isolating the winning response factors.
Most companies and most copywriters never get to that stage, because they’re employing typical insider thinking, and they’re using the laziest forms of brain processing to try to “do a good job.” But no single copywriter is clairvoyant, no matter how brilliant they may be.
We’re not doomed to mental laziness and suboptimal outcomes just because switching modes of thinking is tiring. The key is in the simple word: process.
This column originally appeared at ClickZ on January 15, 2010. Reprinted by permission.