Thursday, November 10, 2022

Cheap dialogue

There's some sort of Double Jeopardy effect going on with round the big tech layoffs at Meta and Twitter.

People are getting laid off by small firms every day and no one is particularly interested, but when a big number go from big firms then all the LinkedIn do-gooders want to help. 

When working for NFPs and charities we used to invoke the 'identifiable victim' effect. People are sometimes more likely to donate if you zone in and name an individual. 

This is the inverse. 

The 'identifiable saviour' effect. 

A cheap holiday in other people’s misery

Thursday, December 24, 2020

merry christmas from this almost abandoned blog

Hark! The Herald Angels sing-uh.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

interview in evolutionary Inc

Here's a short interview I did for Lachezar Ivanov's  Evolution Inc newsletter.

It comes out every week and is well worth subscribing to.


Evolutionary Psychology Meets Advertising: An Interview With Eaon Pritchard 

Evolutionary psychology is the study of the innate programs of the human mind. 
Due to its meta nature, evolutionary psychology represents a very broad field, with implications in business, public policy and more. 
This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. 
In today's interview, we are talking with Eaon Pritchard. 
After unsuccessful attempts at neo-expressionist painting, punk rock stardom and, later, Balearic/acid DJ superstardom (although he did achieve one global techno-house hit in the mid-90s) Eaon finally turned to advertising as a last-gasp creative outlet. Initially (and equally unsuccessfully) as a Creative Director he eventually found his calling in Account Planning and Strategy when he found out who Tessa Pollitt’s dad was.
Eaon’s 20+ year advertising career includes multi award winning spells at Weapon7 in London and Clemenger BBDO in Melbourne. He is widely regarded as an ad industry authority on consumer psychology and is author of two books ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’ from 2018 and ‘Shot By Both Sides’ in January 2020. 
Eaon is now the founder and principal of ArtScienceTechnology, an applied evolutionary psychology business consulting firm working with global clients out of Melbourne, Australia. 

When and how did you encounter evolutionary psychology? 

Around 2008 some sections of the advertising community in London latched onto Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, and I was among them. 

I’d been working as a creative/tech hybrid since the rise of digital media in the early 2000’s but Ariely’s book switched me on to the human psychology component to advertising and comms. 

I became a proponent of applied behavioural economics and suchlike in the following years, however, there was a point about 6 or 7 years ago where it occurred to me that advertising planners invoking cognitive biases had taken on ‘magical’ properties. 

It seemed too easy to me for every planner and their dog now like to point out how human decision making had become bamboozled by biases. To paraphrase Feynman, knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing something. 

I’d already figured out that these cognitive biases do not ‘produce’ or ‘cause’ behaviour, all they do is describe behaviour that’s already happened. And it follows that there must be a more fundamental, or ultimate, cause of behaviour. I read Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained and the Dawkins Selfish Gene and then I was off down the rabbit hole. 

I then invested in a couple of textbooks, the David Buss one and Tooby/Cosmides and decided to take some time learning about EP properly as it seemed to be such an elegant theory and proved to be revelatory in how I approached my advertising work. 

How do you apply evolutionary psychology to improving advertising? Can you give one insight as an example? 

There are many ways that even a basic understanding of how the mind works could improve advertising.

In a simple sense, understanding that the mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs and whatever a person is thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship. 

This fact alone has big implications for things like brand positioning, targeting, segmentation and selection of media. In segmentation of audiences, for example, most segmentation studies are based only on proximate needs. These are typically specific to the category, so not transferrable. 

In any case, the methods used to try and uncover these consumer ‘insights’ (e.g. focus groups, surveys) are unlikely to reveal anything of importance. By giving much more attention to the ultimate motives driving consumer behaviour and preferences, communicators could speak more directly to what consumers really want, even if the consumers themselves don’t know it. 

And those motives are almost certainly not identifiable through traditional self-reporting methodologies. 

What are some key insights you wouldn’t have discovered void of evolutionary psychology? 

Many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing an evolutionary ’mismatch’. A mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted. 

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we’re not. These are evolutionarily novel sources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears - spiders, snakes and the dark, for example - have more ancient origins. 

When I was working with a government road safety department I wanted to put pictures of redback spiders on road safety billboards to get attention – in Australia we have nearly all of the top ten most venomous and lethal spiders in the world. Unfortunately they didn’t buy it but I stand by the idea. 

Pick one of these three groups — businesses, consumers, policy makers — and give your best piece of advice. 

For policy makers, I’ve been disappointed with almost all the COVID comms from governments around the world. Messages about ‘we are all in this together’ and ‘save other lives by staying home’ etc are out of step with human nature. 

The desired behaviour framed around self-interest and status motives would have been much more effective. Although it would have to be cleverly disguised as few people like to believe that they are acting out of self-interest or competitive altruism. 

Which evolutionary psychologists would you love to read an interview by? 

Robert Trivers. He’s not strictly a psychologist but is one of the greats in evolutionary biology and quite a character. Probably the only white scientist to be a getaway driver for the Black Panthers, he’s been arrested numerous times, in prison at least once and almost got killed in a yardie attack in a Kingston brothel while living on and off in Jamaica since the 70s. And when a couple of machete-wielding burglars had tried to get into his house, he stabbed one of them in the neck. 

Not your typical professorial behaviour. 

Perhaps his most influential theory - that self deception evolved to facilitate the deception of others – was introduced as an almost off-the-cuff remark in the foreword to The Selfish Gene for Dawkins. Apparently, he’d planned to flesh out the theory a bit in a proper paper but didn’t get around to it because he was smoking too much weed at the time. 

What is a message that you want to spread across and where people can find you online? 

The best place to connect with me is via the website, we are always looking for new clients or projects to help with. Or on LinkedIn. Both of my books are available on Amazon worldwide in paperback or for Kindle. Readers may find the odd spelling mistake, I call it jazz-grammar.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

saving the world (or, can brands really be altruistic?) WDIAGW revisited

This was a chapter in my first book, 'Where Did It All Go Wrong?'  from 2017.

Seems to be kinda relevant these days, too....


Different philosophers define altruism in different ways, however, most definitions will generally play in and around describing altruistic behaviours as actions that benefit others rather than oneself.

The term altruism (French, altruisme) was coined by the 19th century philosopher - incidentally, also the founder of the discipline we now know as sociology (although we won’t hold that against him) - Auguste Comte.

He described altruism as our ‘moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others’.

Aside from ethics, altruism in biology similarly describes a range of behaviours that may be performed by animals, which benefit others while seemingly to their own disadvantage.

We say ‘seemingly’ as there is no moral lens that can be applied.

For instance, by behaving altruistically, an organism may reduce its own chances of survival, or the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but give a boost to the likelihood that other organisms that share its genes may survive and produce offspring.

It doesn’t make any Darwinian sense to share food with just anybody, it is far more sensible to share with your relatives - they are genetically similar to you.

The costs and benefits of animal altruism in the biological sphere are measured in terms of the resulting reproductive fitness, or expected number of genetic descendants.

It is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that the biological notion of altruism is somewhat different from the ethical concept.

For humans, an act would only be called ‘altruistic' if it was done with the conscious moral intention of helping another, but in the biological sense, there is no such requirement.

So, which definition is appropriate when talking about brand altruism?

In 1973, the Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote ‘Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution’.

It could also be noted that nothing in brand behaviour makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Brands, like organisms, have two principal concerns. Survival and reproduction.

Survival should be a self-evident notion, just staying in business. For reproduction, we could think about the number of category entry points in which the brand is salient and perhaps breadth of distribution as measures of fitness.

But, so-called, brand altruism, is perhaps better understood through the lens of Biological Market Theory.

Animals (including humans) can be observed exchanging benefits through reciprocity mechanisms. This happens in a variety of ways and in a variety of scenarios, however, the common thread is that benefits in kind almost always find their way back to the original giver.

This (r)evolutionary theory of reciprocal altruism was originally developed and published in 1971 by the biologist Bob Trivers in order to explain to explain instances of (apparent) altruism among unrelated organisms, including members of different species.

Trivers' basic idea was pretty straightforward: it may payback to help another if there is an expectation of the favour being returned in the future.

Equivalent to the heuristic ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. The classic tit-for-tat strategy.

The cost of helping is offset by the likelihood of the return benefit, allowing the behaviour to evolve by natural selection.

However, even reciprocal altruists are vulnerable to exploitation by rogue non-altruists.

Suppose we have a group or category - let’s say supermarkets - made up exclusively of altruists, all playing nicely together, and placing the benefit of their suppliers and customers above their own needs.

It only takes a single mutant to enter the category, adopt some selfish policies to gain relative fitness advantages then the altruistic system starts to collapse and eventually become overtaken.

Altruism, by definition, incurs a fitness cost. So why would a brand perform a costly act?

As an aside, it’s probably no accident that the current popularity of the brand altruism idea corresponds with the development on another on the consumer side - virtue signalling.

Much has been written elsewhere on the pros and cons of online virtue signalling - the highly conspicuous expression of particular moral values done primarily with the intention of gaining status within a social group - but suffice to say that (and depending on which report one believes) apparently upwards of 70% of millennials will claim that the social responsibility record and ‘altruism’ of a brand is a major factor in their propensity to buy or use that brand. Sure.

It is also claimed by many that this generation of consumers is even willing to PAY MORE for altruistic brands! Right.

Maybe so, but what cannot be disputed is the propensity of the connected generation to perform actions (mostly online) that signal to others that ‘I'm a good person'. It’s worth noting that the message need not be actually accompanied by actually doing anything good. This opens the window for brand altruism as a virtue-outsourcing vehicle.

The ‘feelings’ of self-righteousness are so good so it’s no wonder that we are inclined to seek them - and will happily take a shortcut to acquire them.

So, is brand altruism something of a misnomer, and simply a contemporary biological market tactic pandering to the current cultural mode for a particular flavour of virtue signalling?

If this were the case then that may cause some significant cognitive dissonance for the authenticity-seeking future consumers.

(Not all is lost, however. Lack of millennial buying power notwithstanding, there is still much fun to be had given that the only thing people seem to like more than virtue signalling is judging other people!)

Perhaps another idea to consider is this. Brand altruism may simply be interpreted as signal. A costly and strategic signal, that provides an honest indicator of quality.
A brand might make a strategic investment in altruism that acts simply as a signal of its ability to BE altruistic - the brand signals that it has the assets to do so.

In this sense, brand altruism is simply another form of costly signalling the same as investing in high-quality advertising and equivalent to the ‘handicap' for which the peacock's tail has become a metaphor.

It’s kinda altruism, but it’s competitive.

Let’s return to Ambler and Hollier’s The Waste in Advertising, again.

‘The perceived extravagance of [a brand’s altruistic acts] contributes to advertising effectiveness by increasing credibility. It draws especially on the Handicap Principle in biology: animals use wasteful characteristics to signal their exceptional biological fitness. It hypothesizes that excesses in [altruism] work in a similar way by signalling brand fitness…’

In summary, we should probably understand this emerging idea of brand altruism as a part of the brand marketing process through which brands compete with each other in terms of conspicuous generosity (or if you prefer, observable competitive altruism) in order to enhance the status, reputation and perceived quality of the brand.

If some good is worth doing, it’s worth doing in public. And, of course, the more salient the ‘altruistic’ acts of the brand are then the associated ‘generosity’ traits transfer to buyers and users of the brand, more grist to our virtue signalling.

For sure, it is good that brands may wish to contribute to a greater good, or to society as a whole.

But let’s not get too caught up with esoteric notions of ‘pure’ altruism.

Rest easy advertisers and marketers. We can make the world better and still be our selfish, insecure and status- seeking selves.

Or just believe in magic.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

cognitive biases. flaw or feature?

It wasn’t that long ago when the subject matter and context in pop songs had somewhat more substance and sense of inquiry.

Yes, kids, this was pop, believe it or not.

‘There’s definitely, definitely, no logic, to human behaviour. But yet so, yet so irresistible. And there is no map…'

Human Behaviour is the opening track on Debut, the breakthrough album by Icelandic singer- songwriter Björk. The set was produced by Bristol Underground graduate Nellee Hooper and first dropped in 1993.

Talking about the inspiration for the record, Björk looked back on her schooldays.

‘When I went into the sixth form at school, I choose science, math and physics and thought psychology, anthropology, sociology and history and such was for sissies. They call subjects in school about people ‘kjaftafog’, which means nattersubjects.

As I got older, I have learned to appreciate nattersubjects and recently read many books for the first time about psychology and... So I have learned a little about humans.’

But yet so, yet so irresistible. And there is no map

Is there a map? What does motivate human behaviour?

I’ve been a proponent of applied behavioural economics and suchlike in recent years, however, even invoking cognitive biases has now taken on ‘magical’ properties.

When wearing my consulting hat, I sometimes help clients evaluate creative pitches from agencies.

Of course, I pay most attention to the strategy parts of the pitches. It’s always interesting to see what the competition are up to, or where their heads are at.

Some form of applied pseudo-behavioural economics theory is clearly the flavor du jour.

It’s been a remarkable rise. In just a few years behavioural economics has gained significant traction in advertising agencies to the point that nearly every planner and their dog now like to point out how human decision making has become bamboozled by biases.

The irony, of course, is that the standard line trotted out to preface the ‘insights’ – humans are irrational and make emotional decisions etc. – is as fallacious an example of thinking, as the thinking ‘errors’ of consumers the planner is trying to describe.

Planners fail to understand that biases are just tendencies and are also highly context-dependent. This - very thin - focus on biases is unhelpful in several ways. It’s Wikipedia planning.

In one particular pitch I sat in on, every agency played a (magical) loss aversion card in their ‘consumer insights’ slide. Yet demonstrated little real understanding of the concept and where it might or might not come into play, and what purpose it serves in decision making.

They knew the ‘name’ of the thing, though.

Being able to reel off a list of definitions of cognitive effects does not magically turn someone into a behavioural practitioner.

The thing is, most of these commonly invoked ‘irrational’ biases evolved for excellent, rational and adaptive reasons.

When resources are scarce—as they were for 99.9% of our existence as a species—loss aversion would have been a perfectly rational bias to possess.

For early humans, the implications of losing a supply of food would have been significant.

Almost certain death.

Whereas gaining a week’s worth of food meant survival and perhaps trade opportunities for one more week.

Your mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs and whatever you are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship.

Each of these programs is functionally specialised for solving a different adaptive problem that arose in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA.

EEA describes the situational and external factors in which an evolved trait adapted over time. And the collective influence of selection pressures that caused an adaptation to develop.

The EEA of early humans that produced our brain development – from around one million years ago until around ten thousand years ago - is very different from our modern world.

And so, it’s an important distinction to make. Being well adapted to a particular environment and being adaptable to environmental change are different.

This is why many psychologists are arguing that many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing this evolutionary ’mismatch’.

A mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we’re not. These are evolutionarily novel sources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears - spiders, snakes and the dark - have more ancient origins.

It’s not always neat. In fact, it’s a bit messy.

Not least because these programs, or modules, all evolved at different times in our evolutionary history. Not only that, but they also are quite distinct from one another, and can (simultaneously) hold contradictory views.

Although, I’m in two minds about that.

The classic rational economists and the modern behavioural economists have both got the story part right but also partly wrong.

For sure, our decision making is biased in ways that sometimes lead us to make silly choices.

But this does not mean that our decisions are dumb or irrational.

And those economists are correct that we are rational and smart. Just not in the way they think we are.

When we look at the deeper logic of human minds, it becomes clear that all decision making is geared to promote deep-rooted evolutionary goals.

If a cognitive bias positively impacted fitness in the ancestral environment - and if it's still around today then it almost certainly did - it is not a design flaw, it is a design feature.


Adapted excerpt from ‘Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here Is Failure to Communicate’

Available now at Amazon worldwide and in discerning bookstores.

Friday, September 06, 2019

fairies AND gnomes

It’s now just over 100 years since the famous Cottingley fairy hoax. Two spotty teenage English cousins called Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright took photographs of ‘fairies ‘at the bottom of the garden of the house belonging to Elsie’s parents in Cottingley, a leafy West Yorkshire village close to Bradford.

Of course, the photographs are clearly staged. The fairies are simply paper cut-outs Elsie had copied from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary's Gift Book, published just a couple of years earlier in 1915. The girls were having a bit of creative fun, hoping to wind up Elsie’s father whom they had borrowed the camera from and been given some quick photography lessons.

It was all harmless fun until Elsie's mother, Polly, attended a lecture on ‘spiritualism’ a couple of years later. Following the talk, she dug out the photos bringing them to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement.

Boom! The photos were declared totally “genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures."

Very soon the validated fairy pictures began circulating throughout the spiritualist community and landed on the desk of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Whilst the fictional Holmes is arguably the epitome of rationality and scepticism, the avid spiritualist Doyle immediately endorsed the fairy pics as clear proof of the existence of supernatural entities.

Before you can say ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’, Doyle had sent Gardner up to West Yorkshire to interview the girls, collect some new photos of the fairies (and a couple of Gnomes who happened along), and penned an ecstatic article for the December 1920 issue of The Strand Magazine. Within weeks the Cottingley fairies became among the most widely recognised examples of early amateur photography in the world, their authenticity further endorsed by Gardner who - having taken a registered psychic with him on the trip oop t’north just to be sure - declared the whole area to be teeming with fairies.

Things had clearly got out of hand, but the girls decided to roll with it. What started out as a bit of kid fun had seemingly caused a large group of adults to completely lose control of their minds. What should they do? Confess to the hoax and face the wrath of cheated believers? Or just carry on with the fiction and go along with what the grown-ups want?

The thing is, the time was just about right in 1920 for the Cottingley fairies.

Throughout World War I, spiritualism had grown in popularity with the grieving British public.

Amid the chaos of war, with deaths occurring in almost every family there arose a sudden and concentrated interest in ideas of the afterlife, and so the prospect of being able to access some supernatural power, or otherworldly influence, would have been consoling.

Spiritualism, mediums and psychics role was twofold; to reunite families with their dead sons and husbands with ‘evidence’ that they were in a better place and as a reassurance of an afterlife that represented a promise of respite from the hardship and turmoil experienced during and after the Great War.

Of course, Spiritualism's success was its entrepreneurial egalitarianism.

The ability to incorporate a variety of other supernatural concepts, including fairies and gnomes, into its repertoire without blinking is phenomenal agility.

New technology also played a major role. Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic..

This was certainly the case in the early 20th century with the advent of ‘radio’, and telegraphy linking people together during the war. This was close to magical and gave people a way of understanding Spiritualism.

A medium making contact with the spirit world would ‘tune-in’ to the ‘channels and wavelengths’ of the ‘other side’. Even the real world of wireless communications led to experiments in ‘psychic telegraphs’, which inventors claimed could pick up ‘auras’.

In 1920 even any kind of photography was still quite a new idea for ordinary people. The world’s first mass-market camera, the Brownie from Eastman Kodak had only been invented twenty years earlier in 1900.

The most remarkable part of the Cottingley hoax is not that two young girls pretended they found fairies at the bottom of the garden. That is what children do. Play make-believe.

What is remarkable is that so many adults really wanted it to be true.

Fairies and gnomes.


This is a short excerpt from the chapter 'A Cauldron of Illusions' which examines 'magical thinking' and why smart people believe stupid things.
The full essay is in Eaon's forthcoming second book 'Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here is a Failure To Communicate'. The book will be available towards the end of 2019.

Friday, August 30, 2019

short excerpt from 'notes on the bullshit-industrial complex'

Noam Chomsky once noted that Michel Foucault– often cited as among the post-structuralist and postmodernist thinkers although he didn’t like these labels - was actually intelligible if you sat him down and had a normal conversation.

(Unlike many of the other French philosophers).

Chomsky explains, ‘I don’t particularly blame Foucault [for obscurantism], it’s such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it.’

Interestingly, Foucault confessed to his friend the American philosopher John Searle, that he intentionally complicated his writings to appease his French audience.

Searle has revealed that Foucault privately admitted this to him,

"In France you must make 25 percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker."

The French structuralist Pierre Bourdieu claimed it was markedly worse than that. The BS quotient in the ‘works’ of Jacques Derrida, for example, is probably closer to 100%.

Foucault concurred, saying that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism).

“He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”

But a background theory is mandatory.


This is a short excerpt from the chapter 'Notes on the bullshit-industrial complex' in Eaon's forthcoming second book 'Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here is a Failure To Communicate'. The book will be available towards the end of 2019.