Social marketing and complexity

This article briefly discusses some points I consider important for the future of social marketing. Let’s start with three popular behavioral models and then move to the question of complexity.

Health Belief Model, Transtheoretical Model and Theory of Planned Behavior are still common place, no matter several important methodological concerns about the first two and the inadequacy of the latter to account for behaviors highly dependent on situational or “irrational” forces. According to a 2008 paper, no research on HBM efficacy was conducted after one done in… 1984. TTM has constructs (like “dramatic relief”) with low validity and the process by which people transit through its stages is far from clear in its formulation. Segmenting targets according to their behavioral propensity is helpful, but TTM does not do a good job in explaining the processes behind the changes. A much better approach to behavior initiation, change, maintenance and abandonment is this one, inspired by the self-regulation stream of research:

Rothman, A.J., Baldwin, A.S., Hertel, A.W. (2011), “Self-regulation and behavior change: disentangling behavioral initiation and behavioral maintenance”, in Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F. (Eds),Handbook of Self-regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications, The Guilford Press, New York, NY, pp.106-122.

I deeply recommend that chapter.

The permanence of simple models of human behavior in our toolbox speaks loudly about how ideas stick. The problem with them, however, is not only that they are rough theoretical approximations to social behaviors – approximations that were surpassed by theoretical developments in recent decades. The main problem, in my opinion, is that their simplicity belongs to an old paradigm.

Increasingly, complexity has been recognized as the main feature of the modern world, no matter to where one looks. In the last Peter Drucker Global Forum (in 2013) it was explicitly recognized that the management science does not have models to deal with the challenges faced by organizations. It was suggested that management theorists should learn from sciences more used to deal with complex phenomena, like physics. A recent survey by IBM with over 1.000 CEOs all over the world revealed that their main complexity challenge is… understanding consumer behavior!

According to a recent post by researcher Helga Nowotny on Harvard Business Review blog,

“what produces complexity is not so much the presence of many direct cause-effect links which operate with subtlety versus precision, but rather the presence of indirect, non-linear relationships between the variables, parts, and dimensions of the whole. What make complex systems so complex, therefore, are their multiple feedback loops and their indirect cause-effect relations which, moreover, play out at different speeds and on different time scales.” (

Complexity seems to occupy the center of attention in current management discussions (wicked problems, as Craig Lefebvre reminds us, are what we face in our activity). Complexity is everywhere. I was surprised the other day while reading the 2014 Harvard Health Report on Prostate (a well-written guide for patients). The subject of the introduction was… complexity! Wherever one looks one sees how complex phenomena dominate the social agenda. It has been recognized, for instance, that economic development depends on the existence of several concomitant conditions, that feed on each other (in complex interactions), like the development of institutions, societal trust, increases in productivity and educational levels, the quality of national strategic plans and their execution, the interplay of social and political forces, the balance of natural resources and so on. Not surprisingly, it is easier to reach a given standard of income (a challenge per se) than to overcome the so-called middle income trap, where several countries lie and from where they probably will never get out (I cite my own country and countries like China). Another example is corruption in a social system (organizations, societies), a social illness that propagates easily and it is hard to break, especially in developing countries. I used to think that corrupted people were evil people (a dispositional mindset) – committing the fundamental attribution error. Now, knowing the work of Philip Zimbardo and some behavioral ethicists (Max Bazerman, Francesca Gino and others), I see the interplay of several situational and cultural factors, at different levels, accounting for that problem.

Well, social behavior is a typical example of a complex phenomenon. Sometimes, public policy can rely on solutions that are paradoxically simple (ex. defaults in a choice architecture solution). While the solutions may be simple, the problems they intend to attack are complex and require a complexity approach. The key seems to be to embrace that complexity with a scientific mindset (requiring both an experimental approach to problems – what behavioral economists have done successfully – and a proper integration of the astonishingly immense – and disperse – knowledge on human behavior that has been accumulating over the last decades). To understand how people actually work, what makes them tick and how they change their behaviors it is important to integrate knowledge from a myriad of bodies of knowledge; ranging from the unsconscious, neuro research, evolutionary psychology, emotions, self-regulation, cognitive psychology, decision-making research, social psychology (including the power of situational factors), ethnography and so on… while, at the same time, avoiding the trap of ignoring upstream factors) To my knowledge, frameworks like EAST and MINDSPACE are an interesting but imperfect solution to this need of integration (I do miss on them a proper treatment of justice concerns and emotions – beyond the so-called affect heuristic). But these kinds of framework are the best we can hope for.

What is the takeaway? Reality (social, political and economic factors that comprise upstream challenges; human behavior) is complex and gray. Marketing and social marketing have a two-way relationship with consumer (human) behavior and depend on a proper understanding of that behavior – grasping what is a deeply counter-intuitive knowledge uncovered in recent decades.

To deal with complexity (…), says Helga Nowotny in the same piece above mentioned, “requires the ability to combine parts of the whole, however crudely, into an approximation of the look at the whole which we will never see entirely. It requires us to draw on the faculty of human judgment to focus on the smaller picture in order to comprehend the larger one.” She claims that we have to get used to an integrative thinking mindset, looking for patterns in a scattered set of data. I couldn’t agree more.

In another piece at HBR blog on the same subject, economist Roger Martin posited what I think it is the key paradox in understanding human behavior ( while the social problems are wicked problems with open solutions, almost all scientific knowledge on human behavior is compartmentalized, fostering inter-domain complexity, complicating the process of integration. This is the world where we live and work, where simple models of social behavior don’t cut anymore. But as long as we strive to integrate that knowledge, while acknowledging its complexity, I think we will be able to successfully compete within the behavior change arena. We will have to make do with imperfect solutions.

Social marketing versus behavioral economics

I see a great deal of overlap between social marketing and behavioral economics and, of course, some differences.
Both disciplines rely on making things simpler. As I use to say, if you want to make a behavior popular you need to make it screaminglyconspicuouslysimple and easy. This focus fits usual interventions inspired by both approaches.
Another similarity is applying the same mindset notwithstanding differences in the tool name. In most cases I cannot see how choice/social architecture differs in nature from deploying some of the social marketing techniques (removing barriers, place strategies) to facilitate the performance of the target behavior. For instance, a program like Save More Tomorrow could be conceived under either conceptual umbrella.
In “The Political Brain”, Drew Westen stresses the role of associations and narratives (woven through emotional processes) in deciding the fate of political candidates. Of course marketers see easily the importance of associations and narratives for any brands or attitudinal objects. The way I see it,behavioral economics has achieved prominence mostly propelled by a strong narrative (and related metaphor): the David that overcame the Goliath (traditional economics – or better – rational homo economicus) destroying in the process one more facet of the idealistic vision of human beings (a trend centuries old). This narrative was strengthened by the Nobel Prize won by Daniel Kahneman in 2002 and the initial contempt (still existent) the discipline faced in traditional academics departments. Richard Thaler’s work with UK government and the building of a practical framework (Test, Learn, Adapt is their motto) to extend scientific method and mindset to pressing public issues has added to their growing popularity. The more common intuition is contradicted by the results of their experiments the more behavioral economics demonstrates the advantage of the scientific method (and increases its fame).
Behavioral ecomomics has discovered some fundamental truths about human decision making and behavior (beginning with Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory and its offsprings: framming effects, loss aversion, mental accounting, hyperbolic discounting and so on). In turn, the body of knowledge and the prestige the discipline gathered over time gave birth to specific ideas to tackle important public issues and well-succeeded interventions. But behavioral economists have been drawing heavily on other streams of research on human behavior, like (broadly speaking) social psychology. They seem to be successul in integrating theories and findings in areas like emotions, mapping, dual-systems, social norms, choice overload, implemmentation intentions, fairness, construal and the identifiable victim effect. I think a great deal of their deserved reputation comes from this integration. We are all aware of Cialdini’s (and related researchers) work on social norms. Dual-systems approach (System 1/System 2) has been researched by scholars under the psychology/philosophy of mind tradition, like Keith Stanovich (University of Toronto) and colleagues. And so on. But few practical approaches have been developed besides behavioral economics and social marketing.
I see social marketing as the most powerful social technology to address the social problems faced by our societies. My academic advisor used social marketing to structure important governamental programs, dating back to 1981. A bit unlike behavioral economics, it has a parsimonious and flexible toolbox that can easily acommodate and integrate the different theoretical avenues that offer insights on human behavior. Overall, social marketing is a more encompassing approach. From my point of view, however, I feel social marketing needs a more compelling narrative. Last month I read a recent book on tax-related behavior. It had several mentions to behavioral economics. It did mention segmenting taxpayers (something developed countries have been doing for more than a decade) – but there was no mention to marketing as inspiring that approach. I feel social marketing needs a better positioning.
The challenge is enormous and daunting, but I see it as feasible as the discipline matures.
There are important streams of research calling for some kind of integration – even if imperfect. I cite Self-Determination Theory (and one recent practical offspring: gamification), research on Self-Regulation and self-control (with promising understanding of behavior evolution and maintenance – a great advance over transtheoretical model – I mentioned it briefly in my recent paper in JSM), positive psychology, applied neurology… the list of course is not comprehensive.
I see the challenge as threefold: develop a compelling narrative, integrate findings from promising streams of research and dialogue with behavioral economists and other important scholars – given their prominence and given what seems to be lack of knowledge about social marketing. This open dialogue and the transdisciplinary approach can enrich social marketing, in my opinion.

A supervalorização da inteligência

Há alguns anos correu na Internet uma versão de que o George W. Bush era o presidente de menor QI de todos os tempos. Mas isso era um hoax. É falso. O QI estimado do Bush filho é moderadamente alto, entre 120 e 130, o suficiente para ele ser enquadrado no percentil 95 da população americana. É um QI de respeito.
O exemplo do Bush filho, famoso pela forma desastrada de tomar decisões importantes (ele alegadamente dizia que pensava como um “homem do povo”) ilustra bem um conhecimento contraintuintivo, mas que vem sendo desvendado pela ciência nos últimos anos: a correlação entre indicadores de inteligência e de racionalidade é baixa ou inexistente. Tratei disso  neste artigo aqui. Em outras palavras, inteligência não é vacina contra decisões ruins. Inteligência é algo sobrevalorizado.
Para usar um outro exemplo instrutivo, os americanos de origem asiática são um percentual bem pequeno da população dos EUA, mas tem uma participação muito alta nas melhores universidades daquele país. O QI médio desses universitários de origem asiática não é superior ao dos americanos de outras origens e em vários casos é ligeiramente inferior, como mostra Roy Baumeister em um livro que traduz o conceito de auto-regulação para uma linguagem acessível. O que os difere é justamente um alto escore nessa dimensão que mais explica o sucesso na vida, no estudos etc. A auto-regulação pode ser traduzida, grosso modo, como auto-controle (manifestado em facetas como força de vontade, disciplina e persistência).