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.