The psychology and language of victim-blaming

The authors of a new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin have published a column in the New York Times explaining why some people tend to blame the victims of crimes – consciously or unconsciously.

In short, people who favor what the authors call “binding values” – loyalty, obedience, and purity – are more likely to blame victims than people who favor “individualizing values,” like caring and fairness.

Language can affect these perceptions (and presumably subtly reflect them as well).  Language like “Dan forced Lisa” makes people more empathetic with the victim than language like “Lisa was forced by Dan.” The authors conclude by arguing, “Focusing less on victims and more on perpetrators…may be a more effective way of serving justice.”

(image by Benedicte Muller for the New York Times)

As you like it

One of my favorite quirky books is Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, which discusses the unconscious factors that influence the way we drive (driving drivers, if you will).

The author is out with a new book entitled You May Also Like, whose central argument is that there are things that we truly like – and things that we like mainly because other people like them, or because they have symbolic meaning, or because of some semi-conscious contextual factor.

Vanderbilt discusses his latest work in an interview for the FiveThirtyEight blog. The blog features an excerpt from the interview but you also can download the complete audio.

We often shape our preferences to distinguish ourselves from other people.  I like BMWs in many ways.  They are good-looking cars that perform well. However, I’ll probably never drive one because one of the most condescending prigs I have ever known drove a BMW; so the car, unfortunately, is linked in my mind to that very unpleasant person.

Other times people claim to like things (foreign films, perhaps) that they never actually consume.  When we say we like something, it’s sometimes because “liking” it helps us feel more like the kind of person we want to be.

Also, context plays a big role in whether we like something or not.  In this interview, Vanderbilt mentions the concept of “lawnmower beer.”  It might not be a beer with a complex taste profile that you would drink in a fine restaurant, but it tastes pretty darn good a 90 degree Saturday afternoon after you have mowed the lawn.

Vanderbilt is a gifted writer and the topic is of great relevance to our work.  I can’t wait to pick it up.

The ethical woman

Who is more ethical, men or women?

According to NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantim, there is a widespread belief that women are more ethical than men.  The flip side of that is that we are unconsciously biased to punish women more severely for ethical transgressions.

In one study, people punished “Jane Moranti” much more severely for a hypothetical case of Medicare fraud than “Jack Moranti.”  (130 days in prison vs. 80 days). In the real world, studies of the disciplinary proceedings of the American Bar Association reveal that female lawyers were again subject to more severe punishments than male lawyers for the same ethical violations.

We know how negative stereotypes and biases can affect the way in which we treat people.  This study shows that sometimes even a positive stereotype can have a dark underbelly.




The false allure of the 'brain as computer' metaphor

Here is a really thought-provoking essay about the widely accepted metaphor of "Brain as Computer."  Most people think of the brain this way. You probably do, too, even though you might not know it.  But this metaphor -- which the author argues isn't true -- dramatically affects how we think about what our brain is capable of.

Branding by Bey

Thanks to Jerry Olson for drawing my attention to this column about what marketers can learn from Beyonce.

Beyonce is brilliant at creating buzz around her album releases (the music industry equivalent of product launches). The author explains that more traditional marketers can take several lessons from her:

1.       Develop a rock solid brand identity

2.       Understand your community

3.       Engage with your community

4.       Build momentum

5.       Take risks

Interesting perspective on how Beyonce works diligently, through all avenues, to build and maintain her personal brand.


Thanks to Olson Zaltman's Joe Plummer for sharing this article from The New Yorker about the sense of touch.  It discusses how scientists are innovating around touch in ways that could transform healthcare, gaming, navigation, pornography, shopping, and fashion.

Imagine being able to touch clothing before you buy it online…or being able to walk down the street in a new city and feel a nudge that tells you which way to turn.

An atlas of the brain?

A new study in the journal Nature explains why a good story can be so engrossing.

Researchers at Cal-Berkeley tracked brain activity in people as they listed to podcasts of “The Moth Radio Hour.”  What they discovered is that the stories activated areas across the brain, including networks associated with the senses, emotions, and memory. As you can see above, the brain lights up like a kaleidoscope.

A more detailed discussion of the research can be found here. What the researchers have found is that, at a more granular level, specific words consistently “light up” specific areas of the brain.  As a Princeton neuroscientist observes: “The ethical implications are enormous. One more benign use would see brain activity used to assess whether political messages have been effectively communicated to the public.”

The Virtual Holiday

Lufthansa has brought virtual reality to the airline industry.

Airline travel has become largely commoditized and consumers tend to focus on time and price when selecting a flight. Lufthansa, however, is seeking to differentiate by promoting its passenger experience.  And what better way to do that than to let people experience that experience (virtually) before boarding the plane? 

At a trade show in Berlin, Lufthansa let visitors experience the seats and the service on board – and then took them on a short “virtual holiday” to San Francisco.

VR is still a novelty, for the most part, but the novelty will wear off soon enough as the technology inevitably becomes more accessible to the masses.  Meanwhile, brands like Lufthansa, The North Face, the National Football League, Hasbro, and Marriot continue to pioneer the use of VR in marketing.

Not just fun and games

Minecraft is, in many ways, today’s Lego – and more.

A  New York Times Magazine feature, headlined “The Minecraft Generation,” explains how the game is inadvertently is teaching a generation of children about coding, problem solving, and civic literacy.

From a marketing perspective, the game has been successful in spite of (or, really, because of) its lack of clear rules. Because you essentially teach yourself the game, learning as you go along, online communities have sprung up where players share tips and tricks. Those communities have fostered a deep loyalty to the game.

Some also suggest that Minecraft has become a “third place” for kids – somewhere they can go to be free.  Not only are they mentally free in that they can escape the scrutiny of parents and teachers, but also they experience a sense of physical freedom as they move unrestrained through a virtual space, doing whatever the hell they want.  This is in stark contrast to the “real world” where fearful parents often limit their children’s wandering.

Brilliant article about how a simple game has complex roots in human psychology and is possibly making an impact far beyond what the creator of the game ever imagined.

Let me call you sweetheart

As an expert in this article says, the tongue could be a window to the psyche.

The article above summarizes recent research into the correlation between taste and our behavior and emotions.  Some of the highlights:

  • Research suggests that people highly attuned to bitter tastes tend to startle more easily than those not so well attuned to bitterness.
  • The enjoyment of bitter tastes is associated with higher levels of antisocial behavior.
  • Volunteers judge transgressions more harshly after drinking something bitter than after drinking water.
  • Thinking of love can make plain water taste sweeter.
  • After a happy event, volunteers rate a lemon-lime sorbet as sweeter than after a negative event.

Maybe this helps us understand where certain gustatory metaphors come from – like when we call someone a bitter person, or when we call them sweetheart, or when we say “that victory was sweet.”

Wait a beat before you eat

As a result of being a father of two young children – and also as a result of years of squeezing “lunch” into a 30-minute window between ZMET interviews – I eat like a wild animal.  A meal has become something be devoured, not savored. Stopping for a moment to take a pic of my food certainly doesn’t enter into my thought process. 

Apparently, I am missing something. According to new research in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, taking pictures of your meal can make the meal seem tastier.  This is especially true of more indulgent meals, but can even be true of healthier meals under certain circumstances – like if you believe other people are also eating healthy meals.

This lines up with research conducted in 2013, which suggested that performing a short ritual before eating influences our evaluation of the food. The pause before consumption delays gratification, builds anticipation, and makes the food seem tastier.

Truly "Social" Media

Outstanding article in the latest Harvard Business Review from Douglas Holt, author of the book How Brands Become Icons.

Holt wrote his book about a decade ago and since that time social media has exploded. As he points out, it is challenging to make any kind of impact with branded content on social media, much less an impact that is truly lasting and reaps enduring benefits for the brand.

However, Holt argues that an avenue toward this kind of success on social media is to tap into a broader cultural story.  An example that is central to his argument is the Chipotle “Back to the Start” campaign, which tapped into broader societal concerns about industrialized farming. Of course, Chipotle has had some problems recently that probably have significantly damaged its brand equity.  Nonetheless, before that news became public the “Back to the Start” videos gave the brand a voice and differentiated it from other fast-food chains.

Holt also discusses how Axe, Dove, and Old Spice all, in their own unique ways, used social media to create powerful messages with lasting impact in the deodorant and beauty space.


The art and science of conversation

An article from The Atlantic, “The Incredible Thing We Do During Conversations,” sheds light on both the workings of the unconscious mind and the commonalities in how all humans communicate.

There is a stereotype that people from certain cultures are more apt to talk over one another, while other cultures tend to have relatively long periods of thoughtful silence throughout their conversations.  As it turns out, these stereotypes are just that.  

Regardless of how different grammar and cultural norms can be around the world, there is very little difference in how people conduct conversations.  The average gap between turns in a conversation is 200 milliseconds, and that varies very little across 10 different languages that have been studied.  It’s a little longer for Danish speakers, a little shorter for Japanese speakers but the variations are microscopic.

Also, 200 milliseconds is a REALLY short amount of time, which suggests that when we are listening to someone speak, we are not just listening but also anticipating what they are going to say next and also formulating our own responses at the same time.  It’s a pretty amazing mental feat, and we do it all day, every day, for our entire lives.

Pollsters' perplexing problem

We in the US will be awash in polling numbers for the next nine months in the run-up to the presidential election.  An article in the New Yorker casts some doubt on how representative these polls really are, and debates whether they are negatively impacting our democracy.

In the 1930s, polling typically was conducted door-to-door and response rates were around 90%.  People considered it a civic duty to respond to polls.  By the 1980s, response rates were down to 60%.  Today they are less than 10%.  Polling firms, of course, use statistical weighting to ensure a representative sample, but this brings some clutter into the analysis.  Although modern general election polling in the US has remained quite accurate so far, pollsters in Israel, Greece and UK have been dramatically off-target in recent elections.

What do these kinds of low response rates mean, if anything, for qualitative research?  How do we (and our recruiters) make sure that the people we are interviewing are representative in some way?  Does this issue even matter as much in qualitative research?

(By the way, if you are interested in a deeper discussion of the topic, the author of this article, Jill Lepore, along with statistician and polling analyst Nate Silver of were guests on NPR’s “Fresh Air” last week.)

Flushing our bad habits down the drain

Interesting example of behavioral economics at work – or not - and why it is so hard to break habits.

A University of Missouri professor, Laura McCann, studied the use of newly-installed dual-flush toilets at city hall in Columbia. The concept is that you are supposed to flip the lever up to flush urine (which requires less water) and push it down to flush feces (which requires more water.)  The toilets feature a set of wordy instructions to “clarify” this.

The study revealed that hardly anyone uses the toilets correctly.  Specifically, most people just push down all the time, resulting in a huge waste of water.

The obvious solution – which apparently isn’t so obvious to designers – is to reverse the directions and make the “down” push the low-flow option.   As McCann says, “It was so stupid. I can’t believe they designed it that way.”  But they did. 

If you’ve read Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein this will resonate.  Changing habits is hard.  As McCann points out, if you had a toilet like this on your home, you probably would figure it out, but most people don’t use the toilets at city hall all that often, so they default to the behavior they know.  Things should be designed in a way that the smart choice is the easy choice, not the one you have to think about.

Super Sunday Success

With the Super Bowl coming up on Sunday, Google has some useful advice for marketers who want to emerge as winners on the big day.

1) Increasingly, the Super Bowl is more of a “season” than a “day,” at least for advertisers.  In 2015, ads that were shared on YouTube in advance of the game received twice as many views and three times as many social media shares as those that weren’t released until game day.

2) Football isn’t just about the game.  For example, football-related comedy, like Key & Peele’s Super Bowl Special – have become very popular, as are football-related food and recipe videos.

3) Football fans aren’t just football fans.  Nissan created “dad-themed” content as part of its very successful #withdad Super Bowl campaign. The campaign had little to do with football, but instead focused on how dads make lives better for their families.

Let The North Face be your Sherpa

Another example of a brand leveraging virtual reality: The North Face.

As this article describes, The North Face has taken its consumers to Yosemite, Moab Desert, and Nepal via 360-degree virtual reality video experiences.  Anyone with a smartphone can experience the movies, and they also have incorporated them into retail locations in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and London. In November The North Face distributed 75,000 Google Cardboard VR viewers to subscribers of Outside magazine and encouraged them to take part in the experience.

As Eric Oliver, The North Face’s director of digital marketing explains, the company is trying to build “empathy for the outdoors” and encourage people to experience the natural world. 

Of course, the goal really is to sell more North Face clothing, and as Oliver admits, it is hard to pin down exactly how much VR has contributed to sales but it certainly seems like a compelling and on-point brand-building tactic that engages the consumer with the brand in an entirely new way.

The importance of Connection

At Olson Zaltman, we frequently see the Deep Metaphor of Connection as one that structures people's thinking. This example goes back a few months, but it is still a good example of Connection at work in the real world.

This is a Sebastian Junger essay that appeared in Vanity Fair addressing the topic of PTSD.  Researchers are learning that PTSD really has very little to do with the degree of horror someone might have experienced in combat -- plenty of soldiers experience horrible things during war and come out on the other end just fine.  However, one of the differences is the degree of connection they feel to the society to which they are returning. 

They are going from a military family where extremely close bonds were formed in the midst of hardship, to a civilian society where it can be difficult to form anything resembling those kinds of close, familial bonds with anyone outside one's immediate family.

Fascinating piece not only about the nature of war but also on the alienating effects of our modern world.


2015's best mobile campaigns

Happy New Year!

A bit of housekeeping from the end of last year was the release of the Mobile Marketing Association’s 2015 Global Smarties Trends Report. It illustrates six trends that defined mobile marketing in the past year.  Lots of very compelling case studies and food for thought in the report.

Some of our favorites include:

·         Campaigns that utilize mobile to deepen the personal relationship with the audience: Sunsilk, a hair care brand in Vietnam, created a visual dictionary – “The Language of Hair” --  that interprets the meaning behind every touch of the hair. It was very popular with young women and helped the brand differentiate within a largely commoditized category.

·         Interactivity and co-creation super-charged by social. Of course, there is the landmark Ice Bucket Challenge.  Also, Foot Locker’s “Horse with Harden” campaign invited basketball fans to create trick shots that NBA star James Harden had to copy.  It had a potential reach of 61 million people, and Foot Locker’s subscriber rate on YouTube jumped 300% during the campaign.

·         Evolving the brand message via Vines and microvideo: Gap’s “Spring is Weird” campaign was a 12-part microseries (all episodes 15 seconds long) on Instagram. It focused on various spring moments, woven into a narrative, and cleverly illustrated the role Gap clothing could play in people’s lives during the season.

The road to Llanfairpwllgwyngyll

Frankly, the relevance of this article for marketing is pretty nebulous. We just thought it was cool.

New research from linguists at Cal-Berkeley and the French National Center for Scientific Research suggest that climate and terrain significantly affect how language develops around the world.

Cold, drier, more mountainous places tend to have languages that are heavy in the use of consonants, while hotter and more densely forested regions employ lower frequency sounds and more vowels.  The theory is that in places like the tropics, the heat, humidity, and dense forestation tend to interrupt sound, so people in those countries developed vowel-heavy languages because vowel sounds float through the air more easily.