Marrying Public Relations with Psychology and Social Science

A book review of The Social Animal

By Miguel Shen

As students of Public Relations, we need to understand how human behavior works and what can we do to move people’s opinion, attitude and action into the direction we want them to go. To do that, psychology and social science are important tools for us to have a peek into people’s inner realm. The Social Animal by David Brooks is a great book for us to study the basics of these disciplines.

Human beings have long been considering themselves as a logical animal. We think we stood out as a species because of our ability to reason and analyze. However, Mr. Brooks argues that the human mind is actually “The empire of emotion”. If the conscious mind is of reason and analysis, the unconscious mind is of passion and perspective. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that the unconscious mind matters most, but the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.

Usually we think that we made decisions consciously,  but the unconscious mind has already made its decision for us without being aware of it. When a boy and a girl first meet, it only takes them about 20 seconds to make the decision whether they will be seeing each other in the future or not. Researchers in Britain found that when French music was played in the store the sales of French wines rose. When German music was played the German wine sales grew.

In fact, our unconscious mind is even more powerful than we thought. There is a term in psychology called priming which means that one perception cue can trigger a stream of thoughts that may alter subsequent behavior. A study done by John A.Bargh found that if you ask test subjects to read a series of words that vaguely related to being elderly, when they leave the room they will walk more slowly than when they  came in. If you tell somebody a story of success just before they take a test, they will perform better than if you had not told them these stories. If you use the words “succeed, master and achieve” in a sentence, they will do better.

On the other hand, if you cast someone into a negative stereotype, they will do worse. Social psychologist Claude M. Steele found that if you remind African American students that they are African Americans before a test, their score will be much lower. In another case, if you remind Asian American women they are Asian before a math test, they did better. The interesting thing is if you remind them they are women, they did worse.

Another interesting term is anchoring. Anchoring is a cognitive bias we have when we make our decision, because no information is absolutely isolated. We judge everything in comparison to something else. A $30 bottle of wine may seem expensive when surrounded by $10 dollar ones, but it seems cheaper when surrounded by $100 ones. Robert E. Ornstein mentioned a very interesting experiment that has been done by a manager of a pool-table store. One week he showcased the lowest priced pool table first to his customer starting at $ 329 and then worked his way up. The costumers spent average $550 that week. The next week he showed them a $3000 table first and worked his way down. The average sales that week was $1000.

Then there is framing which our profession does a lot. If a surgeon tells his patients that the surgery may have a 15 percent failure rate, they are more likely to opt out. If he tells them that the surgery has an 85 percent success rate, they tend to opt for it. That’s why whenever people see a sign “Limit: ten per customer”, they are more likely to put four or five of it in the cart.

Now we know all the tricks that the Robber-Barrons threw at us. You may be surprised that how dumb we are to fall for these seemingly stupid tricks and how often we fall for them. But we are emotional animals. Smart company sees that and seizes it. Take Nike as an example. They launched a new product called Kobe system. No matter how they boast their newest shoe “technology” (well, I seriously don’t consider it’s a technology), they know they can never sell a pair of shoes for $200 just because of that. What they did is to attach their product to people’s emotion and the spirit of sports: better, faster, stronger.

David Brooks rendered us a perfect description of this spirit in his column in the New York Times:” The modern sports is oriented around victory and supremacy. The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. He is theatrical. He puts himself on display. He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people. His primary virtue is courage – the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.” Going through each and every video Nike created for Kobe system on Youtube, you will find they match every single description David Brooks had above. In the commercial, Nike invited big names in different walks of life and had them bow down to the almighty Kobe Bryant. Nike enchanted their shoes with the characters of Kobe: suggesting that wearing it you will be invincible, you will achieve the things that you can never imaging, you will crush your opponents, you will win the applause and admiration of the crowds and you will be on top of anything. The cost of making a pair of Kobe System is about $10 or even less. By attaching them to people’s emotion, they created $190 value.

Having understood how stupid we can be sometimes and how simple it is to change human’s behavior, I kept thinking about the criticisms that New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has received because of banning the soft drinks larger than 16 ounces. The critics said that people could just buy two of them instead of one. However, they may have ignored the fact that we can be extremely lazy. The reason why Americans are having obesity problem is because Americans fail to make a conscious decision for themselves even when research clearly points out that soft drinks cause it. Remember making the conscious choice every time and every day is the hard part. The ban actually created a situation for us to make a conscious decision to purchase another one. In other words, unless you really want it, you may not have one more. The difficulty of carrying two bottles could also hinder the consumption of soft drinks. Why don’t we just wait and see if the science speaks for itself and then give our comments on whether the ban is stupid or we are.  

To apply Psychology and Social Science in Public Relations could make us really powerful. It doesn’t mean we can manipulate people for the purpose of our own benefits. We should always use them to dissolve misunderstandings, build bridges between organizations and their publics. Common grounds and mutually beneficial relationships is what we should aim for. Never forget our ethics.

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