#78 Choice Is A Myth!

by Steven Cerri on January 5, 2009

“Do you really choose anything?”

Hello everyone!

As an engineer or engineering manager, how much of what you do is your choice?

As an engineer or engineering manager how much of what your colleagues do is their choice?

As an engineering manager, how much of the behavior of your direct reports is their choice?

Most people would answer that people are always choosing their behaviors. Right? How can it be any other way? We each choose our behaviors.

Well, as you are probably well aware, we have now entered the era of brain scanning and we can now answer these questions with data-supported statements; and it seems the answer to all three questions is an emphatic… NOT AS MUCH AS YOU MIGHT THINK!

In fact, not much at all.

Martin Lindstrom, a marketing expert, kept noticing contradictions between what people “said” they did and what they actually did when it came to making a buying choice. People told Martin they bought “Product X” for this or that reason but they also behaved in ways that seemed to refute their explanations. Martin wasn’t convinced.

So Martin embarked on a grand scientific study to determine, with real data, what was the truth.

Martin conducted a scientific research project to determine if our “buy decisions” have predictability and similarity to anything else we do, and if that predictability can be measured using the latest brain scan equipment. He wondered if our buy decisions really were structured as we explained or was there something else going on under our conscious awareness that was different from our explanations? The reason this question is so important in advertising is that much of advertising doesn’t work. So if it doesn’t work, why? And when it does work, why? (This research has important implications for management and leadership, as well.)

Martin got grants for millions of dollars, enlisted doctors and subjects, and employed two very sophisticated brain scanning systems, an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and an SST (which is an advanced version of the electroencephalograph).

He was on a quest to determine the “honesty” of peoples’ buying explanations and the “real” mechanisms by which people decide to buy what they decide to buy.

What Martin found was that people haven’t a clue why they do things (and I’m not exaggerating his words). Whatever people “think” are their motivations, they’re usually wrong! They can’t explain their motives and therefore, they can’t explain their actions. The intellect doesn’t know, in most cases, a person’s true motives. To put it in the frame of art and literature, “The mind does not know the heart”.

It is for this reason that I don’t place much stock in books that purport to teach management by recounting the motives and actions of previously successful executives. When an executive or manager attempts to explain his or her motives for their actions, it’s always been my position, and now I even have Martin’s scientific data to back me up, that people don’t have a clue as to their true motivations. Books touting how certain managers or executives explain “why” they did something are therefore, often hollow at best and misleading at worst. Historically, people can tell us “what” they did. Seldom can they truly tell us “why” they did it.

Some people don’t need an fMRI or an SST to uncover why people do what they do. You’ve seen them. They’re the people who seem to lead naturally. They seem to have the ability to influence without trying.

What are they doing? How do they do it?

The key is that before there were fMRIs and SSTs, human beings had the ability to “read” other people so that significant and elegant influence was possible. It’s what I call “Effective Conversational Management and Leadership”. The fMRI and SST used by Martin are designed to access brain activities in real time. Similarly, Effective Conversational Management and Leadership is designed to manage and lead individuals and teams “in real time”.

The information necessary for effective management and leadership is in the moment, with the direct report, with the team. (This is also why I’m not a fan of personality tests and surveys.) There are ways to “read” and “understand” motives. It doesn’t take brain scans (although they can be very accurate and useful when scientific, reproducible data is desired); it takes an understanding of the human process. Great leaders know this. Great influences understand this.

If you’re interested in this topic you can check out the book. I highly recommend it. It’s titled: “buy-ology; Truth and Lies About Why We Buy”. And I would add, “Truth and Lies About Why We Do What We Do”. The book is written by Martin Lindstrom. Check it out. It’s a good read. (Click here to go to Amazon.com to purchase the book.)

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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