The Psychology of Marketing

I teach my students at Berkeley and Stanford that the foundation of marketing is psychology. Marketing is manipulating people to do what we want, so to get people to do what we want, we have to understand how they think, what they feel, and why.

I also teach that the foundation of psychology, what motivates all of us to do whatever we do, is self-interest. I explain that even soon-to-be saints, like Mother Teresa, who spent her life feeding the poor, caring for the sick, did so out of self-interest. Mother Teresa was not altruistic. There is no such thing as Altruism. It is a religious construct to motivate good deeds, to get people out of our own heads, even for a moment, to consider others.

Many students, especially students of religion, have a problem with this lecture. And, no doubt, many reading this blog are bridling right now. “Of course Altruism is REAL. It’s what we strive for, our highest attainment—to give selflessly, because we are fundamentally caring, loving beings.”

Not so much. We are fundamentally self-serving.

And this is NOT a judgement call. This is a fact of human nature. What can be judged is what we DO with this fact of our nature.

I teach self-interest religiously with every Marketing lecture I give. As Mother Teresa spread the word of Christ around the world with every sick child she fed, she was fulfilling her function as a nun. And her brain rewarded her efforts with Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin— ‘happiness’ hormones that made her feel good. In the face of that kind of poverty, I’d be crying daily. I don’t do what she did because it would not make me feel good in any way. I’d be profoundly sad, every day, knowing Christ will never save these children. People are going to have to do that.

We ALL act in self-interest. We scoff at Chevron fracking as the height of corruption, yet we blithely ignore our roles in global warming by driving SUVs we don’t need, or leaving lights or electronics on all the time because we’re too distracted to turn them off. Or we drive while on our cellphones, and cause over 1.5 MILLION accidents annually, and KILL, murder, 9 or more people A DAY so we can check our Facebook timelines.

I teach Marketing, not Morality, I tell students who balk at my contention our motivation, without exception, is self-interest. It is important to tell them this fact about us, in order for them to be able to produce effective marketing material down the line when they go to launch their startups. To get people to buy into your product, service or message, you must understand their psychology— what they think they need or want, and why, then offer them solutions to their issues and desires.
Bernie Madoff did it to a lot greedy people. He fulfilled their desire to get rich quick without effort when he convinced them to invest with him.

On the other end of the spectrum, Toyota did it, when they invented the Prius. And Tesla is doing it in 2018 with the consumer version of their all electric vehicle.

Humans are self-interested beings. What we do with this fact is what matters, NOT that we ARE.

Toyota and Tesla produce the cars they do to make money. And while serving themselves, they are moving closer to serving the greater good, by producing cars that have low emissions. Even better than electric cars, is solar and wind to power them, since over 50% of our electricity still comes from burning coal and other fossil fuels, which continues to do immeasurably damage to our planet.

Martin Andrew Green is an Australian professor at the University of New South Wales who’s dedicated his career to developing solar cells. Mr. Green’s self-interest is scratching a mental itch. He’s curious about light energy, and in learning how to manipulate it, his brain rewards him, makes him feel powerful, smart, valuable, serving his emotional needs.

Self-interest in NOT a curse. It is simply a state of being… human, in our case, but seemingly dictates the behavior of everything else that lives on earth. Survival of the fittest is how species last over millennium. Not survival of the kindest, whatever ‘kind’ means. I don’t believe Mother Teresa was kind in spreading gospel that Christianity saves souls. Instead of teaching the value and necessity of socially responsible behavior, which would have served the greater good, preaching rewards in the afterlife does not serve the living or their future.

There is no need to fear the fact that human behavior is driven by self-interest. Regardless of the religious allegory that Altruism is not only real, but mandatory for society to function, self-interest does NOT need to manifest as narcissism. Green, or Toyota, or the parents who work to provide for their kids, or helping a friend in need, most of us contribute to supporting our society or there would be no human race. We have the capacity to be giving, generous, thoughtful beings. Our motivation is irrelevant. It is our ACTIONS that determine our morality, whether or not we are contributing to creating a society that thrives, or participating it our own demise.


Self-interest is coded in our DNA, and is not a threat to humanity, but a valuable characteristic. We just need to lengthen our time horizon to recognize acting altruistically– recognizing our impact on each other and the planet, then accounting for their needs as well as our own, IS in all of our self-interest.

3 comments:

George Eckel said...

Great essay.

What's valuable in your essay is that it asks you to adopt a point of view and see the world through it. When you put on the filter called "everything I do is self serving" you discover some interesting things, like hypocrisy around being beneficent. So, good things.

Let's put on another filter called "All I am is a bunch of chemical reactions." In that case, there is no "self". What masquerades as "self" is really just a bunch of chemical reactions. In this view, there is no self interest because there is no self; there's just a bunch of chemical reactions.

The thing is, when you're "inside" a filter and don't know it's a filter, then it's the truth. Then everything occurs through that filter not as a view but as being real. e.g., if I go with your filter, then I would say seeing a sunset as being beautiful is just my way of making myself feel good. That would be consistent with that filter.

The real freedom comes when you discover the filter through which you see life, yourself and others. Suddenly, what you thought was "true" and "real" becomes just a view, which you can keep or dispense with.

The danger with any view, whether it's political, religious or personal, is that we mistake it for the truth. And we try to prove it; we argue and even kill for it. For example: My version of God is real. People are self serving. People need a benevolent leader.

When we get how everything we see is just a view, we get to escape our view as being real and can see other possible views. All this, of course, is just my view. :-)

GH

J. Cafesin said...

This is wonderful! Thanks, George!!

J. Cafesin said...

And I totally believe we are WHO we are because of a chance combination of chemistry, and the choices we make throughout life.