“I think/feel, therefore I buy” — Probaby Not

Here’s a good rule of thumb for brain stuff, psychology, econ, etc – what we all naturally , talk about, tell ourselves and each other and our subjective experiences, feelings, etc are probably bad indicators of how our brains operate to control behavior.  It seems more likely that the opposite of what we believe is true!  So critical thinking is really necessary.  It’s hard.

Let’s, briefly, look at our beliefs about why we ourselves, and everyone else buy stuff.

Pretty much everyone, including most economists, scientists, policy folks, business folks and marketers – go along with the naive realism view that the subjective experiences we all chat about cause buying behavior.  That is likely an illusion.  A set of illusions that waste a lot of marketing time and money.Back a long time ago Descartes pithily said “I think therefore I am.” (good marekting and copywriting!) defining human brain processes > behavior as driven by conscious, verbal processing, rationality, logic and other easy to comprehend subjective experiences like emotions, social exchanges, etc.  So “modern” thinkers would have us believe that not much has changed and that the human mind, tacitly assumed to be unique (although descended from billions of years of evolution of other life forms), basically: decides, makes choices and that things like executive function, counterfactual thinking, weighing options, reward, incentives, utility and a whole host of human-only cognitive/psychological/socioogical/philosophical/economic functions cause our behavior.  The fact that no other animals seems to do any of this stuff is cleverly ignored.

All of these things are called “higher order concepts” (HOC) and create a top-down model of human exceptionalism that gets expressed in the brain – using the new brain imaging tools.  The dominant, new, model is that the colorful pictures you see of the brain lighting up represent cognitive functions tied to discreet areas of the brain and those drive behavior and are the content of these higher order concepts.

The truth seems to be much more mundane and complicated.  Thinking probably doesn’t mean much and most of our subjective experiences are probably trivial and not causal of behavior but occur after the fact and are sort of like post-play commentary.  At least when brain scientists and economists try to prove that it means something — the results are weak or not existent.

Further it is very hard, even just logically, to suggest that any human brain > behavior process is very different from other mammals, primates and even “lower” life forms.  In fact, the problems that life has to solved, get done pretty effectively by bacteria and even slime mold and plants.

“Economic” behavior which is just exchanging energy and resources with the immediate environment (habitat), defines life and the principals have been worked out about a billion years ago.  Of course, childishly, we preach that having iPhones, pet rocks, etc makes the human brain exceptional — not so much.

Likely what is called “thinking” has no more influence or information value than bird-song, from which it likely derived, or other forms of verbal signaling in other primates.  It also appears most behavior is automatic, unconscious and happens instantly, in 150 millieseconds.  No time for thinking, decision making, weighing options or even lettering feelings guide us.

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