Magic, the brain, and commercial persuasion

Posted by Rob Walker on July 24, 2008
Posted Under: Advertising,Consumer Behavior

Two items of note on the broad subject of commercial persuasion and consumer decision-making.

First, Marginal Utility points to this Scientific American article about “how making decisions tires your brain.” Essentially the piece cites a number of studies suggesting that “executive function,” a name for a part of the brain involved in decision-making, is sort of like a muscle that gets worn out when used too often, leading to bad decisions even in areas unrelated to whatever realm we wore it out in.

Wow, that was a bad sentence, let’s just try quoting a bit of the article:

University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and colleagues repeatedly demonstrate that the mere act of making a selection may deplete executive resources. For example, in one study the researchers found that participants who made more choices in a mall were less likely to persist and do well in solving simple algebra problems.

Etc. Meanwhile, Wired summarizes research that looked at magic tricks and apparently extracts lessons to “advance our understanding of the brain — and perhaps help inoculate us against advertising.” The underlying article/research is not online, so I can only quote from a bit of Wired’s summation; here’s one interesting bit:

Psychological misdirection. Just as the attention of our eyes can guide, so can the attention of our minds. A casual motion belies its importance to a trick. Heightened suspense muddles the audience’s focus on the mechanics of a routine. The mere mention of a false explanation precludes notice of the real one.

So… to be glib … if commercial persuaders are magicians, and we’re taking in their tricks with exhausted executive-function muscles … how likely is it we make the best decisions?

I’ll leave it to you to sort out what you make of that. Hopefully your brain is less tired than mine.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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