Forget Big Data, Give us Big Future! says Oliver Payne

Next up is ProjectWaalhalla speaker Oliver Payne. Oliver has worked in communications for a long time, and is the founder of The Hunting Dynasty. He is the point of contact for clients, author of ‘Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change’ (Routledge), speaks on behavioural comms, and organises London (UK) behavioural communications monthly informal drinks.

We share the vision that there is a mismatch between our world and the world that our brains are best adapted to. I first read it in Darwinian Happiness by the great Bjorn Grinde. Your book is also based on this premise.

Can you explain what this gap is, and how it affects us?

I’m really focusing on the time since industrialization when I say we are ancient creatures in modern times. Since 1850 life expectancy has increased by six hours a day[i]. We live in a world of abundant calories, cheap medicine, and (universally applied) law. Energy is orders of magnitude cheaper. In the last four generations we’ve transformed from a local animal to a global one that can circumnavigate the world in a day. The world around us — a world that we’ve built — is fantastic, and fantastical. We should not lose sight of this. This swift and large change in our environment is my focus; the discords between evolution and the present way of living. (The discussion about whether we were ever fit-for-purpose I leave to those more immersed on broad evolutionary scale.)

In the last century of so, we’ve see fundamental changes within a single lifetime. No one buying a house in the West now asks if it has indoor plumbing, and yet 50 years ago that would’ve been a fair question. We’re all pretty good at throwing a ball on target, and have been for thousands of years, yet in the period between the Wright brother’s flying for the first time and WWII less than a lifetime later soldiers had to be taught that shooting flack at hundreds of miles an hour, hundreds of feet in the air, at planes flying at hundreds of miles an hour, required a ‘leading sight’ technique in order to arrive at the target as intended. The speeds and distances had changed so drastically we had no useful heuristic. In that sense it was a case of simply scaling-up the ‘leading sight’ techniques we already knew. But from a behavioural point of view some of our existing understanding is incorrect from the start, and simply ‘scaling up’ only goes to magnify the error.

Take fundamental attribution errors for an instance.

Most people will agree that a vicar behaves like a vicar, because he’s a vicar. In the 16C and before, perhaps; he was in the vicarage, in the village, travel was limited, routine was established (only brutalised by death and disease). It mattered little whether it was the constant environment or the vicar that generated the behaviour. And now? You’ll spot a tired and weary vicar at 3-am in an airport after a missed connection because of errors from the airline shouting angrily at the airline staff who can’t offer him a reasonable onward passage; not so vicar-like. And we are surprised. We shouldn’t be — personality traits are more a product of environment than a product of an ‘internal engine’. We made a bet on the wrong driver but it was good enough for our needs, but now that error is beginning to show — good enough isn’t good enough anymore. Our common and permanent misunderstanding that behaviours are reflective of personality are exposed.[ii]

The gaps we’re seeing are ‘clean’ ones, where we’re pretty good and living short and brutal lives, yet we’ve built a life where a five year old has a greater chance of living to one hundred years of age than a ninety-five year old — so we have the right self-preservation tools just not the right event horizon. And we’re seeing the ‘dirty’ gaps, where we misattributed personality to the individual not the situation — leaving us without the right tools to work with, period.

That’s what I’m getting at when I say the gap.

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Your book outlines ways to use behavioral sciences to help people live more sustainable. You are an advertising guy, right? Why this angle and not just use these insights for marketing?

The reason I wrote about resource-use was a response to the sustainable world making a mess of communicating; they were (some still are) delivering facts in ever more shrill tones. I thought — as an experienced award winning ad man — I could solve this obvious error. It turns out I couldn’t. Crafting more persuasive messages using existing marketing knowledge relied on (and still relies on) overt, aspirational appeals.

Obviously they fall a bit short when trying to craft an overt aspirational messages as to why you should not — for instance — litter; ‘because it’s bad, yeah! So leave it as you find it bruv!’ (this is a classic Tragedy Of The Commons-type problem typical of resource-use issues, as the individual derives 100% of the benefit of an action, and a tiny percentage of the downside). The next place most comms people go is try and find an overt, aspirational message for an action that has, as a consequence, less littering; ‘Don’t walk-and-eat, sit in the picnic area (which we won’t overtly tell you, but is near to the bins) and enjoy your time in the park!’ etc.

Both are a bit under-powered. But the liberation that a psychological approach offers is intoxicating; you can craft a persuasive message by appealing to the reflexive — not reflective — response in a way that doesn’t cajole, false-joy, or over-reach; ‘The majority of people in this park use these bins — we all thank you for joining them’ etc. Excuse the cheap fortune-cookie example of littering, but you get the point. And that only touches norms; contextual and construal conditions can be deployed, too.

The great benefit of this is you affect change without using much/any social capital — people aren’t pissed off. Can you imagine fines being levied for littering? ‘Rip off!’, ‘Anti liberty gone mad!’ etc. Not only using social capital, but also lots of financial capital as it would be expensive to legislate and police.

Of course, the question arises ‘are you manipulating people?’ And if you are ‘what authority do you have?’ Tricky on both counts, because yes you are manipulating — but you are anyway whatever you write, you just don’t know it (is ignorance a justifiable excuse?). The authority issue is harder. Sustainable people are happy to levy short-term resource deficit/change by appealing to a higher authority in the form of a serviceable future for us all. But where the line is drawn is arguable, and issues of intergenerational equity (all forms of equity) are the subjects of another book/library/lifetime of work.

Businesses tend to freak out at anything manipulative in the ‘marketing’ space unless it’s overt, obvious, clear deliberatively-appraised messaging, but are happy as a pig in shit to twist their customers’ UX and e-commerce behaviour. Government has the best set of circumstances it seems — and this may be why the UK Behavioural Insights Team and copies around the world are having so much success; they are required by the democratic process to implement the change they were voted in to do, at the lowest social and financial cost, in an entirely transparent fashion. We want them to change the behaviour of a nation along a party line.

I’ve asked more questions than offered answers with that paragraph. Your original question was about marketing.

You can use the insights in my book for marketing — I frequently do. My publisher said to me as I prepared to write the first full draft that I wasn’t really writing about sustainability, really I was writing about behaviour. And he’s right — I shot it through the prism of resource-use for the (personal) reasons described. And bringing it (a topic) all together in a way that’s useful and for a broader palette is the space I inhabit. Indeed it’s the only space I can inhabit; I have no academic bona fides.

Before I read your book. Dan Gilbert was my hero on using these ideas to stimulate more environmental friendly behavior. His example of why we fear 1 terrorist like Osama Bin Laden more than global warming. Because Osama is known, he is concrete, a person with clear intentions. Compare that to an abstract thing as global warming. A bigger threat to mankind, but vague, so we don’t feel afraid.

What has been the behavioral insight that struck you most in context of our environmentally challenged ways?

Construal Level Theory; Trope and Liberman are a great place to start.[iii] It describes psychological distance in four dimensions; personal, geographical, temporal, and around issues of clarity. There are others, too; affective distance for instance. Pretty much the area you recognised from Professor Gilbert. Essentially, proximal constructions are more concrete/vivid than distal ones, even when the only difference is our relationship to the ‘thing’.

The pub example is, everyone rushing out to purchase earthquake insurance the day after and earthquake. And why many Americans chose to drive long journeys rather than fly after 9/11. Both earthquakes and terrorism as highly proximal in all dimensions; here, me, now, and very very clear (the effects, not the reason, btw). It is useful in explaining (partly) why we en-mass are ill prepared for resource-squeeze and global warming, as the inputs and effects are currently ‘not here, not now, not me, and not clear’.

You’d be hard pushed to find a set of circumstances that will affects us all and is extremely distal in all dimensions. Ariely I shamelessly quote in the introduction to my book, where he says it’s almost like someone’s tried to create the biggest problem they could imagine and position it in a way that we couldn’t care less about.[iv] Whatever you think about the facts of sustainability and warming — a techo-solution, a free-market solution, etc — we are all likely discounting its presence even if we’re not trying. It’s what I think the Italians might call a ‘beautiful problem’.

Perhaps more subtly, and not related to sustainability, is the application of CLT studies beyond a person’s relationship with the world to one person’s relationship with another. In CLT studies we see ‘logrolling agreements’ — or the back-and-forth negotiation characteristic of deal-making between two people — as being both better outcomes for the individuals and better outcomes overall when deals are struck effective in the future rather than close to the moment.[v] The clean cool-head thinking that distance affords allows the distal voice to be heard over the disinterested clamour of the proximal. (‘Better’ is a value judgment of course.)

But perhaps I should give a hardcore sustainable example; the use of infra-red images of people’s homes reduced the psychological distance so the effects of their leaky home were ‘here, me, now, clear’. This increased measures to fix leakage by eight times, increased other related measures by five times, and even changed behaviours such as curtain use and door-closing *after* they’d had a year to implement change, a year to spend free-cash-money of 500GBP, and a year after they’d been given knowledge about what to spend it on/do.[vi]

As we know appeals to the rational and the pocket rarely work well. The infra-red image of a participant’s home was the single act that afforded a ‘rematerialisation’ of energy as Darby puts it[vii], or the reduction of the psychological distance to as-proximal-as-can-be in all dimensions of construal and affected large and persistent change in both internal infrastructure (draft blocking) and behaviour interfacing internal infrastructure (curtain closing).

This type of outcome just blows me away. Every time. Because of the years of research and writing, I now don’t trust my opinions, I don’t trust others’ either, and I don’t ascribe actions to personality. Only what can be tested and proved. It is liberation.

BTW you also run behavioral boozonomics. A meetup where people drink beer I assume, and talk behavioral economics. Do you believe this is a good match with our old brain?

It’s a perfect match until our meets outgrow the Dunbar number ;) Shout out to Leigh Caldwell with whom we dreamt it up, and Eli Halonen who helps with organizing, and Matteo Galizzi and Nathalie Spencer who’re involved too.[viii]

If I would give you 1 million euro, what new technology would you build to help preserve our world for future generations?

Tools to help us mitigate our peccadilloes with distal construal — a way to augment our feeble predictive abilities. A toolkit, a way of thinking, a checklist — even development for a biometric plug-in, something help us hear the faint, weak, immature voice of future decision-making. I don’t know that we can do that with the sum you suggest. But I’d rather that than Google Glass that records our present like an excited tail-wagging dog (or other similar products that will be available, etc).

We’re over-indexing on the skills to live short and brutal lives (even though we navigate by a spaghetti-mess of biases). For instance, we’re as good as we always were at getting out of the way of the ‘angry man with a big stick’. As good as we ever were at distrusting the dark. And as good as we ever were at jumping a mile from snakes. But the future (spreading out in front us because of our industrial cleverness) may be our only serious predator, both privately (diet, exercise) and publicly (resource-use), especially as we’ve mechanized, medicated, and farmed our way out of pretty much every other problem.

Is the future a bit of an odd thing to try and mitigate? I don’t think so.

Applying external future-proofing is not so alien; we all do it with children frequently — ‘would you like fish fingers *or* chips with your omelette and salad?’ is a classic framing device to give the illusion of choice (side note: choice is not a sufficient condition for proof of freedom). However, if parents asked their children unbounded what they’d like to eat they’ll end up with sugar-addicted zombies who’d live the life of a spoiled pop star. And probably would live a short life, too.

The vividness of the present, overwhelming ‘better’ choice in favour of the future is so persistent in children we parent it out of them — or at least try — with the blessing and encouragement of all of us. And yet we don’t get much better at dealing with proximal-distal conflict as adults: many of us are going to the gym tomorrow, starting our diet tomorrow, and getting up earlier tomorrow (indeed, we’ve even hard-coded our time-inconsistent preferencing in the form of a snooze button on alarm clocks). As Ralph Keeney of Duke said, over half of us will make decisions in our adult life that lead us to an earlier death.[ix] Dr Halpern said similar in evidence given to the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Behavioural Change.[x] For more, read the House Of Lords submission.[xi]

In that sense, the future — or the conflict between our proximal and distal constructs — is our biggest killer. (Along with mosquitoes.)

Forget Big Data — give me Big Future. Give me tools and techniques to attenuate my inadequately considered event-horizon. I can — for the first time in the history of homo sapien — live a long and healthy life; someone help me because I’m damn sure I can’t help myself. Now *there’s* a tech approach for the New Century, what? Perhaps that’s our new ‘ism’? We’ve had Spiritualism, Militarism, we’ve had Industrialism, and we’re in Capitalism — perhaps our next ism is Futurism? The future of you, me, and the resources we all need.

(BTW, I’m not advocating a return of the art movement from a hundred or-so years ago, sorry all you Filippo Marinetti[xii] fans)

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[ii] The Person and the Situation [Paperback] Malcolm Gladwell (Foreword), Lee Ross (Author), Richard E. Nisbett (Author), p124

[iii] Y. Trope, and Liberman et al., ‘Construal-level theory of psychological distance’., Psychological Review, American Psychological Association, Vol. 117, No. 2, 2010, pp. 440–463.

[iv] ‘If you said, I want to create a problem that people don’t care about, you would probably come up with global warming’, says Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist from Duke University.

Colorado State University (22 December 2009), Extension Clean Energy Outreach, Leigh Fortson, online,

[v] M. D. Henderson, Y. Trope, and P. Carnevale, ‘Negotiation from a near and distant time perspective’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), October 2006, 712–29.

[vii] S. Darby, ‘Communicating energy demand: measurement, display and the language of things’, in L. Whitmarsh, S. O’Neill, and I. Lorenzoni, Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication. London: Earthscan, 2010.


[ix] Newsweek, Are Our Choices About Living Causing Us to Die? By Tony Dokoupil / January 01 2009 7:00 PM




Originally published at on November 28, 2013.