Can Marketers Really Predict Human Behavior?
“We may regard the present state of the universe as the
effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect
which at a certain moment would know all forces that set
nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which
nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough
to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a
single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the
universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an
intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just
like the past would be present before its eyes.”
--Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
Laplace wrote the above in 1816. This was well before the discovery of quantum physics. He and his contemporary scientists and philosophers thought that their ability to predict the future was limited by insufficient measurement tools and the resulting lack of precise information on which to base their predictions.
In Laplace’s era, humans were considered little more than machines, predicting human behavior fell completely within the realm of observable planetary motion. But something happened in the early 20th Century: Quantum Physics. Unfortunately, too many psychologists and too many marketers never got the memo.
The foundation of quantum physics is “indeterminacy”. Roughly speaking, uncertainty is built into the very fabric of reality, whether speaking of human behavior or the position of an electron. The new advances in the mathematical proofs of Heisenberg and his colleagues did not deter behavioral psychologists from their determinate, yet outdated worldviews.
John Watson, known as the father of “Behaviorism”, believed all behavior could be reduced, predicted and controlled through “proper” conditioning. His disciple, B.F. Skinner tried to perfect this folly. And let’s not forget Sigmund Freud, who made behavioral reductionism fun and interesting through his obsession with a single overriding impulse that he believed controlled us all: SEX.
Of course, there were some who did incorporate a quantum understanding into their views of human behavior. For example, Erich Fromm and C.G. Jung rebelled against the reductionism sweeping their field of study. In fact, Jung, first an acolyte of Freud, eventually abandoned Freud’s materialistic philosophy.
Now, fast forward to what’s happening today in online marketing circles. Just a cursory glance will reveal that the place we’re now in is nothing more than a return to LaPlace we came from (sorry, Sigmund, but I couldn’t resist)! If we only had MORE data, predicting human behavior would be a snap, right?
Wrong. Today’s marketers are not marketing…they’re too busy dodging customers in the rear view mirror to see the prospects in the road dead ahead. Once upon a time, marketing was all about the art of selling. But art has given way to specious science promulgated by irrational “experts” who chase the folly of prediction, seemingly impervious to the existential flies in the ointment. They strive to be like Nostradamus when they’d be better served to emulate David Ogilvy.
One of the leading gurus of this misbegotten practice is Google’s Eric Schmidt. In a recent magazine article he announced that soon “...we will be able to predict what someone will search for before they search for it.” Of course our government lends its imprimatur by claiming that they can catch terrorists before the fact by accumulating personal data on exactly which sites these suspects visit and what they search for.
I used to think that those selling predictive technologies were snake oil salesmen. That’s because I found it hard to swallow the notion that anyone still believed in behavioral reductionism. It was easier to dismiss them as mere charlatans…and I said so at every opportunity. As you might imagine, this seemingly predictable personal behavior of my own did not endear me to my colleagues (and besides, the comparison was hardly fair to snake oil salesman and charlatans).
But I have come to the conclusion that the purveyors of voodoo behaviorism are neither snake oil salesmen, nor charlatans, merely intellectual simpletons. And while this may not score me many points at the next cocktail party, there is a little more charity, and clarity in my heart.