Interview with Isaac Baker | Applying the science of human behaviour (Pt I)
Isaac’s days are spent applying the science of human behaviour to drive optimal decision-making, increase performance and influence behaviour change in employees and consumers.
We had the pleasure of having Isaac speak at our [Orange Digital’s] August Wine & Cheese event. Following the event we sat down with him and asked further questions to learn more about social norm messaging and ‘nudging’ strategies.
Orange: Thanks again for catching up with us Isaac…
Isaac: You’re most welcome. Thank you for having me and for your interest in spreading the science of human behaviour and how to drive desirable consumer and employee behaviour.
Orange: You kicked off your presentation with a brief history of human evolution — Can you share why you chose this starting point for discussing contemporary consumer and employee behaviours?
Isaac: To understand contemporary human behaviour we have to look at our brain. To understand how our brain and emerging behavioural and decision-making repertoires have come to take their current form, we require greater context.
Examining our evolutionary past offer us this context. It provides clues to explain the big picture “whys” of our peculiar, ubiquitous, and seemingly inexplicable behaviours.
It offers a framework to understand the evolutionary forces that have shaped our brain, psychology, and why we make the decisions that we do. Our evolutionary past has left meaningful imprints on the brains we house today. Appreciating this context also offers novel, testable predictions on human behaviour and decision-making, providing a powerful lens through which to understand and influence human behaviour.
Orange: What relevance did the move from Tree Top Jungles to Open Plain Savannahs have on our evolution?
Isaac: The transition from being well adapted to living in the rainforest canopy and being top of the chain, to the lowest rungs in the open savannah, set our ancestors on a distinctively unique and ultimately fruitful evolutionary trajectory. It was far different from those of our chimpanzee cousins.
In the words of Professor William von Hippel at the University of Queensland, and reflected in his recent book’s title, it spurred a ‘Social Leap.’ It drove the evolution of our sociality and inherently social nature. We are the unique social beings we are today because of this leap.
Orange: What did this shift in habitat mean for our physical and behavioural development?
Isaac: Our not-yet human ancestors faced new predatory threats and food source challenges with this substantial change to environment. We underwent physiological adaptations that transformed us from bodies well adapted to a tree-dwelling existence to one that allowed us to become bipedal and also free up our hands. We evolved anatomies that facilitated throwing capabilities, providing the possibility to fend off predators and engage in coordinated action and collaboration (e.g., collective hunting). We used these changes to slowly rise up the food chain.
With luck, access to new food sources, social living, and genetic mutations coming “online” to allow brain growth our social groups grew.
Our brains grew in size and with it associated cognitive abilities to handle dealing with the complex challenges involved in social living and managing relationships with others.
Much of our brain growth and embellished cognitive abilities were driven by these demands of living socially. We survived, lived, and evolved in the context of our social groups. These factors contribute to our uniquely social nature.
Orange: Why is this an important point to understand for today’s consumer and employee culture?
Isaac: The pressures on our ancestors to survive and reproduce in this social context gave rise to the brain’s cognitive architecture, and the behavioural and decision-making patterns we exhibit today. If we appreciate why and how we have come to be inherently social, we can push and pull these levers in modern times to influence behaviours and decisions in consumers and employees.
Orange: You provided 2 graphs in your presentation highlighting the similarities and differences between humans and our nearest evolutionary relatives - why is it significant that humans performed roughly on par with Chimps and Orangutans from a physical perspective, but socially they scored approximately twice as well?
Isaac: These graphs are quite telling of our social nature. When completing a battery of tests that dealt with using cognitive skills for solving problems in the physical world, 2.5 year old humans were on par with our close primate relatives, chimpanzees and orangutans. Interestingly, 2.5 year old humans outperformed our adult great ape cousins when it came to the cognitive skills required to deal with the social world. For these superior cognitive skills in handling the social world to “come online” at such an early age, offers one of many convergent lines of evidence that supports the claim we have a uniquely social brain.
Orange: It’s really helpful that you mentioned the Human Motives Framework. Most Marketing, Communications, HR, Psychology and Anthropology professionals — and dare we say, the generic public — are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its self-actualisation theory, but are you able to briefly explain how these levels/foundation development patterns might translate to a social or workplace environment.
Isaac: The framework displays important evolutionary forces that have shaped our human psychology. These forces have shaped motivational systems in our biology that drive many of our behaviours and decisions we make today.
You’ll notice that these systems implicate others — more evidence of our sociality.
These systems are overlapping in that they build upon other systems that emerge at earlier stages of development.
First, we have to eat and drink to survive. We are essentially helpless as children if left to our own devices, which is why our social connectedness allows us to learn from others and garner their support for these needs.
Second, self-protection is often provided by others. Safety in numbers. Whether it’s our parents, siblings, extended family or friends. They keep us safe and provide support, and we return the favour.
Third, we seek affiliations by building elaborate social networks and support systems, through family and extended family, school friends, wider friendship networks, and professional networks. We desire connections with others, forming groups and seeking belongingness to multiple groups to which [we] identify (e.g., sporting club, friendship group, team within a department).
Fourth, we wish to gain status and develop and maintain reputations within these groups.
Fifth, we have an imperative to attract and retain romantic partners.
Finally, we tend to form romantic pair bonds and undergo a period of parenting to raise offspring to maturity.
Each of these evolutionary pressures have shaped commensurate motivational systems that drive many of our behaviours in our everyday lives. Appreciating what drives us can inform how we can best target interventions to influence behaviours of consumers and employees.
Orange: Are you able to pick 1 or 2 of these brands (below), and explain how they might leverage our natural/biological/primitive/evolutionary responses & the layers of the Human Motive framework for example, our need for social acceptance/community to create/manufacture connections between their product and audiences/customers?
Isaac: The Coke images (below) tap into our social nature and satisfy many of the motivational systems noted above. The images are sending signals to consumers that the product is one that is to be consumed with others.
In particular, it shows that it is to be consumed with potential mates (Mate Acquisition & Retention systems) and friends (Affiliation system); that it is involved in enjoyment, positive feelings and holds potential status perks of consumption (Status/Esteem); and, by its very nature, it draws upon the desire to seek nourishment and calories, which would have been in short supply in our evolutionary past (Physiological Needs). These images are ticking the various motivational systems, framing the product as an integral part of our social lives. The social implication is what generates the appeal of the product.
The view of customers forming lines outside the Apple store (above) sends social signals to consumers and important information about Apple and what they’re offering. This is social proofing 101.
The congregation of customers is signalling to us that Apple is offering something that is highly sought after…at least it gives this impression by the number of people in the line. Viewing real, tangible people showing interest in this product may be equally or more valuable than seeing an abstract number of “fans” online.
This scene is visceral and ‘real’. From the perspective of someone passing by this scene, this is an honest signal of the value of what Apple is offering. Online social proofing is effective (in most situations), though the visual of seeing real people displaying actual behaviours in person must not be underestimated.
Back to this scene. We use the behaviours of others to inform appropriate courses of behaviour. It’s potentially safety in numbers, conformity, wisdom of the group, social status seeking, and social acceptance rolled into one. The queue of people is signalling that Apple is offering something that is trusted, highly desirable and of value.
It’s a powerful, real-world demonstration of our social nature when seen from this lens. It’s satisfying Affiliation, Status/Esteem, and Mate Retention and Acquisition. (With our dependence on our gadgets, some would even say the Physiological Needs.)