The human brain is an amazing thing, able to instantly recognize faces, invent wondrous tools, memorize epic poems--and be hoodwinked into acquiring all kinds of stuff it doesn't need.
No wonder marketers have been interested in psychology for at least as long as psychologists have. The same impulses that drew our ancestors to linger for hours while foraging for nuts and fruits may today give us the stamina and desire to endlessly trudge the malls. The same science that can assess and treat our mental health can impact, too, the health of our wallets.
And, if psychologists can figure out the cognitive processes that render us suggestible (to pluck that berry! to favor nut No. 1 over nut No. 2!) then marketers can insert some of that science in their ads, rendering us that much more likely to buy, buy, buy.
Even 100 years ago, this approach was bearing fruit, at a time when this country's first psychologists had only recently set up their labs. Most were choosing to study highfalutin basic science (such as how long it took a person to react to a stimulus), but some of them--such as Walter Dill Scott--turned his attention to more earthly matters. Scott's 1908 book, "The Psychology of Advertising," turned marketing theory on its head.
Back then, most advertising executives believed that a calm appeal to the rational mind was the best way to go. A minority had this notion that it was better not to get people thinking. To render people most suggestible, one should appeal instead to emotions, hopes and desires.
Scott amassed data on human decision-making and convinced marketers that the minority view was the correct one.
"He supported the notion that reasoning, if anything, makes someone less likely to buy a product--it stops them from acting, from picking up that Cosmo magazine at the checkout stand and putting it on the belt," says Robert Wozniak, a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Scott, in other words, may be why we don't tend to see ads for a Paris getaway focusing on the current percentages in the monetary exchange rate. Or ads for a Ferrari touting its ergonomically designed seats. Or why Obsession perfume isn't called "Effective Yet Economical Mate Attractor."
Books on Psychology
Scott's text was just one of many that helped lay the foundations of modern psychology. If you're interested in this history, check out www.thoemmes.com/ psych/contents.htm, where Wosniak reviews 50 classic books (including Scott's).
Here, among much pondering by great thinkers on the nature of consciousness, memory, intelligence and emotion, are these two intriguing texts:
* "Clever Hans (The Horse of Mr. von Osten)," by Oskar Pfungst, 1907. "Hans" was a brilliant horse supposedly capable of adding subtracting, multiplying and more. When asked to solve a problem, he'd tap out the answers to problems with his hoofs.
Pfungst and a colleague showed that the horse was actually responding to very subtle posture changes and movements provided by the person posing the question. When the horse couldn't see the questioner--or when the questioner didn't know the answers himself--Hans was stumped.
Today, the inadvertent imparting of such cues is referred to as a "Clever Hans effect." It's a crucial thing for psychologists to consider when, for instance, they're studying the intelligence of babies, young children and animals or when they're conducting psychological experiments with adults
* "Psychology and Industrial Efficiency," by Hugo Munsterberg, 1913. Before Munsterberg, experts had argued that factories could be made far more scientific and efficient if workers were taught to execute every movement in the most streamlined fashion possible.
Munsterberg stressed that it was also important to take the worker's psychological satisfaction into account. To get a good fit between task and worker, he devised early psychological tests to ascertain whether individuals were well-suited to their professions. These included simulated driving tests to weed out accident-prone trolley car drivers and reaction-time and memory tests for would-be switchboard operators.
Such fits were crucial, he argued, if one wished to achieve "overflowing joy and perfect inner harmony" in the workplace--a laudable (if ambitious) goal indeed.
If you have an idea for a Booster Shots topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, firstname.lastname@example.org.