"We spend almost all our time attempting to change behaviour through overt persuasion – while paying no attention to influencing the other, barely conscious ways in which people behave." Rory Sutherland
Of all the marcomms (and vaguely related) books I've read over the past few years there have been a few that have really stuck in my mind (Convergence Culture perhaps, Purple Cow, Here Comes Everybody), but I think the one that has probably stood out the most for me is HERD, from Mark Earls. I think because it speaks of a fundamental truth that the ad industry rarely acknowledges – that people do what they do because of other people.
Early on in Herd, Mark talks about how primates are first and foremost social creatures and how this is our core evolutionary strategy. New Scientist recently linked to this fascinating essay by anthropologist Brian Hare and his wife, journalist Vanessa Woods, (also included in the 'What's Next? Dispatches On The Future of Science' book) which suggests that rather than it being intelligence that led to social behaviour, it was social behaviour that paved the way for the evolution of human intelligence.
Hare and Wood talk about what's called the theory of mind – the ability to think about what others are thinking about. Under the age of four, children can't model what others think – they think everyone knows what they know (example: give a four year old a packet of gum and ask her what's inside it she'll say 'gum'. Open it up and show her that inside is a pencil rather than gum. Ask her what her mother, who's waiting outside, will think is inside and she'll say 'gum' because she knows her mother hasn't seen the pencil. But children under the age of four will generally say their mother thinks there's a pencil inside because they cannot escape the pull of the real world)
A theory of mind allows for complex social behaviours (such as the formation of institutions, strategies, government). Experiments conducted by Hare with chimpanzees shows that in some contexts chimps possess the ability to think about what others are thinking, like in the ability to be deceptive in order to get food. But in other contexts they lack such an awareness and lack the ability to interpret simple human non-verbal communicative gestures, like pointing, which suggests that use of gestural communication of this type was something that humans developed after their lineage split from our common evolutionary ancestor.
The curious thing though is that some animals, like dogs, are very good at interpreting such gestural communication (think about how good a dog is at watching your body language when you're throwing a ball for them). Yet experiments done by Hare on wolves showed that they were no better than chimpanzees at acting on human behaviour. But puppies who'd had very little human contact were still able to. This suggests that since they split from their wolf ancestor and became domesticated over time, dogs have evolved to act on human social cues.
In the 50's and 60's, Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev conducted a series of genetics experiments on silver foxes, putting one group under severe selection pressure – culling those that showed aggression towards experimenters, allowing those that approached them to live – and allowing another control group to breed randomly in regard to how they interacted with humans. Within only 40 generations the selected foxes had begun to show evolutionary change: behaviourally becoming friendly towards humans, wagging their tails, licking people's faces, and even physically changing as their ears became floppier, tails more curly, coats lost their camouflage, skulls became smaller – in short, looks and behaviour more akin to a domesticated dog. And the test foxes could read human body language just like a dog. The point being, that the foxes were not bred to be smarter, merely more friendly, but through that had developed skills by replacing a fear of humans with a desire to interact with them.
So Hare and Wood suggest that something similar could have happened in human evolution:
If co-operation is a 'cornerstone of human acheivement', it is human's uniquely high level of social tolerance that has likely created it. New Scientist quotes Harvard University neuroscientist Jason Mitchell:
It is our unique level of spontaneous collaboration and co-operation that make us human. Ideas which capitalise on this are uniquely powerful. After all, people aren't so different, no matter where you are.
HT to Adland Suit for the video link