Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Let’s Get Off the Pop-Neuroscience Bandwagon


Interest in the unconscious and the instinctual has been on the ascent for several years now in many research realms that EPIC members inhabit. In consumer research particularly, where I’ve been a practicing anthropologist for years, the findings of neuroscience, cognitive science and the brand of social psychology called behavioral economics have driven an upsurge of interest in what lies below the surface of overt action. They all promise new ways to explain why people do what they do, and have provoked a sizable shift in research methods and goals. The consequences of this for our understanding of people have not been all good. The consequences for society are downright scary. I’ll explain; but first, some background.

How We Got Here

The underlying science behind this change in perspective is a set of still-emerging findings about how the brain works, how behavior in social contexts is genetically and physiologically influenced, and the role of evolutionary pathways in determining our mental structures. They all mobilize interesting hypotheses about the survival advantage these structures bestow—energy efficiency, rapid response to threats, ability to interpret important cues about other humans. The claim is that these processes are mostly unconscious, autonomic, and thus highly resistant to overriding influences. (For a sample of the popular neuroscience literature, which always references the scholarly literature behind it, see the bibliographic note at the end of this article.)

This research has been going on for decades, drawing on a diverse set of intellectual roots, from Herbert Simon to Max Weber and beyond. But it was only after being popularized in the works of Kahneman, Ariely and others, that the business world got wind of it, pricked up its ears, and started looking for ways to develop a simplified and actionable version. Since then, the product marketing sphere in particular has been gobbling up pop neuroscience like hot apple pie.

A particular set of ideas develops so much traction for a reason—it’s never random. So why these ideas, why now? One reason, of course, is that marketeers have always known that people are “predictably irrational”, as Dan Ariely puts it, and have sought intellectual frameworks to systematize that intuition. Any random episode of Mad Men will show you what that looked like in an earlier iteration: the pseudo-Freudian model of the unconscious seems laughable in retrospect, a self-parody of America’s hidden postwar neuroses and infantile longings. That kind of oversimplification continually plagues the human sciences when they venture, or are dragged, into commercial  domains. Complex ideas get stripped down to the bones so they can be grasped and used in a very different institutional setting, driven by different motives. Their historical roots get chopped off, leaving business people giddy at the seeming newness of it all. The specificity and limitations of experimental outcomes get erased to produce universal, causal rules.

But this latest version of the phenomenon—this elevation of the unconscious as the wellspring of action—is anything but laughable. It has an embedded moral prescription that may be one source of its deep traction, but that also may be downright dangerous. In the business thinking I see every day, the popular narrative that has emerged from the neuroscientific turn is that people are barely in possession of the capacity to make a rational or conscious decision, and there’s little we can do about because it’s all hard-wired. At best, we can study its manifestations and, when possible, figure out how to leverage it for the benefit of commercial interests.

That is a highly partial interpretation of a complex set of facts. What makes it particularly disturbing is the way it aligns with a political and cultural zeitgeist marked by a clear retreat from commitments to rational thinking. And not just a retreat, but an intentional one that celebrates the death of coherent, broadly truth-seeking discourse. In that enabling atmosphere, an assertion like this—“At least 95% of the decisions people make are unconscious or irrational” (from a presentation by a firm that specializes in psychological marketing strategy)—becomes not a description of how things sometimes are, but a prescription for how they must be. And deeper down, it’s how some people might absolutely LOVE them to be. That’s my fear: this current understanding of how people act is morphing from a “model-of” into a “model-for”, carried forward on the strength of financial, cultural, and other forces.

The Wages of Sin

When a model-of becomes a model-for, it starts to mold and constrain the domain it explains, eventually redefining what people accept as the way things are. Other explanations fall away and the universe as we know it has a brand new law. We’ve seen this before, for example in the financial sector where the Black-Scholes options pricing model, a purely theoretical construct, came to dominate financial market practices. The explanatory framework was repurposed to enact the very thing it sought to analyze, guaranteeing that the model would finally bend the world into its own shape. It took a multibillion-dollar crisis—the failure of a leading hedge fund—to burst the illusion and show that the model wasn’t an adequate template for reality. Meanwhile, the damage was done.

Will the neuroscientific turn be hit by a crisis of its own? In the public policy arena, maybe it already has. The use of “behavioral tweaks” to get people to be good citizens has been criticized as both underwhelming (Harford 2014) and overbearing (Wright and Ginsburg 2012). Likewise with the charges of covert behavioral manipulation leveled at Uber and Facebook, two entities that are big enough to act like de facto public policy makers. But where consumers are studied and products are marketed, the crisis is coming not anytime soon, as far as I can tell. There is no end yet to the perceived value of leveraging these ideas, and a sustained critique has only begun to develop outside academia. It is still too seductive, hinting at a secret button to push when we want to make people do things. After all, that’s what marketing is about.

As we inch toward the triumph of the unconscious and the irrational (two different things, but often naively confused in business thinking), to what extent will this come to define what a human being is and does in the eyes of commerce? To what extent will this set in motion a strongly reinforcing feedback loop with a world of public sentiment where it’s already okay to reject reason? And as it grows into an unspoken assumption, how much easier will it be for people to have limited expectations for their own and one another’s rationality?

It’s the wrong lesson to learn, if that’s all we learn. Almost every neuroscience scholar who has published for a popular audience clearly argues that after identifying the cognitive and emotional traps we fall into, we can climb out of them with effort. Kahneman, for example: “The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2” (Kahneman 2011: 417). For some reason, one rarely sees that side of the argument in the powerpoint decks of research agencies and consultants. But if we neglect such remedies, then we’re unwitting accomplices in a process that elevates the Id—the unconscious stripped of the rationality it in fact has—as the secret ruler of the world.

Rationality Privatized

And who got elected President of the United States last November? The outcome of that contest could be cynically viewed as proof that whoever does a better job of triggering our naked instinctual reactions will win every time, whatever “win” means in any given domain. But it can also be viewed through a more complex lens, because it was a triumph for the use of Big Data at the same time.

Decision-making driven by massive data sets has an interesting dialectical relation to what I’ve been discussing so far—it’s the very antithesis to the rise of the irrational unconscious as a model of the person and of society. All that data is valuable only when used in a framework of nth-degree rationality, linked to algorithms that look for hidden patterns about ourselves as individuals and as groups. More than just rationality, it is the rational brain amplified prosthetically, able to reach decisions a mere brain could never make by itself, and affecting vast populations at once.

But access to this regime is restricted to those who own the data, devise the algorithms and capitalize on the results. Recall the recent revelations of the role played by Cambridge Analytica in shaping the Trump and Brexit campaigns, using people’s digital footprints to psychographically profile them and deliver targeted messages to activate their anxieties. Though some details are disputed, it still stands as a counter-narrative that adds a final twist to the neuroscientific turn. How? By introducing its complementary opposite, and showing what happened to all the “missing rationality” in the world: it has been scooped up and privatized, as it were, in a cognitivist version of the trope of the 99% and the 1%. So rather than being theories of decision-making, these two different approaches to reality—go with your gut versus analyze the data—look more and more like ideological justifications of a polarized state of affairs they are helping create. Model of, model for.

We need to pull back from this, for moral as well as scientific reasons, and a more nuanced view of the neuroscience narrative would be a good way to start. After all, behavioral economics evolved not to destroy the rational-actor model, but to make it more accurate by adding cognitive patterns that could be mathematically described. And, not to forget, it aimed to do that on the plane of description rather than prescription.

While they’re at it, proponents of popular neuroscience need to rediscover the field’s chopped-off roots. From its earliest days this line of research was aware that cognitive processes don’t exert their effects in a context-free vacuum. Unconscious mental patterns are shaped by complex cultural and social filters before they pop out into the visible world in the form of activity. But subtlety like that may not be actionable enough for some, and it undermines the illusion that there are pushable buttons to be discovered. As long as it continues to lean in that direction, the pop-neuroscience turn will be unable to see some important pieces in the puzzle of human action.


The popular neuroscience works most often cited in business include Ariely 2010, Eagleman 2012, Kahneman 2011, Mlodinow 2013. Smith 2015 is a typical example of how marketing consultants present the topic to potential clients, re-explaining venerable marketing techniques by reference to the cognitive biases that underpin them. On the critical side and from an academic perspective, DeVos and Pluth 2016 give a scholarly review of the limits of the neuroscience enterprise, and Wright and Ginsburg 2012 provide a lengthy critique of “nudging” strategies in social policy. Ainslie 1992 explains some of the psychological research that lies deep underneath the study of unconscious cognitive biases in decision-making, and gives evidence that such biases exist in non-humans too.


photo: MU_Collective[Ir]Rationality_© TommyKöhlbrugge-4153, Dutch Design Week (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr

Ainslie, G. 1992. Picoeconomics: the strategic interaction of successive motivational states within the person. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ariely, D. 2010. Predictably irrational: the hidden forces that shape our decisions. Rev. ed. New York: Harper.

DeVos, J. and E. Pluth. 2016. Who needs critique? In DeVos, J. and E. Pluth, eds.: Neuroscience and critique: exploring the limits of the neurological turn. Oxford: Routledge.

Eagleman, D. 2012. Icognito: the secret lives of the brain. New York: Vintage Books.

Harford, T. 2014. Behavioural economics and public policy. Financial Times.

Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Mlodinow, L. 2013. Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior.  New York: Vintage Books.

Smith, J. 2015. Six advantages of hyperbolic discounting…and what the heck is it anyway?

Wright, J, and D. Ginsburg. 2012. Free to Err?: Behavioral law and economics and its implications for liberty. Liberty Forum.

Gerald Lombardi is an anthropologist who has worked mostly in the private sector—design research, marketing research, user experience research—since his graduate school days. He currently lives in Tokyo.


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