Because Marketing is interested in persuasion, changing attitudes and provoking specific behaviours, it has always used psychological theories, and more specifically theories coming from Social Psychology. As early as 1928, the famous work of Edward Bernays on Propaganda, one of the many ancestors of marketing and Freud's nephew,explicitly refers to several social psychologist’s work in order to address and influence the masses to sell them products, for example by manipulating the nature of the source of information to for better influence in claims.
Apart from theories and experiments, Social Psychology also brought many a technique which is now used in Marketing, especially in the consumer research side: to name the most prominent, in-depth interviews, focus groups, attitude scales, laboratory experiments on choices.
Human behavior and the installation of the world
The determinants of human behavior are distributed: Some lay in the subject (motives, goals,preferences, habits), others lay in the context (artefacts, rules, other people). In an operational perspective, for practitioners who want to understand, predict or influence human behavior at a given moment, and a given place, the world can be considered as an installation.Installation must be understood here in the artistic sense of assembling patterns in space to modify the way we experience this situation. The installation of the world guides subjects into their activity track, at three levels: physical,psychological, social. It is possible to frame this installation in order to influence behavior. Let us detail these three levels.
The physical level refers to material reality and artefacts. It provides affordances for activity (which can be supported by the objects). For example, chairs afford sitting; buses afford transportation; on-line support affords help. One can only do what is afforded by the present environment. This layer of installation is distributed in the physical environment by construction of infrastructure, and various mechanisms of supply and procurement.
This first, physical, level of determination affords a tree of possibilities; but not everything that is possible will be realized. This is where psychology comes into play. To take action,subects must interpret situations. Objects evoke for humans specific connotations of activity, and operative images. At psychological level, motives,representations and practice provide possible interpretations of the situation by the subject.For example choosing between various artefacts (e.g. different brands of same product) which all provide some affordance for the desired activity. Representations include the “how to use” the objects; for example a web browser, a car, or a self-service restaurant. Representations also enable subjects to elaborate and plan behaviors This layer of installation is distributed over individual humans, by the means of physiology, experience, education and exposures to discourse (media, advertising, etc).
But again, not everything that is even both possible and desired will be realized: a third level of determination, social, will cut off more branches from the tree of possibilities. For example, although we could drive on any side of the roads, only one is allowed in every country. Because individual actions produce externalities, they are limited by others. Institutions are a social solution to control potential abuse or misuse, and minimize social costs also called “negative externalities”. Institutions set common conventions which enable cooperation (e.g. people should all drive on the same side of the road; etc). Many of the rules are already contained in the normative aspects of representations, but institutions are special in their capacity to enforce behavior by social pressure or more direct means.
So, at a given moment, individual behavior is determined by this distributed installation: Artefacts installed in the physical environment, interpretive systems installed in humans, and institutions installed in society. This enables us to understand better the role of Psychology in this framework. Because some determinants lay in the context, psychological theories alone cannot explain or predict behavior but because some determinants are psychological and social, a social psychological approach is necessary.
Installation theory is of course very schematic. Still, it enables a first orientation in the complex socio-technical systems which innovators must deal with; it provides a check-list for analysis and agenda for action. If we want to change the World, or more modestly one of its subdomains, it is clear that no action limited to a single layer of determination -for example a new product, or a campaign- will be enough to change the behaviors of people. We should make sure that appropriate installation in the three layers (physical environment, individuals concerned, relevant institutions) has been addressed. What is left to us is the strategy of how to create and distribute such installation.
Towards a more sustainable future
In this global change management, as said earlier, Marketing plays a key role. Marketing has been in charge of implementing change for most built environment and policies, in a market context. But now, precisely, we have become aware of the limitations of the market system.Now, we face a new challenge with global sustainability, of which the current financial crisis is only one of the first global symptoms, together with climate change and ecological destruction.Too often in the past, Marketing has been on the dark side of the force, mobilizing considerable resources only to move the frontiers between brand territories, in a zero-sum game. In doing so, though, a considerable amount of knowledge and agency has been accumulated. Now, marketers, the World needs your capacities to help degrowth. We have collectively failed in creating a sustainable civilization, and there is little time left to change it into a better system.
Social value is the resource. An observation of what does actually work in terms of sustainable consumption.In the end, what Humans look for is belong to a group where they are recognized, have status, and gain other’s people’s love. And for this they are ready to give, not only take. In fact, most consumption has this final use of building someone’s position in groups. When people buy fancy cars, display brands on their clothes, and in general work or spend their money and time, it is usually for that purpose of gaining or keeping position in a group.
This is probably the way into which Marketing should engage in this 21st century. After the markets of goods and services, it is the markets of sociability which will be the next frontier. Many of us have already recognized the social realm as a major source of value, and as said earlier there are numerous attempts to use it, but until now it has been mostly mobilized so serve the old regime of brands. It should now serve society itself, or there will be no 22nd century for the civilization we have built. But make no mistake: when I talk about a “market of sociability”, this means not that we should commoditize and sell sociability, as has unfortunately been often the temptation lately. I mean, on the contrary, that sociability is a kind of “money”, a psychological reward system for performing other activities. Building markets with this new currency is certainly a challenge for Marketing [Professor Saadi Lahlou,LSE,2009].
I strongly recommend the following lesson @Coursera for young marketers with no previous background on Social Psychology (www.coursera.org/course/socialpsychology), as well as The Social Animal,a must-read written by Elliot Aronson .