Psychology professor discovers what the ad industry has known for decades

From the March 23 New York Times Sunday book review section to Commentary‘s blog on April 18 to Powerline on April 23, a new book by University of Virginia psychology professor Johnathan Haidt has been making waves.

According to reviewer William Saletan, Haidt wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion with an agenda, namely, “to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature.”

A funny thing happened on the way to that deeper awareness

To this end, he paid University of Virginia (a public university) researchers to conduct “a massive online survey” and “ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains…[T]heir answers and brain activation patterns indicate[d] that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.”

Reasoning, Haidt reasons, is “post-hoc and justificatory,” writes Peter Wehner. “Reasoning is not good at finding the truth, according to Haidt. We’re all like good lawyers or press secretaries; we seek out information to reinforce our existing opinions and try to justify everything,” he adds.

Or, as Saletan put it more pretentiously (He does write for the Times, you know.):

In Haidt’s retelling, all the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said reason was fit only to be ‘the slave of the passions,’ was largely correct.

So what else is new?

Of course, Haidt could have saved himself years of research and writing and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s taxpayers who knows how many thousands of dollars if only he’d checked with a competent advertising person instead.

For at least half a century, advertising practitioners have known that people make purchase decisions with their hearts, not their heads; that they make an emotional leap to a product or brand decision, then build a bridge of logic afterwards to support it.

This is why most of the new-car ad readers are people who just bought that make of car and are looking to justify their purchase — and why, back when Ogilvy & Mather handled the Mercedes advertising, they filled the long-copy ads with facts and figures that would reassure a new owner, not lure a new prospect.

It’s why McDonalds has happy meals for kids and Ronald McDonald — and why cereal and soda brands try to win them over while they’re young, with a lifetime of purchasing patterns ahead of them.

It’s why consumers buy from brands whose personalities they like and shun others, often with better products, whose personalities they don’t.

It’s why realtors tell homeowners to have cookies baking in the oven when they show the house to prospective buyers — and why there are four, count ’em, four products on Amazon’s site that give cars that new-car smell.

And it’s why even heartless monopolies like the Bell System were able to get people to make more (then-expensive) long-distance calls back in the ’70s with tear-jerking television commercials and slogans like “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

Better late than never

So welcome to the club, Professor Haidt. Nice to have you with us. Too bad you didn’t see the light sooner.

But then, you wouldn’t have that book deal, would you?