Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Let’s not reject new learnings about human behaviour

Many of us claim to be genuine seekers of new knowledge. But how good are we in absorbing new knowledge? Let’s take the example of human behaviour. There is no doubt that policymakers are keen to find new ways to manage our behaviour, be it be how to make people drive safely or ensure that citizens take their much-needed vaccinations in time. In the past few decades, lots of new knowledge has emerged that could help develop new strategies to deal with many behaviour-related problems. But much of this new knowledge about human behaviour have not been absorbed by policymakers and practitioners. Why?

Gerald Zaltman, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, was among the first in recent times to put forth genuinely new knowledge about human behaviour. In his 2003 book, How Customers Think, Professor Zaltman announced that more than 95% of human decisions occur at the non-conscious level. He pointed out that existing tools of consumer research, like focus group techniques and questionnaires, tap only 5% of the human decisions that are conscious. He went on to propose a new consumer research technique called Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique ( ZMET) to decipher many more decisions made at a non-conscious level.

A paper titled ‘The Nervous System in the Context of Information Theory’ by M. Zimmerman went few steps further. He pointed out that of the human brain’s 16 million bits of processing capacity, only 77 bits work at a conscious level. More than 99.99% of brain processes, according to the paper, occur at a non-conscious level, and so consciousness has a very small role to play in human decision making. While human consciousness deals with a tiny proportion of all incoming stimuli, the rest is processed at the non-conscious level, which is more than 200,000 times the capacity of the conscious.

An experiment by the late Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco, took the importance of our non-conscious processes to another level. He instructed participants to flick their wrists whenever they felt like it. Electrodes fitted in their heads detected fluctuations in electrical activity, indicating ‘readiness potential’, almost half a second before people made their flicking motion. But participants became aware of their intention to move only about 200 milliseconds before doing so. This led to the conclusion that their brains had decided on action before they became aware of it. In essence, non-conscious brain processes were in the driver’s seat.

More recent studies using functional MRI suggest that non-conscious triggers for human decisions occur even earlier. In research published in 2013, neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin had volunteers decide whether to add or subtract two numbers while under an fMRI scanner. They found patterns of neural activity that were predictive of the study subjects’ behaviour four seconds before those subjects were aware of making the choice.

Many interesting results from recent studies of the brain’s non-conscious processes have emerged from the field of sports. Neuroscientists have figured out that decisions, whether it’s while playing cricket, baseball or tennis, are made in a matter of milliseconds, and thus below our thresholds of consciousness. Studying these decisions that happen within milliseconds can be extrapolated to better understand the decision making processes of a driver on the road, or those of an e-commerce consumer online.

While all this new knowledge about our non-conscious calls was being generated, there were further experiments to establish the reduced role of consciousness in human decision-making. Cognitive psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris showed that when people focus hard on something consciously, say, counting the passes made by a basketball team, they become blind even to an unexpected sight, such as a gorilla dancing on the court right in front of them. This famous experiment reiterated the fact that the conscious brain can do only one thing at a time.

Shankar Vedantam, in his book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, writes: “The new understanding of human behaviour constitutes a revolution no less intriguing—and perhaps more powerful than the discovery that the sun really does not revolve around the earth." New knowledge about human behaviour is not just an incremental change to our existing knowledge base. It is a paradigm shift. So ideally, all our existing research methodologies must change. Our existing communication strategies have to change, and not just incrementally, but fundamentally.

Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science who spawned the trendy term ‘paradigm’, reminds us that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." This is just a reminder how difficult it is to get people to accept new knowledge, even if it is a well-established biological reality.

How many more lives must we lose to road accidents and how many more people should hesitate to take their vaccinations before policymakers realize that their traditional assumptions of human behaviour are fundamentally faulty? When will policymakers and professionals start embracing the new understanding of human behaviour? The wait continues.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting. 

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Updated: 16 Nov 2022, 11:45 PM IST
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