‘He gave us our most valuable science’: Industry pays tribute to Daniel Kahneman

‘He gave us our most valuable science’: Industry pays tribute to Daniel Kahneman

Marketing experts remember psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who pioneered insights into how consumers really make decisions.

It’s hard to overstate just how influential Daniel Kahneman was on the modern advertising industry.

The Israeli-American psychologist, who died on 27 March, pioneered behavioural studies into economics and psychology and did more than any academic to add rigour to what advertising creatives have whispered into marketers’ ears for decades: you need to reach people through their hearts and bypass their rational minds.

After the 2011 launch of Kahneman’s seminal work, Thinking Fast and Slow, then ZenithOptimedia head of insight Richard Shotton (now a prominent marketing consultant and Kahneman adherent), said of Kahneman’s core insight: “The idea of consumers making fully reasoned decisions is finally being debunked. Events like the financial crisis and fresh research have successfully challenged the idea that rationality is at the heart of our choices.”

Core to Kahneman’s argument is that humans have two distinct modes of thought: “system 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “system 2” is slower, more deliberative and more logical.

According to renowned effectiveness guru Peter Field, Kahneman’s contribution is nothing short of being “the most valuable science that it has”.

“His death leaves a large Daniel-shaped gap in the scientific mosaic of marketing that will not be filled,” Field told The Media Leader.

For another academic who has led the way in making sense of the “attention” that attends to how people consume marketing messages through media, Professor Karen Nelson-Field refers to Kahneman as “attention royalty”.

The Media Leader asked some of the industry’s leading effectiveness researchers and analysts to tell readers why Kahneman made such an impact on media, advertising and marketing.

Peter Field: He revolutionised market research

“I will mourn the loss of Daniel Kahneman immensely and always remain grateful for his contribution to marketing. For a man that never set out to write a marketing text, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman gave marketing by far the most valuable science that it has. To paraphrase the great man: his death leaves a large Daniel-shaped gap in the scientific mosaic of marketing that will not be filled.

“Sadly, his work is unfinished in a sense. We may now laugh at economists who, before Kahneman, built economic models on the assumption that people behaved rationally, but there are many in marketing and communications who still believe the same.

“Although his development of the systems 1 and 2 model has revolutionised the enlightened end of the marketing world, there is clearly still much work to be done amongst others to embed his thinking in everyday practice.

“The continuing massive over-investment in performance marketing is evidence of this: it is founded on the rejection of the power of the heuristic in brand choice. We now know that without the power of the heuristics provided by strong brand-building advertising — especially the affect heuristic — performance marketing struggles to deliver growth long term.

“Strong brands powerfully engage our system 1 brain, exploiting its role as ‘a machine for jumping to conclusions’ — ultimately, it is the only secure route to growth. Les Binet and I leapt on his research when we wrote The Long and the Short of It because it explained so many of the empirical observations we made in our data about long- and short-term effects. Many of these ran counter to the new thinking of the time and so we were extremely grateful to be able to draw on his work for support.

“Kahneman’s work has also revolutionised the market research world. When I was a young strategic planner in advertising, the predominant ad pre-testing model was based on rational system 2 responses that favoured short-term advertising effects. Now the predominant model is based on emotional system 1 responses that favour long-term effects.

“The IPA effectiveness data charts the transition of pre-testing from association with long-term weakness to association with long-term strength. Kahneman, I hope, would have been proud of that, even amongst his more momentous outcomes.”

Peter Field is a marketing effectiveness consultant

Karen Nelson-Field: Attention royalty

“The news of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s passing is deeply saddening.

“In my latest book, The Attention Economy: A Category Blueprint, I affectionately refer to him as ‘attention royalty’, representing a select group of influential scholars in the attention field. These scholars not only have made significant impacts, but also garnered respect and numerous citations for their publications on attention.

“Kahneman’s seminal contribution lies in his delineation of system 1 and system 2 thinking, as explored in his 1973 work Attention and Effort, which considers into the intricacies of human cognition and decision-making across various contexts.

“He describes system 1 thinking as fast, automatic and intuitive, primarily involving unconscious processes. This mode of thinking demands minimal effort and relies on heuristics and shortcuts for rapid decision-making, though it can be prone to biases and errors. System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is characterised by being slow, deliberate and analytical, requiring conscious effort and mental energy. It is often utilised for complex tasks that necessitate problem-solving and decision-making, being less susceptible to biases but more time-consuming and mentally taxing.

“Kahneman’s early contributions were pivotal in shaping today’s advertising landscape, particularly for marketers contending with the unique challenges of capturing attention in an era where the user experience of the media platform ironically does little to help. Additionally, his research provides valuable frameworks for newer scholars like Sofia Pirez, who introduces the concept of ‘system 3’, intricately linked to the fusion of AI and human cognition.

“Daniel Kahneman’s humble dedication to unravelling the complexities of human behaviour stands out in today’s world. The community expresses gratitude for his modest ambitions in advancing our understanding.”

Karen Nelson-Field is founder of Amplified Intelligence and an attention research expert

Matt Hill: Suddenly everything made sense

“Trying to understand how advertising works without learning from Kahneman’s theories in behavioural economics is like trying to catch a fish without a hook.

“I was late to the party and only read Thinking, Fast and Slow about 10 years ago, but it changed my world. Suddenly everything made sense; behavioural economics explains why we do what we do and how advertising really works better than any marketing textbook. Brand power works because it saves people intellectual effort in decision-making. As Kahneman said: ‘Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats — they can do it, but they prefer not to.’

“Thank you, Professor Kahneman.”

Matt Hill is director of research and planning at Thinkbox

Belinda Beeftink: A profound legacy to leave our industry

“Daniel Kahneman was a man who truly understood the human mind. His bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow was a real thought-provoker to me when I first read it.

“His work around behavioural economics was pivotal in shaping the way we think about things in our industry. So often we think of decision-making as being a rational thing, whereas Kahneman showed us that, more often than not, it is based on instinct. This is a lesson well-learned by anyone working in the ad industry today.

“Kahneman was most famous for his articulation of two ways of thinking — system 1 (fast, instinctive and emotional) and system 2 (slower, more deliberative and logical). In the IPA’s recent white paper Signals in the Noise, written by Barb CEO Justin Sampson and Tony Regan, we referenced his work Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement, which was written by Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein.

Signals in the Noise suggested that we have reached a pivot point as advertisers and agencies recognise the profusion of data about media audiences hasn’t led to an equivalent increase in knowledge. As Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein put it: ‘Wherever you look at human judgements, you are likely to find noise. To improve the quality of our judgements, we need to overcome noise as well as bias.’

“So, thanks to Kahneman, a very profound legacy to leave our industry. He helped us better understand how the human mind works and what the barriers to decision-making might be — lessons that all of us can learn from.”

Belinda Beeftink is research director at the IPA

Richard Shotton: A huge contribution via realism

“Daniel Kahneman made a huge contribution to academia and business by creating a more realistic model for how people make decisions. He showed that people don’t make most decisions in a fully considered way, but tend to rely on quick rules of thumb to make fast, speedy decisions. Crucially, he showed that those rules of thumb are prone to biases.

“Marketers need to be aware of those biases. That way, when they create their communications, they can work with human nature, rather than against it.

“Some of Kahneman’s impact comes from the original research he conducted with his partner Amos Tversky from the 1970s onwards. But perhaps his greatest impact was his ability to popularise those ideas. His book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which covers his research, has sold over 10m copies.”

Richard Shotton is a marketing consultant and author of The Choice Factory

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