Categories: Opinion research / PR issues

16 August 2009


What could “neuro-PR” do for our trade?

Are we biologically wired to behave in a particular way? Well, PR blogger Heather Yaxley reports that CIPR Marcomms Group’s forthcoming evening event is entitled, Unlocking the secrets of the brain: the nascent world of neuro PR (London on 23 September). So here’s some thoughts on why this meeting might be discussing nonsense.

Let’s start at the beginning. Since the ancient Greeks perfected rhetoric, persuaders have used every trick in the book. And since then, too, the debate has raged about whether such techniques constituted an artform-cum-science as claimed by Aristotle, or whether they constituted no more than flattery as Plato maintained. And, perhaps, Machiavelli’s The Prince was the first psychological-PR handbook for despotic rulers (I’ve not read enough to know if that’s true or not). Edward Bernays seems sensibly to state:

Although ancient Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia were despotic monarchies, public opinion played some role in the national life. The governments of those ancient empires spent a great deal of money and ingenuity in building up the reputation and importance of the rulers.
(Edward L Bernays, Public Relations, University of Oklahoma Press, 1952)

But Bernays also offers a more profound insight:

The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people [stakeholder relationship management hadn’t been coined back then]. Of course, the means and methods of accomplishing these ends have changed as society has changed. In a technologically advanced society, like that of today, ideas are communicated by newspaper, magazine, film, radio, television, and other means….. Modern individual psychology and social psychology provide the basis for persuasion, a symbol of pluralism and fluidity.

So for Bernays – and for his uncle Freud upon whose thinking he relied – human nature and human social psychology were not fixed, not hard-wired. They were in important measure social constructs, capable of study and manipulation, and indeed so because not – as it were – ingrained. For instance, Gustave LeBon, the originator of Crowd psychology, made a useful contribution to modern PR theory. But the crowds that formed his subject were part of urbanized life. His crowd was a modern phenomenon driven by the end of rural (isolated non-crowd) life and the emergence of modern networks of communication and industry. I make this point in defence of my heroes such as Bernays, Carnegie, Freud, LevittLippmann and Maslow. They all popularized the use of social science theory in our trade.

There has, however, always been a darker side to this issue. It has covered everything from racism (slavery/apartheid), anti-semitism (fascism) or phrenology (the theory stating that the personality traits of a person can be derived from the shape of the skull). These all relied on the view that there is a fixity in human beings and human relations. 

The history of these mechanistic accounts of human life makes me nervous of modern explanations of human behaviour based on neuroscience or evolutionary biology. (Though I accept that mental illness is something different and often has a neurological origin.)

Moreover, some commentators have also rightly pointed out that all PR techniques are value-neutral and are open for use for both good and bad purposes.

For a contemporary in-depth discussion of neuroscience’s possible wider social implications, I recommend this book review by a peer of Chris Frith’s Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.

Whichever side of the expert argument – the reviewer’s or Firth’s – you take, it offers little support to the notion that neuro-PR is possible today. For the record, my Enlightenment and post-modernist-tinged views, which inform my PR practice, are instinctively hostile to Firth’s belief that free will is just a manufactured state of mind. Firth’s point, however, should not be confused with Bernays’ concept of manufacturing consent just because the words and meaning sound similar (I’ll defend Bernays in another article soon).

What interests me here is why there is renewed interest in the benefits that neuroscience could bring to our industry. Toni Muzi Falconi explains it thus:

I refer to what many researchers and practitioners are beginning to realize: opinions are much less correlated to behaviours than they used to be only ten, fifteen years ago.

If this is even only partially true, it means that we (as well as the market, political and social research industry) need to focus our attention much more on understanding behaviours than opinions.

And this certainly raises the necessity that we revise our listening processes through a much better knowledge of both psychology and neuroscience.

What people say they think, and what they do (or how they vote in secret), often seem dramatically out of sync. That’s not new. Hypocrisy is not new. (It’s true that mass cynicism is a very modern trait, but even so, in Soviet Russia it was for many years a national mass underground sport.) Few people – as Bernays knew all too well – have thought in depth about their world view. It is, then, no wonder most opinion research highlights shifting, confused responses even when the opinions given seem to be most emphatic. A good dose of commonsense could very easily square the contradiction between the opinions given to researchers and people’s actual behaviour in the real world. 

And here comes my counter-intuiative punch. I think that the insights of science aren’t especially powerful or sinister when it comes to determining PR outcomes or even influencing opinion. I don’t think that either PR or, indeed, propaganda can be held responsible – even if they played a part – for Stalinism, the Nazis, or Apartheid South Africa; if only it were that simple.

One might as well use all the insights one can: scientific or not. They’re not likely to be more sinister or stronger than ordinary commonsense or wiliness, or more influential than the many other factors – say, chance, culture, economics, geography, history, personalities and politics – that determine outcomes in society.

Hence, I’m not advocating closing down discussion about neuro-PR or any other form of PR or discarding any scientific tools that might prove useful. But I don’t think neuroscience will be influencing anybody’s PR practice and line of argument any time soon.

By the way, Heather Yaxley did us all – me, certainly – a great service in her excellent blog post on this theme.

4 responses to “What could “neuro-PR” do for our trade?”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    Thank you for developing my initial post. I am reminded (owing in part to the odd way that my brain is wired) of the gameshow Deal or No Deal. Everyone knows the outcome is unpredictable and pure chance (unless it is fixed, but assuming it isn’t). But most of the players have a system that they believe will help them predict what’s in the boxes.

    Likewise it seems comforting to governments, businesses, and others who wish to persuade the public(s), that they can somehow predict and influence outcomes. There are some aspects of human psychology that can generally be applied by PR practitioners.

    But is it really feasible to derive persuasive campaigns based on knowledge that a part of our brain shows a neural response when we see something we like (for example).

    Like you, I am cynical that the science of our minds is so simple that it can be readily manipulated, especially by politicians or marketers. Celebrities might be credible sources for some people – but not everyone and not for everything for the person who might buy a magazine on the basis of the celeb being on the cover.

    Humans may well be the output of our neurology and biology, etc, but as everyone is more different than they are similar, I doubt more than general likelihoods would emerge from modern scientific research.

    Just as there are some predictions you can make about the Deal or No Deal boxes based on mathemtical probabilities (eg trends towards the average).

  2. toni muzi falconi says:

    good post Paul,

    I mostly agree and am anxious to read your coming piece about Bernay’s manufatcuring of consent…

    What seems to lack in both yours and Heather’s positions, is the aknowledgement of the impressive social and value change which has in these last years happened to widen the always existing, but realistically copable with from a professional perspective, between a person’s opinions and behaviours over many issues which concern us when we operate.

    In my view, since the late nineties this change has dramatically accellerated.
    I remember I would reassure my clients that if they gave me a reasonable position, allowed me to do my homework properly, supplied sufficient human and financial resources I would be almost certain to modify a specific public’s opinion on an issue and that these modified opinions would turn into actual behaviours. To the point that I would tie a part of my fee to the realization of that outcome.

    Today the situation is very different indeed.
    Publics are much more fragmented, points of reference, ideologies, political parties, clubs, institutions of all sorts (pruvate and public) have lost much of their influence power over indviduals. These become publics only for specific moments and on specific issues and then become other publics who have different opinions on the same issue.

    My favourite example is the issue of sustainable mobiity.
    If you interview an individual when he drives to the city in the early morning, when he takes the subway to move around town, when he walks to his neraby restaurant for a snack, when he bicycles or motorbykes in the contryside during the weekend, you will receive different answers to the same question.

    The implications of this are many, and some have very much to do with the need of a serious effort on our side to transit our professional platform from a moslty listening of stakeholder opinions exercise to a stronger observing and understanding of behaviours of those stakeholders.
    Of course, only after we have adequately assessed that my observations have factual reality (and this again we can only assess by registering opinions and by observin behaviours).

    Imagine the day in which your client/employer asks you:
    I don’t think that opinions have any intense correlation with opinions any longer.
    My research suppliers are telling me that they are feverishly working on more effective and less expensive ways of observing behaviours.
    What are you doing to make sure that the funds we invest in public relations actually affect behaviours?

  3. […] Last month, he picked up on the inevitable – the attempt by the PR industry to acquire prestige and income from the revolution in neuro-science. Our sister team at TPPR has also been highly suspicious of trends to quantify ‘persuasion’ – in their case, as political analysts, they have directed their sceptical gaze at the potential for excessive claims about the meaning of the data embedded in social networks. […]