Categories: History of PR / Opinion research

7 January 2013


Psychobabble will not make PR credible

Blimey, talk about the emperor’s wardrobe. Look around, and PR professionals will quickly come across a new-ish crop of pseudo-science which is supposed to guide them as to what their trade is and how to do it. They shouldn’t need the warning. But some, such as participants in The Holmes Report’s recent Global Public Relations Summit 2012 in Miami, who discussed ‘Persuasion, Empathy, and Neural Coupling‘ and ‘Unlocking the Brain’s Secrets About Creativity And Decision Making‘, seemingly need it stated plainly. This stuff is likely to be claptrap.

Global PR Summit speaker Uri Hasson, assistant professor psychology/Neuroscience Institute, Princeton

Global PR Summit speaker Uri Hasson, assistant professor psychology/Neuroscience Institute, Princeton

The social sciences often get in a muddle when they pretend to be scientific. Economics, sociology, history and pre-history, all blaze the trail here. Public relations, a trade steeped in conflicted logic and rhetoric and impressions if ever there was one, ought to be very nervous when its practitioners affect to have a scientific underpinning.

One of the arguments for PR to adopt neuro-scientific findings is precisely to spot the partially hard-wired human characteristics that define what Richard Dawkins calls our cultural memes, which explains all evolution (social and biological) by the differential survival of interacting self-replicating viral-like entities. This outlook is premised on a primitive materialist understanding of human nature, not to mention neo-eugenic theories. It is a viewpoint that maintains that human society is largely the product of pre-programmed (or re-programmable) mind- and fuzzy cultural-genes; in other words, evolutionary psychology. It leads many to believe that science can fathom our world so that PR pros can nudge the right triggers (neural, genetic, cultural) to get people to behave in a predictable, controllable and/or desired manner.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the science of eugenics (nor with epigenetics) in principle: among other potential benefits, it allows us to eradicate some very awful inherited diseases such as Down’s syndrome. But we should worry when the research of neuroscientists or geneticists aims, or claims, to give scientific weight to ideas that are the social product of prejudice, politics and culture, or which are philosophical in content. In the 20th century, as we all know, some very backward – and nowadays totally discredited – beliefs and ideologies were once said to have had a scientific validity rooted in our supposed ingrained sociobiological make up.

logoThe question is just how much can we rely on quantitative behavioural measures and neuro-scientific insights into our brain patterns to assess qualitative human variables such as our opinions and feelings.

There is a school of PR thought that promotes to clients the predictive power of algorithms and neuro-science to assist in identifying the ‘relationship value’ of networks amongst an institution’s stakeholders. Professor Toni Muzi Falconi advanced such thinking on PR Conversations in his piece ‘Improving stakeholder relationships through nets, neuros and algorithms, saying:

“Computer science allows the use of algorithms, which greatly reduce the need to research more than small samples of stakeholder groups. Likewise, neuroscience allows the integration of qualitative and quantitative indicators, which are closely connected to how relationships influence one another.”

Describing what he is looking for, he adds:

“Interactions within stakeholder groups (or between the groups) can reveal – through graphics – the primary relationship nodes, as well as their interconnections. A mathematical analysis of these networks, supported by computer-led software, offers the essential numerical elements of specific indicators/variables.”

I accept that in a digital world we can trawl for lots of interconnected data. Yet it would be a big mistake to read too much meaning into what’s revealed. As Heather Yaxley commented on PR Conversations:

“Whether or not we have relationships with brands and whether or not they can, or should be trying to map our relationship is equally problematic. For example I am not a great fan of Carphone Warehouse generally, but it gave great service in replacing my Blackberry. So what does this mean? Nothing. I don’t care about the company, don’t want it to engage me, build a relationship, etc. It provided a service when I needed it – end of story.”

She, not for the first time, is spot on. However my concerns, and I suspect hers, run much deeper. There is something potentially very dangerous and worrying about this trend that puts PR in the hands of the latest psychological and sociobiological psuedo-scientific theories. For anybody who thinks I exaggerate, here’s the first paragraph from a press release promoting Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

“Too much choice can be a bad thing—not just for the individual, but for society. Thinking about choices makes people less sympathetic to others and less likely to support policies that help people, according to a study published…”

It goes on to describe research findings which showed:

“Simply thinking about ‘choice’ made people less likely to support policies promoting greater equality and benefits for society, such as affirmative action, a tax on fuel-inefficient cars, or banning violent video games.”

Hence, to persuade us to think the right way, make the right choices and reduce our levels of stress, these scientists advocate that PR pros should become master-manipulators of neural pathways. Under the guise of evidence-based PR, this is an approach to public engagement that justifies the efficacy of its strategies by citing results based on biased research findings, as Toni Muzi Falconi puts it: “[of no] more than small samples of stakeholder groups.” For example, the same Association for Psychological Science press release cites Krishna Savani of Columbia University opining:

“’In America, we make choices all the time—in the cafeteria, in the supermarket, in the shopping mall,’ Savani says. He wonders if, in the long run, all those consumer choices might have a cumulative negative impact by making people less sympathetic towards others and less concerned about the collective good.”

Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College

Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College

Such prejudicial reasoning reinforces that of other neuro scientists and psychologists such as Barry Schwartz, who also say we are oppressed and made unhappy by too much choice and freedom. The logic of Savani, Shwartz and Co’s proposition is that, with some major help from PR pros, society should seek to constrain competition relating to things, options and ideas. They maintain that it is both possible and desirable to manipulate the public’s neurons and subconscious genetic programming to ensure that it adopts the right (as in their preferred) behaviour and worldview. This small elite, of course, unlike us more irrational beings known as the mass public, know what is and is not in the public interest.

Their message and that of their PR backers seems to be that capitalism, freedom and democracy are overrated. Contrariwise: I maintain that ethical PR depends upon its practitioners respecting the moral autonomy of different players by helping people make informed decisions. Put another way, the psychobabble which underpins trendy nudge theory rests on ethically suspect and untrustworthy, not to mention unscientific, foundations.

51GE9bQV1nL._SL500_AA300_That’s a point made convincingly by the physician, gerontologist and clinical scientist Raymond Tallis in Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Mankind. Tallis pulls apart Richard Dawkin’s neo-Darwinian explanations of human consciousness by exposing its degrading account of humanity’s uniqueness. In summary, Tallis’s book in defence of scientific integrity, which lauds and explains neuro-science’s progress, at the same time exposes neo-neurobabble, as well as biological accounts of culture that maintain ‘we are our brains’ and which reduce self-consciousness to a mirror of biologism.

That’s why I have to applaud Andrew Mayne’s piece on Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist where Mayne said that psychobabble spreads when the scientific community lets rip by assuming:

“… their expertise in their own field also gives them a proficiency in totally unrelated areas like economics and political science. Add in group reinforcement from their peers and you have a group of politically and religiously homogenized people who have very different ideas from you and I on what exactly ‘the public good’ means.”

I have also to concur with Mayne’s view that:

“Market theory, evolutionary psychology and neuroeconomics have reinforced what Adam Smith already told us, that the best measure of what brings about the public good isn’t found in measuring just one choice, it’s the cumulative effect of all the different choices that we make as a society. Choice causes anxiety, but it’s an important part of being a human and not a member of an ant colony.”

Having said that, up to a point I suppose that PRs and marketers do indeed, as professor Falconi says, rely on the usefulness of algorithms. For instance, our supermarket loyalty cards and our behaviour on Google allow for useful data-mining to predict what we might be interested in in future. The more supermarkets know about which types of consumers buy which types of products and when, the better they can serve their customers. Moreover, Google’s entire business is rooted in the smart use of algorithms, which we all manipulate to influence search engine optimisation to get the messages of our clients at the top of the pile.

But we shouldn’t get carried away the way that Google’s Eric Schmidt does. He believes that his company’s algorithms can really see inside our minds. He says Google can take serendipity out of the equation. Moving on from telling us how Google is run, he implies that its model could be used to organise the world economy. It could, he believes, enable society to predict electronically in advance what consumers will desire and want in the future. The logical implication being that capitalism can do what communism aims to do, which is to plan production in a conscious fashion; in Schmidt’s world, by seeing into our “unconscious” minds to discover what will soon become a concrete demand.

If I may wander for a moment, Schmidt’s view is very Edward Bernays. Now I admire – and sometimes defend – Bernays. He was clever and insightful, but he was a propagandist: a manipulator. His ideas were in tune with – and Unknownperhaps inspired – propaganda techniques on both sides of WW2 and the Cold War. And he used it to flog stuff. It is true that he deliberately used ideas about the “unconscious” – ideas which he got from his uncle Sigmund Freud. I could argue (in line with keeping science out of PR) that the unconscious is a pre-scientific idea as old as the Greeks’ Psyche, and their sophisticated understanding of art and illusion: so he wasn’t all that scientific or original really. I’d rather argue that when propagandists hope to deploy scientific canniness in the media world to influence mass opinion, I hope and believe good old political prejudices (not ‘scientific’ ones), and insightful ideas and reasoned argument will, if they are allowed to, see through the guff. The success of the Bernays-Goebbels axis was not the success of science, not even in its Freudian form, but the failure of the German mass-mind to detect bollocks.

Ok, now that’s off my chest, let’s get back to Schmidt. He believes that most people don’t want Google to answer their questions, but to tell them what they should be doing next. But he sees this as involving more than providing choices. Schmidt views it instead as others deciding (taking the risk and guess work out of the marketplace) in advance which choices we will make:

“The power of individual targeting—the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them [in advance].

Though that only works – if for one moment we suspend disbelief and imagine it ever could – if Google plays the role of the communist centralised state by exploiting (and retaining) its de facto monopoly on internet search, aggregation and interaction. But I feel comfortable in saying that will never happen. It won’t happen for the same reason that Schmidt’s reasoning is flawed. Innovation, competition and new risk-taking continually redefine the human experience in new and unpredictable ways, the way Compaq, Microsoft, the internet and Google did recently.

''Google CEO Larry Page (and also Eric Schmidt) envisions a future in which computers anticipate your whims''  The Future according to Larry Page, CNN January 2013

”Google envisions a future in which computers anticipate your whims” The Future according to Larry Page, CNN January 2013

Of course it is wonderful to see a modern capitalist like Schmidt saying that scientific and technological imperatives engineer choice out of consuming and uncertainty out of producing. But the hubris of the thing antagonises one. Doesn’t he know life’s more complicated than that? Doesn’t he spot that if he was right, we might hate him and flock to a search engine that did stuff differently? It is at least intriguing to see a man predicting that what looks like the triumph of his business – information and individualism – is merely the triumph of manipulation. But hold on. This isn’t really manipulation: it’s anticipation as the word ought to be used. It’s not all that creepy or conspiratorial so much as an expression of over-confidence.

Every business in the world takes a crack at getting ahead of the taste of its customers. For my money, the better they get at it, the better my life will be. And of course the genius of the modern world is that huge firms are getting better and better at working out the zillions of niches they have to cater to.

Anyway, you readily see, I think, that any claim that says human behaviour can be explained by, not to mention controlled by, the application of biological and neuro science is codswallop.

So in contrast to the PR utopians who promoted the benefits of neuro-scientific insights at The Holmes Report’s Global PR Summit 2012, I maintain their claims are about as believable as the now discredited, but recently fashionable, idea, which suggested that computer-based equations devised by boffins could produce packages that strip the risk out of financial instruments and end the boom and bust cycle. So let people aim to map the human mass mind: I imagine they’ll have all the luck which has attended those who try to map a single one.

For more on this from me see here.

Note: this is an updated essay which first appeared on this blog on April 1, 2011.

8 responses to “Psychobabble will not make PR credible”

  1. Bob Batchelor says:

    Hi Paul, I wish more people were writing about this kind of contextual thinking and its value. We see so much “psychobabble” and “pseudoscience” thrown at us that it is difficult to establish credibility.

    As a public relations teacher, I’m left speechless by the way quantitative research dominates PR theory. Over time, this hegemony has solidified the gap between academe and practice, leaving most PRs shaking their heads. Yet, since the research is controlled by quantitative study, most young scholars are forced into this mode to achieve their career goals.

    If we go back to the “normative” theory that lords over PR — Grunig’s excellence studies — and examine its reliance on surveys, it provides almost a direct line — or perhaps case study — in how an idea moves from pseudoscience to acceptance. Yet, we have an entire theoretical foundation based on surveys (Grunig and his lackeys would argue that the qualitative interviews they did added that dimension, but they were asking practitioners and executives who agreed to be interviewed, thus calling into question the objectivity). Surveys measure opinion of a person the second they fill in a bubble or click on a web-based choice, little more. But, Grunig and the pseudoscientists control the way graduate students are trained and who usually run the means to publication.

    Also, I like your analysis of Bernays — another one who gave himself the “Father of PR” tag and worked it until it stuck.

    Using algorithms may provide more concrete information about purchasing and how people surf the web, the idea that someone or organization can then pre-load my life for me is creepy, at best. A person is not the sum of their purchases or cache of cookies.

    Rather than rely on survey-based nonsense, academics should be either digging through archives to provide this industry with a real sense of its history or, like what takes place in K-12 education in the US, get inside agencies, firms, and businesses to evaluate, analyze, and critique what is going on, so that academe and practice can work together to build a better profession.

  2. Heather Yaxley says:


    On the one hand the more recent interest of PR practitioners in measurement has to be encouraging. There is a debate in the CIPR group on LinkedIn about planning which addresses a question about why there is traditionally a resistance to plan in PR. So good to see arguments for research to inform our work. And likewise the increasing acceptance of monitoring, evaluation and ROI – and dismissal of AVEs – has to be welcomed. But we come unstuck if PR practitioners are ignorant of what measures mean, methodological considerations, basic maths and lack the ethical conscience to avoid using any insight for manipulative purposes (or at least the awareness to acknowledge this potential). You only have to look at most surveys or data cited in PR materials to have concerns. Extrapolation from small samples is something we see all the time based on dodgy surveys.

    The other side is Bob’s observation about research in PR academia. His perspective about the Grunigian research framework and dominance over the last 25 years is an issue. However that is changing, outside the US and from discussion, within it too. A wide range of methodologies are studied and encouraged in research among academics, students and practitioners at least in the University and professional qualification I teach. There are many excellent books on the topic including a new one from Hodges and Edwards. The latest edition of Heath’s Handbook was refreshing in the different voices and perspectives, notably in contrast with the 2001 edition which was more Grunigian in content.

    The History of PR conference ( ) at Bournemouth last year, and again this Summer, shows a real intent to expand the knowledge of the origins and foundations of PR, particularly with research looking at different cultures and perspectives. This involves accessing original sources and revisiting early historical viewpoints. Of course we need care in being revisionists. I also concur with more research of practice, especially using anthropological and similar non-opinion research. We need some depth, breadth and originality in our understanding and hence helping drive forward the occupation of PR.

    So yes to opening up PR minds to more science, social science, humanities and other research frameworks. But no to simplification of thinking that a quick and dirty survey provides. Poking around in brains or questionable analytics (Klout anyone?) is not the right direction.

    Mind you ensuring organisations and even the public of the value of a tapestry of research may be a hard sell. Our society is wired now in the 8 out of 10 cats said type of research. We also of course need to be wary of the rich data research methods which are openly subjective. But talking about such issues needs to take place in PR academia and practice, from our basic textbooks, to our professional bodies, in our counsel to clients and online.

    Cheers for the post!

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I agree. Measurement, evaluation and evidence have to be prioritized by PR professionals (though Bob Batchelor also rightly warns us to keep it real). Otherwise our trade will struggle to justify our work to the C-suite.

    But some things, such as a crisis avoided by our canny intervention, or success versus what “could” or “might” have otherwise occurred, are difficult to measure and evaluate objectively. We can, of course, road-test arguments, messages and narratives ahead of the game and pre-set objectives that can be measured later etc.. But risk and uncertainty in the form of “what ifs” will always remain in a fuzzy trade such as ours.

    As an aside: I spent the early 1990s dreaming of the headlines my employer wanted to see in the media. I then went to a reputable research company and we devised the survey of 1000 people that was designed to produce the headline. I was taught this 8 out of 10 cats methodology by Gordon Macdonald. He was the guru who introduced such techniques into the financial services sector in the 1980s (Gordon Heald, then head of Gallup, credited Gordon Macdonald for showing him how it was done). Macdonald was also the man responsible for introducing the umbrella to the Legal & General brand. He was pure genius and the best media relations man I’ve had the pleasure to encounter.

  4. Brittni Borrero says:

    Your post reminds me of a class discussion I had in my PR theory class last semester. We began the discussion with a single question: Is PR evil? After an hour and a half of talking about it, bringing up Grunig and the post-modernists, taking sides and changing our minds, we came to the conclusion that there is no definite answer. Regardless of the profession, you will find bad people who do bad things and that will bring the reputation of the industry down.

    PR work is devalued even though PR folks are the bridge between the organization and the stakeholders. Using “psychobabble” is a way to gain perceived credibility, but like you said, it doesn’t mean anything. As a budding PR practitioner, I hope to bring a clear understanding of what PR means and why it’s important to my future employers. I plan to do that through PR measurement. Thanks for knocking the industry off its high horse, it’s about time people start thinking realistically.

  5. toni muzi falconi says:

    Paul, I am thrilled that you decided, and not for the first time, to exercise your ‘rant against the world you don’t like’ by using me as a sparring partner, quoting me out of context, attributing to me every possible familiarity with some of the worst thugs in contemporary history.

    This gives me another good reason to continue in my attempt to understand what is going on, leaving aside my ‘pre-judices and stereotypes’ and try to adopt and adapt the more recent findings to improve the quality of our (common) profession. I am of course very wary of the caveats you argue with some strong and con-vincing arguments.
    But this in no way leads me to the ideological fahrenheit conclusions you draw.

    To the contrary, at the very least I am pleased to have contributed, if only indirectly, to you relieving yourself…..

  6. Paul Seaman says:

    Toni, I have not accused you or any of the contemporary thinkers I mention above of being on a par with ‘some of the worst thugs in contemporary history.’ To make it plain (though I think the essay already does) I don’t think that Dawkins, you or Schwartz are racists or fascists, or anything nearly so extreme. Dawkins, in particular, strikes me as a well meaning liberal, as do you. But that fact should not prevent me or anybody else from providing readers with an historical account of the claims of contemporary scientists. It shouldn’t prevent me either from interrogating the inner logic and erroneous thinking/theories behind what’s being suggested today that we accept in the name of science with all that implies. It also shouldn’t stop me or anybody else from examining the ethical and moral dilemmas posed by those who say that it is desirable to manipulate people’s neurological make-up for PR purposes.

    Moreover, I don’t think I have taken you out of context. You, a leading PR professor at one of the world’s leading universities, wrote a piece on PR Conversations that advocated the use of neurons (or the science of) in PR to influence relationship building. I criticised you for this while acknowledging that PR pros do, as you argued, indeed seek to manipulate and use algorithms for good sound reasons. If along the way you’ve found my core arguments convincing, I’m glad to hear that’s so. Perhaps now you will join me in criticising those who promote the use of neuroscience in the trade of PR?

  7. Toni and Paul – my take on the neuroscience and other arguments you have both presented is that as with many things in life (including public relations), it is not the ‘thing’ itself that is ethically difficult, but the use to which it is put.

    Understanding the human mind is a long-standing goal of scientists, social-scientists, politicians, brands and the general public (hence the sale of so many self-improvement and other psychology related books). Influencing others seems to be an inherent aspect of human psychology itself (ironically) but the beauty of reality is that life – and people – aren’t that simple.

    Indeed, people are wonderfully complex, contrary and contradictory – that’s why I am not convinced that any study of neuroscience or other attempts to find general rules of human behaviour will really help anyone exert the type of power that can be envisaged (for good or evil).

    Of course, there will be developments that are useful and those that are not. Because bad things have been done in the name of seeking to influence human behaviour by evil people, does not mean that everyone who is interested in the field has evil intent. But at the same time, we ought to be cognisant of historical precedent of how things can easily turn out.

    I think that there is an interesting movement going on in the scientific community today – fighting back perhaps against pseudo-science and popular mythology – that argues only science is valid. That is equally dangerous in my view as scientists must be held to account as much as anyone else in society.

  8. Rob says:

    quantitative behavioural measures and neuro-scientific insights into our brain patterns to assess qualitative human is baffling!

    As heather mentioned above is there a conference on this in 2014?