Sunday, 13 November 2011

Cultural Cognition and Selling Trust - Feeling more Thinking less?

"If you hope to persuade a disbelieving 'Suit' that climate change is real then the most effective strategy - putting aside the merit of the argument - would be to shave off the beard, wear a sharp suit of your own, and say nuclear power is the answer. "

So Michael Blastland concludes his fun piece for BBC News Website on Saturday November 10th 2011

Cultural cognition has much to contribute to what might be the best approaches to convey our DVP to our buyer. Logical argument alone will seldom be enough in persuading our client.

Is it  the facts of our offer or the identity of the salesperson that the buyer perceives ,the aspect that decides for the buyer - what is right? 

"People buy People first"

 is an old adage in selling perhaps the study of cultural cognition supports this. But maybe cultural cognition suggests that our attitude to risk  is swayed more by perceived shared values.

Who do you  generally believe?

1.The casual bloke with beard and open-necked shirt ?  Maybe the late Steve Jobs?

2.The slim, smooth, designer-specs and all-in-black type?  Possibly Gok Wan?

 3.The business-like, short-haired, serious suit-and-tie?  Dragon Peter Jones from the Dragon's den perhaps

 4.Or maybe a different kind of man-in-jacket, older and rounder, more

 avuncular?  Twitter's own national treasure Stephen Fry ?? !!!

We treat people's appearance as a clue to their values.
Using Michael Blastland's shorthand descriptions
 We expect  a 'Suit', for example, to be a patriot who thinks people should stand on their own feet. And so he is.
'Beard' supposedly dislikes corporate America and believes in more equality. And really, are you surprised by his views?
The 'designer type' is a cool individualist.
And 'Uncle Jacket' defends tradition.

 These maybe  humorous  stereotypes but the fact is people do conform roughly to them as revealed by researchers at Yale University. The research is called the cultural cognition project.

What cultural cognition suggests is that for examples Buyers form perceptions about the facts mostly in line with their existing values and cultural types - of which

 appearance is one part.

Do the sources of the information  I am receiving from the sales person share my values?

Can I identify with them?

Do they reinforce my self-image?

OK then, I'll listen!!!

Why might this be so? Some of the studies relating to risk perception suggest this line of thinking.

  In the discipline of Neuroscience by the likes of Joseph LeDoux they have discovered that neural pathways  ensure that humans respond initially to risky stimuli subconsciously/instinctively, before cognition kicks in. Additionally in the ongoing risk response that follows, the wiring and chemistry of our brain also ensure that instinct and feelings play a significant role, sometimes the most important role, in how we perceive and respond to danger.

Put simply, our  brain is designed to subconsciously feel first and

 consciously think second, and to feel more and

think less.

• The research of Daniel Kahneman has discovered a  "mental toolbox" of heuristics ( experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery) and biases we use to quickly make sense of partial information and turn a few facts into the full picture of our judgment.

 These mental shortcuts occur subconsciously, outside (and often before) conscious reasoning. Kahnemann's research further confirms that we are far more Homo Naturalis than Homo Rationalis.

• The Psychometric research of Paul Slovic has revealed a palette of psychological characteristics that make risks feel "more" frightening, or less, the facts notwithstanding.

These 'risk perception factors' include:

Imposed versus Voluntary
More pain and Suffering  and Less Pain and Suffering
Less Benefit and More Benefit
Uncertainty and Certainty and familiarity

• Recent research on the theory of Cultural Cognition by Dan Kahan has found that our views on risks are shaped to agree with those we most strongly identify with, based on our group's underlying feelings about how society should operate. We fall into four general groups about the sort of social organisation we prefer, defined along two axis,. We all fall somewhere along these two continua, depending on the issue.


Individualists                           Communitarian

Individualists prefer a society that maximizes the individual's control over his or her life.

Communitarians prefer a society in which the collective group is mire actively engaged in making the rules and solving society's problems ( for example Individualists deny environmental problems like climate change because such problems require a 'we're all in this together' communal response. Communitarians see for example  climate change as a huge threat in part because it requires a social response)

Along the other continuum, Hierarchists prefer a society with rigid structure and class and a stable predictable status quo, while Egalitarians prefer a society that is more flexible, that allows more social and economic mobility, and is less constrained by 'the way it's always been'. ( for example Hierarchists deny climate change because they fear the response means shaking up the free market-fossil fuel status quo. Shaking up the status quo is music to the ears of Egalitarians, who are therefore more likely to believe in climate change.)

That risk is inescapably subjective is disconcerting for those who place their faith in the ultimate power of  Cartesian thought  "I think, therefore I am"- Reason. But the robust evidence outlined above makes clear that;

1. Risk perception is inescapably subjective

 2. No matter how well educated or informed we or the buyer maybe may be, we will sometimes get risk wrong, producing a host of profound mistakes.

 3. In the interest quality business interactions between buyers and sellers, we need a more holistic, and more realistic, approach to what risk means. Business risk management has to recognize the risk of misunderstandings, the risk that arises when our fears  whether as Buyer or seller don't match the evidence, the risks of The Perception Gap
Though Salespeople know that Perception is often the reality in business!

Related Links:

Professor Dan Kahan  suggests related framework that  was developed in part to promote effective operations of multi-national business entitities. You can find out about this work at

Selling to different values

Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk
Fun lecture at CRASSH , Cambridge Uni  last year about 40 minutes long  Prof.Dan Kahan  of Harvard Law School . Best to play in full screen mode to see the details of his slides

Risk Perception
David Ropeik Author of  "How Risky Is It, Really?"- Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts

1 comment:

  1. Professor Dan Kahan of Harvard Law School and Yale asnwered some questions I had regarding use of LinkedIn and Selling and cultural cognition.

    Hi, Hugh.

    These are interesting questions.

    The constructs we use to characterize cognitive predispositions were designed very much with the formation of risk perceptions & closely related beliefs in mind; so we have not had occasion to examine what connection they might have to market behavior or attitudes.

    Here are some thoughts:
    1. There is a related framework that looks at how orientations very similar to the ones featured in our work influence expectations about workplace organization & management styles. They were developed in part to promote effective operations of multi-national business entitities. You can find out about this work at

    2. More generally, the methodological strategy behind our work involves measurement of "latent" or unobserved dispositions that one has reason to believe will influence attitudes or behaviors. As I mentioned, we designed our scales to measure dispositions that we had reason to believe influence formation of risk perceptions. It is, of course, possible that the same ones influence dispositions relevant to marketing behavior, but it seems to me that would be a fairly surprising coincidence if so. If I myself were interested in marketing behavior I think I would start by trying to assess what casual observation suggests to me are the differences in the styles, outlooks, personalities & whatnot of conspicuous examples & then try to develop a valid & reliable measurement scheme for such dispositions & test hypotheses about their impact. But the point is they would be context specific; I don't myself believe there is some illuminating master set of dispositions that apply across contexts! I'm sure you can find scales & constructs like these in the business & marketing literature, although I myself am not familiar with it. As an example, though, see Knight, G.A. Cross-cultural reliability and validity of a scale to measure firm entrepreneurial orientation. Journal of Business Venturing 12, 213-225 (1997).

    3. The dominant Mary Douglas school nowadays likely would scold me for point 2; I think they do believe group-grid is close to a theory of everything & would likely try to show that it does yield some insightful account of marketing behavior.

    I don't know whether anyone of that perspective has actually addressed the topic, though. Not particulary helpful but I guess I'd recommend just google-scholar & Mary Douglas Culture Theory & see where that leads. (I have to admit that I think such a foray is likely to lead down many deadend paths; I'd mine the marketing & business field literature myself, if I were looking for empirically tested attitude, personality, or aptitude scales).