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Mark Earls on Building and Using a Better (Insights) Map

How do we turn insights into things – products, services, practices – that can be commercially as well as theoretically useful? And how do we engage those inside and outside our organisations with this stuff – people who just want to know how to get from A-to-B?


treaure map



Editor’s Note: Mark Earls, “the Herdmeister”, is one of the world’s leading thinkers on brands and behavior. He is the best-selling and prize-winning author of “Welcome to the creative age”, “Brand New Brand Thinking”, “Herd: how to change mass behavior by harnessing our true nature”, “I’ll Have What She’s Having – Mapping Social Behavior” (with Profs Alex Bentley and Mike O’Brien) and “Copy Copy Copy”.

He also plays in a Ska band and is in general one of the nicest folks in the world.

We’re privileged to have him as part of the GreenBook “extended family” through his involvement with our IIeX event series, and today via  a guest post here on the blog.


By Mark Earls

In 1798 the English explorer and cartographer James Rennell returned to London from a long expedition to West Africa, charting the length of the mighty river Niger. Among the treasures he brought home was a carefully surveyed and beautifully composed map of the region, which included a striking new geological feature – the Mountains of Kong. Just as he and his contemporaries expected, the source of the mighty river was – so the map suggested, at least – amongst these towering peaks.

For nigh on a hundred years, all the maps of the region – whether made by German, French, Dutch or English hands – featured this memorably-named range of mountains. Everyone accepted that they were real. Until that is,…a pesky Frenchman (yes, a Frenchman!) bothered to go to the place on the map where the mountains were supposed to be. Instead of towering peaks, he found a plateau at 1000 metres: no peaks, no snow, no ravines, no lofty views.

Eventually, after a bizarre legal wrangle with the British Royal Geographical Society, the facts of the matter were agreed and the maps changed. So if you find yourself with a vintage map of West Africa in which the mountains appear, you can be sure it dates from the 19th Century (or is based on a map made at that time – in certain encyclopedias of the 1920s, the mountains lived on).

The moral here of course is that the utility of the maps we use depends to a great extent on their accuracy – the facts of the landscape are important. However plausible – and the notion of a mighty range of mountains being one of the sources of the great river Niger very much fitted the expectations of the age – it’s essential that we check the facts of the matter.

This is what the explosion of behavioral and cognitive science in recent years has done for us in the insights community: it’s challenged our underlying assumptions about how people do what they do (and therefore how we might better understand and influence them); it’s given us better rules of thumb such as Kahneman & Tversky’s “Lazy mind” model (thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats – we can do it if we really have to…) or the role of short-hands and heuristics that we use to think “fast” (as Kahneman dubs it). Rather than be understood as a race of Star Trek Spocks (logical, considered and evidence-based deliberative decision-makers) we are mostly more like the Vulcan’s friend, Captain Kirk (intuitive, impulsive and emotional). And rather than being utility maximisers (seeking out the best or the best value), it turns out we are approximate “satisficers”, happy to go with “good enough” in most circumstances.

All of which paints a very different of behavior from that we inherit from previous generations of insights professionals (just consider what lies behind the AIDA model of communication…).

One of the great beauties of this new map of human behavior that this starts to paint is that is evidence-based, rather than something that is text-book: the insights into human behavior and human behavior it relies on are all based on sound, repeatable experiments.

All of this presents great opportunities to insights professionals as well as challenges: for example, what are the implications of the new map for traditional research methodologies? What if – to use a widespread analogy for the relative importance of conscious and unconscious mind – it turns out we are researching only the White House Press Office’s view of policy and policy making and not POTUS’ own account? Do we need new research methods or simply new frames to interpret the output of the old methods by?

Similarly, it’s worth asking have we got all of the detail right? Is the bit we have readily embraced -behavioral economics (BE) with its interest in individual cognitive biases – all we need to know? Many like myself argue that it isn’t because it excludes or at least underestimates the social side of human nature which other disciplines (like anthropology and evolutionary economics) emphasize? Equally, are the “experimentally-derived” insights really universal or are they for example culturally-based (Prof Joe Henrich has made a career from playing BE-type games in different cultures and producing strikingly different findings from those shown for the US-undergraduate samples which still dominate most psychology research).

And of course, how do we turn these new insights into things – products, services, practices – that can be commercially as well as theoretically useful? And how do we engage those inside and outside our organisations with this stuff – people who are by and large less interested in the details of the map and just want to know how to get from A-to-B?

These are some of the things we’ll be exploring on the 9th November in NYC at the IIeX Behavioral Marketing Forum. I’ll be reviewing the day and seeking to provide a synthesis of the map at least (based on work I’ve been doing in recent years). If you’re at all involved in insights and the new map, you should be there.

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One response to “Mark Earls on Building and Using a Better (Insights) Map

  1. Not sure how many map geeks there are who read GreenBooks – but just in case, here is a link to the original work from 1991 on the Mythical Mountains of Kong by Thomas Basset and Phillip Porter. Sadly not available for free – but an excellent paper – and corroborated by Caroline Batchelor (my mum!) who found a further 45 maps in her own collection of maps of Africa covering the period 1512 to 1900 that had the Mythical Mountains of Kong in them. Her collection is now at Stanford University, most of it digitized and can be viewed online here
    As ever, thanks to Mark for using the story widely – and whilst it can be hard to study how copying and crowds affect behaviour in a laboratory – it is certainly possible to do this in the real commercial world and would enthusiastically encourage all those who do market research to at least try!

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