The Psychology of Marketing

I teach my students at Berkeley and Stanford that the foundation of marketing is psychology. Marketing is manipulating people to do what we want, so to get people to do what we want, we have to understand how they think, what they feel, and why.

I also teach that the foundation of psychology, what motivates all of us to do whatever we do, is self-interest. I explain that even soon-to-be saints, like Mother Teresa, who spent her life feeding the poor, caring for the sick, did so out of self-interest. Mother Teresa was not altruistic. There is no such thing as Altruism. It is a religious construct to motivate good deeds, to get people out of our own heads, even for a moment, to consider others.

Many students, especially students of religion, have a problem with this lecture. And, no doubt, many reading this blog are bridling right now. “Of course Altruism is REAL. It’s what we strive for, our highest attainment—to give selflessly, because we are fundamentally caring, loving beings.”

Not so much. We are fundamentally self-serving.

And this is NOT a judgement call. This is a fact of human nature. What can be judged is what we DO with this fact of our nature.

I teach self-interest religiously with every Marketing lecture I give. As Mother Teresa spread the word of Christ around the world with every sick child she fed, she was fulfilling her function as a nun. And her brain rewarded her efforts with Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin— ‘happiness’ hormones that made her feel good. Ohh, so damn good! In the face of that kind of poverty, I’d be crying daily. I don’t do what she did because it would not make me feel good in any way. I’d be profoundly sad, every day, knowing Christ will never save these children. People are going to have to do that.

We ALL act in self-interest. We scoff at Chevron fracking as the height of corruption, yet we blithely ignore our roles in global warming by driving SUVs we don’t need, or leaving lights or electronics on all the time because we’re too distracted to turn them off. Or we drive while on our cellphones, and cause over 1.5 MILLION accidents annually, and KILL, murder, 9 or more people A DAY so we can check our Facebook timelines.

I teach Marketing, not Morality, I tell students who balk at my contention our motivation, without exception, is self-interest. It is important to tell them this fact about us, in order for them to be able to produce effective marketing material down the line when they go to launch their startups. To get people to buy into your product, service or message, you must understand their psychology— what they think they need or want, and why, then offer them solutions to their issues and desires.

Bernie Madoff did it to a lot greedy people. He fulfilled their desire to get rich quick without effort when he convinced them to invest with him.

On the other end of the spectrum, Toyota did it, when they invented the Prius. And Tesla is doing it in 2018 with the consumer version of their all electric vehicle.

Humans are self-interested beings. What we do with this fact is what matters, NOT that we ARE.

Toyota and Tesla produce the cars they do to make money. And while serving themselves, they are moving closer to serving the greater good, by producing cars that have low emissions. Even better than electric cars, is solar and wind to power them, since over 50% of our electricity still comes from burning coal and other fossil fuels, which continues to do immeasurably damage to our planet.

Martin Andrew Green is an Australian professor at the University of New South Wales who’s dedicated his career to developing solar cells. Mr. Green’s self-interest is scratching a mental itch. He’s curious about light energy, and in learning how to manipulate it, his brain rewards him, makes him feel powerful, smart, valuable, serving his emotional needs. He is also contributing to the greater good of humanity, and nature, by developing alternative ‘clean’ energy.

Self-interest in NOT a curse. It is simply a state of being… human, in our case, but seemingly dictates the behavior of everything else that lives on Earth. Survival of the fittest is how species last over millennium. Not survival of the kindest, whatever ‘kind’ means. Mother Teresa was NOT kind in spreading gospel that Christianity saves souls. Instead of teaching the value and necessity of socially responsible behavior, which would have served the greater good, preaching rewards in the afterlife does not serve the living, or their future.

There is no need to fear the fact that human behavior is driven by self-interest. Regardless of the religious allegory that Altruism is not only real, but mandatory for society to function, self-interet is imperative for our continued survival.

Self-interest does NOT need to manifest as narcissism. Green, or Toyota, or the parents who work to provide for their kids, or helping a friend in need, most of us contribute to supporting our society or there would be no human race. We have the capacity to be giving, generous, thoughtful beings. Our motivation is irrelevant. It is our ACTIONS that determine our morality, whether or not we are contributing to creating a society that thrives, or participating it our own demise.

Self-interest is coded in our DNA, and is not a threat to humanity, but a valuable characteristic. Now, more than ever, it is urgent each of us recognize that acting altruistically means being aware of our impact on each other and the planet, then accounting for others needs, as well as our own, is in all of our self-interest.

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