PR as the new Jedi warrior

Yoda is portrayed as a powerful Jedi Master in the Star Wars movies.

Yoda is portrayed as a powerful Jedi Master in the Star Wars movies.

No, Gruning hasn’t come up with a theory that argues the use of lightsabers for the improvement of the two-way symmetrical model. Nor are practitioners expected to speak a la Yoda to get the attention of the media. However, there is a current of thought that is taking root in PR which is based on behavioural economics theory. In Jedi terms, the idea is to use our wisdom to bend the wills of our publics and get them to behave in certain ways. Spooky, huh?

There are two ideas behind this theory:

Human beings do not always think and make choices rationally. People receive messages differently depending on, what emotions they associate with the content, how good it makes them feel about themselves and who the messenger is. All of this is stuff we knew. What we didn’t know is that:

  • We’re influenced by what other people do. In other words, we do what we see other people are doing so as not to be left out. For example, if everyone starts to wear pink shoes, we will too.
  • We respond to incentives, such as avoiding losses. For example, in certain countries like France and Spain, each driver has a series of points on his/her license which can be deducted if they don’t respect speed limits.
  • We stick with pre-set options. Changing things requires an effort which we only make if it gives us immediate results. For example, we can ensure that people eat more salad by giving it to them with their meals by default, unless they specifically ask for something else.

We can change people’s behaviours by using “nudges” which, as described by Thaler and Sunstein (2008), are positive reinforcements and/or suggestions that can influence people’s motives, drivers and decision making more efficiently than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. In other words, instead of making rules and punishing people for disobeying them, we can play on people’s natural instincts and get them to do what we want by framing our messages differently and by altering people’s environments using visual elements, sounds and smells.

Some people would point out that behavioural architecture can be used legitimately to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better by getting them to quit smoking or to eat healthier foods. Others would ask whether it is acceptable for nudge techniques to be used for the purpose of selling certain products or in extreme cases, to support policies, politicians or even wars. Is it ethical to appeal to the subconscious to manipulate behaviours? In fact, nudges are already being used to change behaviours. In Denmark, placing green arrows pointing to stairs has increased their use with respect to escalators, and placing green footprints moving towards rubbish bins has decreased littering. In the US, telling users of how high their energy consumption compared to their neighbours has helped to reduce their energy use.

There is no doubt that underlying motivations are of great interest to PR. After all, public relations is about persuading people. However, the nature of these practices, which deal with our subconscious, automatic responses to stimuli, begs the question If PR embraces “nudge” more openly, would this reinforce the image of spin and manipulation which has always been attributed to practitioners? Therefore, could it damage the reputation of PR as a whole and its desire for professional recognition? Or could this just be considered as just another PR tool?

It may still be too early in the game to answer these questions, but it will certainly be interesting to see where behavioural architecture leads us and what its implications will be. In the meantime… “May the force be with you” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!).


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