The Why #44: Why do I keep getting ads for things I just talked about?
By Dan Monheit 17.06.22
Question submitted by Katerina, Middle Park
It’s kind of creepy, right?
You know the situation: You’re out for coffee with a friend on a brutally cold Friday morning as she mentions how much she’d rather be at home with her Oodie. ‘Oodie?’ you ask. She gasps, then launches into a detailed explanation about what an Oodie is, how it works, how it’s so soft, and so warm and so dreamy and really the only thing you need in your life this winter.
As the conversation draws to a close and you say your goodbyes, you fill the precious 35 seconds required to walk between the cafe and your car with a scroll through the insta highway. And there it is. Right at the tippy top of your newsfeed. An ad for Oodie, in all it’s fluffy, avocado-patterned glory, complete with a link to shop now! But how?
You’d heard all that data and privacy stuff in the news recently. One article even speculated that people were getting paid to listen through your microphone all day! Who are these people? And why you? And how did they know that those fetching ‘peach emoji’ briefs would also be of interest?
Maybe it’s spies. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s something behavioural…
OK fine. It’s probably something behavioural.
Confirmation Bias describes our tendency to seek out and upweight information that supports our existing beliefs, while undervaluing, discrediting, ignoring or avoiding information that runs counter. The more emotional or deeply held the belief, the more susceptible to Confirmation Bias we seem to be.
Psychologist Drew Westen saw the 2004 US Presidential Election as the perfect time to put Confirmation Bias to the test. Westen gathered 30 men who described themselves as ‘strong republicans’ (Bush supporters) and another 30 who considered themselves ‘strong democrats’ (Kerry supporters). All participants were asked to assess a set of statements from both presidential candidates that were self contradicting, hypocritical or at the very least, in poor taste.
To the surprise of nobody, Westen found that those in favour of Bush were as critical of Kerry as Kerry fans were of Bush. At the same time, neither side let the comments change their beliefs about their own preferred candidate.
But it doesn’t end there.
During the study, Westen hooked participants up to an MRI which showed him images of the most active parts of participants’ brains when assessing the statements. Interestingly, what he found was that the area associated with reasoning (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) was quiet, while the areas associated with emotion (orbital frontal cortex) and conflict resolution (the posterior cingulate) were extremely active.
What does this mean?
While subjects believed they were ‘thinking’, they were actually ‘feeling’. Emotion, not reason was driving their assessments, leading them to conclusions that were ‘emotionally comfortable’.
And who doesn’t want emotional comfort? No wonder we’re more interested in proving what we already believe than going through the mental anguish of admitting we’re wrong.
So Kat, back to the Oodie. We see upwards of 4,000 ads on our screens each day, and in winter, many of these ads are for products that keep us warm and cosy. While you may not notice the 3,999 ads that don’t relate to something you were just talking about, it’s easy to feel like the one ad that does isn’t random, but instead must be part of an international conspiracy built around millions of eavesdropping spies.
For established brands, Confirmation Bias is a good reminder to accentuate what people already believe, knowing that it’s tough to change hearts and minds. If they already think that you’re a bank for small business, ramp that up. If they believe you’re a university that’s all about sport science, lean into it hard. If instead, you’re looking to change perceptions beyond where your brand can currently stretch, know that it’s possible, but that a long, expensive battle may lie ahead.
PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check out why people pay buskers when they could watch for free here.
Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about Confirmation Bias in episode 6 of the Bad Decisions podcast.
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