The Automatic Zone

Behavioral economists have easily proven that we humans prefer—almost at all costs—to stay in our Automatic Zone. In fact, our brains are wired to do so.

With the many sources of information bombarding us all the time, our brains are still programmed to prioritize—with virtually zero conscious thought—the sound or smell of fire burning nearby, for example, or even the much more subtle sound of twigs breaking as something sneaks up on us. Without too much contemplation, we all intuitively understand that this sort of lightening-fast unconscious thought will generate an automatic flight response that will override virtually any other activity our brains may have been engaged in—even sleep for that matter.

But here is the dilemma.

Actually understanding how this same preference for automatic thought influences the everyday behavior of people—particular people engaged in commercial activity (consumers) —actually, and unfortunately, requires us to exit our Automatic Zone and move fully into our Reflective Zone. For us humans, this type of deliberate, logical thinking requires substantial energy, which evolutionary biology has trained us to preserve. Which is probably the reason why most marketers have not fully embraced behavioral economics as an easily useful discipline.

The fundamental principle of behavioral economics—that because humans prefer to “think fast,” we have concocted a whole set of somewhat predictable biases and heuristics (i.e., shortcuts) that help us respond intuitively to most any situation, whether the situation actually calls for it or not—is actually complex and seemingly irrational enough that it does require our full attention to comprehend. And to be honest, it doesn’t help that much of the writing on this subject is still coming from academia, where much of the work is being done.

But, if, as marketers, we do take the time to figure this stuff out, it can add tremendous power to our brands. The principles of behavioral economics can help us understand how brands really work in the minds of consumers. And, even more, understand (and better predict) how and why buyers of our products behave the way they do. Brands, it turns out, are themselves heuristics—part of the shortcuts we use to navigate the world.