Car accidents, failed businesses or marriages, and lackluster marketing campaigns happen to “everyone but me.” Or so we like to think — or, rather, are programmed to think.
According to Tali Sharot — author of “The Optimism Bias,” published in Time magazine in 2011, and then a research fellow at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging — our brain’s frontal cortex causes our thoughts of the future to be more positive than negative. We tend to associate our life events with good outcomes, not bad ones. You know, “other people get divorced, not us. Other people’s kids get sick, not ours. We have a chance of winning the lottery, despite all the odds,” and so on.
When you consider the role the frontal cortex plays in our lives, it makes sense. The frontal cortex drives our thoughts associated with goal-setting, and we set goals because we believe we can achieve them. If not, we would just live to exist, not to self-actualize, which is a key part of the human psyche, and a strong driver in many of the choices we make personally and professionally, as well as our purchasing choices.
So if we tend to live in a state of hope that life will turn out how we expect it to, what does that mean about our ability to accept the reality that the opposite might occur: That maybe we will be the ones to experience loss, tragedy, defeat and more?
Freud identified a series of ego defenses, or thought stages, we go through to help us survive against threats associated with reality and deal with conflicts. His daughter Anna elaborated on his concept of defense mechanisms and helped to build a list of mental stages that represent various ways of coping when reality is too much to accept. I call these defense mechanisms “denial stages,” or places we exist to avoid thinking about what we don’t want to face someday. The mechanisms, or denial stages, include:
- Repression: When our unconscious keeps disturbing our unconscious thoughts from becoming conscious.
- Denial: When we block external events from our awareness and choose not experience situations we can’t face.
- Projection: When we project thoughts about traits we don’t like to admit about ourselves onto others to make our own weaknesses more acceptable.
- Displacement: Substituting an impulse with another object, like eating sweet berries when you really wanted ice cream.
- Regression: Moving back in psychological time to a place that seems safer than the place where you currently are in life.
- Sublimation: When we satisfy an impulse with something positive, like putting your addictions into running vs. alcohol.
For any of us, many of our customers live in one or more of these stages. We need to “face” which of these stages affect our target consumers and how consumers might block our messages in order to fall deeper into denial. A state that does not open their minds to our products, messages, offers and such.
Take financial services for example. We do not want to think of ourselves as getting too old to work, so we might slip into denial and thus block out messages about retirement planning and investing. Life insurance companies face this dilemma every day. “Other people die and leave their children without a parent or with a compromised financial future.” No one wants to think about something that bad happening to their family and to engage in life insurance purchasing processes means accepting that it actually could.
Moving consumers from a state of denial in which they have likely dwelled comfortably for a long period of time is a tricky but critical process for marketers in just about any business category.