Understanding today’s Politics means Brands can learn the difference between unstable Polarity, and long-term Loyalty.

Post rationalisation and its side effects. Credit - lesswrong.com

Figure: Post rationalisation and its side effects. Credit – lesswrong.com

This article uses recent political events to explain how people react differently to the messages they receive, how humans deal with complex decision-making in real world scenarios, and how they are responding to the modern media world in increasingly tribal ways. It explores post-rationalisation and its side effects and how brands can avoid the pitfalls while discovering brand purpose and what makes their customers chose them.


One of the central things we do in our consumer marketing work is to measure the strength of positive or negative associations people have with elemental propositions (statements about the world that bring together no more than 3 very basic/ground level ideas).

We take these measurements over millions of people and hundreds of decision-making processes. When we do this, we never need measures that span from negative to positive – everyone (to differing extents) tends to see a proposition as either a spectrum of positives; or instead as a range of negatives. Put another way, we’ve never seen anyone disagree with anyone else about anything fundamental.

But how can that statement be true in a post-Brexit, post-Trump fractured society? A world where people find it hard to talk to each other about their differences of opinion because they are so fundamental. Surely these very problems highlight where we do fundamentally disagree, and that in such a fundamental disagreement we lack the empathy to be able to collaborate across those divides?

Our real differences are subtler than you think

In contrast, we would suggest that a Bernie Sanders supporter and a Donald Trump supporter likely agree on almost everything fundamental. How could this possibly be true? Perhaps the best place to highlight this is to look at social security/welfare issues in society. Here are some questions both Trump and Sanders supporters typically answer in the same way.

  • Can a person you would consider a worthy, useful member of society then suffer bad luck and so be unable to support themselves?
    • (sub-question) Is it beneficial and right for society to support such a person?
  • Are there people who take advantage of social security due to selfishness?
    • (sub-question) Is it harmful and wrong for society to support such a person?

The difference between right and left, between say, Trump and Sanders supporters is the relative size they place on these problems. They agree fundamentally that both situations exist and on whether these are positive or negative things. In fact, interestingly for most of them, they agree that both problems are very important and the difference is only slight.

How is it that two groups of people with fundamentally aligned view and only subtly different evaluations of the world are so diametrically opposed they are left unable to talk to each other about their positions?

Is this simple demographics, or something deeper?

One answer is that this is called tribal behaviour. Although only marginally different in terms of values, the two groups see themselves in different tribes, and a primitive sense of belonging and threat drives them apart. It is certainly true that different geographical areas of the States have either more Trump supporters or more for Sanders. This left/right divide has always been true.

What is interesting now however, is that this divide seems to have taken root within families. There are many families now who can’t discuss politics with each other because these divides are so volatile. This flies in the face of the driving force being simply social or geographical or economic.

So why is this happening?

  1. The increasing Tribality of news

One change however that has clearly been identified is that we are beginning to receive our news in silos. In emotional terms, it’s more comforting to read articles that agree with what we already think; while information that challenges our world view causes us anxiety and disruption.

In the past we could choose our preferred newspaper’s by their leaning, but the main readerships still went to the major nationals which represented large-scale viewpoints and were simply not able to be personalised to what articles we read yesterday. Now – usually in a bid to make sure we stay on their site – media and social media sites are deliberately only targeting us with news that already fits our model of the world.

People find themselves insulated from the anxiety of learning and growing unchallenged as long as they stay in their own digital universe. In the past they had a choice, connect to those around you and accept the challenge to your world view or lose that connection. Now consumers can have the illusion of connection without the need to take on that anxiety, and this is creating the conditions where families each with starkly differing external interests and connections (~tribes) are finding they can’t talk to each other.

Although this is one step closer to the truth, and correctly identifies what enables these issues, it still doesn’t explain the fundamental driver – why do we form such embedded opinions that we will isolate ourselves from even close social connections, to avoid challenging them?

  1. How people manage Decision Complexity

Reflecting upon the 2016 UK ‘Brexit’ vote, the electorate was given the responsibility for a decision that no expert in the world could predict and one where many of the advocates on each side didn’t themselves understand the complexities of the systems involved. For example, one side wanted a “free trade area” and the other a “single market”, yet even most finance professionals cannot adequately explain the difference between the two.

The electorate needed a way to manage this confusion, to reduce the anxiety of making a decision they couldn’t realistically understand, which would likely reverberate upon their own children and their children’s children, and had potentially serious economic impacts. To cope, most people used a human system we already deploy every day to simplify our lives – known as post rationalisation.

When we make a typical decision, we process all the vast amounts of information in approximately 15 seconds. To give you some idea of scale, the amount of information we process in an average decision would take a current personal computer some 1500 years to fully process. Once that decision is made, we need to reduce it down and simplify it, to allow future decisions to be manageable – if we have to re-process every aspect of a decision that would be a tremendous overhead upon our daily lives.

  1. Decision-making in the real world

What makes decisions difficult is that they are probabilistic and based on vast but incomplete sets of information. Making a real-world decision is a bit like playing a move in a grand master level chess game when you don’t know exactly where all yours or the opponent’s pieces are or whether the future rules of the game might subtly shift. Amazingly we make pretty good decisions most of the time.

Post-rationalisation gives us the ability to turn a hugely complex decision into a tiny number of “logical” steps. What we have done is convert partial information into complete information (by pretending the holes are filled in) and turning a large number of potentially good outcomes to a single correct one.

Even more powerful is the way we can transmit these structures over space and time through language. We are designed, for strong evolutionary reasons, to quickly remember and adapt our behaviour to ideas received in this form. We test the world against these simple patterns and generate rigid beliefs and plans of action. This ability allows us to act cohesively and intelligently – we no longer need to test every plan of action through hard experience which opens so many new horizons for us.

Caution: Post-rationalised Polarity has side effects.

This thinking shortcut system however does have a side effect, we become much more rigid around the decisions we take on from others than those that are based on our own experience. Where we have experience, we have a system that can take on the many shades of a situation and find a relevant and flexible response. Where a decision is based on others’ post-rationalisation we respond to our own confusion by rigidly holding on to our certainty that we are right.

This psychological stress leads to an odd behaviour called the backfire effect, where we hold onto beliefs even tighter when shown evidence that they are incorrect. This tends to polarise opinions, in that as they cannot be argued through from knowledge or experience, they can only be either accepted in full, or denied absolutely.

The increasing volatility, pace of change, and connected complexity of the world, when combined with the more limited silos from which we consume our news, are driving, or perhaps allowing, us to dig ourselves in to more polarised political opinion, apparently unable to communicate or compromise.

What this means for brands, and our brand purpose?

Much of the time the consumer does not realistically understand the core difference between products. Product space is crowded and so these differences really occur as perception rather than reality. Capturing this post-rationalisation and polarisation through catchy phrases and simplifications is certainly very possible, in fact much of the time that’s exactly the frame marketers see their messaging in. Post-rationalised positions create brand advocacy, are socially shareable and create strong influence across social networks – and in that light are surely a good thing.

Marketers beware however – polarisation begets instability. Consumers that take on polarised positions without any deeper underpinning may for an initial time period seem highly loyal, never considering another brand choice. Although a customer not evaluating your product as close to or even worse than in some respects than others is highly appealing, it does create a big issue.

The lack of individuals personal reflection and consideration of your product or service creates unrealistic beliefs. A belief that your product does match them or their needs perfectly despite any evidence to the contrary. This is unstable. The gap between expectation and reality may widen to a spectacular degree, and as this happens consumers become more demanding and brands have to invest more in keeping them happy.

Eventually they can’t keep up and suddenly the consumer’s beliefs have to give way leading to anger and disillusionment. The resulting negativity is far stronger than usually experienced by a brand.

As useful as positive brand advocates are, they have a tenth the power of a counter advocate. One bad review offsets 10 good ones, if you like. We are wired as a species to avoid negative consequence far more strongly than we are wired to seek positive ones. A network of post-rationalised believers is a serious upset waiting to happen, where one bad experience can spread havoc across thousands of your customers in a matter of hours.

Only by seeking a great fit with your customers will you create long term win-win.

We live in a world where brand value is a product of experience and perception. In that world it is sometimes easy to run away with shaping perceptions and generating easy wins, with viral offbeat campaigns and creating a noise within their 15 minutes of fame. This is fine if it is backed with well- matched brand philosophy, capability and equity. Which means understanding why your customers are your customers.

For those brands however that want to stay the course, who want long term growing relationships with their customers we need to dig deeper into our how and why our customers choose us. From living our values to being creative in our communication, there is one principle that underlies a stable growing relationship with your customers – the commitment to empower them to make better choices – even when that may lead to them choosing an alternative brand.

To do this best brands live with their customers, walk in their shoes, are passionate about the same things and, over time, really get to understand their real brand values – not those in the organisation’s business plan, but in their customers everyday lives.