The problem with humans

Evolution has not prepared the human brain to cope with advertising or social media

Welcome to Unmade, written around dawn on Tuesday morning at Sisters Beach, Tasmania.

The cats can’t believe their luck being outside before sun up. Normally, to protect the local bird population, they’re not allowed out early. But they’re currently doing battle with a colony of rats that’s shown up nearby. They contentedly sit in the garage for hours at end, watching a hole in the wall.

Today’s writing soundtrack: Mozart - Symphony No. 41.

If you haven’t yet told a colleague about Unmade, then please do spread the word. They can sign up to both the free and paid tiers via this link.

Happy Facebook / WhatsApp/ Instagram meltdown day. Twitter wins this morning’s social media with the simple tweet: “hello literally everyone”.

Predictably irrational

Speaking of Facebook, which at the time of writing had been down in most of the world for about four hours, I found myself reluctantly logging back in on my iPad yesterday afternoon. The Tasmanian government uses the platform to stream its Covid press conferences, and we were waiting for what sounded like an important update.

I’d deleted the Facebook app from all of my mobile devices a couple of years back after becoming appalled at how much of my time it was sucking up. But we’ll come on to that.

As you probably know, for the last few weeks Tasmania has enjoyed being the last populated island on the planet to have zero cases of Covid.

On Sunday, news broke that there had been one case in home quarantine. A teenager who had returned home with his family from Victoria had returned a positive case. At the Sunday press conference, premier Peter Gutwein was sanguine: On the plane and at the airport, the teenager had worn a mask. The family had done everything right, Gutwein assured the public.

A lot changed in 24 hours. Yesterday afternoon’s announcement recast the family from pillars of the community to dopes. In fact, the kid had left quarantine to go to the IGA, and without wearing a mask, the update conceded. Plus, the supposedly isolating family had also had a couple of visitors over.

So we’ll see whether Tasmania’s dream run comes to an end, as every Covid zero dream run eventually does.

The human factor is what trips up economists and administrators when they do their modelling. Humans do irrational things.

In hotel quarantine, it’s difficult to break the rules. In home quarantine, it’s easy. Particularly when you’ve got a developing teenage brain. How do you model for what percentage of people won’t do what they’re supposed to?

The reason why economists trip up so often is that humans often fail to react rationally. Instead, humans act on the instincts we’ve evolved over millennia. Which is where behavioural economics comes in. It’s economics with human behaviour factored in.

Long before it was called behavioural economics, it’s what advertising creatives were doing, often without knowing it. Behavioural economics is a way of talking to accountants about advertising.

The best creatives understood how to exploit the imbalances between the human brain and the modern world it suddenly found itself in.

Addictions - whether to gambling, alcohol or tobacco - are all function of a brain developed for another epoch. Humans over-consume because in hungry times in the cave, they ate whenever they could, or starved later. The ones who ate passed that habit down in their DNA and evolved. The others died.

It’s hard to read a brilliant book like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens without coming to the conclusion that religious belief is no more than another malfunction of a human brain formed to make sense of a complex and random world.

From animism, to religion as a force that unified tribes into organised social orders, reinforced by beliefs that a superhuman power set rules that were not to be challenged. If you thought that God had told you not to go to the IGA, you might take it more seriously.

Religion became a self-sustaining phenomenon because it built societies faster than the non-believing tribes. Those legends passed down and reinforced from an early age, then formed neural pathways and belief systems that sometimes lasted lifetimes in some individuals without question.

And then along came the modern world, and all the survival instincts that could be turned into advertising principles.

Time limited offers, three-for-the-price-of-two, as-seen-on-TV (or on Instagram…) all have their basis within behavioural economics.

And of course, social norms. If everyone you know is buying it or wearing it, then so will you, even if you think you’re not so easily led. I was fascinated walking around Adelaide recently that, despite there being no community transmission of Covid, most people were wearing masks, even out on the street. Here in Tasmania, almost nobody does.

In Adelaide, I wore a mask in the shops, in Tasmania I do not. Rationally, there’s no difference in the two state’s situation. But I unquestioningly follow the social norm for where I am.

And behavioural economists try to turn that social norm into positives like “everybody pays their taxes, so you should too”.

But as well as being a force for the good, like paying taxes, or making drink driving socially unacceptable, the best behavioural economists exploit it for more malign reasons.

I’ve a hunch that in a few years back we’ll look upon Australia’s gambling problem, and be ashamed not just of the betting companies that made their millions from it, but the role of media advertising as an enabler.

Sportsbet’s incessant “bet with your mates” is particularly insidious in its use of the social norms.

And that’s before we get into the mechanisms of gambling itself which exploit the human brain’s inability to judge odds, along with its vulnerability to the dopamine hit that things like the pokies offer.

We’re also only just beginning to understand how social media relies on those same dopamine hits, driven by the validation of likes and shares. As recent leaks from Facebook have suggested, the company knows more than it has been letting on about the addictive effects of its Instagram app, and the psychological harm it causes.

Will we look back at the early years of social media like we now look back on the early years of cigarettes?

Assuming you have a form of social media on your device, ask yourself whether you find yourself automatically checking the app without being conscious that you’re about to do so. That’s behavioural economics at play.

The next stage in marketing will be where things become really interesting. Media agency PHD went big a couple of years ago on what the rise of artificial intelligence will mean for marketing. When our virtual assistants are making the actual buying decisions on our behalf - “Alexa, order me some dinner…” - we could see a mighty clash.

The irrationality of behavioural economics versus the cold logic of artificial intelligence - who will win?

Letters: Going for it

Last week, I wrote about my reasons for turning on the subscription tier of Unmade, and asked you to support my independent journalism.

Unmade - by Tim Burrowes
I'm going for it. Will you support Unmade?
Welcome to Unmade, written a couple of hours ago on a bright morning at Sisters Beach, Tasmania. It won’t last. The rest of the day’s forecast is cloudy, followed by windy, followed by rainy. Sounds like a good day to be indoors. And happy National Hot Mulled Cider Day. Sounds like a good day to be outdoors…
Read more

Alan Robertson writes:

Just signed up for my subscription. The reason? I’m just as interested in learning how you go about building out this newsletter as I am about the useful content I'm hoping it will continue to provide.

Not planning to do similar, just interested i.e. platform used, resources needed, analysis tools etc. Looks great so far, so hoping it will continue. Well done.

You may yet re-attach Tasmania to the mainland, in a marketing/communications sense, although most of the comms population would probably take offence at that remark. The remainder couldn't care less…

Thanks very much for the support Alan. And you’re correct - the place where I will share data about what I learn during this publishing experiment will be via the paid tier.

And for those thinking of signing up, here’s a bit more behavioural economics...

Here’s a time limited offer that you don’t want to miss out on. Those who sign up to the paid tier before the end of this month will get an annual subscription at a 20 per cent saving on the annual price, which will also go up soon enough anyway.

Get 20% off for 1 year

And the loss aversion kicks in, because you hopefully won’t want to miss out on the exclusive posts.

Dr Spin: A big slice of the pie

Unmade’s diarist Dr Spin writes:

The art of data journalism is making numbers easily understandable. Not everybody has the talent, including, it would seem the good folk of The Australian whose attempts to visualise voter views in this week’s Newspoll went slightly awry.

Journo Benjamin Millar spotted the slight issues with The Oz’s social media pie chart:

Dr Spin assumes that the undecideds get the crust.

Before I let you go about your day, thank you if you have already completed our one-question survey on how we’re doing with Unmade so far.

It’s a single question, which I intend to track every quarter: How likely is is that you would recommend Unmade to a colleague?

If you haven’t done so yet, I’d appreciate it if you could take ten seconds to do so now, via this link.

And as usual, I’d love to hear your opinion, including on the question of whether behavioural economics is a net good or bad thing for the world. Drop me a line to, or comment via this button.

Leave a comment

As I write, shortly before hitting the publish button, Facebook still appears to be down.

I suspect that we’re all about to have an extremely productive day.

Time for me to go and see whether that cats have caught any rats while I’ve been at my desk. Enjoy your Tuesday.


Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade