Daniel Kahneman – the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and author of the best-selling Thinking, Fast and Slow – had just come home from dinner with friends.
His wife didn't surprise him with the observation that she thought that one of their dinner companions was "sexy".
"I wasn't going to debate that," he told the audience at The Market Research Event (TMRE) conference in Boca Raton, Florida. "But then she said something absolutely bizarre: 'He doesn't undress the maid himself.'" she said.
"'What has happened to my wife,' I asked myself. 'What's she talking about?'"
Kahneman had one advantage over stupefied husbands all over the world who would have been baffled by a comparable conversation. As a behavioral economist, he knew that context drives understanding. So, he played back the conversation.
Because the context had been 'sexy', Kahneman presumed that his wife's discussion would pursue the same theme. And, when she innocently observed, "He doesn't underestimate himself," the professor heard, "He doesn't undress the maid himself" – an observation that reinforced with the 'sexy' context but, in fact, had nothing to do with what his wife had said.
"This is the way 'priming' works," he explained. "One word frames the context. And, in this case, it was possible to interpret a lot of things on the general theme of sex."
The example also illustrates some of the differences between System 1 Thinking (fast, intuitive, and emotional) and System 2 Thinking (slower, less intuitive, and more deliberate), two of the grounding concepts of Thinking, Fast and Slow, first published in October 2011 after "40 years of thinking about the subject."
Kahneman's thinking has implications for how we understand marketing and its impact on behavior. He pointed to the 'halo effect', whereby consumers who like something about a product or a service go on to like everything about that product or service. And, again, his wife provided a good example.
"We were watching the [Presidential] debates and she said, 'I think he's ugly.'" The candidate, to Kahneman's eye, wasn't particularly unattractive. But because his wife didn't like his politics, she found the man unattractive as well. "This is how we believe in things. We have political beliefs, religious beliefs, and beliefs in all kinds of things because we trust and like the people who have these same beliefs. Linking and trusting become beliefs. It's associative and emotional."
It's also an example of a natural default to System 1 if, for no other reason, than it's the lazy choice and is "the Law of Least Effort."
Politics, he added, takes advantage of that law and that laziness. And, "to a very large extent", so does marketing. Though he added: "It's worth the consequences of speaking [to consumers] in System 2 as well as System 1. People appreciate being treated with respect. And speaking to them in System 2 is a way of expressing respect."