A couple of weeks ago, 40,000 people made the arduous journey to Omaha, Nebraska. They weren't travelling to see an NFL or NBA game but to listen to Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger speak. These two fund managers have become billionaires through understanding human behaviour better than any of their peers. Their speeches are peppered with insights into customer motivation, which makes them not only popular but also of interest to marketers.

One of Munger's regular themes is how hard it is to change customer's minds once they're made up. In his vivid phrase:

"The human mind is a lot like the human egg, in that the human egg has a shut-off device. One sperm gets in, and it shuts down so that the next one can't get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort."

The idea that our judgement is clouded by existing feelings, sometimes known as confirmation bias, is supported by many experiments. Most famously, the psychologists Hastorf and Cantril showed 324 Princeton and Dartmouth students footage of a bad tempered football game between their universities and asked them to count the number of fouls committed by each team. Students were twice as likely to see the opposition commit a foul as their own team. The match was seen through a prism of loyalty.

The distracted consumer

This is an issue for brands as it makes it hard for them to over-turn existing misconceptions. However, research by Leon Festinger, a social psychologist at Stanford University, provides hope. He ran a study with Eleanor Macoby, from Harvard University, in which members of a college fraternity were played a recorded argument about the evils of fraternities in an attempt to turn them against the tradition. The students were split into two groups and either listened to the recording with no distractions or whilst being played an entertaining silent film.

Interestingly, students were more likely to shift their views when they were partially distracted. Festinger's hypothesis was that the mind is normally very good at coming up with counter-arguments to any persuasive communications. However, distraction reduces the mind's ability to generate these counter-arguments.

What can you do?

These findings are interesting for brands as it suggests a counter-intuitive approach for targeting their rejecters. Rather than seeking out high attention environments they should prioritise times and places where the audience are slightly distracted. So in terms of media placement they might prefer radio, which is often an auxiliary medium, daytime TV environments to peak, or moments when people are likely to be second screening. It seems that one of the most beloved tenets of media planners, that attention is key, may not be right in all circumstances.