FEATURE1 May 2009

The big thinkers

If you’re looking for a little inspiration, then Kantar’s social media expert Tom Ewing might be able to help. He presents a list of the world’s ten most illuminating social change trackers, including Nichlos Nassim Taleb (pictured), Jonah Lehrer and Chris Anderson.

Explaining people’s behaviour is the basis of our industry. But that’s not to say we don’t appreciate a push in the right direction. Since the publication – and more importantly the runaway success – of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, we’ve seen a boom in idea books looking to uncover organising principles behind behaviour and decision-making. We’ve also seen a revival of interest in the idea of the individual – a public intellectual – who can explain these things. Go to any research conference and half the speeches will cite at least one book or writer with the scoop on why people act how they do. Thinkers are in.

But which thinkers? Not only is there a glut of thought for researchers to choose from – drawing on disciplines from economics to physics to anthropology – there’s also a huge role for fashion. Sometimes an idea is so successful that it enters general business vocabulary – the long tail and the wisdom of crowds, for instance. Other times writers fall from grace: despite giving his new book the research-friendly title Outliers, Gladwell himself has hardly been mentioned at conferences this year.

This article is a – wholly unscientific – survey of who researchers’ current top ten thinkers are, based on names dropped at the MRS, WARC and ARF conferences this past March. Anyone actually speaking at the conferences was disqualified – so the worthy likes of Mark Earls (Herd) and Charles Leadbeater (We-Think) miss out. We hope you find the list enlightening – whether as a pointer to summer reading, or a bluffer’s guide for the next industry bunfight.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb

Who he is: Former trader turned reluctant doomsayer.
What he says: He pointed out that interconnectedness made the financial system more unstable, and that its models were unable to cope with unexpected, high-impact ‘black swan’ events. He also pours scorn on how we rationalise these after the fact to make them predictable in hindsight – which explains his discomfort at being seen as the man who “predicted the credit crunch.”
Why it matters: Taleb’s embrace by researchers is odd, given his views on hindsight and post-facto explanation. The last thing we need is a rash of “How to spot the next black swan” thinking. But his analyses of models, systems and randomness are powerful ones for a more complex and less settled world.
What to read: Fooled by Randomness

Richard Thaler

Who he is: One of the founders of behavioural economics, the science of understanding economic decisions.
What he says: Thaler – and his Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein – claim to be “libertarian paternalists”: let people do what they want, but take advantage of their laziness and irrationality to gently push them in a preferred direction. So make pensions opt-out not opt-in – and paint black flies on urinals to give blokes something to aim at.
Why it matters: Market researchers have always known participants are far from rational – Nudge offers a range of options for brand owners to turn that irrationality into behaviour. And we could always try nudging people into giving us better data.
What to read: Nudge.

Chris Anderson

Who he is: Wired editor-in-chief who came up with the ‘long tail’ concept.
What he says: The ‘long tail’ – the idea that the internet allows vendors to make money off deep inventory – has entered marketing parlance. Anderson’s big new idea is “Free”: how to succeed in business by making the bulk of your services free to use.
Why it matters: With the cost of content, advertising, media and information plummeting, the things researchers sell aren’t as scarce as they used to be. Businesses like Mintel are already using ‘freemium’ strategies – making some data free and charging a subscription for the rest. Anderson’s theories are controversial, though – some argue that “Free” is a utopian pipedream the credit crunch will kill off.
What to read: Free. (It comes out in June).

Barack Obama

Who he is: You know who he is.
What he says: It’s more what he did. The Obama campaign’s ability to organise volunteers – and particularly its use of social media – struck awe into the hearts of the marketing community.
Why it matters: Seemingly every third presentation mentions how Obama did what he did. The link to research is tenuous, and there may not be a huge amount of hard evidence that the Twitter or Facebook campaigns he ran made the difference, but it’s clearly an inspiring example.
What to read: Campaign manager David Plouffe’s guide, The Audacity to Win, is out this autumn.

Jonah Lehrer

Who he is: Neuroscience populariser.
What he says: Neuroscience is hot, but its academic pioneers aren’t known for accessible books. So Lehrer is in this list as a proxy for a whole topic. But he’s a smart proxy, bringing together available information on decision-making processes and giving it a topical spin: why the financial crisis happened despite human loss aversion, for instance.
Why it matters: We can now conduct neuromarketing research on quantitative sample scales – if we’re going to use it, we need to understand a lot more about how the human brain works. Popularisers like Lehrer will help us do just that.
What to read: How We Decide.

Daniel Ariely

Who he is: Behavioural economist, gleeful guru of the irrational.
What he says: People often do things that aren’t in their best interests – we’re subject to a whole host of behavioural biases based on irrational ideas like ownership and expectation.
Why it matters: A lot of Predictably Irrational – particularly the chapters on pricing strategies – reads like a compendium of market research wisdom. We’re already experts on the massive gap between what people think they do and how they actually behave. But there’s a value to having it all in one place and in the mainstream. Unlike Nudge, Ariely’s book focuses on how individuals can judge their own behaviour, making it slightly less useful for marketers.
What to read: Predictably Irrational.

Duncan Watts

Who he is: Network science maven.
What he says: Watts is behind many of the last decade’s developments in understanding the maths of interconnection – especially the ‘small world’ networks that gave rise to the famous ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. Recently he’s been critiquing the idea of influencers, arguing that viral media success has a high random element.
Why it matters: In an ever more connected world researchers are going to spend a lot of time trying to work out which connections matter and whether they can be predicted. Watts’ ideas don’t always hold out much hope in this regard, but he has the science to back them up.
What to read: Six Degrees.

Danah Boyd

Who she is: Guru of social network ethnography, now working for Microsoft.
What she says: Boyd has studied how people use the web since the early 90s, and now specialises in understanding people’s activities – especially young people – on networks like MySpace and Facebook. According to Boyd these are “networked publics”, spaces where searchability, copyability and invisible audiences radically change social interaction.
Why it matters: If you’re thinking about young people’s use of social networks, Boyd’s work is as definitive as you’re likely to get. If you’re thinking about adult use, her ideas are still very useful – with implications for how to approach online participants, as well as understand them.

Clay Shirky

Who he is: Professor of New Media at NYU and a genuine internet expert.
What he says: The internet has radically lowered the costs of group organisation and participation, making possible all sorts of activity that hasn’t previously been economically viable. This in turn is breaking a lot of the old models of information aggregation – newspapers, for instance.
Why it matters: If you believe that the information that market research offers is inherently scarce and would be impossible for consumers to generate by themselves, you won’t find much food for thought in Shirky. If you don’t believe that, you should probably give him a read. Stiff scotch in hand.
What to read: Here Comes Everybody.

Andrew Keen

Who he is: Scourge of Web 2.0
What he says: The internet is destroying traditional forms of media – and what’s replacing it isn’t exactly preferable. Keen is a vocal critic of the amateurisation of content: the way blogs, social networks and Twitter drive out expertise and professional standards, and make it impossible for experts to get paid along the way.
Why it matters: If you roll your eyes at the very thought of Research 2.0, if you think co-creation is letting the lunatics take over the asylum, if you took one look at Twitter and fled at the idiocy of it all. Keen is the thinker for you. Reading him won’t stop change happening, but it’ll give you some good heckles the next time you meet it on a conference platform.
What to read: The Cult of the Amateur