Pigeons, Magic, and Invisible Forces

There’s a wonderful theory in economics describing ‘Magical Thinking’. Magical thinking is when people are convinced that they have influence over external events through overly simple actions and observations that are actually completely unrelated to the event.

This theory came about from a study by an American psychologist, Burrhus Skinner, in the 40′s. Skinner took some hungry pigeons and placed them in individual cages. He then installed in each cage a machine that would feed the pigeon a small portion of food at regular intervals.

Eventually he observed that each pigeon was displaying some form of strange, repetitive behaviour. One was making anti-clockwise circles, another was pushing it’s head into a certain corner of it’s cage, and another was bobbing it’s head slowly. Each pigeon was repeating this motion over and over again.

These pigeons were simply repeating a behaviour that once resulted in them getting some food. So they repeated it and, magically, they seemed to keep getting food.

We’ve spent the last few years talking to clients, convincing them that a digital future is inevitable when it comes to their brands and marketing. We show them charts and numbers, and play brilliant case studies of ideas that have worked.

Then, we take the most simplistic view of why those ideas work, and we try and replicate them.

But the digital world is more complex than that. Our behaviour and communications and expectations have been altered forever by the online world. We have left the world of advertising and marketing and entered the world of psychology and sociology and anthropology and data. What works is not as simple as we think. And it’s certainly not as simple as it used to be.

We measure simple things online. We draw relatively simplistic conclusions about why some things work. Last weekend the twitterati was abuzz with the real story behind the JK Wedding Dance phenomenon. What this story exposed was that there was a complex, organised, and arguably dark side to how that video achieved massive worldwide reach. For the first time, the invisible forces were revealed.

We need to look harder and deeper at why great digital ideas work. We need to start identifying the invisible forces. Great ideas will always be at the core of a successful digital campaign, but some form of behavioural strategy is now required. We should be looking at the influence of timing, of relevance, of localness, and many many other factors that fall outside the realm of advertising and the ‘traditional’ planning and strategy agencies have applied.

Making truly brilliant digital work is going to get harder, and to succeed, we need to get better at understanding the invisible. Because if we don’t, we’re just pigeons going through the same pointless motions, in the hope it will magically yield the same results.

- August 2009