What’s the best way to sell toilet paper? Do you let the potential users know that your product is made from a pulp of recycled paper and tree fibres that have been bleached to make sure they don’t look brown and then rolled through huge metal presses in order to make them thin? Or would you rather hear that the paper is soft as a cloud, but won’t dissolve in your hand. And that the roll you buy will last for a long long time, so you won’t run out at a critical moment?
A few decades ago, a couple of psychologists called Richard Petty and John Cacioppo formulated a theory in the area of Social Psychology, aimed at examining why people change their attitude to something in response to getting some information. It’s not the only theory in this area, but it does provide a nice clear way of looking at how product marketing may work. They called their theory the Elaboration Likelihood model. The model proposes that you need to take into account the motivation and ability of the listener to process the information you want to give, in order to change their minds (so that they’ll buy your product over another).
They suggested that there are two routes people use to process information. The first – the direct route – means you are really interested and motivated to process the information carefully and that you already have some information on the topic, so you can see if what you’re hearing or reading agrees with that.
The second route is called the peripheral route, and Petty and Cacioppo suggested that people tended to use this when they weren’t very motivated, were otherwise very busy or distracted and didn’t have much information on the topic.
When Petty and Cacioppo’s theory was causing a bit of a revolution in marketing, the horse world was beginning to wake up to the idea that horse training wasn’t a one size fits all area, and some people began to gain popularity because they appeared knowledgeable, charismatic and offered knowledge where previously people had relied on sending their horse to professional trainers. Suddenly, a movement in the horse world latched on to the message that if you followed a series of lessons you too could train your own horse to do all the amazing things the charismatic experts were demonstrating. Suddenly, horse owners began to feel they could learn to be effective trainers.
Psychology is a broad field and while one movement is gaining popularity, in a different area decades of research continued to add to an already strong theory about how all animals learn. In psychology labs the world over, undergraduate psychologists were struggling through the complicated terminology to work out that animals tend to do more of a behaviour that has been followed by access to something desirable, and do less of a behaviour that has been followed by something they consider unpleasant. The convoluted language, use of mathematical symbols and the seemingly endless permutations of reinforcement schedules resulted in late nights before exams and very little motivation to try to apply the abstruse information to any events in the real world. After all, it’s something that happens in a lab, it probably applies only to rats and happens only in the presence of an experimenter wearing a white coat.
Gradually, though, the information leaked out through the air vents in the lab and a motley band of psychologists with pets and pet owners with motivation and interest started to apply it to animal training. They had a whole range of sudden (or more gradual) and world shattering insights. WOW! Animals LIKE doing this training! Hang on, if they LIKE this, then how did they feel about the old style training and does that matter? WAIT! If we can train using a process that the animal LIKES, but we still choose to use the system that’s based on the animal avoiding things we’ve added that they dislike, what does that say about us?
As the conflicted and slightly guilty band of new science based trainers emerged blinking and very zealous into the light of day to day animal training, they realised that their insights bumped right up against a group of very skilled marketeers using everything they’d learned from Petty and Cacioppo to make sure their target market believed that what they offered was the most effective form of horse training. The supporters – who had not only bought in to the programmes but who immediately felt the bite of cognitive dissonance any time someone suggested there might be a more humane way to train – were not at all persuaded by the information provided by the Learning Theory trainers. They didn’t want to spend a lot of time trying to process complex information that was new to them, they LIKED making their decisions based on gut feel and basking in the warm glow given off by the egos of the cleverly marketed new wave horse trainers in cowboy hats.
Let’s revisit Petty and Cacioppo. They said there were two routes people use to process information. First, there’s the direct route, where if you’re really motivated you take the new information, analyse it, compare it to other information, find out how it fits in the world and rationally begin to change your attitude. The second route is the peripheral route, where you don’t feel you have the time to become an expert but the message fits with your needs, is being promoted by someone charismatic and because it is targeted to help you with an issue you have with your horse training, it feels like the right thing to do.
Challenging that by saying “but the science” is not going to work – the people whose attitudes you are trying to change do not have the motivation or the need to evaluate your information. Nevertheless, over time the doggedly determined science geeks continue to try to reveal that the Emperor is butt naked. Your horse didn’t back up because he respected your authority, but because you introduced something he disliked enough to get him to step away from you, and you reinforced that by removing the thing he didn’t like. Your mare didn’t stop running back to the barn because she believes you are alpha mare, but because you added a consequence she really disliked to every attempt she made to get back to the security of her friends.
A bit of a battle of the models began to happen. The science geeks didn’t change their message, because the science remains fundamentally the same. But here’s the interesting thing: the cleverly marketed horse training packages started to change their message, incorporating lots of lovely adjectives that made their training package very like what the science bods claimed *they* were doing. I’d love for you to give me examples you’ve seen, but here’s a few commonly used ones.
“Soft”. Isn’t that lovely? What a beautiful idea – your horse is now responding to your cues because your hands are soft (I’m waiting to hear that special hand cream accompanies the training). Meanwhile, the science geeks are shaking their heads and saying “your horse has been negatively reinforced for behaving that way, it doesn’t actually matter how soft your hands are: you introduced something, with your soft hands, that they didn’t like enough for them to want it to stop, and when they did what you want, you stopped doing the thing they didn’t like”.
“Gentle pressure”. I would love to be able to say that this was something the horse asked for more of on their post clinic evaluation sheet. Sadly, gentle pressure is a bit like the Ultra Gentle Mega Roll – it’s still toilet paper (or, in other words, it’s still something you’ve added that the horse dislikes enough to do something to get you stop).
“Feel”. That’s a nice one, isn’t it? Do it with feeling (or “softness and cushioning that you can see and feel”). It appeals to more than one sensory modality, and suggests that if you’re doing it right, you have feeling. It’s good not to be numb, but equally “feel” is probably another way of saying “as gentle as possible but as strong as necessary”. I think that’s one that won’t fall apart when it gets wet… but it’s still “applying something that the horse doesn’t like enough to want you to stop – and if you did it effectively, the horse will spot you getting ready to do it next time and act to make sure you don’t do it at all”.
There are some lovely programmes that inform you that you can train your horse without using force, treats or bribes. Somewhere in the distance, a scientist is clutching their heads, moaning and trying to find a good way to say “if the horse is doing something, they are either acting to obtain an appetitive or to end an aversive”, but since they haven’t been to Business School and didn’t do marketing, everybody’s shaking their heads and saying “why can’t you just use plain language?”.
What’s my message in a nutshell? Adding an adjective to a word describing what you’re doing is pretty irrelevant in terms of learning theory, but is very effective at moving potential buyers of your product from the direct to the peripheral route: you’re appealing to their need for a product that makes them feel good and gets the job done, while managing to prevent any awkward thoughts about whether it’s something the horse enjoys and whether you could find a more humane and fun way to train. Training a horse using negative reinforcement can be effective and doesn’t have to use pain or fear, but it still relies on the horse wanting you to stop doing what you’re doing. We know that the learner associates the place, surroundings and the trainer with the thing they experience, and so you become associated, like mosquitos and heavy rain, with the thing the horse wants to end. Use it, by all means, but don’t dress it up in a knitted doll cover by adding adjectives that make you feel better about it. Being aware of why the horse is doing what you want is a good way to stop being lulled into the benevolence of your method, and forces you to question, each time, whether there was another way you could have chosen to train that particular thing. Beware of persuasive language: in the end, all toilet paper does the same job, but some might be more ethically produced.