Why Daniel Kahneman matters

Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman has died, aged 90. Third City’s Mark Lowe writes for PR Week about why his work matters for PR and behaviour change

Unlike other business functions like strategy or leadership, PR and marketing aren’t that strongly linked to academia, but in the psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, who died last week aged 90, we find the exception.

Behaviour Change

Kahneman’s ‘behavioural economics’ provides a framework for thinking about communication that is both accessible and intelligent. That’s why his work has been borrowed, recycled and applied by so many marketing agencies.

Kahneman gained prominence in our field not just because he gave us a framework for thinking about human behaviour but because he made sense of techniques that had actually been used to sell stuff for centuries. 

His Nobel Prize winning breakthrough was to prove that, contrary to what ‘classical’ economists believed, our choices are not always rational, but rather that we are influenced by ‘biases’ that are both irrational and integral to our survival as humans.

Biases & Heuristics

Some of these biases, known in academic speak as ‘heuristics’, play out in the simplest marketing techniques. For instance, ‘loss aversion’, or the irrational tendency to see the pain of losing as more powerful than the pleasure of gaining, has a more fashionable name: F.O.M.O. It is played out in phrases like ‘Only 1 left’ or ‘Offer ends soon’ which we used to see in shops and now see on Shopify. 

Countless other heuristics have been picked up by marketers to codify and explain the techniques they use. If you’re interested, Google and Slideshare are full of them, but if you want to go deeper, read Kahneman’s seminal work, Thinking, Fast and Slow

System 1 & System 2

This short book develops his theory that there are two systems that rule our decision-making, System 1, which is instinctive and reliant on mental shortcuts, of which heuristics are one example, and System 2, which is rational and reflective but is less employed because of the effort involved. 

It is through this dual model that I think Kahneman provides the most profound insight into the public relations discipline as a function of marketing. Another System 1 ‘short cut’ is simply, story-telling – that is, the notion that we find stories more believable than bare facts or statistics. 

As he puts it, “The mind—especially System 1—appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities”. 

In other words, it is through telling stories about people, rather than making bloodless, rational arguments, that we really gain the power to influence consumers and to change their behaviour. This insight, backed as it is by science, is why Kahneman will live on through his work.  

This article appeared in PR Week in March 2024. Picture credit: Mukul Joshi on Unsplash