The Nature of Responsibility

Are You A Leftie or a Rightie?

You’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of the left and right side of the brain being credited with different personality characteristics and strengths – a friend may describe herself as “left-brained” to depict an analytical strength or you may have a coworker who describes himself as “right-brained” – meaning that his strengths lie more in the artistic and abstract fields.

Although it was once believed that brain functions were uniformly distributed in the brain, not concentrated in discrete regions, the brain actually contains dozens of specialized modules, each performing vital skills, from calculating spatial depth to deciphering facial expressions.

The Gossiping Left Hemisphere

These modules work in harmony with one another, but that doesn’t mean that they function perfectly. Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology who is credited with leading the original series of studies that revealed the brain’s left-side-right-side division, conducted more recent research showing that the left hemisphere has a less than perfectly reliable “interpreter” or “storyteller” way of relaying information. It acts first and asks questions later, explaining behavior after the fact and filling in the holes to deliver a coherent tale to the conscious awareness. Picture hearing a fragment of gossip and then filling in the remaining blanks with assumptions – this is essentially what the brain is doing. And whether you like it or not, it’s doing it all the time.

“The interpreter creates the illusion of a meaningful script, as well as a coherent self. Working on the fly, it furiously reconstructs not only what happened but why, inserting motives here, intentions there — based on limited, sometimes flawed information,” said Gazzaniga in a New York Times article, “Who’s In Charge Here?”

But now that scientists know that the brain often runs largely on autopilot, and is not always feeding us completely accurate information, it begs the question: To what extent can we be held accountable for our own actions? Who is really responsible for what we do?

What About Consumer Decision-Making?

The corollaries in the world of marketing are complex and debatable, too. It seems difficult to fathom that decision-making around products and services are NOT under our own control. Yet whether or not we believe we have ultimate control over our spending habits, it’s pretty clear that non-conscious drivers do affect how we perceive brands. For example, I wrote in a blog post here last year about how retailers prime consumers to shop. Subtle signals that the non-conscious picks up on, such as seemingly hand-written price signs, might send messages to the brain that a store is local, even though in reality the signs are mass-produced. The left hemisphere of the brain is simply picking up one piece of “gossip” – the carefully crafted sign – and filling in the blanks with assumptions about the store – that it is locally produced and stocked. This happens all the time. But do our easily influenced perceptions mean we don’t retain control? Again, I say no.

Whatever is ultimately learned as scientists continue probing the nature of responsibility and how it interacts with human judgment and decision-making, I think it can’t help but mean that we’ll be gaining some fascinating, new insights around consumer behavior. I can hardly wait!

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