What it says on the tin
Insights are truths about human behaviour. But more than mere facts or observations, they go deeper to explore the why behind the what; the aim being to articulate human truths which us humans aren’t normally able to articulate ourselves. It has a lot in common with stand-up comedy, particularly the way Seinfeld made fun of anti-social behaviour. We are often unwilling to admit it, or unable to recognise such behavior in ourselves without being prompted, as we think it’s something wrong with us. We therefore experience a sort of relief when it is put on public display and revealed to be universal. We have been given an opportunity to laugh at ourselves together with everyone else about the fact that we are but human, safe in the knowledge that neither pride nor reputation is being compromised. The best advertising has a similar effect; by releasing something within us we let our defenses down and connect to a brand that knows our deepest thoughts.
A rich source of insights is derived from cognitive dissonance. This is the unease we feel when there’s a disconnect between our behaviours, beliefs and attitudes. The way we deal with this mental discomfort is through a self deceptive process which leaves something repressed; ready to be exposed in a safe environment where no face is lost. A classic example of cognitive dissonance is smoking. Also smokers see themselves as intelligent people, despite doing something which is undeniably stupid. There are three options: quit smoking, adjust self-image to stupid, or justify the behavior. Most go for option three, by for example referring to the two-packs-a-day grandfather who lived till he was hundred; trivialise evidence that smoking is harmful; or convince oneself that the patches at the back of the cupboard are the first step on the way to a smoke-free future. The fact is, of course, that humans are irrational beings, and thus do seemingly stupid things sometimes. We smoke because of the way it makes us feel – like cool, or satisifying a craving – but who wants to admit that they’re vain or insecure (doing that wouldn’t be compatible with being vain and insecure in the first place) or too weak-willed and lazy to quit? About as many as want to admit they’re stupid.
In understanding why and how people deal with dissonance we can find many interesting insights, as the underlying reasons for self-justification are basic human emotions such as vanity, pride, envy and anger (aka deadly sins). We have been taught that these emotions are negative and end up denying their existence, at least in ourselves. However, these emotions being essentials to what makes us human, they have a way of seeping to the surface and affect our behavior whether we like it or not.
I believe people have more in common with each other than what separates us, particularly those with a shared cultural background. All traits can be plotted on a number of sliding scales, and all scales are present in each one of us; most of which are to be found somewhere between the extremes. The best insights don’t come from focus groups, as most people aren’t able to articulate the true underlying motivation for their actions. The key to understanding others, and to finding great insights, is to understand yourself. Understanding the underlying principles of behaviour makes it easier to recognize traits in yourself, even if you are on a different point on the scale. But most importantly, you have to be honest with yourself, also about your less than admirable traits and motivation. Self-deception, then, is the planner’s worst enemy.