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Jon Gabriel, writing about the failure of the Biden administration and of senior bureaucrats to predict the reactions of the populace to their Covid policies, cited Dostoyevsky: “men still are men and not the keys of a piano”…which reminded me of something George Eliot wrote, back in 1866:
Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessman had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own . . . You would be especially likely to be beaten if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with a game man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for instruments.
You cannot do successful marketing/persuasion unless you have a somewhat accurate mental model of your target audience … a kind of empathy, if you will. If you treat them simplistically as piano keys or chess pieces, they will soon demonstrate to you that they are not. And this principle applies not only to political persuasion and business marketing, per se, but also to operations management.
In her excellent book The Good Jobs Strategy, Zeynep Ton devotes much attention to inventory management and its pathologies. Walmart and Target are both famous for the amounts of data they collect and the uses to which they put it … but:
A former Target cashier said she was under so much pressure to ring up sales as quickly as possible, so if a customer bought 10 bottles of Gatorade–in two flavors–she would scan the first one and then hit the quantity key for ten. The inventory system thought the store had sold 10 lime-flavored Gatorades and no cherry-flavored Gatorades, rather than the mix that had actually just been sold. And the cashier, who had received only 8 hours of training before starting work, probably wasn’t even aware of the problem she was creating via this shortcut.
The author cites a study of another company ($10 billion in sales) which found that the system had the right information for only 35% of the products … for the other 65%, the discrepancies between the system inventory balances and the actual quantities available averaged 5 units … a third of the target stocking levels. In one case, a certain item was continually out of stock, to the frustration of a regular customer. It turned out that the inventory system thought there were 42 of these on hand, whereas there were actually none. AND, since this particular store hadn’t sold any units in several weeks (because they didn’t have any to sell), the system automatically reduced the target stocking level for that item!
There is not much point in spending tens of millions of dollars for an ‘advanced’ computerized inventory-control system if the data that feeds the system is systemically wrong. Yet this is what can happen if you assume that your employees are piano keys or chess pieces that will just do what you tell them, independent of the stresses and incentives to which they are subjected.
(I reviewed Zeynep Ton’s book here. It is far better and more valuable than the general run of business writing, including academic business writing)
I suspect that the problem of failure to understand one’s audience, while always a common problem, has gotten worse in recent years. One likely cause is credentialism: the ‘diploma curtain’ which has established sharper barriers between people running things and the people with whom they are trying to communicate.
The Cabinet official with an Ivy League degree, the Marketing MBA, the corporate ‘digitization’ project manager with dual degrees in operations management and computer science — these people are likely to have life experiences that differ considerably from those of the people they are trying to reach — far more than was the case with their counterparts of a few decades ago.
Another possible cause might involve the intensive exposure of kids to simulated humans in video games from a very early age: Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, in their book A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, suggest that this kind of exposure to simulated humans may make it more difficult to an individual to relate to actual humans.
Whatever the causal factors may be, having some understanding of your audience is very important if you want to persuade them to do or to think something. And this represents a major potential vulnerability of today’s Left: they have, for the most part, an incorrect, even cartoonish, mental model a vast set of their fellow Americans. (This fallacy is by no means non-existent on the Right, but it is less common than on the Left, I think)
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