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Why?

We spend a lot of time talking about, and trying to understand, people’s behaviors.  But the approach is wrong.

We spend a lot of time talking about, and trying to understand,
people’s behaviors.  But the approach is wrong. The research that is
conducted and the insights that are shared – about people’s buying
habits and media consumption, how they spend their time or who they
associate with, about people’s likes and dislikes, etc – are flawed, or
at best, incomplete.  We can measure all sorts of activities and
behaviors.  We can look at physical and emotional responses to certain
situations.  But we never know for sure what causes them to occur.
Everything we measure is quantiative.  The qualitative assessment is
missing.  There isn’t any attention paid to the motivations behind the
behaviors, the reasons that someone took a certain action or think a
certain way.  In short, nobody asks why.  And the why is where the
impact really comes from.

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I have been wondering why people do
things a lot lately.  I wonder why people buy one product over another,
and why they think someone is trustworthy or not.  I wonder why
something that seemed likely to occur just a few days or weeks ago
isn’t even considered possible now.  I wonder why someone was willing
to take a certain action before, or even several times, but won’t now
— with not evidence to suggest that they learned, experienced, or
tried anything in the interim that would have shifted their behavior. 
There are so many things I wonder about.

I am thinking a lot this week about how we respond to disasters, and address causes in today’s society – and what it means for the future, and how everything else we do is impacted as a result.  So, let
me take one, specific, timely example — the earthquake in Haiti.  The
response to the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding before our eyes
is, it appears, unlike anything we have seen before.  Much of the
discussion so far has been about the record amounts of money that are
being donated, in all forms, to support relief efforts.  But there is
dramatic evidence that everything – how governments are responding, how
individuals are organizing, how technology is being used, how the media
is covering the story, that people’s level of interest is greater,
compared to past disasters, is different than before.  I want to know
why.

Why are people willing to donate $10 via text message to
support earthquake victims in Haiti, but didn’t in the wake of the
earthquake in the Sichuan Province of China in 2008?  The same
technology was available, but the idea never caught on.

Why are
people willing to collect blankets to be sent to Haiti, but refuse to
provide the same support to a person living on the street just a few
blocks from their home?

Why are companies donating millions of
dollars in response to the crisis in Haiti, in some cases far exceeding
what they have donated to other causes over the course of a year?

Why
did most of the major media choose to fly its top anchors and talent to
Haiti, but haven’t (or won’t) send them to Iraq or Afghanistan any
longer?

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Why are there dozens of nonprofit organizations competing
for attention, and fundraising support, instead of collaborating and
coordinating their efforts for greater impact?

Why is the level
of commitment that the US Government is able (or willing) to make to
support the people of Haiti different than, say, the level of
commitment in response to a humanitarian crisis that happens in the
United States?

Why is the story of the earthquake in Haiti
dominatre our airwaves, when other, critically important things that
occur every day can’t break through?

Why is George Clooney
hosting a telethon on MTV to support the people left homeless by the
earthquake in Haiti, but didn’t for other disasters.

There are
lots of reasonable answers to any of these questions.  Maybe the
technology wasn’t available, or our knowledge and comfort using new
technology wasn’t as advanced.  Perhaps the scale of the disaster is
greater – more people killed and injured, Haiti presents a more
desperate situation because of its extreme poverty.  There could be
political considerations, or logitical challenges that made the
response to disasters in the past different.  The level of attention
paid to this disaster by the media may have set up the challenge
differently. 

Do any of those answers really explain why
certain decisions were made, or actions taken?  Do we have any greater
understanding after considering the answers that are, or will be given,
that will help us to learn from this situation and prepare for
disasters in the future?  Has anyone ever asked why, and pushed until a
plausible answer was provided?  If the answer wasn’t something that
people wanted to hear — a company gave money because it thought it
would get them good PR, or a person donated to support earthquake
victims in Haiti and not China because they have a bias against China
— have we ever followed up, and determined if that was an acceptable
or appropriate reason to make a decision?

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We are all part of one,
global community — we are all connected.  That means the decisions
that people make in response to the earthquake in Haiti, and more
importantly the reasons why they made one choice or another, impact us
all.  It may not seem that way, but if an earthquake hits your town,
and someone chooses to respond differently – to not text in a donation,
to not share critical information – for whatever reason, it will
absolutely matter.  And its not just limited to disasters.  Why we buy
a certain product, choose to take the bus instead of driving, call
someone on their birthday instead of posting a note on their Facebook
wall… these things help us learn how people operate, how communities
form and sustain, what marketers can do to serve our needs, what
problems are most vexing and what solutions need to be prioritied —
and of course, what we need to do, or not do, to make sure that our
society functions. 

I am thinking a lot this week about how we respond to disasters, and address causes in today’s society
– and what it means for the future, and how everything else we do is
impacted as a result.  The first question that I am asking, of course,
is why.

 

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