Book Review: Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano
If I had a dollar for every recent book about how weird the human brain is and how its irrational behavior manifests itself, I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I could buy a nice lunch somewhere. Brain Bugs is a worthwhile addition the the “flawed brain” library, though, as a compilation of varied perspectives and intriguing speculation. Students of the genre will find many of the same studies seen in other books, but Buonomano weaves them nicely into his narrative and occasional speculative leaps.
Buonomano’s main theme is that our brains are the product of evolution and, while flexible enough to adapt to the demands of our current society and environment, exhibit “bugs” that are relics of our past. We don’t always process information in an optimal way, nor are our decision processes as effective as they could be. One example, Buonomano says, is the 2008 financial crisis. While there are plenty of factual explanations for what happened, he thinks that our brain’s preference for short term rewards was one root cause. People bought homes they couldn’t really afford because the short term reward (living in a nice home) was available immediately, while the cost (big monthly payments after an interest rate reset) was a future expense and hence discounted. The human brain didn’t evolve in an environment where planning on a scale of years was required or rewarded; “planning for the future is not innate,” Buonomano notes. Though many people have developed the discipline to overcome the limitations of the long-term planning function, many others succumb to the temptation of short-term rewards.
One chapter deals with the power of fear in our brains. When fear takes over, we tend to make decisions that aren’t consistent with our typical behavior. Buonomano cites the interning of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor as one example. He points out the fear is often the go-to emotion for politicians. It is so potent that it can overwhelm other emotions, not to mention rational consideration of the wide range of real issues in a campaign.
The Evolution of God
Buonomano’s chapter on the supernatural may cause some fundamentalist Christian heads to explode, as he suggests that our belief in God is a product of… evolution! He describes the theory, advanced by David Sloan Wilson among others, that religion may have actually conferred an evolutionary advantage to our tribal ancestors. Early communities depended on all members working for group success. At the same time, an individual member of the community could prosper by not working and living off the efforts of everyone else. An all-seeing, all-knowing deity was one way to keep community members in line and productive even when community leaders couldn’t observe everyone’s behavior. The altruism promoted by religion can even make an individual act contrary to his own self interest and risk or sacrifice his life to protect the community as a whole. A community with religion would be more likely to succeed than one without, hence the suggested evolutionary tendency toward religious belief.
Another theory Buonomano describes is that religion hijacks our natural cognitive tendencies. We are inclined, it seems, to assume that the behavior of natural objects is caused by another mind; this is called agency. Early civilizations attributed the motion of the sun and moon, for example, to divine beings. While there was an evolutionary benefit in assuming, say, that a noise in the jungle might be caused by a dangerous animal, this tendency could also be exploited by religious beliefs. In its most extreme manifestations, the “supernatural bug” leads to destructive behavior such as declining life-saving medical treatment, the Inquisition, and suicide bombers.
The Advertising Bug
The chapter of most interest to Neuromarketing readers will be “The Advertising Bug.” Buonomano suggests that many successful ad campaigns exploit our brains weak points. He notes that advertising has convinced us to spend untold millions of dollars on bottled water that few of us could distinguish from tap water in a blind taste test. Our brain’s propensity for imitation and social learning is exploited by advertisers, the thinks, when we view ads featuring attractive, happy, and successful people. Buonomano describes animal research that shows it’s not just humans that imitate the behavior of others; chimps have been observed to imitate the limp of a dominant male with an injured foot.
Much advertising exploits our brain’s natural tendency to form associations. By pairing brand images with pleasant stimuli, an association forms in our brain and we will form a preference for that brand independent of whatever reality the product represents. He includes some material no doubt familiar to regular readers here, like decoy products (see Decoy Marketing, among others) and no-currency pricing (see Pricing Lessons from Restaurants).
The number of actionable marketing takeaways in Brain Bugs is minimal, but marketers aren’t the target audience here. Brain buffs will enjoy Buonomano’s wide range of topics and no doubt gain new insights into some aspects of why humans behave the way we do.