Most professionals have a mentor to thank for helping them advance their career or better understand life or get through tough times. My mentor was a pretty remarkable person. In addition to being an extremely hard working, loyal and committed professional, he really understands people. He could read your mood straight away and would respond by saying or doing precisely what was required of the moment. As a marketer, he has given me some of the best advice and ideas – most times, without even knowing it. He always used to say, “Technology is supposed to make life easier but it is actually making things harder.”; or “…nobody is going to read this – it’s too much!”. Somehow, he was able to verbalize the frustrations of his cognitive thinking. I now frame most of my presentations and approach marketing by remembering his words of wisdom. I know the importance of keeping things simple these days.
The human cognitive system is complex. It’s processes include attention, remembering, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions. Professional marketers understand the importance the human cognitive system plays in determining how consumers will respond to various products or campaigns. We know that the human cognitive system is easily overloaded. As a coping mechanism consumers filter what they see or ignore things that do not immediately connect with their world viewpoint. We start by ignoring the ordinary and then run through a complex process of ignoring things we see based on our worldview, which is formed starting with big factors such as gender and age and filtered down from there based on our unique life experiences.
As a marketer, I spend a great deal of time seeking to understand how the human cognitive system works. Lately, I have been studying Cognitive Load Theory, which deals with complexity using a single construct or element. If elements interact, they cannot be understood in isolation whereas non-interacting elements can be easily understood and learned independently of each other. Simply put, if too many elements are combined, the human cognitive system cannot cope. In a time when technology and the sharing and transfer of information is moving at speeds exceeding our ability to cope, cognitive load becomes an extremely important factor in communication.
Working memory is a pretty big factor in determining cognitive loads. For example: until recently, it was believed that the average person’s working memory was 7 words. This is why billboards and ads typically featured captions no more than seven words long. Last year, psychologists determined that the average persons working memory is actually 4 words. What happened? Did early psychologists get it wrong? Are people getting dumber? Is our memory weakening? I suspect that is is a combination of all of these factors. This, and what my mentor communicated frequently and simply with his frustrated observations.
By Doug Williamson