Nature vs. Behaviour

The new year brings with it a desire to leave the past behind us, and it has been that way for thousands of years.

The ancient Babylonians were the first people to make New Year’s resolutions. While their resolutions were honest - to return borrowed objects and repay any debts over the coming year - the scope pales in comparison to what we aim to do now.

A resolution is intended to address a problem we understand to be in our lives. Maybe you’re weary of the books that keep piling up in your house, and you resolve to read more. Maybe you want to turn off the notifications on your phone, so you can be less distracted.

In keeping with the Babylonian tradition, resolutions are meant to be virtuous. You’d never hear someone resolve to commit more robberies.

One of the most popular resolutions, so widespread it’s become a joke in and of itself, is to get healthier. To eat right, to go to the gym and get in shape.

It’s not the resolution that’s the problem. It’s that people are creatures of habit, and even if the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences, they’re generally not going to go out of their way. They like the idea of going to the gym for an hour every day far more than actually doing it, and taking steps towards their goal - paying for a gym membership, or buying an activity tracker - makes them feel as though they’ve accomplished something.

We’d like to think we’re rational enough to understand that there are degrees of success, but our brains are always looking for the next quick win.

Activity trackers bring with them their own problems.

In the six months or so after it had come out (and this remains true to some degree even today), there was a bunch of positive buzz about how the Apple Watch was helping people become healthier.

Just under six months after it released, I bought an Apple Watch, and I’ve used it every day for almost two and a half years. I’ve perpetually wanted to become a healthier person, and it seemed useful enough in myriad other ways.

Within six months of ownership, I had lost over thirty pounds. I only ever adjusted values to be in line with the device’s recommendations, so my Move goal perpetually moved higher and higher. A success story, right?

Not at all.

By the end of the year, I had regained the lost weight.

I was as active as the Watch wanted me to be - unrealistically so. I walked to and from my office at the time, and often walked after dinner. In order to reach the 1200+ calories the Watch stipulated, I was walking an hour and a half to two hours a day.

The Watch was just happy to keep pushing numbers up and reacting to my walking around. It didn’t have the frame of reference to understand that the level of activity it was asking of me was making me malnourished.

Since the turn of the decade, one of the most important things in marketing has been data. Data, we’ve been told to believe, can help marketers immeasurably - learning what other cookies are active in a prospect’s browser means better targeting, and the prevailing thinking is that better targeting means a greater chance of a sale or conversion.

But no matter how much data you collect, it is completely oblivious to everything outside of its scope.

The data collection systems we use act the same as those who pay for a gym membership for their New Year’s resolution and never go - whether a resource download or a retweet, it considers any positive action a win.

When you run a Google search for a green bicycle, it reasonably yet automatically makes the assumption that you’re looking to purchase a green bicycle, and across the web you will be served advertisements for green bicycles.

Even if you’re not the target, you’ll be targeted.

The systems we use may be able to understand human nature.

However, they can’t understand behaviour, one of the most important aspects of marketing. 

So why do we rely on them to the degree that we do?