Users are not irrational beings who can be manipulated with sophisticated neuromarketing techniques. Users have their reasons. We only need to listen and learning from them.

What is rational from one point of view may well be irrational from another” – Max Weber

With the nineteenth century, the behavior of the human being begins to be explained as the maximization of personal benefits, based on the calculation of costs and benefits. Hence come theories such as rational choice, with which economists tried (and still try) to understand and predict people’s decisions and choices.

However, some sociologists and economists soon showed that reality was very different from theory. Our decisions are based on limited and partial information, we often get carried away by impulses and the aggregate decisions of many individuals can lead to emerging behaviors opposite to the intended ones.

More recently, psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) have demonstrated through experiments that human judgment and decision making are highly influenced by cognitive biases and subjective and intuitive judgments taken in contexts of uncertainty. In short, our brain deceives us.

As a result of this paradigm shift, there are two approaches to the question of how we should manage irrational human beings: either we correct undesirable behaviors through incentives, norms and education (designers and administrations with a good heart) or we take advantage of cognitive biases (marketing and dark side designers).

However, if people were irrational beings who base their decisions on false ideas, unfounded beliefs, uncontrollable instincts and cognitive biases, humans would long ago have become extinct. The human being is neither a calculating machine nor a irrational and instinctive being.

Eating insects

In the book Good to Eat, the anthropologist Marvin Harris tried to explain dietary preferences and aversions in different cultures. Generally, the aversion to food perfectly appropriate like dogs, horses, pigs, cows or insects is explained from a cultural or religious point of view. Drawing on a wealth of evidence and documentation, Marvin Harris showed us that this apparent irrationality actually responds to an assessment of the cost-benefit relationship in nutrition that differs across regions:

  • How much effort it requires (finding, hunting and preparation) in relation to its nutritional value (energy, protein and vitamin supply per unit)?
  • Are there potential negative effects on the environment?

To understand why a product is eaten in a particular place, it is necessary to know how to apply this cost / benefit relationship in the local food production system: population density, amount of arable land, characteristics and diversity of fauna, climate, social structure…

To illustrate this, I will use the case devoted to insects. Why in the West do we feel disgust at the thought of eating insects? The explanation does not lie in their supposed lack of hygiene. Insect meat is almost as nutritious as red meat. Our aversion to insects is, in fact, an exception among humans.

However, from the point of view of the costs in time and energy per unit, the majority of insects are surpassed by the domestic animals. The human being only pursues those species that maximize the caloric yield per unit with respect to the time of manipulation (hunting, transportation, preparation and cooking).

Although insects are abundant and easy to hunt, in Europe and North America it is much more profitable to feed livestock, hunting large vertebrates and fishing. Those societies where there is less access to this source of nutrients will be more likely to use insects as a source of food. This is also the reason why the main insect consumers have traditionally been the poor, who lacked alternative sources of fat and animal proteins.

Fertilizers in Bangladesh

Paul Polak is Founder and CEO of Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture with the mission of changing how companies design, price, market and distribute products to benefit the customers who live on less than $2 a day. Most of his book Out of Poverty is devoted to explaining the challenges of designing affordable and useful products for poor small-acreage farmers.

One of the biggest challenges designing products that are attractive and affordable to people who survive on less that a dollar a day, poor people who live in urban slums and one-acre farmers in developing countries is understanding why they do what they do. This starts by listening what they have to say and learning from them what their lives are like, their situation and needs.

Poverty eradication programs spend billions of dollars in gigantic projects that bypass poor people and end up making things worse. Development and agriculture experts assume that subsistence farms and informal irrigation methods are primitive aberrations that will soon be replaced by modern farming systems. They know nothing about the 800 million dollar-a-day rural people and they analyse them from the Western context where they do their research.

Paul explains that agriculture experts in Bangladesh couldn’t understand why small-acreage farmers only used a little fraction of the fertilizer that their monsoon-season rice crops needed. Investing in fertilizer would increase their rice production dramatically. But nobody had thought in asking the farmers about their behavior. They were just irrational and superstitious.

When finally someone asked, they explained that every ten years there was a major flood that carried away all the fertilizer. They only used the amount of fertilizer that could afford to lose in a big flood. Avoiding losing their farm, their only subsistence means, was more important than increasing their income. Instead, they would be glad to invest in dry-season fertilizer. Poor people make any reasonable compromise in quality for the sake of affordability. They are “excellent, rational decision makers”.

The Users have their reasons

And this is how we end how we started. Just because we cannot understand the behavior of other people doesn’t mean that they are irrational. Before taking conclusions based on your own context, take the trouble of listening them and learning about their lives.

Obviously, we all can be wrong. Paul Pollak explains how in some cases poor farmers from Bangladesh needed instruction in irrigation methods that, though being very simple and used by Nepal poor farmers, were unknown in Bangladesh.

I have always believed that humans are a magnificent instinctive calculator. We have the ability to use limited information to roughly evaluate a context and choose the most advantageous options. Even the most irrational traditions, beliefs, and values have, or have had, a rational origin.

Before giving lessons to others and drawing hasty conclusions based on a superficial point of view, try to listen to them. Perhaps it was you who was the irrational one.


Featured image: “Hamlet” by Coderch & Malavia