Overcoming the Lizard Brains (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

I suppose “lizard brains” sounds like a pre-adolescent’s schoolyard taunt. But it is actually a useful professional idea, based in science, that when properly accounted for can make your entire organization more effective in 2013 and beyond.

The term is colorful shorthand for an actual part of your brain: the amygdala, a pair of almond-sized lumps near the brain stem that formed much of our earliest thinking as humans. By comparison, our “gray matter” (the cerebral cortex) is much newer.

Seth Godin is among those who have written about the lizard brain and its effects on innovation and productivity. Godin says the functioning of our lizard brains is the underlying reason we often manage to sabotage our own progress (especially as we come closer to the end of a project or product launch).

The lizard brain is about fear, hunger, anger, desire and emotional consolidation. Because of it we shy away from the unknown, the threatening, those things that might put us in a compromising position. We learn which people and circumstances put us at risk and then subconsciously steer clear of them in the future. We try too hard to fit in. As Godin put it, “The lizard brain was in charge of you in high school.”

If your cerebral cortex — the “new brain” — is built for higher-level analysis, verbal fluency and innovation, then the lizard brain is all about avoiding uncomfortable stuff.

People tend to put off difficult tasks because of fear of failure. Many will linger on Facebook rather than interact with people in real time and in person. Work colleagues will hesitate to put forth a new idea for fear it will be dismissed or ridiculed. Most Americans fear public speaking as much or more than death itself.

While understanding the role and power of the lizard brain can help you get a handle on your work colleagues’ behavioral tendencies (and perhaps your own), you can also use it to be more effective in marketing to customers and prospects.

Executives have often expressed to me their frustration that potential customers can’t grasp the value of a great product or service. One asked, “Why in the world wouldn’t someone act in his own best interest?”

The answer is that the great idea probably never made it past his prospects’ lizard brains.

Here are three ideas for dealing with the lizard brains inside and outside of your organization:

• Leverage consumers’ judgmental shortcuts. I’ve written in the past about Robert Cialdini’s work on persuasion principles — the power of scarcity, social proof, reciprocity, prior commitment, liking and authority to drive consumer decision-making without much cognitive processing. The effectiveness of those cues draws from their power to immediately lower perceived risk and simplify evaluation.

• Lower the fear factor within your teams. Internal product, service and sales teams need you to break down large, scary initiatives into smaller, less-threatening tasks. Similarly, a disciplined program of sharing and celebrating early wins will teach the relevant lizard brains not to fear your ideas quite so much.

• Paint a picture. The lizard brain is not equipped to process language; words and text are only appropriate for the new brain. If you’re marketing something that is complicated or that threatens the status quo, then use simple visuals or whiteboards to pacify the lizard brain.

The amygdala was probably much more useful in saving people from predators years ago than in influencing purchase decisions or assessing business risk today. Still, any 2013 initiatives to drive growth and change in the marketplace will necessarily have to pass through a lot of lizard brains in order to get to new brains. n

(Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. See JimKarrh.com or email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com.)