Why habits are so powerful, and how we can use them in advertising.

A few years ago Microsoft ran an experiment in which they created a robotic online device that was programmed to have the personality of a friendly teenage girl.  The aim was to get her to learn from those with whom she interacted on social media.  She was called Tay.

Within two days Tay had turned into a racist, a Nazi, and a homophobe.  Her language was the bluest of the blue, and was en route to becoming anti-Semitic as Microsoft closed the project.

Clearly Micrcosoft, for all their expertise and charitable work, had not quite got the hang of the psychology of habits.  But the psychology of habits is a key issue in understanding one’s potential customers.

For habits are most curious things. They are easy to pick up, hard to stop, making us all creatures of habit – while at the same time most of us deny that we have habits and believe that if we did have any habits we could, if we wished, change them quite readily.

If you are not sure that this is true, ask a really good, close friend on whom you can rely to tell you the absolute truth about your habits.  And observe that friend and note her or his habits.

The fact that habits are so hard to get rid of tells us that there is actually a good reason to have habits.  For habits allow us to put a lot of our behaviour on automatic pilot, giving our brains the space to focus on anything unexpected or very important that comes along.

But because habits are phenomenally difficult to stop, most of us show in our daily behaviour many totally redundant habits in terms of speech, movement, attitudes, choices, etc.  They are so much part of us, we hardly know they are there.

However what Microsoft seemed to forget was that in its experiment Tay was programmed to find empathetic ways to respond to those who communicated with it.  They let Tay pick up habits of speech and attitudes really quickly without any moral compass to guide it.

All of which reminds us that when we are writing emails, web pages or social media advertisements, we need to try to phase out our own habits of expression and write in a way that our readers might find empathy with.  That’s how audiences are built.

If you want to explore habits further, ask a really close friend whom you can trust to be honest with you to tell you about one of your habits.  Then spend a week trying to get rid of that habit.  It will probably be much harder than you think.

If you want to use an understanding of habits in advertising, start by thinking about how you can change a potential customer’s habit and get them to buy from you.

But (and this is a real word of warning) if you want to keep your friends and/or your customers, never tell them about their habits.  99% of people deny having habits.  Particularly annoying ones.

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