Are You Fixated on Psychology?

I was counselling a global brand facing some delicate issues which will affect employees, customers, suppliers and a number of communities. The company had studied the economics of the deal and concluded that the interests of all the major stakeholders would be best served by a specific course of action. And, I am sure they were right.

However, I’ve been doing some work around cognitive dissonance and challenged the company on whether it had assessed the choice from a psychological viewpoint as well as economic and technological angles.

Certainly since gaining a degree, I’ve been fascinated with psychology and communications. In writing my dissertation, I spoke to Robert Blood about how he was applying psychology to understanding the work of pressure groups. My research supported his view that the reputation is valuable and is never determined by logic alone. Perception is a psychological process.

Perception not only creates our experience of the world around us; it allows us to act within our environment.

My position is that leaders in all walks of life and communication professionals ought to be fascinated by, if not fixated on psychology.

How audiences perceive their ability to affect a decision is critical in how well-received the decision will be. Framing and re-framing is the major purpose of any public relations programme. [NB – this is NOT implying manipulation. Understanding the psychological impact on perception should result in organisations changing their actions to be more appropriate – not simply increasing semantic subtlety!]

An example is given by Rory Sutherland, in a recent TED Talk. He suggests that “perspective is everything.” He cites the example the London Underground. The single biggest improvement in customer satisfaction on the tubes, per pound spent, was not adding extra trains but putting dot matrix displays on the platforms. This is because the nature of a wait is not just dependent on its numerical quality (the duration) but the level of uncertainty experienced during that wait. Waiting seven minutes for a train with a countdown clock is less frustrating and irritating than waiting four minutes, not knowing when the train going to arrive.

Sutherland is not suggesting we should value psychology over technology and economics (and neither am I) but that we should view them equally and try to find the “sweet spot” where they overlap.

It may actually be that the circumstances of our lives matter less to our happiness than the sense of control we feel over our lives. As a result, re-framing may actually be the key to our happiness.

So, in summary, I believe leaders and communication professionals ought to be deeply fascinated by psychology. Perception is not (necessarily) reality. But how people perceive reality will affect their attitudes and actions.


Co-founder of training firm, Mission International Ltd, Justin is a sought after coach, teacher and trainer. Justin delivers interactive workshops globally for corporate and not-for-profit organizations. This includes team development, leadership and communications training for Europe's best business school, HEC Paris, Invesco and VMware.

He has collaborated on significant published research in the field of human systems. Justin counsels with senior executives at organizations including the ...

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