Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

When I created a special course for MBAs, I began by giving my students a whirlwind tour of humans since Alley Oop*, following the arc of human history in Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. Then I introduced them to many strange people they had never heard of, including Daniel Kahneman, Richard Feynman, the other Lévi-Strauss, and Harold Garfinkel. Their first assigned reading was an essay that had a profound effect on me as a young collegian: Body Ritual Among the Nacirema(Students who skimmed the article never made the connection. Students who read it, got the point. Guess which group had more honors candidates?) We took a closer look at ethnocentrism, biases, assumptions, prejudices, perceptual blinders, cognitive dissonance, and more, examining how easily and pervasively these things get in our way and interfere with our decision-making. The big finish focused on taking what we learned about critical thinking and decision-making to the workplace and applying them in real-world circumstances. 

Business school leaders have come to understand the need for their students to acquire an understanding of human behavior to guide how they interact with customers and colleagues. This is why the executive director of the University of the West Indies Graduate School of Business asked me to try and even things out. You know, I said, because businesses spend $900 billion a year on marketing and less than one percent of that on understanding people, this is a bit like asking Steven Hawking to go up against Hulk Hogan, but sure, I’ll give it a try. My slides each contained only a few simple words, pictures, or illustrations, one topic to a page. My teaching philosophy followed the Socratic Method, using slides as triggers and posing questions for discussionThis is the first slide I showed the class.

And this is what I told them.

This is a newly-required course for students in the MBA program. The idea is that you get to learn lots of things about marketing in all your other classes, but are exposed to little or nothing about human behavior. Because we all know marketing’s primary concern is with influencing people to buy your company’s products and services, it would be to your everlasting advantage to learn how to understand those people first. I will introduce you to non-business thinking and perspectives that you can apply to business, life, and the world around you. I will show you how to tell fact from fiction and use that knowledge to competitive advantage. What is the slide about? The 900 squares on the left represent the 900 billion dollars spent on marketing last year in the U.S. The 7 squares on the right are the 7 billion dollars spent on research. What reasons can we think of for an imbalance that is greater than one hundred to one?

We will go like a train, starting slowly and steadily picking up speed.

Today, what we think of as human behavior is what Sociologists, Psychologists, and Anthropologists study, each from their own perspectives and with their own tools. Because these “Big Three’ behavioral sciences only emerged a few hundred years ago, beginning there would be starting the story in the middle. What if we went back to ancient Greece of 300 and 400 BC, where the social sciences had their roots in the thinkers and philosophers of that era?

Because if we begin with Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, we will have ignored the centuries of written history that preceded them. And if we limit ourselves to written histories, we neglect forty or fifty thousand years of human history that came before humans learned to write. So this course will begin a the beginning – with the emergence of civilization. We will follow the human race as it goes from being small bands of hunters and gatherers to ever-larger and more complex tribes, chiefdoms, and states. This means before we get into the behavioral sciences, we need to know a little bit about History, Archaeology, Biology, Geography, and the environment – all things that are woven into what makes us human. Like Sherman and Peabody, let’s get in the Wayback Machine and see for ourselves what was going on long before modern times.

Hunters and gatherers.

Way back in pre-history, all humans were hunters of wild animals and gatherers of wild foods. These essential tasks required very specialized skills. Hunters first needed to find the game. As they roamed farther and farther from their camps, they learned to read signs and build mental maps of the terrain. Once they found the animals they were pursing, they had to kill or capture them, this requiring an altogether different set of skills. The most successful hunters were those who could locate prey, outwit and outwrestle it, and get it back home to share with the others. Gatherers learned how to tell edibles from poisons. This would have been trial-and-error, of course.  The best of them learned which kinds of fruits, nuts, and berries were the most flavorful and the most easily digestible. Gatherers’ other responsibilities included bearing and rearing children, cooking, and cleaning.

The best hunters were the biggest, strongest, and fastest. The best gatherers were the most discerning. Psychologists say our tens of thousands of years of practicing these skills still manifest themselves today in the ways we shop.

With the emergence of cities came complexity, diversity, social stratification, and the development of ideologies, economies, technologies, and hierarchies.

Building upon these foundations, we will move on to understanding more about how people think and act – and why. Only at this point we will address how the Age of Enlightenment led to the development of Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology as we know them today. We will talk about beliefs and assumptions; contradictory theories and schools of thought; nature vs. nurture; motivations, wants, and needs. We will explore how the mind works: conscious and unconscious thought; deliberation and reasoning; stereotyping; and many more. And finally, we will learn how to tie all these things together and apply them to how we think and act in our business and social environments.

One of the challenges of covering such a multitude of material is that there is no single textbook with all the “answers” listed in a neat and orderly manner.

This will come as a discomfort to those who would rather memorize than learn. Instead of looking things up in a book, we will have ongoing discussions, in-class workshops, and outside reading assignments. After we have done our groundwork, we will cover so many topics that this course will become non-linear. We will toggle back and forth between subjects and perspectives with the goal of assembling our own working models of how to look at things more clearly, how to know more about ourselves and our environments, and how to make better decisions.

Those who successfully complete this course will have learned more than most about who we are, the things we do, and why we do them.

Most of what students are exposed to in this course will be unfamiliar. Much of it will be unsettling, particularly to the narrow-minded. When confronted with things that don’t fit our personal world views, many of us feel threatened. Emotional students with knee-jerk reactions will object to things they see and hear. Rational students with a thirst for knowledge will be amazed and delighted to discover things they never knew before. Students who “get it” will be forever ahead of the game because they will have learned to:

  • Embrace diversity of thought.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Tell the difference between good information and bad.

*Today, an alley oop is a basketball play involving a leap, a lob pass, and a dunk. In the 1950s it was a high, arcing pass from Y.A. Tittle to R.C. Owen. Twenty years before that, Alley Oop was a stone-age comic strip character created by American cartoonist V. T. Hamlin, who wrote and drew the caveman for four decades. Hamlin’s stories were satires of American suburban life and dealt with important issues of the day. The strip’s title character rode a pet dinosaur, carried a stone hammer, and wore animal skins. If this sounds familiar, it should. Stone Age people was the idea behind the Flintstones television show first airing in 1960, the same year Alley Oop was a #1 hit for the Hollywood Argyles.

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