How People Think

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist at Princeton who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002. Why would a psychologist receive the prize for economics? Professor Kahneman has spent more than 30 years empirically studying how people think, especially in the area of money and finance. His work has changed economics forever. He proved the common belief that man is a rational agent in his money dealings is erroneous, because many, if not most economic decisions are laced with emotion&emdash;which, in turn, introduces error.

We are in the midst of a massive paradigm shift about how we conceptualize "the brain" and how it functions. Not since Freud has there been such a massive reconfiguration in theorizing about the human brain.

At TRAC we are working on integrating this new paradigm of human cognitive behavior into our thinking about peoples' support for Public TV. Here, we just want to provide some highlights—things that you should be aware of when you plan a pledge drive, devise pledge pitches, or write direct mail copy. We want to suggest how these new trends can help you decipher the core values ladders or paths that lead to loyalty and support.

Shifts Happen: What You Need To Know

A person is conscious of only five percent of what occurs in his or her brain. (See Chapter 2 "Behind the Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions" in Malcolm Gradwell's Blink for a nice, accessible discussion of the adaptive unconscious.)

  1. We think mostly in images (pictures), not words. However, most conscious thought appears to occur only in words or code (like mathematics).
  2. Most of the key evaluations of people, events and things occur in the unconscious.
  3. Most evaluations of events and people occur in less than two seconds!
  4. Most of these evaluations are not accessible to the conscious mind.

Kahneman has summarized these differences in the following table.

He labels the unconscious module as System 1 and the rational module as System 2—less emotive labels than earlier theorists used.

System 1 is operating all the time: just as your breathing is automatic, so is System 1. System 1 has a default mode labeled "the affective heuristic". Here, in less than two seconds after seeing/sensing a person, object, or event, we decide whether we like/dislike it, whether it is safe or dangerous, and so on. It will take much, much longer for System 2 to figure this all out—if it ever does. As neurologist Donald Calne says, "the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotions lead to action while reason leads to conclusions."

System 1, the "acting" system, responds to non-linear stimuli such as pictures, images, sounds, smells, touch, and concrete events with associative linkages coupled with memory. System 1's brain loves narratives or stories, and the more archetypical the better. System 1 is hard-wired for our needs and wants, and experts feel a number of narratives/scripts are already hard-wired, especially for basic needs. If the program does its job, System 1 makes people want to pledge.

But the language we use in pledge and direct mail is often linear, rational, linguistic thought that needs to be processed by System 2. Think of it in terms of the difference between someone giving you a lecture (System 2) or having someone tell you a story (System 1).

Distrust What People Say

While System 1 will make most of the initial decisions in pledge, the rational linguistic part of the brain has to come up the reasons for the decision. In other words, System 2 furnishes the alibi. System 2 sometimes can overrule System 1, especially if the choice is complex, costly, and involves a long-term commitment. But, just as often, System 2 rolls over and let's that pledge for the Wayne Dywer $350 combo or for that Doo Wop package happen. In pledge drives, we quickly learn what programs are making the phones ring; often, however, we do not know why this program clicked and why that other one did not. It is safe to assume that something is connecting with people's System 1 brains with this pledge program and not that one.

People connect first with the program and its affective non-linear message—System 1 furnishes the connective sentiment (or passion, in some cases)—and then that connection has to be made accessible to the conscious brain (System 2). It is always best to ask people what they feel about a program rather than what they think about it.

Drivers: Motives and Needs

To understand the core value paths, we need an analogy. Hunger is a basic drive or need. We get hungry and we start looking for food. We find it, consume it and then we are satiated. Drive/need → forage → consume → satiation. At this level human nature is pretty simple.

We are all familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, ranging from basic needs like hunger, shelter, and safety to self-actualization. Here is a simplified way of looking at needs.

  Physical and Safety Needs (Basic animal stuff)
Self Needs (Still focused on me, me, me)
Social Needs (family, friends, civic and civil)

First, we've got to make it, survive and get the bills paid. Second, we have to get our act together and deal with others. (A motive, then, is just another way of expressing a need.) So where would you put Suze Orman? Doo Wop? Wayne Dywer? Cooking comfort food? Successful pledge shows tap into our needs™the more basic, the better. The trick about talking about the program is to trace back from the program to the needs it satisfies. For example, you can see how cooking shows relate to our needs. Suze is dealing with a range of needs from survival to self-esteem. And raising your children in a safe and nourishing environment is related to basic needs (especially for parents in the moment).

We do not have time for a detailed discussion of how the five senses impact System 1, but they certainly do. One example is how music motivates System 1 with sounds that link up with the limbic nervous system and in turn is associated with memories and nostalgia. For instance, in some of TJ's pitches he evokes the emotional response first, validates the person's worth (you are preserving this musical heritage for future generations) and then satisfies System 2 by evoking reason (cost per song), the original sound tracks, etc. You get the idea.1

Core Value Paths

Almost all our core values relate to self-esteem in one form or another™ supporting the individual and his/her social groups (family, friends) or societal institutions and practices (civil society, respect for ethnic diversity, and freedom to pursue one's goals). A key operational value is respect for oneself, for one's social groups and for institutions.

Respect is all in our heads. Respect resides in the viewer/member's brains. It is an affective feeling (System, 1 again). Respect is given (you cannot demand it). Public TV earns people's respect through performance that is intelligent, consistent and honest. Trust is the organizing principle for all values like reputation, respect and so on. And trust takes a long time to develop.

In thinking about core value paths, remember our hunger analogy: The need arises, foraging happens, and consumption and gratification occurs. Then, just like hunger, after a time the need/motive reappears and we start all over.

Think of the paths as starting with a motive, need, or desire. Then the attributes of a program satisfy that need, and, eventually, reinforce one's self-esteem values.

When you invoke a value path, you need a story or a vignette that engages the viewer's System 1 brain module. These can be hard to do. The paths, however, lay out the gratifications that are satisfied by the program genre content, and this can help you. As we gain more experience in writing these stories/pledge breaks, we should be able to gather some good examples of "how to do it" and "how not".

Your chore is to develop empathy for the viewer/member's needs and emotions. You have to engage and convince people. Pledges come from the heart, not from the head.

Warm Glow (Impure Altruism)

Economic research literature uses terms like Warm Glow and Impure Altruism to deal with the fact that when people give money to philanthropy or non-profits they usually want something in return. It can be a premium, programming, recognition, or just the warm glow of emotional satisfaction from giving something to "a good cause." Much giving around Public TV is of this impure altruism type. (System 2 wins one.)

Theorists say the test for any institution is: " in the end, does it make the world a better place to live in?" At its core Public TV makes the world a better place. By engaging people's deepest social emotions, Public TV helps "legitimize identity, unleash diversity, touch consciousness, excite passion, support inclusion, and breathe optimism." (Kevin Martin)

1A good exaple of your System 1 brain in operation is what happens when the Big Doc arrives at your station. You read it and evaluate each of the pledge shows in a nano-second and declare to one and all - "there is nothing to pledge for march". The same thing occurs when you watch the teleconference and see the clips and "you know that won't pledge". (See Chapter Five in Gladwell's Blink.)

TRAC Aphorisms


Public TV viewers like to learn. Like the other aphorism, "Public TV is food for my soul", these viewers thirst for life-long learning and crave viewing to satisfy their curiosity about the world. Learning is an end itself. They are almost insatiable viewers because their quest to learn never ends.


People watching Public TV programs and pledge shows are experiencing vague thoughts and feelings. It's all System 1. They already know they like the program; otherwise they wouldn't be watching. But, for pledge programs, will they like the break? Will they like you? Ah, System 2 kicks in. You have to help them understand what they are feeling.


You have to tell stories about the rules of membership and the rules of viewing. You have to separate the Reciprocators from the Foggers and the Moochers! Foggers are people who resist the call to action because they think they are members when they are in fact lapsed. Moochers differ from Reciprocators (the good guys) by free loading on the system. Most are selfish and slaves to their base needs. Given the right framing device, guilt works with moochers; however, be sure you tell the Reciprocators and Foggers in the audience what you are doing: "This guilt is not for you!"


Members and pledgers believe that they have a relationship with us. If we, as professionals, think of Public TV as a commodity no different than ABC or A&E and of the viewers as no more than membership slot machines, it's really not hard to understand why fewer people are viewing, pledging and renewing. They are trying to tell us something. "It's a relationship, stupid!" How do relationships work? It's not rocket science. The answers are in your life and in your family.