Tribal marketing for ‘Generation Me’

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By Bob Bailly

Prior to leaving on a holiday to Europe at the beginning of May, I was preparing an article on how tribal behaviour has been shaped by our expanded use of technology. Scotland, southern Spain and London didn’t change my topic, but the way I look at it was certainly altered.

A number of years ago I was researching this subject and came across a threaded blog entitled Tribe.

What had got me going then was this part of the post:

…Basically what tribal life is about is kinship. A tribal society is a society that functions by kinship — which is not limited to blood kinship, because all beings in the universe are kin, just as all societies conceive of the universe based on their own social structure (example: medieval Europeans, who lived under kings, saw the universe as ruled by a Divine King; modern society, which functions like a machine in which people are more or less interchangeable parts, sees the universe as a machine, etc.) indigenous tribal people, who live in an extended family … see the universe as an extended family as well, in which everyone is obligated to take care of everybody else. The closer the kinship, the greater the obligation.

I was intrigued because so much of my research into human business behaviour at the time had been concerned with evolutionary neuroscience and the concept of how decisions are controlled by our primitive brain’s self-interest. What’s always intrigued me is why and how the me, or the ego, or the mind controls the brain to look beyond itself and to become tuned to the group, the pack or the tribes to which it belongs. My questions: Why should we feel obligation to our tribe? What is it in our belonging that is central to how we operate as individuals? And finally, are new technologies changing our tribal behaviours?

I do believe tribal behaviour is about kinship and obligation. Even in a business perspective, we often think of our clients as partners, and we promise or feel obliged to serve them as a prime value. But are these values being affected by the technologies we are building and employing?

Europe was an eye opener. We forget in North America how in the rest of the world people are often out and about a lot without cars. Even in the cities, people rely on public transport or their feet to get around. Most importantly, for everyone it seems evenings are a time to connect face to face, and late dinners are the norm.

Technology-enabled disengagement

What’s new is not this connectedness they all have shared over many generations; what’s new is that it seems everyone is carrying a cell phone. What’s also new, and in my mind disturbing, is that by means of their phones, they are now able and willing to disengage with the world they are actually in to electronically connect with something else regardless of where they are, what they are currently doing or who they are currently with. On a Tube line in London I did an informal poll that showed 10 of 20 people plugged into a handheld device, listening to music, playing a game, texting and talking. Many more had their gadgets at the ready.

Today, with Skype, instant messaging, texts and Facebook we can be up-to-the-minute with friends and family pretty much wherever they are. And the desire to do so is obviously strong. Teens have verified they will send and receive hundreds of texts a day. Facebook continues to grow because of the ease with which it allows us to document our lives.

We can get new tunes to listen to or we can tune out with a game if the encounter with the real world is a bore. I couldn’t put my finger on it and my kids and wife argued with me that the new technologies are actually enabling – people can connect like never before – but something was still nagging me.

Crack cocaine for ‘me-ness’

It didn’t come together until I got home and picked up some papers I had filed prior to my vacation. They were my notes and some thoughts from Dr. Daniel J. Siegel in a book he wrote entitled Developing Mind. In it, he postulates that “memory is created because our brains encode elements of our experience into a narrative, creating mental models of self within this narrative – our story so to speak.”

He came to this conclusion because he recognized that “the mind has a distinct way of processing information from sensory systems that respond to the outside world, as well as ideas and concepts and words. Different circuits operate in the brain simultaneously and sometimes independently. We have complex representations of sensations, perceptions, ideas and linguistic symbols as we think, for example, of some time in the past. The integration of these distinct modes of information processing into a coherent whole may be a central goal for the developing mind across a lifetime.”

I think cell and Internet technologies may be getting in the way of true experience.

What I think I’ve been observing is that modern cell and Internet technologies are like crack cocaine to the inherent me-ness in all of us, and it starts to make us forget about the obligations we may have to our tribal connections. I’ve seen people who won’t engage in a conversation happening right in front of them because they were sending a text to a friend. I’ve seen people walking on the street reading a text while other pedestrians had to make way. I’ve seen people glued to a map trying to navigate to a location while missing out on other locations of equal beauty or interest. And we’ve all seen the ear buds protruding from walking or sitting heads on the streets or on the bus that demonstrate that artificial sound is better than any invitation to engage in conversation.

To put this in perspective, an ongoing study is being carried out by researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, led by UM Institute for Social Research’s Sara Konrath, and their findings are startling. To date, they examined personality tests from 13,737 students taken over 30 years and focused on selected (72) studies of American college students, mean age of 20, to compare their test scores on the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index. This test looks at empathic concern, an emotional response to the distress of others, and “perspective-taking, or the ability to imagine another person’s perspective.” The researchers found a 48 percent decrease in empathic concerns and a 34 percent decrease in perspective-taking between tests taken in 1979 and 2009.

“Young adults today comprise one of the most self-concerned, competitive, confident, and individualistic cohorts in recent history,” the researchers write. The kids of today are believed to be a part of Generation Me, and they have showcased that in this study. They have found that college kids today show little to no empathy towards others, they do not show emotions as much, and they do not care for others as much.

Have we evolved?

They also believe there are several reasons why overall the college kids of today are far more narcissistic and self-centered when compared to college kids 30-years-ago by noting that the most sizeable drop in empathy came after 2000 as social networks such as FaceBook and MySpace began to flourish.

In our modern world, we tend to gloss over the fact that despite millions of years of evolutionary development, humans only learned how to write less than 10,000 years ago; and that development only occurred because that was the first time in human history when men and women were able to permanently move beyond hunting and gathering their food and could begin to live in one place.

So forget about living in the world that we call the 21st century for a bit, because in evolutionary terms we haven’t even been farmers for very long. In short, evolution hasn’t really had a chance to catch up to the enormous cultural, economic, and political upheaval humans have put themselves through in the last several thousand years, let alone the last 20.

Cell and Internet technologies are developments that only came into being in our current generation. Is it too weird to think that maybe we aren’t really ready for what they are doing to us?

Bob Bailly is a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner.

Image: Beyond the defaults

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