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Behavioural myth busters: Humans are not changing

16 Apr 2019  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
Behavioural myth busters: Humans are not changing

Our behaviour is largely driven by imperatives that we have developed through evolution, writes William Hanmer-Lloyd - so trend-spotting marketers take note

Within advertising we like to spend a lot of time talking about how people have changed. It makes for a good story: if people have changed, then the way we market to them must also change.

One of the best examples of this is the claim that the human attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish. Many a business cred deck, blog post, website or even article, starts with this fact. It’s used as proof that clients need a new technique, agency or AI-content-optimisation approach to cut through in a world of shortened attention spans.

But it’s not true. Attention spans haven’t got shorter (as anyone who has had to sit through a 2 hour 40 minute Avengers movie with their enraptured nephew can attest). There is no research behind that claim. The Microsoft report that is most commonly referenced doesn’t research the stat directly, but pulls it from a website – where it is unsourced. With a quick fact check, it’s easy to see that academics within neuroscience and psychology have said there is no real basis for saying our attention spans are getting shorter.

In fact, it’s impossible to measure attention spans in a generic sense. It is task dependent. People have different attention spans for different activities. Therefore the myth agencies keep selling clients, and clients keep telling their bosses, that our attention span has somehow altered has no real basis in fact.

Internet dating

It’s also popular to speculate that technology has changed us in other ways: namely, how we date. Undeniably, internet dating has improved the logistics of meeting people and our ability to pursue our desires, but it hasn’t altered what our desires actually are.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the proportion of marriages and cohabiting couples has not been impacted by the launch of internet dating or dating apps; it has remained broadly similar for the past 30 years.


Trends can be useful. But they are often small facets of people’s behaviour and identity.

Millennials are not uniform and are not completely different to previous generations. People this year don’t want totally different things from advertising or brands to last year. Something is not a new trend in human behaviour because someone in marketing has seen it quite a few times in Hackney (I live in Hackney).

So what should marketers think about? 

Our behaviour is largely driven by imperatives that we have developed through evolution. We have unchanging, core traits that can be understood through rigorous research, testing and analysis, which give us a constant and developed understanding of human decision making from which to work.

The results these imperatives produce can change based on cultural, technological and social factors. For instance our natural inclination towards following social norms is significantly greater if we perceive threats or live in a culture with a history of significant perceived threats. But the core drivers of our behaviour remain intact.

This has always been known by the greats within advertising, such as Bill Bernbach:

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

Behavioural science has an important role to play here. It focuses advertisers on understanding the core traits of humans that have developed over millions of years, that we can understand and use long-term. It represents an approach that attempts to be built on rigour, research, testing and evidence.

Ultimately, this can help us avoid falling into the trap of the latest fad, or story around how humans have ‘fundamentally changed this year’. Marketers need to stop using change to justify a new approach/plan/piece of tech/fad and rely on genuine insight to help improve and adapt their work.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning. He contributes monthly to Mediatel News, examining the ways behavioural science radically challenges some of the historic approaches of the ad industry.

Part one: Why is behavioural science important to advertising?

Part two: Self-reported data

Part three: Audience decision making

Part four: There are no universal rules for influencing people

Part five: Research and perception change

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