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Left-brain versus right-brain

October 27, 2003

Does this marketing theory still have legs?


By David Kay

Left-brain/right-brain theory claims that each side or hemisphere of our brains has a different function and processes information differently.

The left brain processes written and spoken information. It's logical, rational, sequential, verbal and textual. Spock, the science officer of the starship Enterprise, was entirely left brain.

The right brain, on the other hand, interprets information intuitively, visually, creatively and emotionally. Left brain thinking is linear. Right brain thinking, as Marshall McLuhan would have said, is mosaic. More importantly, the theory says that there are left-brained people, that is, people who are list makers, analysts and detailed, methodical, linear classifiers. And there are right-brained people, that is people who are visual and conceptual, imaginative, intuitive and sensual.

In physiological terms, the left- brain/right-brain theory is not very convincing. Most researchers regard it as too simplistic, or just plain wrong. The brain's wiring is far more complex.

To marketers, however, the theory is a useful reminder that people differ in how they view the world, their jobs and their possessions. They differ in how they reach decisions, how they respond to each other, and how they react to products and to advertising. There are archetypes or behaviour and attitude clusters. Left-brained people like rules, facts, certainty, reality, practicality and security. Right-brained people don't even see the rules or facts and they create their own reality. And this should influence how we deal with and market to these groups.

But how should we respond? Responding on the basis of demographics appears to be a dead end. For example, some suggest that women are more verbal than men (this has certainly been my experience) and, therefore, they are more left brained. But aren’t women supposed to be more emotional and intuitive, and therefore right brained? Can you characterize ethnic groups in terms of being dreamy (right) vs. anxious (left), impulsive vs. cautious, or verbal vs. visual? Obviously (we exclude Spock and the rest of the Vulcans from this discussion, and we also exclude ethnic stereotypes which have a habit of being wrong). We don’t have right-brain or left-brain demographic groups even if there are right- or left-brain individuals. (Incidentally, are left wingers right or left brained?)

Thinking about these archetypes in terms of occupation is more promising. Market researchers, for example, often display talent differences that reflect the left brain vs. right brain theory. Some are essentially cartographers or map- makers. They survey the market research data inch by inch, covering every hill and valley. They are thorough and precise. They never draw conclusions until they have examined every data table and every sub-break. When the marketer says, “I want to understand the market,” it’s a task for these left-brained researchers.

Other market researchers are gold miners. Give them a problem to solve or a difficult behaviour challenge to understand and they jump toward the answer, focusing only on data, which directly points to the gold mine. They quickly skim the rest of the data, reach conclusions and then write the report. Many prefer qualitative research. When a client says he is losing share and wants to determine why, this is a right-brained researcher’s dream task.

Engineers will probably respond differently to advertising than Web designers. Accountants will likely react differently to product offers than English professors.

But this is of limited value. Are mathematicians left brained? You would think so because their efforts are so methodical. Or are they right brained, because mathematics is creative (many studies link math with music).

Besides, it’s intuitive and also widely believed that while some people are right-brain dominant and others are left-brain dominant, most are a mix of both archetypes.

A more useful approach, I believe, is to look for left-brain/right-brain situations and categories. And market to these. Are you shopping for the familiar? Then left-brain appeals should be used. Is the category an impulse buy? Then right-brain appeals should be used.

Do most people choose a new car because of the fuel efficiency (left) or because of the chrome, the paint and the look of the dashboard (right)? It depends on the car. Do you buy a brand of whisky because it's 10 years old or because the bottle is sexy?

The choices depend on the category and on the situation. The question should not be “Is the person left brain or right brain?” It should be “Is the purchase situation left brain or right brain?” Does the category lend itself to left-brain or right-brain appeals? And the marketer can act accordingly.

By the way, I have no evidence for this approach. I looked up the literature in some detail (a left-brain activity), and I didn't find any evidence to justify the claim that thinking in terms of left-brain/right-brain situations and categories is the most useful approach. Fortunately, I am mostly a right-brained (intuitive) kind of guy. So I don't care.

*This article was published on October 27 2003 in Marketing Research.

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