Six Degrees of Separation

I was researching small network theory (aka the Watts-Strogatz model) today for work on social media (because I am definitely the worst person to talk to at cocktail parties), and came across an article by Stanley Milgram from 1969 promoting the “six degrees” theory. While I knew that the six degrees theory predated Watts and Strogatz, I never knew Milgram had a hand in it. Milgram, for those not familiar with him, is famous for his studies at Yale University of obedience and persuasion, particularly one study in which he was able to show people were willing to behave in a way they believed hurt others when told to do so by an authority figure. I feel as though Milgram is one of those scientists that fits within a certain Venn diagram that few others do (perhaps Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment).

Where the work of Stanley Milgram fits in the world

Moral Disengagement

There is an essential significance to the fact that there is a link between understanding how all of the world is connected, that all of the world is susceptible to moral disengagement when there is persuasion to do something wrong by someone in power, and social media, particularly in the current political climate.

… today we are witnessing a moral paradox in which individuals in all walks of life commit inhumanities that violate their moral standards and still retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves.

– Albert Bandura, How People Commit Inhumanities, Psychology Today (Bandura, a noted social psychologist, is the author of Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Feel Good About Themselves)

Milgram, in 1969, experimented with being able to transmit information to a target person (his words) by having subjects mail a document only to those they knew on a first name basis. See Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgram, An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem, Sociometry, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp. 425-443 (this article is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, a common problem with scientific research). Milgram found in this study that people could get a document in front of a target audience within just an average of 5.2 links. In a way, we all carry out this same experiment each and every day, sending information to each other, influencing others in ways that engage or disengage morality.

Hutu propaganda advocating murder of Tutsis from the Rwandan Genocide (source); see also Matthew Lower and Thomas Hauschildt, The Media as a Tool of War, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 2, No. 1 (May 2014).

Generally, group formation, per se, is not the source of conflict, but conflict is likely to arise if distinct groups are extremely exclusive and group members perceive their security to be under threat.

-Lower and Hauschildt, supra.
Extremist content posted on Twitter

Changing Emotions in Insular Groups

So while Milgram’s works address our connected world and our willingness to engage in harmful conduct when persuaded to do so by someone with authority, social media shows a world where individuals are commonly perceiving themselves as under attack by outside influences. 

Extremist content posted to Twitter

The question becomes what content can be shared to reduce the perceived threat and the risk of violence. Showing that a perceived threat is false does little to counter harmful conduct because perception is more powerful than truth. However, changing the emotions a person feels in response to someone they perceive as an outsider has a powerful impact on whether they perceive a threat. See Lukas J. Wolf, Ulrich von Hecker, and Gregory R. Maio, Affective and Cognitive Orientations in Intergroup Perception, Sage Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 43, no. 6, at 828 (Jun. 2017), citing Esses V. M., Haddock G., Zanna M. P. Values, stereotypes, and emotions as determinants of intergroup attitudes, in Mackie D. M., Hamilton D. L., editors. (Eds.), Affect, cognition and stereotyping: Interactive processes in group perception, pp. 137-166, Academic Press (1993).

Changing emotions, replacing a feeling of unsettling anxiety with warmth when someone perceives an outsider, is a difficult task. In wartime, this is the stomach-churning counterinsurgency mission of “winning hearts and minds.” Perhaps the sinking feeling that I get when I think that changing our biases is as difficult as counterinsurgency is fitting. We seem to be in a time where all cultural segments are acting like insurgencies, militantly targeting outsiders.

Belief that their group is under threat: “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people,” Donald Trump, Oct. 2, 2018.

Strangely, what seems to work in opposition to these perceptions is the sort of emotionally-charged work used in storytelling and advertising (perhaps in another context, this would be considered the work of propaganda).

Shared countless times on social media, this advertisement for a Thai life insurance company encouraged warmth for viewers far beyond the borders of Thailand

What can counter the current crop of insularism? Stories that capture the heart. This becomes the key challenge for those who oppose extremism: how to use persuasion to capture the hearts of extremists.

Demonstrating authority to customers often means they will trust you more with their business.

Psychology has recognized that when the same information is presented by someone with a position of authority and by someone without a position of authority, the information is more likely to be believed when presented by someone in a position of authority.  For example, Stanley Milgram, in his landmark study of obedience, was able to use authority to persuade multiple test subjects to engage in what they thought were the administration of dangerous electric shocks to others.  See Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, (Harper & Roe, 1974).  What does this human trait of relying on others in authority have to do with marketing?

Authority is a tool that can be used to persuade people in advertising, just as it is in any other field.  For professionals that offer intangible services, such as lawyers and accountants, demonstrating that they are the authority on a particular topic, whether it be men’s rights in custody disputes or valuation of closely-held corporations, means that potential customers will trust them more with their business than they would others.  This is why it is increasingly important for professionals to not only seek formal authority, such as industry awards, but also to seek informal marketing authority.  Professionals need to focus on creating content that demonstrates they are an authority not only because they are knowledgeable, but also because their search engine optimization (SEO) efforts put them on the front page of a Google search.  Professionals need to ensure they are being linked to by others writing about their field.  Finally, professionals need to create content that gives off those subtle, subconscious clues that they are authorities in their field.  

If you’d like to know more about how authority works for persuasion, here’s a link to a fantastic 2001 Harvard Business Review article by Robert Cialdini, entitled Harnessing the Science of Persuasion. Cialdini, author of the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is one of the leading experts on the subject, and is regularly taught to interrogators and crisis negotiators in the military intelligence community.

While there are traditional marketing approaches that come from business school, these approaches – particularly the marketing funnel – are not consistent with behavioral science.  An approach based on the psychological techniques taught to interrogators is able to flexibly respond to the emotional states of customers.  This piece will show you how.

From Brand Concepts to the Marketing Funnel

In the past, brands were considered concepts that were evoked in the minds of consumers. Under this model, a business tried to evoke a clear idea that represented a brand. For example, Prudential Insurance Company of America (now Prudential Financial) used the Rock of Gibraltar to evoke strength and reliability in the eyes of the consumer. Nowadays, due to the influence of social media, brands are thought of as personas in a relationship with consumers. Traditionally, marketing teaches that this relationship should be developed with the digital marketing funnel in mind. Under this model, content is created to:

  • Attract attention for a brand and its platform;
  • Generate interest in the brand’s platform and the problems solved by the brand’s products;
  • Encourage consumers to engage in consideration of the brand’s products as possible solutions to their problems;
  • Nurture those consumers through the purchase process; and,
  • Encourage customers who made purchases to develop brand loyalty and recommend a brand’s products to others (a stage in the funnel referred to as the loyalty/advocacy stage).

The Traditional Marketing Funnel doesn't work because consumers aren't rational actors.

The problem with the marketing funnel model is that it doesn’t match up to how we, as consumers, really think. A 2014 piece by Mark Bonchak, published in the Harvard Business Review, noted that many top marketers (with companies such as Google, Sephora, and SAP) no longer consider the linear marketing funnel to be accurate.

The Marketing Funnel Ignores Irrationality and Lack of Attention

This is no surprise. Consumers are not rational actors. Think of simple purchasing decisions we make, such as whether to go out to lunch. No one goes through the following steps of the marketing funnel in order:

  • “I am hungry.”
  • “Hmm, perhaps there are businesses out there that have products that can satisfy my hunger.”
  • “I see that this restaurant’s food choices will make me say I’m lovin’ it.
  • “Well here’s a discount for burgers there, I guess I will go to this restaurant.”
  • “I’m going to have lunch there again, and tell others to do so as well.”

(As a brief side note, McKinsey & Co. has also suggested an alternative to the marketing funnel based on the consumer decision journey loop. This approach has some benefit, so long as it is not thought of as a linear cycle.)

People are motivated by their relationship to risk (risk-seeking vs. risk-avoidance), their emotional states that bear no connections to their product purchasing decisions, their attentiveness, and a whole host of other behavioral factors. They may think they should select a restaurant for lunch, then debate on whether they should maintain their diet or save their money and brown bag their lunch. Then they may be distracted by something on their phone that leads them to an entirely different purchasing decision. In the end, they may skip lunch and go to Target to buy kitty litter.

A Flexible Approach May Be Better than The Marketing Funnel

One flexible psychology-based way to look at branding is to think like intelligence agents, specifically, interrogators and source handlers (a field known as “Human Intelligence”). When interrogators are faced with the need to convince a hardened terrorist to give up their comrades in a terrorist group, they turn to a flexible set of approach strategies that they use to “break” a terrorist’s objections to cooperation. See Department of the Army, FM 2-22.3, Human Intelligence Collector Operations (2006), at 8-4. These approach strategies include the following possibilities:

  • the direct approach (”Tell us what you were doing on the night of the fifth.”)
  • the incentive approach (“Tell me what I want to know and I’ll make sure the judge goes easy on you.”)
  • the emotional love approach (”Do you want your family to think it was you responsible for this crime, or your buddies? Don’t you want to be there to raise your sons?”)
  • the emotional hate approach (“Those aren’t your buddies you’re protecting; those assholes got you into this mess. Unless you start talking, they’re going to get away with it and you’ll take the blame.”)
  • the emotional fear-up approach (“I’d hate to think what would happen if you were the only one held responsible for this crime. I can’t imagine how someone like you would survive prison.”
  • the emotional fear-down approach (“Look, it’s ok, it’s not like you killed someone, so why don’t we just talk about what happened and I’ll see about getting you a deal?”)
  • the emotional pride and ego-up approach (“Only a genius could have pulled something like this off; I’d love to know how you came up with this plan.”)
  • the emotional pride and ego-down approach (“Only an idiot could let himself get caught and put his whole future in jeopardy; why don’t you cooperate with me and see if there is something you can salvage from this.”)
  • the emotional futility approach (“Look, I don’t care if you tell me anything or not, because we’ve got you for this crime; if you want to tell me your side of the story, that’s fine.”)
  • the “we know all” approach (“We know you committed the crime, we even know how you committed the crime, all we want to know is why.”)
  • the file and dossier approach (A variant of “we know all,” this approach involves bringing in a huge file full of real or imaginary paperwork on a suspect and telling them they can either cooperate or the judge will only hear the side of the story that’s already on paper.)
  • the establish your identity approach (“Our records show you’re the John Doe who committed (an unrelated) horrible crime, so if you’re actually the John Doe who committed a minor offense, you’d better start talking.)
  • the repetition approach (This approach literally involves wearing down a suspect by repeating a phrase, such as “Tell me the truth now, or you will pay later. No, you’re lying; tell me the truth now, or you will pay later.”)
  • the rapid fire approach (This approach involves running through information as quickly as possible to confuse the suspect into admitting something they didn’t want to do.)
  • the silent approach (Most will remember this approach from their childhood, when a parent silently stared at them until they fessed up to something they expected the parent already knew about.)
  • the Mutt and Jeff approach (AKA “Good Cop/Bad Cop”)
  • the false flag approach (This approach involves pretending to be someone you are not to get information.) See FM 2-22.3, supra, at 8-17 to 8-69.

For anyone that has watched a few episodes of Law and Order, most of these approaches can be considered self-evident. From my experience as an interrogator in the military and as a workplace violence prevention focal, I learned that these approaches are incredibly persuasive. Walking into a room with a guy that just blew up a market and talking about how ashamed he will make his mother is frequently more effective than cleverly poking holes in his alibi.

Emotions are powerful tools for purchasing decisions

Now, of course, no one is suggesting that we should go out and start interrogating potential customers (please do not get me sued) but these approach strategies reflect a universal truth about the psychology of persuasion. Regardless of what you are selling, you can rely on core emotional states to persuade your potential customers to make a purchase. In marketing, approaches using these core emotional states are a little different than they are for interrogations, but similar rules apply. For marketing, these approaches can be understood as the following strategies:

  • the direct approach
  • the incentive approach
  • the love approach
  • the hate approach
  • the fear-up approach
  • the fear-down approach
  • the pride and ego-up approach
  • the pride and ego-down approach
  • the comfort-driven approach
  • the awe-driven approach
  • the false flag approach
  • the humor-driven approach
  • The authority approach

(I will explain these marketing approaches in detail in future posts.)

The Marketing Funnel’s Flawed Linear Strategy

There is another truth about human behavior that interrogators know: there’s no one part of an interrogation where an approach is applied to a detainee and then they forever provide information. Detainees will be cooperative following an approach for a while, then become resistant, then return to becoming cooperative. The process shifts based on mood and time. The same is true for consumers. The marketing funnel isn’t valid, as noted above, because people approach purchasing decisions from any number of emotional states, with a varying sense of urgency, and may shift to other emotional states in the future. It is better to be ready to address these emotional states that relate to a purchase decision fluidly, by developing an assessment process that helps a brand determine what influences matter to a consumer and then what steps can be taken to motivate a consumer to take a specific action. For example, understanding that a consumer has bypassed the initial stages of a marketing funnel and is just deciding whether to purchase Brand A versus Brand B means that a brand understands that it’s better to create content regarding how its products will satisfy the consumer’s emotional state than to create content designed to entertain and inform.


The core problem with traditional marketing approaches – particularly the marketing funnel – is that they assume that consumer behavior is rational and occurs in a linear pattern. The social sciences – psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics – have provided solid evidence that consumer behavior is highly irrational, and that consumers approach purchasing decisions from any number of emotional states. Rather than focus on the position of the consumer in the marketing funnel, brands would be better served to follow a more flexible strategy that focuses on consumers’ emotional states. One particularly successful strategy is the model used by Human Intelligence Collectors. This strategy focuses on emotional states such as love, hate, need, pride, and deference to compel action. It is a better match for the illogical, irrational human brain.