Infants have it. Chimps have it. What about Marketing Communication Companies?

“Theory of Mind” is a basic concept in psychology and child development.

It refers to the ability to recognize mental states in others. In other words, to become aware that there is another mind that exists and that it is different from one’s own.

It has been proven in control settings that chimpanzees possess this cognitive skill. Human infants begin to develop this capacity around ten months. If an individual does not exhibit a complete theory of mind it may be a sign of cognitive or developmental impairment.

As David & Ann Premack write in Original Intelligence, “Theory of Mind is the cornerstone of elaborate human social competence.”

So now, dear reader, I will ask you to take a look at the communications industry and ask yourself, “Where is the cornerstone?” In other words, their Theory of Mind? After all, if chimps and infants have it, wouldn’t you expect a business organization built around designing communications to have an acutely evolved sense of the mental states of others? Could it really be that the average chimp has a more evolved sense of someone’s mental state than a typical company engaged in the business of marketing?

I certainly do not mean to disparage an entire industry. Surely, there is advertising that shows a keen understanding of people — not the monolithic horde they are so often depicted to be. But to ensure that this is the rule, rather than the exception, I would urge any business that is ready to invest in a marketing program to ask a few questions of the people or firm tasked to perform the work. Questions like:

  1. Do they have a Theory of Mind that explains how they see consumers?
  2. Do they recognize differences among people that go beyond gender, income and zip code?
  3. Do they know what may be causing these differences?
  4. Have they validated their principles?
  5. Can they find such individuals in the general population?

Until such time that marketers become fully aware that their audience consists of other minds that are different than their own, and have a proven theory to explain what the differences are, all the extraordinary technological advances we enjoy will not take us one pixel closer to truly understanding consumers. Our messages will fall flat, and we’ll have only our own hubris to thank.


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