Back to Basics: breaching the sceptical disposition

Kierra Leimert - Marketing and Research Coordinator 


Be it through revelling novels, shocking news stories or reliving memories within our social circles, there’s no doubt that we have a drive to document and understand the human experience.  We’re obsessed with understanding intentions. 

We’re pattern trackers. Mathematicians.

Think about the thoughts you have in a day. Our thoughts are a steady stream of calculations. Combining our collective unconscious (i.e. culture, subcultures, history, etc.) with our own personal experiences (i.e. past interactions with others), we determine and interpret actions, facial expressions, body postures, language, opinions and beliefs.

We’re constantly recalculating— “What’s normal? What’s abnormal? Why did they do that? What’s the pattern? How can we solve?”— calculate, classify, resolve.  We often take it for granted, but even our simplest thoughts are incredibly analytical. 

We have a sceptical disposition.

The word scepticism alone may be imbedded with pessimistic connotations but I don’t see it as negative at all. Scepticism is to notice the half empty glass and fill it back up again. Through scepticism we survive; from aqueducts to agriculture to modern technology, it empowers us to innovate.

I studied psychology because I find our obsession with intentions obsessively interesting. We're constantly tracking, analyzing, and manipulating our environments and other people. We have a sceptical disposition. We’re thirsty for answers and what’s really amazing is that our brains can handle this. 

Understanding our sceptical disposition is what attracted me to the field of psychology in the first place and I guess that’s also where my fascination with great apes comes from. This human ability to “keep track” is coined as “theory of mind”: the ability to recognize and anticipate the mental states of others. More and more research has shown that humans may share this capability with our fellow great apes [Kirkpatrick 2011: 31].

There’s dispute about whether we can really draw valid conclusions about a theory of mind in great apes. But even without access to their thoughts, we observe evidence of a sceptical disposition in their behaviour. 

  • Research has demonstrated evidence of chimpanzees deceiving, counter deceiving and manipulating others [Kirkpatrick 2011: 32]. 
  • Many studies have recorded great apes in play, dissociating from concepts of self by taking on the characteristics of someone or something else, and attaching characteristics to inanimate objects or objects that don’t exist [Kirkpatrick 2011: 33].
  • Andrew Whiten even demonstrated evidence that chimpanzees can differentiate between intentional and unintentional actions. In Whiten’s research, chimpanzees consistently selected the experimenter that had initially spilled juice ‘accidentally’ (unintentional) over the experimenter who had initially poured it out (intentional) [Whiten 1993: 376].

This is all very exciting and interesting but what we really want to know is how do we apply this basic understanding of primate cognition to improve our marketing efforts?

Advertising and marketing has a bad name because people have become mistrustful of our intentions, expecting us to manipulate and deceive them in order to run successful businesses. But if we know anything about basic primate cognition, we should understand what a poor marketing strategy deception is. 

Our customers have a sceptical disposition too. 

If a chimpanzee can’t pull off keeping a food box concealed from another chimpanzee, or can differentiate between the action of spilling juice accidentally and intentionally, what hope do we have in convincing a human consumer to let us deceive them for their loyalty? We can’t build trust with a species that is inherently sceptical when we have ulterior motives.    

The solution is simple. This isn’t an experiment, we can’t control the conditions of the marketplace, and we definitely can’t ensure that we’re more intelligent than our audience. So let’s all stop trying to outsmart consumers and provide them with a positive experience—a pattern— that proves we are the best fit. 

Be real and be helpful.

Successful brands breach the sceptical disposition by going back to the basics and earning trust the way we always do— by establishing a pattern. Don’t manipulate your identity around your ideal consumer, be yourself. Let your real strengths shine through and you’ll attract consumers that truly identify with your brand. Don’t convince consumers to make a purchase or be loyal to your brand, be helpful. If you fill a need, solve a problem, and are consistently helpful and available, consumers will learn to trust you and loyalty will follow.



Kirkpatrick, Casey. "Tactical deception and the great apes: Insight into the question of theory of mind." Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology 15.1 (2011): 4.
Whiten, Andrew. "Evolving a theory of mind: the nature of non-verbal mentalism in other primates." Understanding other minds: Perspectives from autism (1993): 367-396.