My Favorite Things: What Our Possessions Teach Us About Ourselves

Posted inCreative Voices

Think about how you choose the things you buy.

Marketing theory holds that the process goes something like this:

  • Awareness – first you become aware that the product exists
  • Interest – then, “hmm, that sounds like something I might like…”
  • Desire – then, “wait…I want that thing”
  • Action – finally, “I’m gonna buy it!”

This model was first proposed in 1924 by a bond salesman named William W. Townsend. It’s called “the purchase funnel” and became the standard model for thinking about how we choose products or services.

Nowadays, that first level…Awareness…is a huge challenge for marketers. Our world is stuffed with products in practically every imaginable category. The marketer’s problem is getting you to pay attention to their particular product.

Today’s marketer uses several centuries of accumulated knowledge to design strategies and tactics to entice us to pay attention to their product. Because attention is the most precious resource you possess, and the volume of products competing for that resource so vast, the marketer’s techniques must be continuously refined to gain a competitive edge.

The history of 20th century marketing shows that the ways that marketers have devised to gain our Awareness, Interest, and Desire have evolved dramatically. Early in the century, if the product did what we needed it to do functionally, at a price we were able and willing to pay, the product became a viable candidate for action. As the century went on brands became increasingly important. Competition became more intense, and marketers needed to meet different kinds of needs and desires for us to become interested in purchasing the product. Products needed to make us feel good about ourselves and to reflect our social status to the people around us who matter.

The battle for our Awareness, Interest, and Desire became much more complex. The key word there is “battle.”

What does it mean to think of attracting your attention as a battle?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Just for a minute, think of all the marketers you come in contact with as “the enemy” in this battle for your attention. The enemy’s objective? To quickly and forcefully gain your attention and get you Interested in their product to stimulate a Desire for Action.

I know it’s not fair to think of marketers as the enemy. After all, many (some?) truly believe their product will help improve your life. Yet, many of us have become wary of the dynamics of the interactions we’re having with marketers. (See, “The Social Dilemma”) It often feels like marketers are using techniques and methods that are designed to trigger aspects of our psychological makeup as ways to short circuit our personal control of our lives. (See these two essays for examples of these techniques.)

But there’s another, similar sounding model that we could consider as a better way to understand the process we use to choose the things we buy.

This model is known as the OODA Loop worldview, and was developed in the 1950s by John Boyd, a colonel in the United States Air Force. That’s Colonel Boyd’s photo at the top of this essay. Boyd was a fighter pilot and developed his ideas as a way to both train other pilots in combat techniques and to design nimble aircraft that would give them an advantage in air battles.

This model goes like this:

  • Observe – we look around at the world of products and services that interest us. This step is already attuned to the world we live in, and the choices we and our social peers have made in the past.
  • Orient – we process (mostly unconsciously) what we have observed using a pre-existing stock of knowledge, including our genetic, cultural, and personal historical experiences to evaluate the world of products and services we’re interested in. We rarely focus on categories and items that fall far outside our established purchasing patterns.
  • Decide – we use our oriented observations of the products to lead to the primary purchase candidates from which we will make our final selection decisions.
  • Act – we buy the item and evaluate its performance against the criteria that will lead to it becoming unacceptable, marginal, acceptable, or a favorite. The decision, and its our experience with the product, will become part of the worldview we’ll use to make our next observations. We learn from these loops.

Here’s the way Boyd depicted his model:

He wrote:

The second O, orientation—as the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural tradition, and previous experiences—is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. (emphasis added).

An OODA Loop worldview gives you an appreciation of the situation you’re in. It will, “put you inside the enemy’s mindset” as Boyd put it, and help you to see the world so that you will be able to achieve your objectives.

Back to our thought experiment.

Let’s say you want to save money this month. You’re on Facebook and become Aware, Interested and Desire a product a marketer is presenting. Maybe the product is presented in an ad. Maybe it’s shared by a Facebook Friend. (Remember, the enemies are cunning, often enlisting our friends as allies in the battle for your attention and attempting to move you down the funnel toward click/buy action!)

Using an OODA Loop worldview, when the Facebook marketer presents an ad designed to grab your attention (Awareness), your informed Observation (you’ve seen these kinds of ads before, after all) would immediately register the intent and pass that observation on the your Orient module.

Your Orient module helps you quickly “get inside” the marketers worldview and recognize the Awareness-capturing objective. You are then free to substitute your own objectives and Decide if this Action will really help you accomplish them. Here, the Observation can be evaluated to help you Orient yourself toward achieving your own objectives (“Wait, I’m trying to save money this month!”) rather than simply complying with the marketer’s.

You’ll notice that using an OODA Loop worldview takes a level of conscious presence to the world around you rather than simply scanning the environment for things that capture your Awareness. This kind of “actively mindful attention” brings your OODA-rooted choices in line with your own objectives rather than passively capitulating with the enemy’s.

Your favorite things can also help you to gain a deeper appreciation for the ways in which your OODA-based worldview has operated in the past.

If you look around at the sum total of your objects (after all, “I am what I have…”, Sartre told us) you will see concrete evidence of the way that worldview has operated historically. If, like so many of us, you find yourself amidst a substantial inventory of meaningless objects that have made their way into your life through the traditional purchase funnel, you already have an intuitive appreciation of how your OODA worldview could help you “get inside,” and change, that pattern.

This is especially true at the Attention and Interest steps of the funnel. If you see that your OODA history reflects vulnerability to certain of the enemy’s tactics at the Awareness and Interest stages of the battle, you will have already fine-tuned your Observe module to be on the lookout for these telltale signs of Attention hijacking. (Like: “I’ve learned that I’m a sucker for anything that’s marked down more than 20%!”)

Seeing the enemy’s intent is a huge advantage in the battle for control of your purchasing behavior. That insight puts you squarely inside the enemy’s worldview and exposes their tactical activities.

From Wikipedia:

According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe–orient–decide–act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby “get inside” the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage. (emphasis added).

Your favorite things will also help to Orient you towards those products that truly enhance your ability to meet your objectives. Remember, OODA worldviews are loops. Today’s shopping trip is informed by the insights you gained from your last shopping trip. You have learned things about both the enemy and yourself that will help you make sounder decisions this time based on the outcomes of the ones you made last time. You can already begin your next OODA-based interaction with marketing material with an appreciation of the kinds of things that will enable your true personal satisfaction and not end up among the objects in the “pile of regret.” That is, if you use that experience to your own benefit.

Learning to live in a world full of “enemies” presenting shiny-object temptations for our Attention, Interest, and Desire is a skill. An OODA Loop worldview based on an appreciation of your truly favorite things (and their opposites) will put you well ahead in the race to self-determination in your purchasing Actions.

Take control of your OODA Loop and you will feel the power of personal agency instead of being at the mercy of enemies who are equipped with 21st century weaponry in the battle for your attention…and your money.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Header image from Toronto History.