We’re not too dissimilar to our ancestors after all.
First off, you’re probably wondering who on earth is Charles Mackay? Well, to put it short he was an author and journalist born in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century. He later traveled a little in Europe, namely to Brussels and Paris and along the way learning his trade in literature and languages.
A little later he became friends with entrepreneur William Cockerill and famous writer Charles Dickens. And during that time in 1834, he emerged as a journalist and held various positions with a number of London-based newspapers, including The Sun and The Times.
At this early stage in his life in 1841 he wrote probably his biggest achievement: “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” It’s this book that I want to divert most of the attention towards here.
It’s a monster book that I’ve recently finished for the second time. Only now, have I really ‘got the message’ that Charles Mackay put over. Charles writes on a number of topics throughout history, such as the South-Sea Bubble in the early 1700s, Witch Mania, Alchemy, the Crusades, Fortune-telling, and even Haunted Houses. To be honest, it’s a crazy book (as these topics will tell you) that’s also written in a crazy and truly entertaining manner, albeit a little hard to follow at times.
Though what makes this collection of topics – which are essentially “follies” or fads – so significant is that it captures the essence that drove these psychological delusions, and what still drives them today.
He states, that “men, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.” This is very real with consumer fashion products and lifestyle choices now.
“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first,” Charles also states.
Think gambling, alien abductions, social networking, reality TV shows and dare I say it even religion. It’s the same principles that drive the popularity of these things.
Almost 200 years since it was published, the book still proves we are no different to our ancestors, where extraordinary financial and non-financial behaviours are still present.
So what does it tell us about marketing and consumer behaviour? Well, bluntly, is that we as a species are easily manipulated by modern marketing methods and propaganda campaigns. This will never change. Because once we discover a new fad or craze, or as Charles Mackay puts it: a folly, its human nature to want to join in on the delusion.
Simply because we still think in groups. It’s a classic example of the bandwagon effect that you as a knowledgeable marketer may think you’re immune to in consumer buying situations. This may be so. But when you’re selling, if you know how consumers behave, you possess one of the greatest skills that anyone in business could ever own.
For more on the books I read, including my list of recommendations, stop by my Reading List.