“What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts.”
— George Bernard Shaw
The structure of the brain determines the way values are both consciously and unconsciously processed. In computer terms, this is the mind’s “hardware.” The values processed are an outcome of a second system: culture. Culture is, in the words of Dutch anthropologist Geert Hofstede, “the software of the mind.” The mental algorithms that run this software are called values, which are simply broad tendencies to prefer one state of affairs over another.
The outcome of these hidden systems - these cultural subroutines - determines, at an unconscious level, what we “see” when we look at a person or product, or “hear” when we listen to an idea, a political speech, or a sales pitch. Culture shapes our values, and how they are recognized.
Americans take a strange view of our own culture.
We don’t believe we have any.
We are, the argument goes, a nation of immigrants, a mix of ethnic groups so diverse that speaking of “American culture” is problematic, if not impossible. When speaking of Americans, you can’t say “everyone,” because everyone is different. We simply don’t all believe the same things.
Ironically, all Americans believe this precept. In practice, our differences are a matter of degree, not the fundamental assumption. Which means that the first thing all Americans have in common is a paradox: We all operate from the common belief that we don’t operate from common beliefs.
Of course, if this were actually true we wouldn’t exist as a nation, there could be no mass-market products — we couldn’t even talk to each other. It’s just that “culture” in the Old World was — and still is — defined as the common history of people with shared blood ties, not shared behaviors that evolved in specific environments.
Without the commonality of shared blood ties, Americans have always focused most of their attention on our differences rather than on what we share. That focus illuminates another core belief Americans share: the unconscious assumption that the base unit of American culture is the individual, not the family, clan, tribe, or even nation
Since the cultural beliefs that drive our choices operate below the conscious horizon, it is the almost invisible nature of culture that leads us to believe that we don’t have one — just as you aren’t conscious of your own accent. Culture is rarely articulated in words, but instead is expressed in behavior – Shaw’s “…assumptions on which he habitually acts.”
By studying American popular culture over many generations – what Americans “voted” for in the most meaningful way possible, with their time and dollars - we as researchers are able to identify consistent patterns of behavior over time. These behavioral patterns spotlight not just what we value, but far more important, why we value it.
From this database the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis has identified, among others, the top seven engines of choice that motivate every American, past and present. These are the meta-drivers that make the first cut in the decision-making process, well before any conscious process even begins. They are the alpha shared ideals that shape all other ideas. We call them “shoulds” because they reflect our assumptions of how the world “should” be.
The Seven “Shoulds": Cultural Beliefs that Drive American Choice
1. The base unit of American society is the individual.
2. Individuals should control their own destiny.
3. Actions should be judged in a moral light.
4. Authority or “Bigness” should be viewed with suspicion
5. We should have as many choices as possible.
6. Anything can and should be improved.
7. The future should be better than the present.
Our unconscious assumptions, individually or in combination, are what set us apart from other cultures, powering our decisions in everything from public policy and our social agenda to the everyday consumer choices we make — from the high-ticket world of home-buying and investments down to everyday items like soda and toasters.
A few examples, in no particular order:
#1 & 2: In America, mobility = freedom. We prize personal mobility, both physical and social, because it maximizes our choices. That makes mass transit in its present form far less preferable than the automobile, despite all our complaints about traffic. Car-pool lanes ultimately failed to catch on because Americans unconsciously rated the immediate benefits (a faster commute) against a greater value - the loss of personal flexibility and control over the personal schedule that is the price of sharing rides.
At an applied level, the high value of personal mobility also means that auto-repair shops should sell their services not by price or technical skill, but by stressing how little time the car will spend in the shop. Guaranteeing a fixed delivery time allows the customer to regain the feeling of control and ability to plan. Americans will pay a premium for that because it has top priority in their hierarchy of values.
#3 and 7: Have you been following the primary elections? Educators complain that Americans show an appalling ignorance of our own history. There is a reason, and it’s because we dedicate our focus to the future. This leads us to having the lowest rate of personal savings and the highest rate of personal debt in the world because we assume that the future should be better (and richer) than the past. If not, something is wrong – and politicians’ heads will roll. Combine that with our moral imperative and you get the frenzy of outrage, shaming, and blaming we are subjected to every evening on the election news coverage - not to mention the internet.
#4 Our unconscious distrust of authority is why Homeland Security’s plans for a national identity card never got off the ground. It’s why we routinely put big companies like Disney and Microsoft under the moral microscope. The burden of proof falls on the companies to prove that they aren’t engaging in corporate misbehavior because our assumption is that, in order to be so successful, they must somehow be abusing power.
And these are just some of the meta-drivers – the high concepts or assumptions that make the first cut of shared perception to determine what we see and hear. Beneath these is an entire hierarchy of shared assumptions – what things of value should “look like” - from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the cars we drive.
Identifying the unconscious cultural drivers of choice tells you what people need to see in order for your products, services, or ideas to be considered desirable. Behavior is how our driving beliefs and assumptions are expressed. What people tell you they do in focus groups is testimony. What people actually do is evidence. If they don’t match – and they rarely do - follow the evidence.