Probably Approximately Correct


 I’m reading a wonderful book by Leslie Valiant titled “Probably Approximately Correct” and it poses the question if it’s possible to explain how living organisms function in their environment using the mathematical technique of algorithms. 

    In the introduction he establishes a premise that as beings, we start making generalizations at a very early age that allow us to function (cope) in our environment without even thinking about it. These generalizations are automatically applied across all aspects of our lives, meaning we are in fact applying some time of algorithm to our experiences.

    This speaks to one of my concerns about so much consumer research - we often ask people why they do things (quantitatively or qualitatively) when in fact they really can’t explain what truly influenced their decision. But we ask, build models and then make branding decisions based on these logical, rational responses and then wonder why we’re not seeing better results. For me, a better analytical approach is applying a framework described by Margaret King of Cultural Systems & Analysis:

  • Our senses detect sensation
  • Our brain translates sensation into perception
  • Perception is shaped by culture and context 
  • Culture is a complex adaptive system
  • Context is a bordered system
  • All systems can be decoded, modeled, explained, and understood

     This framework suggests two critical phases of analysis. First is understanding biological influences on the perception of an experience. We are exposed to things in the course of our daily life and we generalize about them to know whether to attend or ignore. Studying this genetic mechanism is necessary to then apply a second phase of analysis, decoding the cultural systems which shape our emotional responses and how we ultimately make decisions. I've found this process to lead to far richer and meaningful insights on how to best position a brand culturally. I strongly believe cultural positioning is far more useful than classic market positioning.

     More to come about the application of algorithms to our daily life, or as Mr. Valiant calls them, “ecorithms” (algorithms applied to the system of day-to-day living). If you are interested in the book, here’s the Amazon link: