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Subjective is the New Objective

Roy Bendor Cohen
April 27, 2021

In his TED Talk entitled ‘What’s the Difference Between Real and Perceived Value?’, Rory Sutherland, the vice chairman of Olgivy & Mather in the U.K, shares a remarkable anecdote about how engineers sought to make the train journey from London to Paris better.

Their engineering solution was to build new tracks to shorten the 3.5 hour journey by 40 minutes. Although feasible in design, the plan would’ve cost 6 billion pounds.  

Rory had a different, more cost effective idea in mind as he says:

Now, call me Mr. Picky. I'm just an ad man. But it strikes me as an unimaginative way of improving a train journey merely to make it shorter. Now, what is the hedonic opportunity cost of spending 6 billion pounds on those railway tracks? Here's my naive advertising man suggestion. What you should in fact do is employ all the world's top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey.”

Sutherland’s gist and intention can be summarized into this key point: You can design solutions by prioritizing the subjective perspective of users and influencing their perception of the situation rather than using objective measures to change reality.

Objective Subjectivity and Subjective Objectivity

Objective measures are very important. They allow us to discuss facts rather than opinions; they allow us to have a common ground and shared language; and they allow us to overcome assumptions by considering evidence. They are empirical.

However, human behavior is not like physics – you cannot expect people to follow universal laws. People are more complex than physical entities/objects, hence, prediction is often more difficult. This doesn’t mean we cannot study human behavior scientifically, but it does mean that we need to focus on the often overlooked “soft” aspects such as emotions, intentions, expectations, perception, etc.

So, there is a twofold goal here:

1. To emphasize the importance of the subjective perspective on today’s businesses.

2. To clarify that ‘subjective’ is as objective as ‘objective’ when dealing with human-centered approaches.

Before you reject goal two (and in my defense)–I am a cognitive scientist. I argue to remain scientific by following systematic procedures: generating hypotheses, collecting data in unbiased ways, testing hypotheses using rigorous research methods and statistical models, and leveraging all the other important tools and processes the scientific community developed during the last three centuries to help us remain as objective as possible. (Although, I admit that these methods can be flawed, scientific tools are still the best way to get to the truth).

Are We Really as Customer-focused or User-centric as We Think?

Countless companies have added ‘customer-focus’ or ‘user-centricity’ to their vision, mission, goals, values or any other statement used to reflect their organization’s identity. They all claim to get into the minds of their client.

But what does it really entail to do so?

In order to really get into someone else’s shoes, you must first understand them as a human being beyond just the context of the situation they are in at the moment. This means considering their psychological and cultural aspects. These include considerations like: motivations, intentions, expectations, self-narratives, perceptions, biases, emotions, and cognitive barriers, to name a few. This isn’t always so black-and-white because many of these are unconscious processes that the person may not even be aware of themself.

Once you’ve accomplished this, then you can consider that for every ‘objective’ action that a business takes - be it presenting a new product feature, a communication via social media, or any other interaction - the question needs to be asked: “How will my audience subjectively interpret this?”

The answer is not as straightforward as you may think. Let’s dive deeper.

Attributes and Values

When people buy a 10mm drill, what do they really want? Some may say: a 10mm hole.

But, is that all? they are not interested in a 10mm hole, but rather in hanging a frame. We can go on and on, and the deepest intention usually ends up being something like making themself or a loved one happy.

This exercise was first suggested by Phillip Kottler (known to be “The Father of Modern Marketing”), who coined the distinction between attributes and values.

In essence, he outlines an attribute as being the objective features of a product and values as being the subjective interpretation of the features on behalf of the audience.

This dichotomy is a great premise. But understanding the mechanisms in which people form their opinions, decisions and actions (not necessarily in this order) is more complex than that. Every person who wishes to communicate and interact with another person should hold this in their awareness.

It often ends up being the case that people will unconsciously pick up on subtle cues in context that make a big difference. For example, in his book Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life, Rory Sutherland notes how the message, “The flight is delayed” is substantially different from “The flight is delayed by 70 minutes.”

The nuanced difference matters greatly to travelers because of the human pysche. The latter provides certainty, whereas the former plays on the negative impact of uncertainty, which can encompass anxiety and worry.

So, How is Subjective the New Objective?

First, it’s important to place more attention and emphasis on the subjective interpretation of your audience. It is not enough to add a statement to your strategic plan with the fancy (buzz)words “customer-focus,” “user-centricity,” or any other variation of those. It is also not enough to assume or even rely on direct questions to your audience.

To truly understand your audience, you should apply rigorous, objective and proven methods. This is especially required to be able to grasp unconscious processes which dominate our thinking.

Second, these days the word ‘subjective’ has become almost an insult in the rational world of business, economics, science and policy. If it’s not objective - it doesn’t count.


When we deal with people, ‘subjective’ is essential, innately.

As I mentioned before, I am not saying to drop objective measures. As a cognitive scientist and an voracious reader of math and logic I wouldn’t argue against it. Instead, I argue the value of applying these scientific methods (objective) to understand the way people think, feel and act (subjective). This is the entire purpose of behavioral science.

Hence its sheer (and surprising) power –you can use an objective approach to understand subjective perception.

In turn, subjective becomes the new objective.

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