Confessions of a creative turned psychology student

Antony Giorgione is a creative with *cough* eight plus years' experience, who last year completed a graduate diploma in psychology. During his time there, he discovered that behavioural economics is a much smaller subset of psychology than is generally assumed.

The toolie

I enrolled at Swinburne University, where I had previously earned a degree in graphic design. The grad dip entailed 12 units, the same that comprise the undergraduate major in psychology. There’s an endless amount of options for further learning online, but I opted to take the course on campus.

There were a lot more overseas students than the last time I studied, and the worry of telling your parents you flunked appears to have been replaced by a more extreme anxiety of losing your visa because you flunked.

Apart from that, not much has changed. The buildings were bigger and computers smaller, but – as ever – there were those who studied hard and those who coasted.

As a mature-age student I was pretty much invisible on campus. Until group project time that is, when I could always seem to find friends. Something about the perception of older students being harder workers?

Assignment writing posed no real problem, as I have functioned primarily as a copywriter for quite a while. There was some adjusting to be done, however.

Every thought or concept I introduced to my assignments had to already exist somewhere within the peer-review literature realm, and be referenced at the end of every sentence. Every. Single. One.

Which stands in contrast to the expectations of a creative director, who will demand originality from me as much as is possible.

And I discovered too late that the course included statistics. My sphincter went into spasm, but curiously I ended up getting my highest grades for these units.

Go figure.

There is no grand unifying theory of psychology

It comes across as more like hundreds of thousands of intertwining tributaries and streams rather than one single massive river, with countless further flowing under the surface.

The broad bodies of thought, largely sequential since the late 19th century, are: psychodynamic, humanist, behaviourist, evolutionary and cognitive.

These form the basis for a multitude of theories, studies and observed phenomena – the tributaries and streams – within the course’s substantive units: developmental, cognitions, social, personality and abnormal.

With rapid advances in technology making it easier to trace response within the brain and body, cognitions might be considered at the vanguard of contemporary psychology. Bearing in mind it still really only describes rather than explains, that extra detail is very revealing.

And older theories are not necessarily redundant. Freud’s thinking on sexual motivation may be discredited, but some of his methodologies are still crucial in the treatment of abnormal psychological conditions.

Lately there’s been a question over the replicability of certain studies, but others have proven quite resilient.

As David Halpern of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team recently told The Guardian:“[We have now run hundreds of trials and] reached the point where it’s no longer a matter of supposition, as it was in 2010. We can now say with a high degree of confidence these models give you best policy.”

I went into the course thinking it was a nature vs. nurture thing. It’s better to think of it as nature and nurture, plus some other crucial interlopers such as stimulus and environment.

How much each of these factors in themselves might influence our responses and behaviours is entirely context dependent.

Behavioural economics

In all my assigned reading, behavioural economics was mentioned on only two pages in the introductory section of the social unit textbook.

And yet to many in the broader population, behavioural economics is taken to be the everything of psychology.

Why? In a nutshell, because it gained a lot of prominence when one of its progenitors won a Nobel Prize in 2002. And because there is no Nobel Prize for psychology, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman was nominated in the category of Economic Sciences instead.

(Some psychologists were a bit put out by this, hence the transition from ‘psychology’ to ‘behavioural sciences’.)

After the Nobel it entered the zeitgeist through a number of popular books – Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational, The Black Swan, Nudge and Thinking, Fast and Slow.

And because its application can be shown to influence consumption behaviours, its penetration into the marketing world has expanded even more rapidly.

Swinburne’s psychology department – with its emphasis on, and strong reputation for, clinical research – doesn’t seem to pay much mind to behavioural economics. When I asked my lecturers about it, I was met with little enthusiasm.

In contrast, when I discussed it with an acquaintance in the economics faculty, he was much more engaged with the subject.

So I got behavioural economics as its constituent elements; systems one and two, prospect theory and associated studies around heuristics and biases, plus a grab bag of other tributaries and streams scattered across the various units.

If I aggregate all these, it still only accounts for a couple of hundred pages – out of approximately five thousand pages of text introducing the undergraduate to the basic principles of psychology.

Creative accounting

I recently did some work with a consultancy. I was asked to provide concepts for incredibly dense behavioural briefs and visualisation for CX mapping at a complexity I have never before encountered.

Of course, these creative tasks could have been accomplished without an understanding of psychology, but in the real-time continuum of the job, this knowledge proved very helpful.

I was able to grasp the behavioural components of each brief without having to secretly Google mid-conversation, and in some cases make proactive suggestions within their strategic framework to the benefit of the outcome.

This experience really brought to light two distinct benefits psychology can add to the creative process itself.

Firstly, psychology is like a whole new toolbox of creative triggers. It provides a multitude of interesting nuggets that can stimulate the conception of ideas.

And secondly, once the idea has been conceived, an understanding of psychology can also be used to guide the formation of the work into its various elements for greater efficacy.

Let me illustrate this with the following.

Before I started the grad dip, I had the idea of using an attachment on a car mirror to improve driving behaviours.

This was in response to a brief from a corporate client wanting to reduce their fleet damage bill, and the idea came from reading an article describing our automatic processing when reversing a car.

In my creative hubris I thought this attachment all that was needed.

Having done the course, I now know its success would also require attending to other considerations; tailored priming and reinforcement schedules, appropriate goal setting and rewards, and so on. If you’re interested, I’ve written it up here.

Leveraging psychology into the creative solution is not just about coming up with some behavioural economics ‘trick’.

It’s just as much about getting the basics right.

Enough about me, what about you

So far you’ve been asked to swallow a thick layer of figjam. Time for a palette cleanser.

You don’t need a creative with behavioural qualifications.

It’s not as if a hundred-odd years of brilliantly intuitive applied-creative thinking has suddenly been rendered invalid by my own damascene conversion.


This psychology thing is not going away.

Antony Giorgione is a freelance creative.


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