What marketers know about “free will”

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

I have a couple of Mormon friends with whom discussions about religion and science take place. And one of the main things we disagree about is the notion of free will.

A basic tenet of the Mormon faith is that human beings have free will or “agency” – agency over our thoughts and actions. According to them, we have the free will to choose whether to walk through one door or the other; to befriend one person or another; to buy this product or that; and, crucially for them, to decide whether to take the righteous path or not.

How we make our conscious choices determines not just whether we go to heaven or hell but what strata of heaven we might eventually find ourselves in when we die (there are three levels: Telestial, Terrestrial, Celestial).

Free will is an integral part of their paradigm because at each opportunity – each fork in the road – a human being must make a conscious decision about whether they are going to be “good” or “evil”.

We are a process

My own inclination is that free will is an illusion. In fact, I don’t even understand how a human can make his or her own decisions.

What’s more, I suspect marketers intuitively know and exploit this.

Perhaps part of my disagreement with the Mormons stems from how we define what a human being is in the first place.

Because of our conditioning, a human being appears to be an autonomous, decision-making entity, navigating through a world.

But from another perspective, a human being is not an isolated thing or event, and does not, cannot, have agency.

A human, like everything else we see about us, is a process – an ever-changing collection of bio-chemical interactions or patterns of energy – intricately linked with, in fact inherently part of, and a product of, the environment within which "it" finds "itself".

It's a process within a process within a process ad infinitum.

Our perceptions that trick us in to thinking we are somehow separate from our surroundings. But we are not.

One of the most obvious ways to test our inseparability from the environment is to try to stop breathing.

The reason it is impossible hold your breath for, say twenty minutes or more, is because oxygen is required by the body to burn sugars and fatty acids in order to produce energy. Without this energy, we encounter a problem: mortality.

This is one, silly, illustration of how we rely on the perceived “external” environment by drawing it “inside” of us so that billions of chemical reactions can take place so that we might live on.

The exchange is seamless because of our deep integration with the Earth and its atmosphere. What’s more, we don’t have a choice whether we interact with our environment in this (or any other) manner. Please don’t tell me you have agency over whether you breathe or not.

Consider throwing just a few more interactions with the “external” environment into the general mix of being alive: ingesting food; being exposed to the weather; and seeing and interacting with objects and other people and the bio-chemical changes that take place in our bodies and brains due to these interactions.

At what point do we suddenly have agency or control over any of these interactions or how they affect us?

At what point does the environment cease being the environment and start being a human being? After respiration? After digestion? After brain cognition?

Where is the boundary?

Perhaps the boundary is artificial – a construct of perception.

If it's more true to say that this boundary doesn’t exist, that would mean that we are not in our environment, we are our environment. And we are the exchanges and changes we experience with it.

How does this relate to free will?

It is the first thing to consider because free will requires an “I”, an agent, in order to have agency – in order to carry out conscious decision-making.

But the very notion of “I” becomes nebulous when scrutinised. A human being, just like anything else, is not a static entity… it's a fluid, ever-changing process woven into the so-called outside world.

There’s a grander pattern within which “I” belongs and the boundaries between “I” and its surroundings are an illusion.


When it comes to the origin of life on Earth, the current understanding is that single-cellular entities, or “proto-cells” emerged as a side effect of hydrothermal activity in vents deep in the ocean, billions of years ago. Eventually these single-cellular entities became multi-cellular and the rest is history, leading us to where we are today (Darwin tells it better).

We, standing here today, are the product of an incomprehensibly complex sequence of events that spans back before even the formation of the Earth, before even the formation of this galaxy.

At what point during these cosmological and evolutionary processes did we suddenly acquire agency over any aspect of these events?

Some would say it was when consciousness emerged. But no one knows what consciousness is. No one has found it. And no one knows when it emerged.

At what point did an “I” – an agent – emerge? The baby in the mother’s womb… does that have a sense of “I”? Does that have any agency? A teenager… has lots of ideas about who “I” is, could or should be… are any of them correct or real? A fully-grown adult contributing to a functioning society… does he or she really know who or what "I" is? Or are these just stories, narratives, that are told in hindsight and perhaps for reasons of comfort or justification?

Do we have any choice about what environment we are born into?

Do we choose how our interactions with the environment shape our bodies and minds from a young age, no matter what we inherit genetically?

At what age do we suddenly acquire agency over our thoughts and actions despite what’s going on in our environment?

Dr. Gabor Mate reminds us that: “Although the mind creates the environment, it is the environment that first creates the mind.” In other words, everything is downstream from the moment of conception, or more accurately, before even then.

Here’s an over-simplified illustration: a kid born and raised in an upper-class household with two “stable” parents is most probably going to have a different mind-set, emotional composition, and decision-making process than one born and raised, with no parents, in a crack house surrounded by addicts and gangsters.

Either scenario could result in a “good”, neutral, or “bad” outcome but who they are as people, supposedly “conscious decision-makers” with “agency”, will surely be different, at least from zero years old through to the late teens. (And we’re not even mentioning the role of genetics here.)

Importantly, peer groups – social circles – will further determine these two distinct domestic scenes.

Where does the boundary exist between what “I” think and what my best friends or family think and how they behave? When do “I” become an autonomous decision-maker? When am "I" not the product of my environment?

Thoughts arising

Consider the billions (trillions?) of bio-chemical reactions taking place in your body right now… sodium and potassium crossing membranes, glucose oxidizing to carbon dioxide, catalase breaking down hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water, and on and on …

How many of these processes do you have conscious control over? Are you conscious of your liver right now? Are "you" breaking down old and damaged blood cells with the help of vitamin K? Or is it just happening in your liver, as it always does and has done, regardless of whether you are conscious of it or not?

What about at the even smaller scales: electrons and quarks? What control do you have over the patterns they form and how they manifest at a macro level?

How might all of this unconscious activity affect our “conscious” thinking?

Are we really in charge of what mood we’re in? Or what thoughts we have?

At what point along the spectrum from quark to spoken word and action do we have agency? Or even a percentage of agency?

Do we really think our thoughts? Or do they arise within awareness? Triggered perhaps by “external” or “internal” events that are completely beyond our control?

There seems to be an artificial boundary between the notion of a conscious thought and an unconscious one.

Jon Kabat-zinn uses a compelling analogy for how thoughts arise in consciousness:

Untendered, thoughts build on thoughts and, if identified with by the egoic mind – itself a collection of thoughts – become who we (think we) are. From the bible: “As he thinketh, so in his heart is he” Proverbs 23 7.

Trains of thoughts lead us down certain paths in life and build upon each other, creating a narrative in our heads about who we are, what we have done, what others have done to us, how we “should” respond to certain situations because “I” am “me”, including… what we "should" buy.

How marketers sell us stuff

A flash of red with the words Coca Cola on it zips past you on the side of a truck causing a very specific pattern of neural activity in your brain.

Do you have agency over this?

Were you responsible for that specific bio-electric reaction that took place in your head in response to that stimulus?

Is it not possible that, perhaps along with a slew of other multi-sensory cues over a time-period prior to and post that incident, you might be swayed into buying a can of Coke the next day or week or month?

Do you decide to buy that can of Coke?

In his book How brands grow, Byron Sharp puts forward a simple but concrete theory backed with a bunch of research, about what makes brands successful: salience. That’s all. Simply surround your consumer with as much relevant stimulus as possible, as consistently and persistently as is feasible.

The idea is to create and preserve as many "memory structures" to do with the brand, in the brains of the target audience. This is done by infiltrating – even better creating – the environment that determines what and how the target consumer thinks about (or better yet, is/becomes).

The race is for the real estate in your brain. Marketers want to dominate, or at least be a nagging factor in, the neural activity of your brain. They want to determine, or at least influence, “your” thoughts – the thoughts that were never “yours” in the first place.

A brand will have done its job if it has occupied so much of “your” thinking and internal dialogue that “your” actions result in a sell.

These days, marketers don’t just create environments, they craft them. Right now, there are graphic designers at large branding agencies spending countless hours honing the shapes of the letters on a Mars bar wrapper or a Carlsberg label. They are doing this in order to appeal to the subconscious "decision-making" process that goes into making a buying decision based on what the target audience might see out of the corner of an eye and then identifies with as “self”.

And since the algorithm’s introduction to the commercial world on the Internet, crafting has become an even more intense affair. Targeted advertising, currently pioneered by, and the cash-cow of, Google and Facebook, is taking salience to the next level by delving deeper into, and indeed shaping, our psychology, natural dispositions, emotional responses and sense of identity. (Yuval Noah Harari and others are concerned that these algorithms are starting to define for us, who we are.)

"Advertisers want to mine your brain".

Marketers know that they need to shape the environment which not just surrounds the individual but determines who they are. Because no one is easier to sell something to than the person who has already “consciously” sold that thing to them”self”.

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