The Psychologist’s Fallacy and Your Business. - Bruce Turkel

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Back in 1996 I was browsing the shelves of a bookstore (remember them?) when I happened across Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist. I was already a big fan of historical fiction, especially concerning the Victorian age, and the book became an instant favor of mine.

My memory of it was so strong that when I was straightening up my bookshelves recently and came across it I started reading it again almost immediately – sitting cross-legged in the pile of books, magazines, and car models I had pulled down from the shelf. Only once I was halfway through the Carr’s book did I discover that the novel is now available both on Audible and has been turned into a mini-series on TNT.

One of the points I remember from my first reading of The Alienist is the concept of The Psychologist’s Fallacy.  The Psychologist’s Fallacy describes the error that is made when an observer (in this case, a psychologist) concludes that their interpretation of something is actually the objective explanation of that occurrence.

I found that so interesting because of its current relevance. Also because there is a similar theory in marketing called The Self-Referencing Criteria, or, more casually, A Survey of One. Just like The Psychologist’s Fallacy, Self-Referencing Criteria explains the phenomenon that occurs when a marketer believes his or her consumers do (or don’t do) something simply because that’s how the marketer themself would act.

And it’s not just marketers, it’s all of us. Any time you’ve commented on someone’s actions with the words, “…well I’d never do that” or “…anyone can see that…” you’re applying a self-referencing criteria to the act you’re observing. At the same time, you’re assuming that your own subjective opinion is actually an objective truth.

The difference between the two was neatly summed up in politician and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote, “you are entitled to your own views, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Think about your reaction to the Coronavirus crisis, for example. If you are healthy, have no comorbidities, haven’t seen a reduction in your finances, and don’t know anyone who has fallen ill or died from Covid-19, you may think our response to the contagion is an over-reaction and wonder when we’re just going to get on with our lives.

If, on the other hand, you are particularly vulnerable, have seen a dramatic loss in income or have lost family or friends to the pandemic, you probably have a very different idea of what’s going on.

These differences in opinion can affect not just your health, but how you spend your time and money, how you run your business, and even how you vote. And just as your own particular experiences and opinions affect your actions, they also affect 365 million other Americans’ behavior too.

Understanding The Psychologist’s Fallacy becomes particularly important if you’re trying to sell your products, entice your customers or get yourself or someone else elected to public office. If you ignore this phenomenon, by believing that your subjective opinions are not only correct but that other’s conflicting opinions are therefore incorrect, you do so at your own peril.


  1. Rosalind Merritt
    July 27, 2020

    Very astute and timely, Bruce!
    Now this concept of “psychological fallacy” makes it even harder to determine what is reality when One’s psychology and life experiences are taken into consideration. Therefore, balance between fact and opinion is made even more blurred than ever.

    If we substitute the words “good vs evil“ for “fact vs opinion,“ It gets to the heart of why our country is so blatantly divided.
    It all boils down to Genesis story of eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. Paradise wasn’t so rosy anymore. Mankind having free will and knowing the difference between good and evil eliminates the bliss of ignorance.

    “Alternate facts“ seems to have taken a front seat — without any care to delve more deeply into ethical truths. This is especially true concerning millennials who seem to have little regard for crucial historical events, nor any attention to detail. We all have become reduced to “The Devil is in the details.”

    Rosalind Merritt,
    A retiree and senior citizen who used to believe we couldn’t trust anyone over 30 but now believes the opposite: Don’t trust anyone UNDER 30!

  2. Michael Fine
    July 24, 2020

    That was very deep and simple at the same time, thanks for the thought provoking awareness of respective perspectives. Too bad more people don’t understand that an opposing opinion isn’t necessarily a criticism.
    Looking forward to more civil days ahead.

  3. July 22, 2020

    Solipsism at its most extreme form is believing that everyone else sees the world as you do. (Orwell brutalized the concept.) Good friends, good politicians, good business people, help you understand that your perspective is not the only one.

    A good therapist helps you understand that your view of the world may be sustainable. A great therapist helps you understand empathy, to be aware of the viewpoint of others. An extraordinary therapist helps you incorporate the perspectives of those around you so that you can connect with them in productive ways.

    As always, good ethics is good business. Thank you, Bruce, for bringing these important topics to our attention.

  4. July 22, 2020

    Everyone lives their own reality – if you understand that and attempt to see things their way – you are on the road to making it —– ALL ABOUT THEM

  5. July 22, 2020

    Great reminders about our points of view. When I was in retail advertising back in the 90s, my VP boss would critique our copy by saying “We’re talking to ourselves!” That goaded us to keep trying to look at things from our customers’ perspectives. It’s HARD!

  6. Karen Davis
    July 22, 2020

    Bruce, I couldn’t agree more with you. I think it’s a big reason so many entrepreneurs and marketers these days are following in the footsteps of the tenets of “Design Thinking”, which is all based on solving consumer problems, not just building products. Empathy is built into the design of the product — how does the potential user of this actually use similar products. What they need is a result of going to the market and asking and observing first! Not what a marketer or executive thinks.

    • Bruce Turkel
      July 22, 2020

      I love that line, Karen, “Empathy is built into the design of the product.” Sadly, I think that that concept is much less prevalent than it should be. Too many people still believe that the key is to build the better mousetrap, NOT to build the mousetrap that the users want. Of course, to your point, manufacturers would know that if they went to the market and asked and observed.

  7. Alan Campbell
    July 22, 2020

    So true and so prevalent. Years ago I worked with a market research executive, who always preached, “kill your favorites”. Meaning that scrutiny of the favorites should be even more intense.


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