Everyone loves to be acknowledged and validated - theories of psychological development show that this is how children assimilate a sense of self and develop into healthy, socially-functioning adults.
But, as the last few months of social-media political frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic have shown, taken to extremes this desire to never encounter challenge can have some far-reaching effects. After Brexit, and Trump's elevation to American President Elect, educated, left-leaning citizens of both countries have been forced to acknowledge what only a few had rumbled previously.
Those clever algorithms that help us to read, watch and listen to what we like (based on what we have liked previously), have been acting like the digital equivalent of an extremely over-indulgent parent. In our efforts to edit the overwhelming quantity of content that the internet delivers us, we have inadvertently ended up surrounding ourselves only with political opinion that confirms our prejudices.
Given that many people now receive their news via their Facebook feed or Twitter account, this means it arrives accompanied by our friends and contacts' spin on it, inevitably compounding our own views. Facts appear to have gone the way of dial-up internet access, reflected by the adoption of the new phrase - 'Post Truth'.
The result has been the polarisation of politics. We hold our views even more rigidly, because we are all out of the habit of healthy debate. The American TV election debates were a case in point - very little actual dialogue between the candidates, just a lot of addressing the camera with statements.
Time for brands to take a stand?
So far, so depressing. We decided to drill down further into the subject at one of our Unfolded Talks sessions recently, with experts from evolutionary science, psychology and wellbeing helping to provide some perspectives.
It's a complex picture. But one thing seems clear. What the world needs right now (if you'll excuse the Coke ad paraphrase) is a lot more actual listening to people with different perspectives than our own. If we are to become less divided societies, we all need to learn to understand each other a little better.
This should concern citizens and governments, of course. But it also has relevance for commercial organisations. Over the past few years, as the digital dimension has progressively dominated marketing, the mantra of personalisation has developed. It is seen as the holy grail for businesses to attune to what consumers 'want' in terms of services, content and channel distribution, and serve this up to them, the marketing version of a 24/7 personal butler.
Delivering a healthy dose of difference
The problem is that this marketing butler has become too good at its job. The result has been a parroting back of consumer's interests, in a somewhat repetitive fashion (that is what the algorithms are designed for, after all).
I'd like to take a risk here and suggest that the truly progressive marketers of the next few years are going to be the ones that think a bit creatively with customer data, and actively serve up content that challenges the audience.
It may sound counter-intuitive but there is already evidence that it works. British news magazine The Economist created a campaign last year that directly challenged people's assumptions about hot issues like immigration and police brutality.
The taglines were deliberately controversial - 'Why has the Mediterranean turned into the Dead Sea?', and 'Have American cops gone ballistic?' - in an effort to invite potential subscribers to think. It was a big success, bringing in 3.6m readers (and potential subscribers) onto the website, far higher than the target 650,000.
It's a strategy that also lies behind Spotify's decision to create its weekly Discover playlists that blend what it knows users will like with some off piste tracks they would have been unlikely to come across otherwise.
This is partly about thinking more laterally about market research (which, let's face it, has also suffered a knock after Brexit and the American election). Sometimes, consumers won't or can't tell you what they are drawn towards.
This offers a big opportunity for brands willing to move out of the crowd and offer a positioning that appeals to those who want to embrace difference. They are out there - businesses must have the guts to take the step.Suggest a correction