In Part I of this series, I outlined how customer worldview represents the highest level of customer insight. Now let’s examine how differences in customer worldview come to life with a specific cognitive concept. A cognitive concept is a simple idea or attribute that conservatives and liberals perceive differently. In this article, I’ll use perception of the future as an example cognitive concept and then apply it to technology companies. You’ll see how this simple example has profound implications for thinking about businesses, products, communications, and more.
To understand how each group thinks differently about the future, consider the common understanding that conservatives don’t like change while liberals want change - to be progressive. We hear it all the time. But why do conservatives not want change? Conversely, why do liberals continuously push for change? The reason lies in each worldview’s relationship to the present and the future, from research in social anthropology.
Here’s how it goes: For conservatives, the present is mostly acceptable. Conservatives are mostly content with the way things are, so there is no need to change it. For liberals, the present state is full of flaws, and the world needs engineering to fix all of the flaws to create a better state for everyone. The future is more known to conservatives because maintaining the present state assures a more predictable future state. What’s true today will be mostly true tomorrow. When things don’t change, there are fewer surprises.
For liberals, the future is far less known because it’s uncertain when all the flaws in the present state will be fixed and how fixes will be accomplished. In the meantime, there are a lot of problems. For liberals, the future is a source of significant anxiety because it’s so unknown. There is the distinct possibility that things won’t go according to plan in trying to fix the flaws, and in some cases, things may go horribly wrong. So there is a lot of concern and worry about the future for liberals.
Of course, this is a dramatic generalization. It won’t explain how every conservative or liberal thinks about the future. It will also be true to varying degrees. Like other ideas and definitions in this newsletter and the book, I am interested in insightful broad strokes here. I want to understand larger groups of people, not every individual. I want to figure out the connective tissue that joins people within a group to evaluate products, markets, businesses, and communications.
Let’s look at a short sampling of research that may corroborate assertions about the future for liberals and conservatives. Gallup and other well-known research organizations track many attributes of the American public and often break down results by “Republican” vs. “Independent” vs. “Democrat.” I’m more interested in conservative vs. liberal - the worldview, not the political party. The two are mostly equivalent today, although that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. With studies like those from Gallup, I’ll use results from Democrats and Republicans as indications of liberal and conservative. Independents will be discussed in another issue (spoiler alert - Independents aren’t). It’s not perfect, but it’s mostly right.
Consider mental health as a representation of worry and anxiety about the future. Gallup measures American mental health ratings, with data going back to 2000. Before the pandemic, fifty-six percent of conservatives reported having “excellent” mental health while only thirty percent of liberals did. That’s a twenty-six point difference with liberals, representing almost half the number of conservatives with excellent mental health. Through the pandemic, the number of conservatives reporting excellent mental health declined fourteen points while liberals declined just two percentage points. The pandemic affected conservatives more because they weren’t used to worrying about the future as much.
Perceptions of the future most likely do not explain all of this difference, but it’s related. I’ll explore other cognitive concepts that touch on mental health in future issues. Now let’s consider more specific attitudes toward the future - and who feels a need to know more about it. If the future is unknown and is a source of anxiety for liberals, then what behaviors do they have that reveal this? How about a propensity to use crystal balls?
Astrology promises to use the positions of the planets and stars to predict future outcomes. It’s one way to glimpse what the future holds, assuming you buy into the methods. In 2009, Pew Research conducted a study on religious beliefs that included “new age” beliefs of astrology and fortune-telling. As it turns out, liberals are almost twice as likely to believe in astrology as conservatives, with 30% of liberals reporting the belief and 16% of conservatives. The same study revealed that liberals were more than twice as likely to see a fortune teller.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), there is also evidence that belief in astrology as a science is increasing. They don’t consider this a good thing. Jim Lindgren is a professor at Northwestern University working on the Demography of Diversity project. He studied the NSF data in detail to look at the differences between liberals and conservatives. He found that nearly half of all liberals believe astrology is “very scientific” or “sort of scientific,” while 31% of conservatives felt the same way. In a liberal worldview, astrology has a higher degree of credibility than with conservatives. More liberals want to believe it as a result of trying to make sense of the future.
What does any of this have to do with aligning your business to your market? A lot. These insights have enormous implications for any business that makes or sells products that promise to improve the lives of its customers. What product doesn’t? Whether you are unclogging drains, eating yogurt, or buying a new car, there are strong implications for how businesses create a better, new future for customers. Certainly, the bold new future created by unclogged drains may be temporary, but it’s hard to think of a product that doesn’t affect someone’s future to some degree.
Let’s ground this with a specific industry example - technology. Here’s a category that holds potential for the most dramatic changes to someone’s future. How technology is developed, tested, and sold can provide interesting insights into how businesses align or misalign with how customers think about the future due to a liberal or conservative worldview.
Consider, for example, the more extreme forms of technology - driverless cars, social media algorithms, facial recognition, gene editing, brain chip implants for managing disease, and robotics. According to a Pew Research study, in every case, liberals are far more concerned about the management of these technologies in the future than conservatives - by a gap of twenty to thirty percentage points. This concern or anxiety is expressed in the belief that the government won’t go far enough to control these innovations. So here’s an example where “progress” has the potential to run amok in the minds of liberals, revealing the anxiety and concern over the future. It’s certainly not unwarranted - it’s just interesting that liberals are far more concerned about it than conservatives.
Technology - very broadly - can be perceived in many different ways to appeal to conservative or liberal worldviews related to future perceptions. The same technology can be presented, for example, as making things run better versus creating an exciting new revolutionary world. Or the same technology can be presented in a worldview-neutral manner to attempt to appeal across the worldview divide. The right business strategy will depend on the unique circumstances present in a given situation. Remaining neutral from a worldview perspective or leaning into one group versus the other are all viable strategies depending on the business and market at hand.
Now let’s look at who is behind the making of technology - the people and companies and understand what worldview they may have that can influence how they project onto the market. People, and the culture they create in companies, tend to have biases toward one worldview or another. This isn’t a problem - it just needs to be put on the table and evaluated.
We all have a worldview, and it’s expressed in many different ways. Politics is just one of them. How we assemble our lives around us is another. The profession we choose can be another. Certain professions align better with liberal or conservative worldviews. Not all skew heavily toward liberals or conservatives, but many do. I’ll do a deeper dive on this topic in a future issue, but let’s consider technology companies for now.
You can measure a profession’s worldview orientation by looking at political donation data that is publicly available. When contributing to a campaign, you must disclose who you are, where you work, and what you do. This data can be summarized on a national level to understand trends in different professions and industries. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.
Software engineers - the very people who make technology products are four times more likely to be liberal than conservative. They are, after all, engineering the future as a profession. If the present isn’t full of problems, why bother making software? Software engineers work every day to create a new future, not preserve the present or strive for incremental change. There are other roles, such as operations, that tend to be split down the middle with regard to worldview. Business owners and executives tend to skew conservative. These measures, of course, are national and pretty broad. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that overall, technology companies, across several key functions, skew liberal. It’s no coincidence that many are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Austin, and Seattle.
Pew Research studies perceptions of technology companies and found that 64% of conservatives believe technology companies support the views of liberals while only 28% of liberals do. Among conservatives, only 6% believe technology companies support the views of conservatives. Those with a conservative worldview are picking up signals that technology companies are predisposed toward a liberal worldview. Put another way, a large portion of the overall national market believes technology companies do not align with their worldview.
A liberal predisposition will cause a technology company to not think twice about having a mission related to engineering a bold new future - something a conservative market may not want, depending on the product and how it’s presented. However, this predisposition can be managed to make strategies, products, and communications attractive to both groups. The key is to get it on the table and talk about it without invoking any politics, policy, or debate about elections.
So we’ve taken the idea of customers having either a conservative or liberal worldview. We then applied it to a specific cognitive concept - perception of the future - to understand differences. Then we took one industry to understand how it may generally project a particular worldview onto the market related to perception of the future - to understand alignment between businesses and markets. The result is generalized insights into how growth and efficiency can reduce through worldview misalignment.
To illustrate this further, let’s be even more specific with a set of competitive companies - Coinbase, FTX, and Crypto.com. They are all competing as cryptocurrency exchanges, where you can buy and sell cryptocurrency. You’ll see how each of the three projects a different worldview onto the market, based mainly on how they were founded and how they communicate. In terms of market fit, one is getting it mostly right, one has potential, and the other is somewhat out of alignment. That’s the focus of Part III of this series.
Originally published in the Newsletter Red and Blue Customers.