Francis Cholles has written a terrific book that explores some very particular aspects of how the mind works, and, more importantly, how we’re thinking wrongly about it. And by “we” I don’t mean scientists, for they actually appear to be figuring out what’s going on in our heads. But “we” as in the general public, which includes everyone making advertising, consuming advertising and reading this review.

The first thing we’re wrong about and that Cholles wants us to rethink has to do with our fundamental misunderstanding about cognition – that on the “thinking spectrum” you’ve got “reason & logic” on one end and “hunches & instincts” on the other, and that these are mortal enemies, constantly warring for our attention like the proverbial devil and angel on your shoulders. This, it turns out, is not really how our brains work, nor how we need them to.

For as Cholles very sensibly points out, life, despite our determination to view it otherwise, is fundamentally neither rational nor logical. It’s full of random unforeseen chaos that belies common sense (advertising doubly so). And yet, as we said, our inclination as humans is to make it rational. We analyze it and apply “if-then” structures, and build flow charts to describe what, very often are a series of utterly ridiculous events. But why? Or as Cholles writes “if life is not rational, why do we seek rational solutions for its problems?”

Why do we? Well so we don’t lose our minds, probably. Embracing the idea that we live in a completely random and meaningless universe is frankly more than we – or our societies – can handle. But there’s another reason too: the pursuit of order – or called by another name, “identifying reoccurring patterns” – is how, for millennia, our brains kept us from getting killed. How many times, for example, do you have to get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger before you realize that they’re dangerous?

And that’s a fascinating friction, isn’t it? The existence of two answers that both make sense – that are both true – and yet are in utter opposition. 1) Logic and reason have kept us alive in 2) a universe that is neither logical nor reasonable. 

Cholles’s solution to this friction is, as we alluded to a little earlier, to suggest that logic and instinct are really just two parts of one tool and that there is a missing piece that bridges them that can help them work together to achieve the kind of success we are seeking today. And that missing piece is called “intuition”. For as Cholles writes:

Instinct is our innate inclination toward a particular behaviour (as opposed to a learned response). A ‘gut feeling’ – or a hunch – is a sensation that appears quickly in consciousness (noticeable enough to be acted on if one chooses to) without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence. Intuition is a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason. [Emphasis added]

And that alone makes Cholles’ book worth purchasing – that instinct and logic are not in opposition but must work together to help us survive and thrive and that intuition is the bridge that can make that happen.

But here’s another reason: Cholles has actually drawn up a sort of device that helps you do what he’s talking about. A “compass” (hence the title of the book) that can help you 1) figure out how to make these three elements (logic, intuition and instinct) work together for you and 2) understand what part of the compass your particular brain tends to inhabit to understand better your own strengths and weaknesses doing it. And to be clear, this compass isn’t some little gimmicky device; it’s a robust and flexible tool that will invariably help you do better work.

Pretty nifty, huh?

The value of all this to advertisers should be obvious. Anything that helps us understand how brains work –how humans really think – should help us understand how to make better ads, right? I mean, if you know (now) that instinct and logic are not at loggerheads but instead that humans relied on both to process information properly, that would be good right? You might stop creating ads that were either one or the other (hello Rosser Reeves/Howard Gossage cage matches) and start craft messaging that’s both intuitive and logical, right? That used their intuition to your – and your customers’– advantage. Now, what exactly do ads made that way look like? I have no idea. Which leads me to believe that they would be excitingly new and compelling. Which is usually exactly what we’re hunting for, isn’t it?

And that leads to another valuable thing about Cholles’ insights into how we think. Because as we’ve said time and again, advertising is a part of culture. It uses the elements of culture, and swims in the slipstreams of it. Thus as culture changes, and as the demands of it fluctuate, advertising must evolve accordingly or become even more irrelevant than it often already is. And that’s exactly what Cholles says is going on right now. We live in a different age that requires a different kind of response by all of us:

Logic and reason alone can no longer guide us toward innovation or success. They will not be enough to get us to the level of creativity and reinvention we need to address the challenges of the new economy. We need to deal with the deeper part of human nature: intuition and instinct. Science, evidence in the real world, and experience tell us that our intuition and our instinct, although sometimes difficult to completely understand, very often point us in the right direction.

I realize all this may sound a little counter-intuitive, but read The Intuitive Compass yourself and see what you think. Personally, I have a hunch he may be right.


The Intuitive Compass by Francis P. Cholle was published by Jossey Bass on 10/18/2011 – order it from Amazon here, or order from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).


Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

You May Also Want to Read:

Instinct by Rebecca Heiss
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden