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Girl, interrupted Were it not for an inspirational teacher changing her path, Dr Linda Papadopoulos might never have majored in psychology. Major consumer brands are glad she did

writing

Ben Walker photography

Laura Hynd

When very young, Dr Linda Papadopoulos wanted to be a journalist, the sort that knows a little about a lot. It was the influence of an inspirational teacher that changed her path, driving her instead to dive deep into the human psyche and help people understand their minds, motivations and behaviour. “I originally wanted to do what you do,” she says. “But you know when you have those moments in life – maybe only one or two – where you meet an erudite, amazing, interesting teacher? I met a psychology teacher like that and I became besotted with it, I completely engaged with the subject.” She doesn’t see a fundamental difference between the two disciplines. “What you and I do come from the same motivations, right? Being interested in human behaviour. But while journalism describes what is happening, psychology explores why.” Papadopoulos is a Canadian national of Greek-Cypriot extraction (her parents moved from Cyprus to Ontario in the 1970s, before she was born). Her cultural background from a segregated, conflicted, sometimes war-torn, country runs rich in her blood, informing her passions. “I was from a very young age aware of the horrible things people were capable of doing to each other,” she says. “Psychology tries to understand things that don’t make sense.” Following her PhD, Papadopoulos rose to relative fame as a relationships expert – appearing on TV shows around the world (she helped smooth over the inevitable conflicts born of incarcerating several twentysomethings in the Big Brother house). She advises the public on issues surrounding dermatology, sex, body image and self-esteem. She’s known to many British readers as a lifestyle coach in the UK edition of women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. But her expertise extends well beyond the tricky area of emotional support into the complex field of consumer behaviour. Why do humans buy the things they do? Global brands such as Dior, Renault, Speedo and Diageo use her analysis to help them understand their customers. Her worldview, that psychology tries to understand things that don’t make sense, seems appropriate. At first blush, consumerism

– particularly the love of brands – makes no sense at all. A Dior handbag costs 100 times more than a similar piece a woman might buy in a high street chain, but isn’t 100 times better in quality. Yet Papadopoulos demurs from the notion that purchasing the designer model is inherently irrational. “The value of something – whether the price is 10 times, 100 times or 1,000 times that of an equivalent – depends entirely on how the buyer decides to value it,” she says. “You might buy into a brand. Take university courses – there are a handful of top universities that everyone wants to go to. Is what is taught there significantly different to what’s taught everywhere else? To some extent, yes, but probably not to the extent that would seem to justify the markup in the pricing. Yet what that markup implies is the projected value that we place on it – and to me, that is what’s interesting.”

The value of something – whether the price is 10 times that of an equivalent – depends entirely on how the buyer decides to value it That intangible value is potent – but unreliable. Papadopoulos says that her most surprising discovery about consumer behaviour is how quickly the landscape can change. Trust, she says, is ever more important. “Consistency of message!” she says. “It’s amazing how quickly you can get things wrong – and how quickly you can get things right, if you gain that trust.” She recalls an anti-smoking campaign. These are notoriously difficult projects – most smokers don’t respond to health messages, otherwise they wouldn’t be smokers. Smoking still has a cool image, despite it being a known killer. Yet Papadopoulos turns this on its head: “People don’t smoke to be cool,” she says. “But the traits that are considered cool do tend to be found more in smokers – because smokers tend to be more risk-taking, and less approval-seeking.” The campaign avoided traditional health-

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