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The Biological Power of Push and Pull

On the 28th February 2015, in front of c1500 people at TEDx I stood up and launched my campaign against dumb, linear problem solving digital services.

Someone had said to me last year when I told them I’d got TEDx;

Oh no… you’re not going to stand up and do the hormones and Tinder rant are you?” …Whoops. I did it again.

You haven’t picked the REALLY big TEDx event, have you?” …Double whoops. Go big or go home, right?

When I set up Nexus explicitly as a behavioural design company, I had a mission in mind – to use technology to “Better connect people to digital experiences” and help people learn about themselves, evolve and get smarter.

In order to do all of that, I have to draw a line through the services out there that fundamentally rub up against my design philosophy (basically, all the ones that make us biologically dumber) and there was no better place for me to do that than on those hallowed boards, in the circle, in front of the big red TED.

I’m a fraud. It’s true.

We all know what I am and what I’m not… I’m not a neuroscientist. I’m a strategist. An experience planner. A designer with an unhealthy fascination in brain science – What a dangerous concoction I am.

Since the age of Mad Men, marketers have tried to tap into the human subconscious, basically try to influence consumers to buy their products. We worked out a long time ago that the brain reacts in a unique way when it spots a famous brand name or logo. You see, it doesn’t treat it like any other word or picture, instead it activates parts of the brain normally used to process emotions, and so you could argue that we, in the design community, on behalf of brands, have always been in the habit-forming, brain manipulation business. It’s what we’re paid to do. It’s our job. But a lot of agencies out there who worked out the emotions and story-telling trick have just used it to sell more ‘stuff’.

I say – Shame on you people. The brain is a really fragile, incredible thing. Respect it. We should be using this incredible opportunity we have to break habits, not create them. Stimulate the brain in good ways.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

10 years ago things started to get really juicy and in a big way. The invention of the iPhone started flooding the market with a new type of design – ‘The App’.

Apps suddenly brought digital design into the pockets of the people on a huge huge scale. Directing us like drones with instantaneous gratification and rewards galore. At best guess, about 1.5 billion smartphones were in use by the end of 2014 – That’s a lot of apps being consumed by people. But it’s also created a problem and a really really big one – Enthusiastic designers, creating stupider people.

The brain solves problems in two ways and it’s got nothing to do with the whole left-brain, right-brain tripe that is on posters all over the world too. That’s total nonsense.

There is linear problem-solving, which includes problems that have only one solution and are usually often better solved analytically. An example of a linear problem might be choosing to say yes or no, or left of right… a simplification of something.

Then there are complex, nonlinear problems which can have more than one solution and are solved much better with a different kind of thinking. They require non-conscious thinking. These types of problems are what we often refer to as Insight Problems. These types of problems require creativity – the ability to combine information in a whole new way.

The intense repetition of a task creates new, stronger neural pathways associated with that particular task. So the more Linear and Non Linear tasks people do, the stronger the brain learns to think in that particular way. As a person becomes an expert in a particular thing, the areas of the brain associated with those tasks actually grow. It’s why we get better at what we do if we do it repeatedly. Contrary to popular belief, this is not limited to children or youth either… but people of all ages.

So guess what happens if you make someone continuously perform a Linear task? You teach the brain to get simpler… you dumb people down.

Bus Drivers & Taxi Drivers

Here’s an example of how the intense repetition of a linear and non linear task affects us. There’s a really neat area of the brain called the hippocampus. It has a specialised role in developing the skill used to solve problems & navigate routes. It’s basically one of the bits of the brain that make us smarter and more analytical.
Now a Bus drivers hippocampus is much smaller than a Taxi Drivers because it’s under-stimulated. They drive the same route day after day. They’re Linear problem solvers.

Where-as Taxi drivers have a much bigger, more stimulated hippocampus because everyday they get to choose their own destiny. They solve creative challenges. They’re Non-linear problem solvers.

As a design community we’ve become rather obsessed with turning everyone into Bus Drivers for some reason. Everybody wants to make things simpler and on a massive massive scale. What an epic fail that is for humanity. Back in the day a chap called Einstein made this quote;

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

We might have wanted to pay a bit more attention to Mr Einstein, but in the last few years the tables on the app store have started tipping dramatically towards the Linear side of the equation.

I call it the Solve and Evolve paradox.

The Biological Power of Push and Pull

Here’s the next part of the story. The bit that’s going to get me into trouble. What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that both types of problem solving encourage lots of hormonal & biological responses. Digital is effectively a biological activity in as much as it encourages different types of hormones to be released in response to the content of the activity or task.

When you engage in digital services hormones are released almost instantaneously and recent research showed that something like a steroid hormone can alter almost every function of our body, from Growth to Shape to Metabolism to the Immune functions and even of course our brains – its mood and memory – possibly even someone’s personality and behaviour.

So the more we encourage people to use a particular app or service that hasn’t even been planned with some of the above in mind (literally) it could be doing two things;

  • Making people stupider
  • Messing about with peoples physiology

You think I’m joking don’t you? I wish I was. Let’s take my old nemesis Tinder on a test drive. Now there’s a dirty little app that hit the market 18 months ago. It’s been nicknamed by scientists as one of the most addictive apps on the market.

This type of new linear digital mating ritual did not even exist until a few years ago, so it’s really a totally new frontier. A whole uncharted set of triggers, behaviours and reactions designed in an app-developers head and released into the wild with very little thought beyond the potential to change the dating game.

Here’s the story of what’s going on…

You find a couple of people in close proximity to you that tickle your pickle, so you swipe them to the right to let them know you’re nearby & interested. Each swipe with your finger sets off a small chain-reaction of events within your body that can be as narcotic as crack.

Your body has gone into adrenaline high-alert in anticipation and swings full throttle through the gears of excitement, stress, anxiety and joy. At least four emotions in one swipe & in literally seconds. That’s pretty cool huh. Designers don’t tend to think about the emotions that come during or after an interaction only really the interaction itself.

At the same time the adrenal glands are starting to produce the hormone testosterone, which is what we call an anabolic steroid and one seriously potent chemical. Testosterone fans out across the body & starts to have its physical effect almost instantaneously. It also returns to the brain, changing the very way people are going to think and more importantly behave.

It just increased peoples confidence and also their appetite for risk.

There’s a really cool side effect of Testosterone feedback loop too… it involves success and failure.

Both male or female, regardless or what happens next, whether they succeed or whether they fail, they actually emerge with much higher levels of testosterone than when you first opened that app. Those elevated levels of testosterone give you a sort of androgenic priming. It gives you the edge, making your reactions much much quicker.

Over the years Scientists have replicated these effects with athletes, and believe the testosterone feedback loop may actually explain winning and losing streaks in sports.

This is total body re-engineering using just your thumb, an app and a photo of someone near-by. But what goes up must also come down… There’s a flip side to winning streaks of course. When you lose, you go the opposite way. Quite literally crashing into the opposite end of the spectrum.

There’s something else going on too – It has to do with the amount of time we let people play on these apps and services.

Adrenaline coupled with Testosterone were really evolutions way of making you run fast enough to get away from a bear in the woods. But after a prolonged siege the body also does something else.

After playing on services like Tinder for roughly 20mins or longer (it varies dramatically between men, woman, big, small, old, young etc), another part of the brain tells the hypothalamus to send a chemical message to the pituitary gland. This message has caused another hormone to start leaking out of the adrenal glands and across your body to take over from the testosterone and this one is the really really nasty one. It’s called Cortisol.

Cortisol is another steroid hormone. Only this one is released in response to stress and anxiety and not excitement or fear. But what we’ve done is trick it to be released during what was actually designed to be, effectively, a leisure activity. Cortisol kicks in to support us during a long siege & hangs around in the body for quite a while.

Cortisol has one main far-reaching command – glucose now – It starts to dismantle your body at a biological level. So people who pull out their phone to play on apps like tinder for a couple of minutes, are running off testosterone which is great. Get stuck in pal. But if people are spending 20, 30, 40 minutes at it, then they’re running off Coritsol, which has in effect ordered a complete re-tooling of your body away from leisure and ready for all out war… we’re letting people eat their own bodies.

We’re encouraging the body to react to stress. We’ve designed Stress.

So not only are we teaching the brain to get stupider by repeatedly making people perform a linear task to find the future Mr or Mrs Smith, we’ve also just induced stress in everybody finding love at first swipe for more than 15 or 20 mins.

Back to the mission

So why have I told you all this? Well – It’s pretty basic… I imagine a lot of you have never even stopped and considered that all these little digital experiences we’re creating have such an amazing effect on us physically, psychology etc. They’re just apps, right? But with every swipe, touch, pixel and ping we’re changing ourselves and the people around us.

If an idea is worth spreading, it’s that we need to make sure we design experiences that are non-linear and that they create short bursts of positive ripples rather than long bursts of negative ones.

Nexus is a company I’ve formed to start using all these amazing little biological quirks to create products that start to have positive effects. That bring these learnings into industries and services that probably have just had teams of really talented designers and user experience people happily designing away with no real legitimate reason to stop and consider what it is they’re actually designing from a biological or psychological feedback perspective (don’t even get me started on the Stamford Marshmallow Test!).

There’s another thought too – What if we could create products that actually start to reverse the effects of atrophy in the hippocampus and amygdala – make people smarter and more analytical? Make people less stressed or depressed?

We’re collecting an incredible amount of data about people and I want to use that data to start to map the human psyche. Help understand our motivations and design the right kind of services that support those motives, rather than random stress inducing dumb ones that make us stupider and eat us.

Don’t dumb down say, banking. Make the people doing banker smarter.

I’ve got nothing against bus drivers, they get me to where I want to go… but I really want to do is start helping people aspire to be taxi drivers… metaphorically speaking anyway.

Live long and prosper.

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