NeuroCX – Joygasms and Dopamine Jackpots.

Is there a neurological recipe for success?

FROM SXSW INTERACTIVE 2014 – Sunday, March 9, 11:15AM – 11:30AM Austin Convention Center, Ballroom E

Video of the talk embedded at the bottom of this page.

This is kind of one of those hot topics at the moment… 

The manipulation of the masses… The cigarette of this century. The press warning us of digitals addictive and potentially destructive side-effects.

In 2012 I started working with the Behavioral Finance Team at one of the UKs biggest banks on a project that we affectionately nicknamed Money Conscience. What we wanted to do was see if we could create experiences that would change an investors behavior, break bad habits, encourage good ones & create new ones. We know there are triggers in the brain that can be influenced to modify a persons deep engrained behavioral biases and possibly even change how often and how attached they became to a service, app, game, tool or product.

We didn’t want to create something creepy or FarmVille like, but we did want to see if we could reward attention rather than demand it By doing so create a deeper connection with the customer by making them feel like they’d really got better at something and progressed.

What we learnt on our adventure was pretty neat & Im going to quickly share some of that today and hopefully open your eyes to how we can start to create experiences that change the way brands can connect with their consumers.

When we do something out of habit, we use little or no cognitive effort. Most of us don’t spend a long time each morning deliberating on what to eat for breakfast or how to travel to work, such daily routines have quickly become ingrained habits. Consumers take our technology with them to bed now too – When they wake up they check their notifications, tweets, and updates before they’ve even said good morning to their loved ones in a lot of cases. But can we actually start to CREATE habits?

I do believe the answer is yes & it’s not even that complicated. Before I give my three tips on how to do it, I’m just going to give you a quick, very crude lesson about the Human Brain.

We know there are three main parts to the human brain…

  • The reptilian part which deals with instinct – fight or flight.
  • The neo-cortex which deals with sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought & language
  • The limbic section (or paleomammalian brain), which is where, learned behavior, emotions, memories and more importantly where we think habits are formed.

Think about it like this – Information, Knowledge and Experiences.

It’s that Limbic part where all the really neat stuff happens seems to be happening.

So you ask 20 neuro-scientists about this and you’ll get 20 different answers. I’m basing my rules here around the research we did into how some this stuff supposedly functions. However – The best thing to do is just consider my use of the word “dopamine” as a metaphor for Happiness & Joy.

If there were a celebrity among brain chemicals, it would be dopamine. It’s forever linked to salacious stories of sex, drugs and wild partying in the popular press.

It’s the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters if you like.

It might also be an experience designers secret weapon… When a person encounters an experience and its deemed a sensation i.e that was amazing or that was terrible signals created in the cerebral cortex release the chemical dopamine into the MESO-LIMBIC pathway. A small but important brain tract that connects a deep brain area called the NUCLEUS ACCUMBENS to the frontal lobes. More elegantly, it’s what we call The Reward Centre.

The Reward Centre attempts to regulate and control behavior by inducing pleasurable effects. When you activate the reward Center after a behavior, it causes the probability of that behaviors occurrence to increase. Just look at the success of social games like FarmVille & Candy Crush. It’s how positive experiences remain engrained with an individual. We are literally genetically programmed to remember things and if we really like them we repeat them over and over until they become a habit.

So what are the principles we identified for stimulating those magic dopamine bombs to go off? There are 3 core ones;

  • Joygasms – Expanding scenarios linked to sustained progress and instant gratification.
  • Kudos – The encouragement of altruism.
  • Commas – Experiences that are repeated, interrupted & never end Lets take a look at my experience principles.

Joygasms – Expanding scenarios linked to sustained progress and instant gratification

Giving people incentives and information is not necessarily enough. They need to feel involved and effective in a scenario to feel like they achieved something. And when they achieve something positive, BOOM, good feelings.

Giving people an opportunity to focus their energy, with relentless optimism, at something they can get better at, encourages the brain to respond with rewards much in the same way that it does with things like food, and sex and social interactions You feel good about reaching your goal.

However, what we also discovered is that in task based rewards, the new learned behavior also leads to extraverted behavior Producing positive emotions and feelings of desire that motivate us to work toward obtaining those rewards even more. You literally want to continue to do it and repeat it again.

What also became very clear to us, is that when we’re encouraged to participate in highly structured, self-motivated hard work, we regularly achieve the greatest form of happiness available to human beings – Satisfaction. The feeling that you’re getting better at something.

The trick to the actual reward at the end of the task is variation… You’ve got to mix it up. For example, the predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again (Unless you happen to be my 1 year old daughter Phoebe of course). However, add some variability to the mix – say a different treat magically appearing in the fridge every time you open it, and voila, desire is created. You’ll be opening that door like a lab rat in a Skinner box.

Nike Fuel nailed it with their task > reward feedback loop. You’re working hard, getting fitter, but you’re also receiving a myriad of little nods and thumbs up and badges and stuff.

Research shows that dopamine surges when the brain is expecting a reward too, not just earning it. So introducing variability multiples that effect.

Kudos – The encouragement of altruism

Since the beginning of time most people are motivated to do the right thing. There are cases where say, money is de-motivating as it undermines peoples intrinsic motivation. For example, you would quickly stop inviting friends to dinner if they insisted on paying you.

Altruism is a massive trigger for the Reward Center. MRI studies reveal that when we perform an act of kindness, the Reward Center is aroused and we experience feelings of pleasure because Dopamine bombs are dropping.

The brain is flooded with happiness-inducing dopamine whenever we share something we think other people might find useful Or when we help out someone deemed to be in need, or worse off than ourselves.

Think about it, why do we Tweet? Why do we share links on Facebook? Its all about recognition. Stand well back, The Ego Has Landed.

Observing other peoples altruistic behavior matters too: People do many things by observing others and copying; People are encouraged to continue to do things when they feel other people not only approve of their behavior, but are behaving in the same way.

Its the Eternal Return… Good feeling invites good feeling… Make sure you bake in viral loops and enough opportunities for a consumer to share, give feedback to each other and do good things.

Commas – Experiences that are repeated, interrupted & never end

This is the biggy. The really important one. The previous two rules are just Gamification and Social Media. Thats easy to think about… Whats hugely important is that all of our projects turn into a series of commas and not full-stops.

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist and a member of Berlin School of experimental psychology. She discovered what we now refer to in UX rather originally as the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Zeigarnik noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders. However, after the completion of the task after everyone had paid he or she was unable to remember any more details of the orders. When a task ends, we literally forget it.

So in order to keep our experiences front of mind (literally) and keep the consumers coming back for more, we need to make sure it never has a solid conclusion. When it ends, it becomes just another piece of advertising. Literally keep them guessing and coming back for more. Its the old school cliff-hanger every day & with every task. What happens next?

We cannot let our stories come to a conclusion we have to cut the consumer off because… PAUSE FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT …when we make them wait for more the brain starts to crave it. Welcome to habit. Break our joygasms & kudos moments up over periods of time that never end. Cross channel and engrained in real life, offline and online.


Just as a really quick point – These principles Ive just gone through aren’t new. In fact they’re as old as the hills in digital terms, but its the NEXUS of these three things combined that creates genuine habits and wholesale behavioral change. The proof of it is all around us. Independently they have weight and substance, combined they become something very potent and very powerful.

In October last year Apple announced that they have about 1million apps in the App Store & about 60 billion downloads. Statistically about 0.5% of those apps are used on a REGULAR basis. That’s 5000 out of 1 million.

So what makes those 5000 winners other than the fact that a lot of stuff in the App Store is simply not very good?

Simple – when you strip away the genre differences & technical complexities, they all share 3 traits; joygasms, kudos & commas.

They all follow similar patterns and fire the brains synapses in the same kinds of ways. Whether they’re games or tools or just social networks, they all share the same traits. – Clash of Clans / Social Gaming – Nike Fuel, Jawbone, Fitbit – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, KickStarter.

There’s a lot of rhetoric in the press at the moment about the morality of this supposed brain influence, but I say this to you – is Weight Watchers wrong? One of the most successful mass-behavioral change products in history.


I’ve distilled these three principles down from many observed human traits and from the fields of psychology, behavioral and experimental economics and lots of research from lots of really smart people. Its not exhaustive; there are many more nuances of course.

But what I’ll end by saying is that regardless of whether you are a business owner, a designer, a technologist, a content writer, a creative director, a strategist, young, old, active, passive, inspired or uninspired, when you leave here today I want you to think about your Brain more. Record what makes you giddy, makes you smile, turns you on and equally all the opposites… Because in those patterns are the answers to your challenges. It’s what will make your services sticky & enjoyable.

Drop Dopamine bombs, have joygasms & earn you Kudos Have fun & stay curious.

Here are a series of posts I’ve already written to unpack the theories and practices of Neuro CX;

You might also find these resources helpful to get to grips with some of the related topics;

There is more on the way. It’s going to solidify and grow over time, so bear with me while I go off and explore some new ways of looking at digital.

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