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8 Subconscious mistakes our brain makes everyday

It’s fascinating to learn more about how we think and make decisions every day, so let’s take a look at some of these habits of thinking that we didn’t know we had.

1. We surround ourselves with information that matches our beliefs

We tend to like people who think like us. If we agree with someone’s beliefs, we’re more likely to be friends with them. While this makes sense, it means that we subconsciously begin to ignore or dismiss anything that threatens our world views, since we surround ourselves with people and information that confirm what we already think.

This is called confirmation bias. If you’ve ever heard of the frequency illusion, this is very similar. The frequency illusion occurs when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car everywhere. Or when a pregnant woman suddenly notices other pregnant women all over the place. It’s a passive experience, where our brains seek out information that’s related to us, but we believe there’s been an actual increase in the frequency of those occurrences.

It’s similar to how improving our body language can also actually change who we are as people.

Confirmation bias is a more active form of the same experience. It happens when we proactively seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs.

Not only do we do this with the information we take in, but we approach our memories this way, as well. In an experiment in 1979 at the University of Minnesota, participants read a story about a women called Jane who acted extroverted in some situations and introverted in others. When the participants returned a few days later, they were divided into two groups. One group was asked if Jane would be suited to a job as a librarian, the other group was asked about her having a job as a real-estate agent. The librarian group remembered Jane as being introverted and later said that she would not be suited to a real-estate job. The real-estate group did exactly the opposite: They remembered Jane as extroverted, said she would be suited to a real-estate job, and when they were later asked if she would make a good librarian, they said no.

In 2009, a study at Ohio State University showed that we will spend 36% more time reading an essay if it aligns with our opinions.

Whenever your opinions or beliefs are so intertwined with your self-image that you couldn’t pull them away without damaging your core concepts of self, you avoid situations that may cause harm to those beliefs. –David McRaney

2. We believe in the “Swimmers Body” illusion

This has to be one of my favorite thinking mistakes. In Rolf Dobelli’s book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, he explains how our ideas about talent and extensive training are well off-track:

Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because they train extensively. Rather, they are good swimmers because of their physiques. How their bodies are designed is a factor for selection and not the result of their activities.

The “swimmer’s body illusion” occurs when we confuse selection factors with results. Another good example is top-performing universities: Are they actually the best schools, or do they choose the best students, who do well regardless of the school’s influence? Our mind often plays tricks on us, and that is one of the key ones to be aware of.

Without this illusion, half of advertising campaigns would not work.

It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. If we believed that we were predisposed to be good at certain things (or not), we wouldn’t buy into ad campaigns that promised to improve our skills in areas where it’s unlikely we’ll ever excel.

This is similar to the skill of learning to say no, or how our creativity actually works: Both diverge strongly from what we think is true, versus what actions will actually help us get the result we want.

3. We worry about things we’ve already lost

No matter how much I pay attention to the sunk-cost fallacy, I still naturally gravitate towards it.

The term sunk cost refers to any cost (not just monetary, but also time and effort) that has been paid already and cannot be recovered. So it’s a payment of time or money that’s gone forever, basically.

The reason we can’t ignore the cost, even though it’s already been paid, is that we wired to feel loss far more strongly than gain. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow:

Organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximizing opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes. So over time, the prospect of losses has become a more powerful motivator on your behavior than the promise of gains.

The sunk-cost fallacy plays on our tendency to emphasize loss over gain. This research study is a great example of how it works:

Hal Arkes and Catehrine Blumer created an experiment in 1985 that demonstrated your tendency to go fuzzy when sunk costs come along. They asked subjects to assume they had spent $100 on a ticket for a ski trip in Michigan, but soon after found a better ski trip in Wisconsin for $50 and bought a ticket for this trip, too. They then asked the people in the study to imagine they learned the two trips overlapped and the tickets couldn’t be refunded or resold. Which one do you think they chose, the $100 good vacation, or the $50 great one?

More than half of the people in the study went with the more expensive trip. It may not have promised to be as fun, but the loss seemed greater.

So like the other mistakes I’ve explained in this post, the sunk-cost fallacy leads us to miss or ignore the logical facts presented to us and instead make irrational decisions based on our emotions–without even realizing we’re doing so.

The fallacy prevents you from realizing the best choice is to do whatever promises the better experience in the future, not which one negates the feeling of loss in the past.

Being such a subconscious reaction, it’s hard to avoid this one. Our best bet is to try to separate the current facts we have from anything that happened in the past. For instance, if you buy a movie ticket only to realize the movie is terrible, you could either:

  • A) stay and watch the movie, to “get your money’s worth” since you’ve already paid for the ticket (sunk-cost fallacy)


  • B) leave the cinema and use that time to do something you’ll actually enjoy.

The thing to remember is this: You can’t get that investment back. It’s gone. Don’t let it cloud your judgment in whatever decision you’re making in this moment–let it remain in the past.

4. We incorrectly predict odds

Imagine you’re playing Heads or Tails with a friend. You flip a coin, over and over, each time guessing whether it will turn up heads or tails. You have a 50-50 chance of being right each time.

Now, suppose you’ve flipped the coin five times already and it’s turned up heads every time. Surely, surely, the next one will be tails, right? The chances of it being tails must be higher now, right?

Well, no. The chances of tails turning up are 50-50. Every time. Even if you turned up heads the last 20 times. The odds don’t change.

The gambler’s fallacy is a glitch in our thinking–once again, we’re proven to be illogical creatures. The problem occurs when we place too much weight on past events and confuse our memory with how the world actually works, believing that they will have an effect on future outcomes (or, in the case of Heads or Tails, any weight, since past events make absolutely no difference to the odds).

Unfortunately, gambling addictions in particular are also affected by a similar mistakes in thinking–the positive expectation bias. This is when we mistakenly think that eventually our luck has to change for the better. Somehow, we find it impossible to accept bad results and give up–we often insist on keeping at it until we get positive results, regardless of what the odds of that actually happening are.

5. We rationalize purchases we don’t want

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. How many times have you gotten home after a shopping trip only to be less than satisfied with your purchase decisions and started rationalizing them to yourself? Maybe you didn’t really want it after all, or in hindsight you thought it was too expensive. Or maybe it didn’t do what you hoped and was actually useless to you.

Regardless, we’re pretty good at convincing ourselves that those flashy, useless, badly thought-out purchases are necessary after all. This is known as post-purchase rationalization or Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome.

The reason we’re so good at this comes back to psychology of language:

Social psychologists say it stems from the principle of commitment, our psychological desire to stay consistent and avoid a state of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we get when we’re trying to hold onto two competing ideas or theories. For instance, if we think of ourselves as being nice to strangers, but then we see someone fall over and don’t stop to help them, we would then have conflicting views about ourselves: We are nice to strangers, but we weren’t nice to the stranger who fell over. This creates so much discomfort that we have to change our thinking to match our actions–in other words, we start thinking of ourselves as someone who is not nice to strangers, since that’s what our actions proved.

So in the case of our impulse shopping trip, we would need to rationalize the purchases until we truly believe we needed to buy those things so that our thoughts about ourselves line up with our actions (making the purchases).

The tricky thing in avoiding this mistake is that we generally act before we think (which can be one of the most important elements that successful people have as traits!), leaving us to rationalize our actions afterwards.

Being aware of this mistake can help us avoid it by predicting it before taking action–for instance, as we’re considering a purchase, we often know that we will have to rationalize it to ourselves later. If we can recognize this, perhaps we can avoid it. It’s not an easy one to tackle though!

6. We make decisions based on the anchoring effect

Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist who gave one of my favorite TED talks ever about the irrationality of the human brain when it comes to making decisions.

He illustrates this particular mistake in our thinking superbly, with multiple examples. The anchoring effect essentially works like this: rather than making a decision based on pure value for investment (time, money, and the like), we factor in comparative value–that is, how much value an option offers when compared to another option.

Let’s look at some examples from Dan, to illustrate this effect in practice:

One example is an experiment that Dan conducted using two kinds of chocolates for sale in a booth: Hershey’s Kisses and Lindt Truffles. The Kisses were one penny each, while the Truffles were 15 cents each. Considering the quality differences between the two kinds of chocolates and the normal prices of both items, the Truffles were a great deal, and the majority of visitors to the booth chose the Truffles.

For the next stage of his experiment, Dan offered the same two choices, but lowered the prices by one cent each. So now the Kisses were free, and the Truffles cost 14 cents each. Of course, the Truffles were even more of a bargain now, but since the Kisses were free, most people chose those, instead.

Your loss-aversion system is always vigilant, waiting on standby to keep you from giving up more than you can afford to spare, so you calculate the balance between cost and reward whenever possible.

Another example Dan offers in his TED talk is when consumers are given holiday options to choose between. When given a choice of a trip to Rome, all expenses paid, or a similar trip to Paris, the decision is quite hard. Each city comes with its own food, culture, and travel experiences that the consumer must choose between.

When a third option is added, however, such as the same Rome trip, but without coffee included in the morning, things change. When the consumer sees that they have to pay 2,50 euros for coffee in the third trip option, not only does the original Rome trip suddenly seem superior out of these two, it also seems superior to the Paris trip. Even though they probably hadn’t even considered whether coffee was included or not before the third option was added.

This mistake is called the anchoring effect, because we tend to focus on a particular value and compare it to our other options, seeing the difference between values rather than the value of each option itself.

Eliminating the “useless” options ourselves as we make decisions can help us choose more wisely. On the other hand, Dan says, a big part of the problem comes from simply not knowing our own preferences very well, so perhaps that’s the area we should focus on more, instead.

While we know that our decision-making skills as people are often poor, (more on this topic here), it’s fascinating how the term free can affect us. In fact free has been mentioned before as one of the most powerful ways that can affect our decision making.

7. We believe our memories more than facts

Our memories are highly fallible and plastic. And yet, we tend to subconsciously favor them over objective facts. The availability heuristic is a good example of this. It works like this:

Suppose you read a page of text and then you’re asked whether the page includes more words that end in “ing” or more words with “n” as the second-last letter. Obviously, it would be impossible for there to be more “ing” words than words with “n” as their penultimate letter (it took me a while to get that–read over the sentence again, carefully, if you’re not sure why that is). However, words ending in “ing” are easier to recall than words like hand, end, or and, which have “n” as their second-last letter, so we would naturally answer that there are more “ing” words.

What’s happening here is that we are basing our answer of probability (that is, whether it’s probable that there are more “ing” words on the page) on how available relevant examples are (for instance, how easily we can recall them). Our troubles in recalling words with “n” as the second last letter make us think those words don’t occur very often, and we subconsciously ignore the obvious facts in front of us.

Although the availability heuristic is a natural process of our thinking, two Chicago scholars have explained how wrong it can be:

Yet reliable statistical evidence will outperform the availability heuristic every time.

The lesson here? Whenever possible, look at the facts. Examine the data. Don’t base a factual decision on your gut instinct without at least exploring the data objectively first. If we look at the psychology of language in general, we’ll find even more evidence that looking at facts first is necessary.

8. We pay more attention to stereotypes than we think we do

The funny thing about lots of these thinking mistakes, especially those related to memory, is that they’re so ingrained. I had to think long and hard about why they’re mistakes at all! This one is a good example–it took me a while to understand how illogical this pattern of thinking is.

It’s another one that explains how easily we ignore actual facts:

The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts.

Here’s an example to illustrate the mistake, from researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky:

In 1983, Kahneman and Tversky tested how illogical human thinking is by describing the following imaginary person:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

The researchers asked people to read this description, and then asked them to answer this question:

Which alternative is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Here’s where it can get a bit tricky to understand (at least, it did for me!)–If answer #2 is true, #1 is also true. This means that #2 cannot be the answer to the question of probability.

Unfortunately, few of us realize this, because we’re so overcome by the more detailed description of #2. Plus, as the earlier quote pointed out, stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our minds that we subconsciously apply them to others.

Roughly 85% of people chose option #2 as the answer. A simple choice of words can change everything.

Again, we see here how irrational and illogical we can be, even when the facts are seemingly obvious.

I love this quote from researcher Daniel Kahneman on the differences between economics and psychology:

I was astonished. My economic colleagues worked in the building next door, but I had not appreciated the profound difference between our intellectual worlds. To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable.

Clearly, it’s normal for us to be irrational and to think illogically, especially when language acts as a limitation to how we think, even though we rarely realize we’re doing it. Still, being aware of the pitfalls we often fall into when making decisions can help us to at least recognize them, if not avoid them.

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Fast Company article 8 Subconscious Mistakes Our Brain Makes Every Day by Belle Beth Cooper is a content crafter at Buffer, a smarter way to share on Twitter and Facebook. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper


A neurological recipe for success

 Do something for me please – before you get too comfy, get out your iPod or go to your stereo and put on your FAVORITE song and listen to it while you read this post. You’ll find out why later. Cheers.

Done? Awesome. Read on then friends.

I believe that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: curious and teachable. ― Roger Ebert

In 2013 I went on a journey into human motivation. I set out to try and understand not just what a good experience is, but why a good experience is a good experience. It’s changed the way I look at creating services, tools, apps, marketing and stories. More than ever it’s important to make Customer Experience that stands out from the competition and I believe there is a basic recipe for success.

Welcome to the most powerful tool in digital… The Brain

It’s a busy little organ the brain. It’s tireless, it never takes a vacation and has work to do 24/7. A continuously evolving organ made up of lots of little compartments for doing lots of little things & is the most complex organ in the body. A three-pound mass of gray and white matter that sits at the center of all human activity – you need it to drive a car, to enjoy a meal, to breathe, to create an artistic masterpiece, and to enjoy everyday activities. In brief, the brain regulates your basic body functions; enables you to interpret and respond to everything you experience; and shapes your thoughts, emotions, and behavior. It’s fuelled by a combination of genetic based learnings – called fluid intelligence – and experiential based learnings – known as crystallised intelligence.

What is Neuro CX?

The beginning of wisdom, is the definition of terms – Socrates

It’s to do with NeuroMarketing, right? Nah… Not this one. A totally different thing. It’s got manipulating the brain in common, but Neuro CX is about longevity and teaching consumers to repeat behavior and start associating those repeated behaviors to good feelings, good experiences and the brands that supply them.

It’s about tapping into crystalilised intelligence and making people want to continuously open your app, or visit your website or engage with your product.

The challenge for any provider is creating continuous sustained usage with users. Remember, products used daily create a barrier to entry for competitors in their market. If your users are unable to imagine life without your product, you can safely say you’ve met your goal. So what makes a habit?

When a human encounters an experience (offline, online, good or bad) and it is deemed a ‘sensation‘ – i.e “that was amazing” or “that was terrible” – the brain releases the chemical dopamine which lets an areas of the brain called the ‘Reward Centre‘ know to deliver a sense of pleasure or pain, happiness or sadness and focus the attention of the individual so that he or she learns to repeat the behaviour (or not) again and again. When you think about some of the great technology solutions of the last 20 years, many share a common ground: they create a habit. When technology has created a habit in people, a person’s use of a product is automatic, without thought.

The reward center of the brain is critically involved in mediating the effects of reinforcement. A reward is an appetitive stimulus given to a person to alter behavior. Rewards typically serve as reinforcers. A reinforcer is something that, when presented after a behavior, causes the probability of that behavior’s occurrence to increase. It’s also how positive experiences remain engrained with an individual. We are literally genetically programmed to remember positive and negative things and if we like them, repeat them over and over until it becomes a habit.

The more you can get the user to do something without making a conscious decision, the stronger the habit becomes. Frequency of use leads to the creation of a habit in your users; so if your users are coming back regularly, it’s likely that habits are forming.

You can read a more in-depth overview of the biological bit here.

There are three major mechanisms we can use to manipulate the reward center. Put them together and we have Neuro CX;

  1. Expanding scenarios linked to sustained progress and instant gratification (Joygasms)
  2. Encouraged altruism (Kudos)
  3. Repeated, interrupted experiences (Commas)

A lot of tools, websites, social media and apps offer one or some of the above… But it’s the really really sticky (read ‘Addictive’) experiences that give the user a little hint of all three.

Expanding scenarios linked to sustained progress and instant gratification – Joygasms

Associate Conditioning

Associating good feelings with desire to repeat an action, task or activity is where things start to get interesting. We call this “associative conditioning” and it’s this response of learning that positive feeling is linked to certain experiences that we can bake into our work.

If we get really contrived with it, we may even be able to encourage addiction to a service or function. Scientists have long known that the release of dopamine is strongly associated with addictive behaviours. Addictions occur when the brain betrays the body, causing feelings of pleasure from activities.

By creating certain ‘ideal conditions’ that stimulate the Reward Centre we can create repeat behaviour. Similarly we can also introduce negative scenarios and teach people to avoid things too.

Researchers at the University of Iowa have observed that emotions persist in individuals even after they forget the cause, an important clue about how the brain stores different kinds of information and worth remembering when we plan our experiences. The act of doing might vanish from conscience thought, but the feeling whist doing could remain.

Even though emotions seem fused together with memories in our stream of consciousness, it turns out that this is not the case.

Here’s another random but interesting one: A recent study published in the journal of Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that despite the bitter taste, the chemicals in beer also trigger the brain’s reward system. This pleasurable effect might explain why we’re so willing to keep drinking past the first sip — until intoxication takes over, and we’ll drink just about anything after we’re drunk. It may also explain why some people can drink casually while others slip into alcoholism.

It’s the Reward System that these artificial stimulants fire up and why drugs & alcohol can be addictive & what we can recreate the conditions of using digital.

The trick to this is also capturing people in the moment of intent – at that point where they’re deciding to or not do something like going to lunch and looking for a place to eat, or deciding whether to walk or drive to work in the morning… hit them in the moments with a little nudge of generosity and repeat that behavior over and over at the same time until the behavior is changed; “Check your balance – POSITIVE REWARD” … “Check your balance – POSITIVE REWARD” … “Check your balance – POSITIVE REWARD” … “Check your balance – NEGATIVE NUMBER, BUT DON’T FEAR, YOU’RE ON THE RIGHT TRACK, KEEP GOING YOU STUD” … “Check your balance – POSITIVE REWARD”.

These notifications need to be planned and intended to spur activity in the moment, deployed at just the right time. Built around a very important idea: Adding notifications to a service isn’t just good for letting us see what we’ve done. It’s also crucial for building services that can tell us what we should be doing.

Activity tracking is one thing; activity tweaking is something else entirely. That’s why real-life coaches are so great. They help you set goals that are relevant to your life, and they help push you to achieve them. They’re personal. This is the piece that most services have missed thus far and that we need to get better at to make Neuro CX a real possibility.

You have to create your service with the ability to constantly slurp up data from your world and sort notifications into two broad categories. The first are the notifications you get when things happen and reward you with a pat on the back when you hit a Streak or a Milestones.

There’s a dopamine response that happens when you get a digital pat on the back. Actually being able to connect that dopamine response to the behavior is very powerful to the feedback cycle.

Travis Bogard, VP of Product Management and Strategy at Jawbone

The other preemptive notifications need to come through a more structured goal feature which lets the user opt into day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year goals. Telling you that you’re on track with the bigger things in life. The virtual equivalent of a beckoning spouse – Helping you at decision points born not out of a domestic routine but data, algorithms, and  connectivity.

Encouraged Altruism – Kudos

During this kind of highly structured, self-motivated hard work, we regularly achieve the greatest form of happiness available to human beings: intense, optimistic engagement with the world around us. We feel fully alive, full of potential and purpose–in other words, we are completely activated as human beings. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Another major factor that can effect and trigger the Reward Center is altruism. MRI studies have revealed that when we perform an act of kindness, the Reward Center is aroused and we experience feelings of pleasure. The brain is flooded with happiness-inducing dopamine whenever we share something we think other people might find useful or help out someone deemed to be in need, or worse off than ourselves. So getting people to pass things around (once you’ve rewarded them with it in the first place) could be another great way of getting people addicted or immersed in your content;

You earned 100 points, unlocked the best content yet – Why not share that content or how you got to it with your friends & earn an extra 50 points.

Stand back, possible dopamine explosion imminent. The ego has landed.

The oh-so-exciting “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience“, also shed new light on how the brain responds to reward and translates it into extraverted behaviour; “Rewards like food, sex and social interactions as well as more abstract goals such as earning money or getting positive peer recognition also trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, producing positive emotions and feelings of desire that motivate us to work toward obtaining those goals even more. In extroverts, this dopamine response to rewards is more robust so they experience more frequent activation of strong positive emotions,”.

This reinforces my belief that the mavens (a trusted expert in a particular field or someone who seeks to pass knowledge on to others) have to be the crucial first wave of people to be introduced into a new service or product before release to the general populous. Beta should not be a place fir everybody, it absolutely has to be a carefully targeted thing that finds and recruits the extroverts who are going to end up being the dopamine fuelled messengers and recruiters to your new service or product. Rewarding those mavens is also crucial because the Dopamine released facilitates memory of the circumstances that are associated with the reward moment which is a significant role in sustaining extroverted behaviour. Extroverts show a greater association of context with reward than introverts, which means that over time, extroverts will acquire a more extensive network of reward-context memories that activate their brain’s reward system.

If you think about the reward center in the context of an extrovert, it’s possible that something like posting on Facebook & the ‘Likes’ generated over time from the generosity of sharing, can literally become addictive to an extrovert & therefore encourage even more sharing in order to get more likes & so on & so on. It’s why some people share so much of their lives in such a sustained & open fashion. It taps right into the part of their psyche that gets joy & reward for the generosity of telling people they’ve just done something inept or found something kinda useful.

I myself am probably as I type getting high on the idea that the 2 people who read this post might share it. Bonus.

Repeated, interrupted pleasure points – commas

The Zeigarnik Effect

Let me go back to a previous post I’ve made about the ideals of gamification and in particular the Zeigarnik Effect. It covers a simple principle – People remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Sounds a bit mad I know, but it’s true.

The “cliffhanger” just may be the oldest trick in the story-telling book, especially for television and there is a reason why it’s used to great affect… you want to tune back in!

Despite numerous exposures to this method, our brain just can’t “get over” suspenseful moments: it’s a relationship that just won’t die, we will always want to know what happens next!

In fact, suspense works so well that the Zeigarnik Effect would have you believe that it’s the best way to kill procrastination.

Research in that area seems to point to humans being much more inclined to finish something that has already been started (researchers interrupted people doing “brain buster” tasks before they could complete them… nearly 90% of people went on to finish the task anyway, despite being told they could stop).

A University of Maryland study of undergraduates found that after a physics lecture by a well-regarded professor, almost no students could provide a specific answer to the question, “What was the lecture you just heard about?”. Another study by Kansas State University found that after watching a video of a highly rated physics lecture, most students still incorrectly answered questions on the material. When students were quizzed about a fact presented only 15 minutes earlier, only 10 percent showed any sign of remembering it.

Suspense in stories really allows you to create addictive, memorable content, as long as the suspense appears early enough in the activity and is combined with a positive ending or reward – Now we’re getting into Neuro CX.

Consider the idea that lots of positive, but unfinished tasks, start to shape a formula for successful and sticky experiences that people will want to engage with and repeat over and over again.

This is of course nothing new – It’s just the old nudge strategy mapped back to some new thinking and neurological reasoning. But by breaking things down and mapping seemingly dispirit principles together, I’ve done is make us realise just how important it is to plan in a solid set of these functions in every single project I work on.

Nice work fella, you just read a piece of content about Investing… have 5 points. 10 bits of content read… have 100 points. But no more today, tomorrow is a better day to unlock your destiny.

Positive Distractions Help You Remember

The Zeigarnik effect also suggests that people who suspend their primary task and engage in totally unrelated activities such as playing games, will remember the primary material better than those who complete tasks without a break. We should literally be interrupting task flow with totally unrelated, positive experiences.

It’s possible that interrupting people mid-registration or an important application might be something for us to try. Literally going against what we’ve been preaching for over a decade now. Instead of making registration simple and quick, let’s make it longer but bite-sized. Lewin’s Field Theory states that a task or experience that has already been started, establishes a task-specific tension. This tension, once established is relieved upon completion of the task. In the case of task interruption the reduction of tension is being impeded. Through continuous tension the content can be more easily remembered.

It’s also great if the positive secondary experience is not directly linked to your primary, because we can teach consumers something totally random and they’ll begin to associate that with the brand or procedure that served it up + distract them from potentially dull or time consuming primary subject matter.

For alcoholics, research has found that even the sight or smell of beer is rewarding to the brain, pushing them to drink – A secondary experience linked back to the primary drive. In a related study published by neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor at the Montreal Neurological Institute, it was discovered that music can also activate the same reward circuits in the brain as alcohol.

In 2005 Teresa Lesiuk studied “the effect of music listening on work performance” and found that music promotes a “positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working.” Results showed that quality of work was lowest when no music was played, and that individuals actually spent longer on a task when there was no music. On the other hand, those who who did listen to music finished their assignments more quickly and proposed better ideas.

An article from Psychology Today adds that while listening to music may be productive for some, it can be a distraction to others; therefore, they offered several things to consider when choosing music for productivity:

  • Use music with no words to avoid interfering with language tasks.
  • Silence is a kind of music and can be just as effective as music. If music is a distraction, try nature sounds.
  • Listen to music you like because it helps you feel better.
  • Try different speeds, or tempos, of music as it alters the mood and can help with tasks that require a different pace or energy.
  • Take musical breaks. A change of environment, even sonically can make a big difference in work productivity.

So here’s a thought for you – why not start to introduce new, totally random elements into traditionally boring tasks. For example, what if the first question in a long, drawn out banking application process was “what’s your favourite song Bob?” which drags the tune out of iTunes & plays an instrumental version of it in the background while you fill in the boring bits. In theory dopamine would flood the reward system and you’d feel positive throughout the experience. The perfect distraction to the dull job at hand. Associate Conditioning also starts to link the happy feeling with the task and / or brand too. It might not be as random as it sounds.


I’ve also put together another post around applied application of NeuroCX here.

In theory if I was practicing what I’m preaching I would have stopped halfway through the article and offered you a game and then released the rest of the article tomorrow. Trust me, you’d have come back – You wouldn’t have been able to ‘not’ too!

Neuro CX is about by-passing the reptilian brain in order to THRIVE instead of SURVIVE. The reptilian brain is based in survival mode which elicits impulsive programmed responses (constant reaction to present triggers). Characteristics of the Reptilian brain include dominance (dominate or be dominated), aggression, sex and seeking a mate, rigidity, obsessiveness, compulsiveness, worship, fear, submission and greed. These are all constricting and limiting frequencies. Looking at the Limbic parts of the brain and tapping into the Reward Center start to open up huge possibilities in the field of UX and Experience Design.

A lot of people reading this might be thinking “gamification”, but NeuroCX is that thinking plus some more. The traditional explanation of ‘gamification’ would be something like; “Taking techniques from games and game design and applying them to non-gaming contexts”. But the biology behind good experience is far more complex and can be manipulated by more than just game thinking. The idea that badges (otherwise known as achievements or trophies, once you have completed a feat, challenge, or task) as a means to show your achievement are what makes something sticky is too simplistic, NeuroCX can be anything just as long as its sustained & continuous throughout a relationship with the product user. It’s the good vibe, not the little token.

I hope that by altering how digital is approached using NeuroCX we can improve motivation & change consciousness.

If consciousness is about awareness or how an individual perceives and interprets his or her environment, including beliefs, intentions, attitudes, emotions, and all aspects of his or her subjective experience, then in theory by creating experiences that make users neurologically addicted (how pompous does that sound!) and providing it to the widest possible audience, then we could change collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is essentially how a group (an institution, a society, a species) perceives and translates the world around them. Change a collective consciousness (Facebook anybody!?) and you create a fundamental shift in perspective or worldview that results in an expanded understanding of self and the nature of reality. The beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and assumptions through which we filter our understanding of the world and our place in it also move.

It all sounds very complex and esoteric, but trust me when I say it’s not. In fact most of you are probably already doing bits of it by accident. However I do think it’s crucial that you use these facts of biology and behavior to actively guide clients and products towards better experiences. It should be inherently part of EVERY experience strategy, not just the ones you think need to be a bit gamey or kooky. Your project doesn’t have to be the next Nike Fuel to include Associative Conditioning – In fact it’s even better if it isn’t! Map it into your boring topics even more vigorously. Make them addictive. Make them pleasurable & make the user want to come back again and again.

Special thanks due to the Barclays Behavioural Finance team for inspiring me to explore the wider side of Experience Design outside of my normal box – Greg B Davis, Emily Haisley & Antonia Lim.

How Do Consumers Engage With Brands In An Increasingly Digital World?

Marketers have never thought of digital as a wonderful place to build a brand, but they should:

  • 65% of consumers have had a digital experience change their opinion about a brand
  • 97% of them report that experience influencing whether or not they purchased a product or service from that brand

Actions Speak Louder Than Advertising

Branded experience is the new advertising. And consumers are increasingly hungry for them, sometimes ravenously so:

  • 97% have searched for a brand online
  • 77% have watched a commercial on YouTube
  • 69% have read a corporate blog
  • 65% have played a branded, browser-based game.
  • 73% have posted a product or brand review on a site like Amazon, Facebook or Twitter

Brand Culture Or Fan Culture?

Conventional wisdom holds that consumers don’t want brands encroaching on their social lives – but that’s just not true:

  • 76% of consumers welcomed brand advertising on social networks (FEED, 2008)
  • 40% of consumers “friended” a brand on Facebook and/or MySpace
  • 26% of consumers have “followed” a brand on Twitter

The Outlet Malls Of Tomorrow? Facebook, MySpace & Twitter

Marketers shouldn’t assume that consumers are as passionate about their brands as they are: Consumers don’t want a conversation with brands – they want deals.

  • 44% of consumers who follow a brand on Twitter do so for deals
  • 37% of consumers who “friended” a brand on Facebook and/or MySpace do so for deals

Bottom Line: Digital Brand Experiences Create Customers

Digital is not simply an “awareness” or CRM play, it’s a customer-creation play. The overwhelming majority of consumers who engage with a brand online move from passive “receivers” to advocates almost instantly:

  • 97% report increased brand awareness
  • 98% show increased consideration
  • 97% will more likely purchase a product
  • 96% may recommend the brand to their friends

Consumers Turning First, Foremost To Digital

According to Forrester consumers now spend nearly as much time online as they do watching TV*. We found that their technical fluency is far greater than most believe:

  • 57% of consumers actively customize their homepages
  • 84% share links or bookmarks
  • 55% subscribe to RSS feeds
  • 33% get their news from Facebook
  • 20% get their news from Twitter

*Forrester 2009 Technographics Survey

Mobile Internet Service Use Skyrocketing

Mobile Internet services are being consumed broadly. Majority of consumers own a smartphone and;

  • 57% access the Internet from their phone
  • 50% have downloaded an app for their phone
  • 30% have interacted with an ad banner on their phone

Connected Consumers Are The New Mainstream

Are Consumers Really In Control? Conventional wisdom says that every generation of consumer grows smarter, shrewder and more immune to marketing. But that’s not true – consumers are actively choosing to engage with brands, everywhere.

  • 40% have “friended” a brand on Facebook and/or MySpace
  • 26% have “followed” a brand on Twitter
  • 77% have watch an advert on YouTube
  • 69% have read a corporate blog post
  • 73% have posted a review of a brand on a site like Amazon or Yelp
  • 52% have blogged about brand’s product or service

Facebook And Twitter Creating Fan Culture For Brands

After deals, the main reason consumers “friend” a brand? Because they *really* are a fan (or a customer, at least). Social media platforms are proving to be customer service platforms.

  • 33% friend a brand on Facebook/ MySpace because they are a customer
  • 24% follow a brand on Twitter because they are a current customer
  • 23% follow a brand on Twitter for “interesting or engaging” content, which shows promise for a new type of relationship

Fans And The Future Of The Marketing Funnel

Brand culture and fan culture are dramatically reshaping the traditional funnel as consumers leap from experience to advocacy (or the inverse) almost instantly.

  • 70% have participated in a brand-sponsored contest
  • 24% have produced content to participate in a contest
  • 26% have attended a brand sponsored event, such as Nike’s Human Race
  • 24% have downloaded a branded application for their mobile phone

Experiences Not Only Build Brands, They Make Or Break Them

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Nike are all experiential brands that know consumer preference isn’t formed in reaction to a message, but to a series of experiences over time. There’s good reason. Of consumers who interact:

  • 97% report increased brand awareness
  • 98% show increased consideration
  • 97% will more likely purchase a product
  • 96% may recommend the brand to their friends

Getting To The Bottom Of Brand Engagement

Everyone is chasing after a metric to define brand engagement. Millward Brown says “digital consumers” have 15% stronger relationships with brands. The Altimeter Group attempts to correlate social media activity to financial performance, citing Dell, Starbucks and eBay as leaders.

We took a different tack: we simply wanted to know if there was any direct correlation between a consumer’s digital interaction with a brand and their likelihood to purchase a specific product or service. 

Digital Experience Create Customers

The answer was a resounding “yes”. Experiences have a much greater influence over brand affinity and consumer purchasing than even we anticipated:

  • 65%of consumers have had a digital experience change their opinion about a brand.
  • 97%of those report that experience influencing whether or not they purchased a product or service from that brand.
  • 64% of consumer report making a first purchase from a brand because of digital experience (e.g. website, banner, etc.)

Five Brands That Are Excelling In An Experience-Driven World…

  1. UNIQLO: Japanese Retailer Surprises And Delights Audiences With Every Interaction
  2. Red Bull: Pioneered Experiential Marketing With Subversive Events And Sponsorships
  3. Barbie: Reinvented An American Icon For The Pop Sugar Set And Broke Sales Records
    “We’re not in the business of keeping the media companies alive. We’re in the business of connecting with consumers.” – Trevor Edwards, Nike
  4. Nike: Human Race. Chalkbot. Nike Is Setting A New Standard For Experiential Marketing
  5. Virgin America: Brand Built By Breakthrough Experiences – And The Marketing Of Them
  6. Microsoft’s Bing: Accomplishing The Impossible By Putting Experience First And In Every Ad

Location-based services are becoming big business

Facebook’s recent launch of location-based services in the UK highlights the potential growth of consumers using GPS-enabled mobile devices to ‘check-in’ in everyday life in return for rewards and discounts.

  • Foursquare, a pioneer in location-based social networking, has seen tremendous growth in recent times, signing an additional 1 million users in less than 20 days in early 2011.
  • Facebook leverages existing user base and enters location-based services in the UK earlier this year.
  • Increased use of location-based services by consumers expected as more people use smartphones.

Tremendous growth of Foursquare

Foursquare was one of the first location-based services that has attracted success globally. Using GPS-enabled mobile devices, users can ‘check-in’ at a variety of locations, such as hotels, pubs, and restaurants. In return for ‘check-ins,’ users accumulate points and badges as rewards, as well as discovering new places, local tips, recommendations from friends, and discounts for local venues.

Foursquare launched in March 2009, and it took just over one year to reach 1 million users. Growth continues to accelerate, and the company has recently registered its 7 millionth user in February 2011.

Figure 1: Reported number of registered users on Foursquare since launch, March 2009 – February 2011

Source: Press reports/Mintel

Facebook enters ‘Location War’ in UK

At the end of January this year, Facebook launched Facebook Places in the UK to compete in the location-based social networking business. Facebook enticed its existing users to ‘check-in’ in exchange for promotional offers from companies such as Starbucks, Debenhams and Mazda. While the service offering by Facebook is basic compared with more established players such as Foursquare and Gowalla, Facebook is leveraging its existing user base, estimated at 30 million active users in the UK alone (as at March 2011), to encourage the adoption of location-based services.

Device and service integration

In February 2011, Facebook announced partnerships with handset makers INQ and HTC to produce mobile phones with built-in Facebook functions, such as a dedicated Facebook button on the handset. Meanwhile, Nokia has added Foursquare Check-Ins on Ovi Maps, the free mapping and navigation product available to all Nokia smartphone users.

These examples illustrate how partnerships and integration will allow consumers to quickly access location-based services through devices and platforms they are already familiar with.

Growing opportunity

Mintel’s recent report Mobile Phones and Network Providers – January 2011 found that less than 5% of consumers access GPS functionality on their mobile phone every day, suggesting a low adoption level in location-based services currently. However, the emergence of multi-functional smartphones at affordable prices through monthly contracts or bundled packages will give wider access to devices capable of location-based services to more consumers, especially younger users who are more likely to adopt this technology.

Figure 2: Ownership and usage of mobile phone GPS, 2008-2010

Source: GB TGI, Kantar Media UK Ltd Q1 2009-11 (Oct-Sep)/Mintel

Ownership of mobile phones with GPS capability has more than doubled since 2008, and we expect this trend to continue. Usage of GPS functionality on a mobile phone has also grown at a marginally faster rate, indicating consumers are becoming more aware of and taking advantage of this feature on their devices. There is, however, a widening gap between mobile phone users who own a GPS-enabled device and those who actually utilise this capability, which points to an opportunity by location-based service providers to educate and incentivise users in adopting this new technology. With further integration of location-based social networking into existing products and devices that consumers are already familiar with, we anticipate location-based services in the UK to thrive.

What it means

  • Use of location-based social networking will grow as more consumers have access to GPS-enabled mobile devices and appreciate the benefits of ‘check-ins.’
  • Established players in location-based services like Foursquare have seen tremendous growth recently but will face challenges from established social media companies in the ‘Location War’.
  • Consumers can be incentivised to learn about and adopt location-based services with enticements such as targeted promotional offers based on demographics and recent search activities in addition to offering location-sensitive deals.

Source – Mintel, April 2011

Viral – The Obama Effect

Taken from an article published in Wired Magazine in October 2009. I didn’t write this article, nor do I claim to have done. What I do want to make clear is how much the story means to me as a practitioner of User Experience and Social Media (blah – the term actually curls my toes). It’s a hugely significant case-study. Enjoy reading it:

Viral strategies aren’t strictly for businesses. They are also seeping into other arenas – politics, for example. And no one was more successful in imprinting a viral loop into a campaign than Barack Obama. “One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organiser is that real change comes from the bottom up,” he said in a statement. “And there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organising than the internet.” Because an organisation can reach only so many people, it must turn to its loyal followers to widen that pool. As with all things viral, connecting to others outside the initial cluster of supporters depends on the quality of referrals. Friends, family and colleagues are far more credible than any ad that a marketing exec could dream up.

A pivotal moment came when the campaign hired Chris Hughes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook. With the title of “Online Organising Guru”, Hughes retrofitted grassroots campaigning to web 2.0 by weaving together social networks and the mobile internet into a central platform of Obama’s campaign. The linchpin was (“MyBo” for short), which functioned as a lively online community and social network, registering 1.5 million volunteers. Users created profiles with friend lists and blogs, joined one of the 27,000 groups that formed, raised money, and organised meetings through a Facebook-like interface. The site had a search function, enabling likeminded people to find each other; a page offering tools for creating a personal fundraising page (“You set your own goal, you do the outreach, and you get the credit for the results”); a blog and a forum. Each drove even more traffic to the site.

Leading up to the election MyBo members organised more than 200,000 campaign events, which didn’t just energise Obama’s support base but generated loads of cash. Over the span of two years, the campaign brought in $750 million from three million donors, with nine out of ten donations less than $100 (and half of $25 or less). It achieved this by democratising its fundraising. Instead of turning to wealthy Americans, who could be seen as leveraging their privilege into power, Obama’s campaign tapped the little guy, spreading donations across millions of Americans – giving each donor a stake in his success. In February 2008, his campaign raised $55 million online without its candidate attending a single fundraiser. What’s more, while the law allowed large donors to contribute $2,300 for the 2008 primaries and the same for the general election, smaller donors were tapped repeatedly, forging a persistent connection with the candidate.

The campaign’s viral strategies included a short, clear positioning statement as a call to arms. Unlike Hillary Clinton touting her “experience” or John McCain bragging that “I have the record and the scars to prove it”, Obama’s two core messages were “Change” and “Yes, we can”. Obama’s campaign galvanised its supporters while they, in turn, extended his message virally. It also relied on multiplier effects. During the campaign,, frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, created a musical mashup based on Obama’s phrase “Yes, we can” that included celebrities such as Scarlet Johansson. The campaign quickly embedded a link to the YouTube clip on its website. “After nearly a year on the campaign trail, I’ve seen a lot of things that have touched me deeply, but I had to share this with you,” Michelle Obama wrote in an email to supporters. The video was viewed 20 million times. Another music video, I Got a Crush… on Obama, starring the bikiniclad “Obamagirl”, was downloaded more than 13 million times. Fomenting the creativity of its supporters helped the Obama campaign to extend its message.

I remember being in New York a few weeks before the Election. There was electric in the air. A real sense that Obama was about to make history. Not just because he was a black man about to take the White House and become the most powerful leader in the modern world, but because a new way of getting him there had been born. It was literally a movement. In Union Square there were hordes or young people selling t-shirts, badges and other merchandise… but more importantly you could tell on the faces of every single one that their antics on Facebook, Twitter and other Social Channels they were making change happen.

Viral Loop – The power of pass it on

I was recently recommended a book by Adam Penenberg called ‘Viral Loop’ by an old colleague of mine Marty Carrol who has just set up a cracking start-up called PowNum.

In essence the take-aways from the book are:

  • Some traditional companies, such as Tupperware, achieved “viral”-type success decades before popular use of the Internet.
  • Online firms grow virally when members of a Web site invite their friends to join.
  • When this pattern generates exponential growth, it becomes a “viral expansion loop,” which has three categories:
  • A “viral loop” expands based on referrals from members to their friends.
  • A “viral network” is made up of numerous connected viral loops, such as Facebook.
  • A “double viral loop” is a combination of a viral loop and a viral network.
  • With quality online offerings, sites don’t need salespeople or advertising to go viral.
  • Viral companies, such as Hotmail, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and eBay, share certain traits, like clear concepts, ease of use and rapid adoption.
  • A Web offering’s “viral coefficient” is measurable; a score of 1.0 – indicating that each member generates one new member – leads to exponential growth.
  • Viral growth is an integral component of great products and services, and is suited for smart phones, which will soon outsell PCs as Internet access machines.

The Web can make a business hugely profitable if the entrepreneurs have the right design and offer something the audience really wants. This formula worked for Hotmail, eBay, PayPal, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Digg, LinkedIn, Twitter and Flickr, as well as Hot or Not. Such sites offer services to which people come to feel so deeply attached that they become fervent evangelists. Then their contacts do the same, in a “positive-feedback loop.” That’s how viral lightning hits. Companies become Internet juggernauts when they can ride the three-part “viral expansion loop,” wherein Web visitors reliably beget additional guests:

  1. “Viral loop” – This referral-multiplying mechanism grows member-to-member.
  2. “Viral Network” – Members form groups that intersect as they expand.
  3. “Double Viral Loop” – This hybrid of viral networks and viral loops is built on ever-increasing user content. A double viral loop grows more quickly as it adds users, often with little marketing effort (though increasing technical concerns).

The expansion of a viral loop depends both on users who promote a site’s goods or services, and on designers who build virality into their offerings. The Web is the ultimate, exponential connectivity medium, in that it enables people to share blogs, links, photos, videos and other Internet services. This creates a “virtuous circle,” the most efficacious form of direct marketing, based on the understanding that people will share things they like. The trick is figuring out what they like and including it, intrinsically, from the very beginning.

Big-time viral winners like Ning share certain characteristics:

  • “Web-based” service – The firm is designed to function and grow on the Internet.
  • “Free” offering – The service is complimentary but may be monetized in the future.
  • “Organizational technology” – Users, not employees, develop the content.
  • “Simple concept” – Straightforward and easy is always best.
  • “Built-in virality” – Users spur growth through sharing and positive word-of-mouth. “Extremely fast adoption” – Some 50% of Harvard students joined Facebook a month after the social network started, although the site spent no money on promotion.
  • “Exponential growth” – Users bring in more users, who bring in more users.
  • “Viral” characteristics – The “Virality index” must read greater than 1.0 for exponential growth.
  • “Predictable growth rates” – Just as “epidemiologists can predict with some certainty how quickly a virus will spread through a city,” you can foretell the birth of a viral loop.
  • “Network effects” – The more users there are, the more attractive joining becomes. “Stackability” – PayPal’s relationship with eBay offers stackable, synergistic growth. A “point of nondisplacement” – Viral companies eventually hit a “tipping point,” an unbeatable mass of users.
  • “Ultimate saturation” – Growth can slow once a site becomes immense.

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