All posts tagged neurocx

10 Posts
138015948_linkedin

Designing Distractions

While the brain can seem almost boundless in its potential, it has limitations, such as processing speed, attentional limitations, working memory limitations, and sensitivity to interference, which can be both internal and external. You’ve all been there – that annoying, wicked challenge that you just can’t seem to get your mind to process. Frustration brews. It all goes bad.

But occasionally you might have a ‘Eureka Moment’ where the solution seems to miraculously present itself to you.

The eureka effect refers to a common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept… Some research describes the eureka effect as a memory advantage, but conflicting results exist as to where exactly it occurs in the brain, and it is difficult to predict under what circumstances one can predict a eureka effect.

Eureka can be conceptualized as a two phase process;

  • The first phase requires the problem solver to come upon an impasse, where they become stuck and even though they may seemingly have explored all the possibilities, are still unable to retrieve or generate a solution.
  • The second phase occurs suddenly and unexpectedly. After a break in mental fixation or re-evaluating the problem, the answer is usually retrieved.

The Eureka Theories

There are also currently two theories for how people arrive at the solution during a eureka moment.

  • The first is the Progress Monitoring Theory (when you hear me referring to PMT in the office, please be aware that I have a slightly different definition than most people!). A person will analyze the distance from their current state to the goal state. Once a person realizes that they cannot solve the problem while on their current path, they will seek alternative solutions. In complex problems this usually occurs late in the challenge.
  • The second way that people attempt to solve these puzzles is the Representational Change Theory. The problem solver initially has a low probability for success because they use inappropriate knowledge as they set unnecessary constraints on the problem. Once the person relaxes his or her constraints, they can bring previously unavailable knowledge into working memory to solve the problem.

Currently both theories have support, with the progress monitoring theory being more suited to multiple step problems, and the representational change theory more suited to single step problems.

FMRi (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (Electro Encephalogram) studies have found that problem solving requiring insight (non-linear problems) involves increased activity in the right cerebral hemisphere as compared with problem solving not requiring insight (linear problems). In particular, increased activity was found in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus.

I’ve been interested in moments of ‘eureka’ for a while now because along with the moment itself is a real sense of achievement, euphoria and self-worth. We know that a quiet mind allows the weak connections of non-conscious processing to rise to awareness.

Basically that the act of coming back fresh to a problem is valuable in itself.

New research by Neuroscientist David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon sheds some more light on this phenomenon.

Creswell wanted to explore what happens in the brain when people tackle problems that are too big for their conscious mind to solve. He had people think about purchasing an imaginary car, based on multiple wants and needs. One group had to choose immediately. These people didn’t do great at optimizing their decision. A second group had time to try to consciously solve the problem. Their choices weren’t much better. A third group were given the problem, then given a distracter task – something that lightly held their conscious attention but allowed their non-conscious to keep working. This group did significantly better than the other groups at selecting the optimum car for their overall needs.

FMRI scans showed something interesting happening with the third group. The brain regions that were active during the initial learning of the decision information continued to be active (we call this unconscious neural reactivation) even while the brain was distracted with another task. This reactivation was predictive of how good participants were at making a better decision — more reactivation was associated with better decisions.

To put it plainly – people who were distracted did better on a complex problem-solving task than people who put in conscious effort. This isn’t so surprising – the problem-solving resources of the non-conscious are millions if not billions of times larger than that of the conscious. What’s surprising is how fast this effect kicked in – the third group were distracted for only a few minutes. This wasn’t the ‘sleep on it’ effect, or about quieting the mind. It was something more accessible to all of us every day, in many small ways.

Deliberate Distractions

So now to the bit that I’m driving towards – Designing complex flows, patterns, challenges, data-capture and encouraged behaviours.

What we’ve been doing for decades now is try to simplify complex tasks – I agree this should be encouraged. Of course we want to make complex things simpler. But what if we’re missing the trick of building in other mechanisms for helping audiences solve complex challenges… like telling them to “Stop”.

Some classic examples;

  • Filling out application forms online – Big pain drain.
  • Managing an investment portfolio – Oh boy that one hurts the novice investor.
  • Writing an article (like this one!) to submit to the masses of people who demand something punchy – The pressure!

We have a lot of analytics running within our digital experiences that track everything an audience does now. From where they click, to how long they dwell… we even know where they came from to arrive at the challenge. So we can pretty much derive if they’re slick or if they’re thick. It’s how we learn about their behaviour and make our systems smarter, our messages more potent and our support programmes better.

So why wouldn’t we turn that same machine learning back on the audience? Literally tell them when they’re in a bad spot. Let’s say we spot erratic, confused or behaviour that implies someone is over-thinking or struggling to solve a problem, why not just prompt the user to take a break?

Pete, go play Angry Birds for 5 minutes buddy, come back when you’ve cleared your mind.

We’re letting people go about a cognitive challenge the wrong way – by allowing them to continue pushing at a problem consciously when we should be allowing them to go off and ignore the problem.

If we do this you’ll genuinely find that you’re audiences gets better outcomes and faster, with less effort.

There are so many things we’ve got wrong with design because we haven’t stopped to look at the brain. As we begin to develop the tools to understand the brains quirks better, I suspect that many more surprising discoveries will emerge.

twitter_header

#UCD14 – Neurological Recipes

Less than my best presenting effort, but a real joy to be on a stage at #UCD14 in London on the 24th October. It’s quickly becoming the best conference for UX in London due to its original line-up, twisted thinkers and meticulous planning schedule – So it was a huge privilege to be there and to present.

Here’s my slides;

If you’re in the market for a really great, bijou conference next year to stop and make you think outside of the lines, then this is the one for you.

101477658_b&w

The Biological Power of Push

You’re in a bar. You’ve just found three people in close proximity to you on Tinder that you find attractive, so you’ve swiped 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. The game is on.

For the record – the story of this type of mating ritual did not exist until a few years ago, so what we’re about to observe in this bar is something totally new… 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. This really is the frontier of HCI (human computer interaction).

You close the app, switch off your iPhone and start to slide it back into your pocket and then IT happens… the vibration occurs almost the second the device is inside your pocket and you know somebody might just have reciprocated your virtual advance (or your mum has just texted to tell you not to get too drunk & be quiet when you come in).

Even before the moment you receive that good vibration telling you that you’ve scored, some very interesting things are already occurring inside your body. When you found those three potential mates in the bar and flicked them across to the right with your thumb, your body went into adrenaline high-alert, waiting in anticipation for that reciprocal swipe to the right. Now that you’ve actually received one, your body is going full throttle through the gears of excitement, stress, anxiety and joy. In the time it takes for you to take your phone back out of your pocket and unlock it, the hypothalamus sends a message instructing your adrenal gland to produce even more of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone is what we call an anabolic steroid and one seriously potent chemical. As the hormone fans out across your body it will start to have its physical effect on your physiology almost instantaneously. It also returns to the brain, changing the very way you are going to think and behave.

Using one little app you just went back through 30,000 years of evolution to your primitive Neanderthal roots… Biologically speaking anyway.

The hypothalamus, a brain region found by projecting lines in from the bridge of your nose and sideways from the front of your ears, regulates our hormones, and through them our eating, sleeping, sodium levels, water retention, reproduction, aggression and so on. It acts as the main integration site for emotional behaviour, in other words it coordinates the hormones and the brain stem and the emotional behaviours into a coherent bodily response. When, for example, an angry cat hisses, and arches its back, and fluffs its fur, and secretes adrenalin, it is the hypothalamus that has assembled these separate displays of anger and orchestrated them into a single coherent emotional act.

In that bar at the moment of success, when you received the green light to advance to first base, the hypothalamus just did the same thing to you as it did to that hissing cat. In literally milliseconds it totally re-engineered your whole body for the task that’s about to start. Testosterone just increased your confidence and appetite for risk. Even if the next move you make fails and they decide you are just not worthy of them, you will have emerged with much higher levels of testosterone than when you first entered into the bar. However, had you lost the game completely, and you had been left hanging because they’d swiped you to the left, the opposite would have happened and you would have unknowingly found yourself with a much lower level of testosterone. Good news though, as the victor, when you do decide to proceed or even go for another potential mate in the bar, you’re going to be doing it with those elevated levels of testosterone, and this androgenic priming gives you an edge, making your reactions much quicker. You’ll find yourself beating any others to the swipe, sending the Push & Ping quicker than ever before. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of primal, digital joy that turns all the winners into adrenaline junkies… Literally.

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. It’s the same thing here, only we’ve just marketed it on a massive scale, away from elite athletics, and created a whole new generation of people riding the same waves of hormone fuelled adventure.

Pre-attentive processing

There are some other factors at play during this little explosion of bodily reactions too. Research in experimental psychology has found that perceptual acuity and general levels of attention increase as more senses are involved. In other words, vision becomes more acute when coupled with touch, touch with smell, smell with audio etc. The explanation ventured for these findings is that information arriving from two or more senses instead of just one increases the probability that it is reporting a real event, so our brain takes it more seriously. By virtue of being hunting in the wild and the digital signals coming out you in this urban environment, your brain is even more fired up than normal. Sounds obvious I know, but it’s a huge factor in the explanation of the success of mobile.

Another interesting variable is that the brain is actually quite a slow processor and has quite a neat trick that saves you from your fatally slow consciousness. When fast reactions are demanded it cuts out consciousness altogether and relies instead on reflexes, automatic behavior and what it called ‘pre-attentive processing’. Pre-attentive processing is a type of perception, decision-making and movement initation that occurs without any consultation with your conscious brain, and before it is even aware of what is going on. So in that busy environment – the urban world – because of all the factor and stimulants around you, there is a large amount of auto-pilot going on. A much different set of bodily functions being iniated than in the early days of say, online dating, when everything was desktop based.

The long game

There’s a really brilliant part of the brain called the amygdala that assigns emotional significance to events. Without the amygdala, we would view the world as a collection of uninteresting options. That charging grizzly bear in the woods would impress us as nothing more threatening than a large, moving object. Bring the amygdala online, and miraculously the grizzly morphs into the terrifying and deadly predator and we scramble up the nearest tree. The amygdala is the key brain region registering events in the outside world and initiating the suite of physical changes known as the ‘stress response’. It also registers signs of emotional change outside the body, such as rapid breathing and heart rate, increased blood pressure etc.

In scientific lingo, the stress response system is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). After perceiving a stressor from the Amygdala, the hypothalamus sends a chemical message to the pituitary gland. From here a new chemical message is sent out of the brain through our blood, to the producers of stress hormones called the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys. This message has caused another hormone to start leaking out of a adrenal glands and across your body at the same time as the testosterone takes it grip, and this hormone is the really interesting one – meet Cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone, more specifically a glucocorticoid, produced by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex. It is released in response to stress and anxiety. Cortisol works in tandem with adrenaline, but while adrenalin is a fast-acting hormone, taking effect in seconds and having a half-life in the blood of only two to three minutes, cortisol kicks in to support us during a long siege.

Imagine the game of Tinder you’re playing is like hiking in the woods and you hear a rustle in the bushes, you may suspect the presence of a grizzly bear, so the shot of adrenalin you receive is designed to carry you clear of that danger. If that noise you hear turns out to be nothing but the wind in the leaves you settle down, and the adrenalin quickly dissipate. But if you are in fact being stalked by a predator and the chase lasts several hours, then cortisol takes over the management of your body. It orders all long-term and metabolically expensive functions of the body, such as digestion, reproduction, growth, storage of energy, and after a while even the immune function, to stop. At the same time, it begins to break down energy stores and flush the liberated glucose into your blood. In short, cortisol has one main far-reaching command: glucose now! Tonight isn’t the first night you’ve gone Tinder hunting, it’s a regular pursuit and every time you pull out your phone to play, at that crucial moment in your life, cortisol has in effect ordered a complete re-tooling of your body’s factories, away from leisure and consumption goods and got you ready for all out war.

Think about it for a moment… In that moment between push & ping you’re body has completely changed. Clever, huh?! The point is this, and I cannot emphasise it enough: when faced by situations of novelty, uncertainty, opportunity or choice, you FEEL the things you do because of changes taking place in your brain AND your body as it prepares for action.

In the brain, cortisol, like testosterone, initially has the beneficial effects of increasing arousal and sharpening attention, even promoting a slight thrill from the challenge, but as levels of the hormone rise and stay elevated, it comes to have the opposite effects – there is a difference between short-term and long-term exposure to a hormone and that is a very important distinction to remember. In a lot of digital services we’re designing, either by choice or by accident (likely accident) we’re promoting the production of cortisol by spacing out actions and events across prolonged periods of time.

Conclusion

Just to finish off this little story about the wonderful world of Tinder, and before we go too far down this path of biological reductionism, I have to point out that hormones do NOT cause behaviour. They act more like lobby groups, recommending and pressuring us into certain types of activity and behaviour.

Your brain does NOT have to comply to hormone attacks. If you are on a diet, or a religious fast, or a hunger strike, you can choose to ignore the messages of hunger. You can, in other words, choose your own actions, and ultimately take responsibility for them. Nonetheless, with the passing of time and repetition, the biological message, at first whispered can become more like a foghorned bellow, and that can be hard to resist. Which takes me back to the original principles I discussed around creating experiences that not only create an emotional reaction, but also experiences that are spread out and sustained as a series of commas and not full-stops. That’s when habits start to form.

In that second in the bar when your phones goes Ping and you know you’ve hit a potential jackpot comes a minute and rapid shift in body, maybe a slight tightening of the muscles, a shiver of hope, an almost imperceptible shot of excitement which spurs you into action to follow up the invite. What is the point we have to ask, of our sensations, our memories, our cognitive abilities, if these do not lead at some point to action, be it walking, or reaching, or swimming, or eating or even writing? I like to think of this reactions as ‘the gut feeling’. So you see, the little game of Tinder hunting you play in that bar is far more exciting than you can possibly know… Just be careful not to get too addicted to it. Despite your frequent successes, you might also end up following the narrative arc of tragedy, with it’s grim and unstoppable logic of overconfidence and downfall, what the ancient greeks called Hubris (which is where the term Hubris Syndrome is derived) and Nemesis. There are a myriad of ways in which decisions and behaviours can stray from the axioms of rational choice and as we observe the new generation evolving in a digital world we are truly starting to see the actual effects of this new ‘lawnmower man’ existence. It all starts with one swipe to the left or right.

Brain-Explosion

The hour between Dog and Wolf

I was recently pointed in the direction of an incredible book called ‘The Hour Between Dog and Wolf‘. It is an excellently written piece about how human biology contributes to the alternating cycles of irrational exuberance and pessimism that destabilise banks and the global economy – and how the system could be calmed down by applying biological principles.

The author John Coates is a senior research fellow in neuroscience and finance at the University of Cambridge. He previously worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs, and ran a trading desk for Deutsche Bank. In 2004 he returned to Cambridge to research the biology of financial risk-taking.

In his book he goes into meticulous detail about the way the body reacts to experiences and the idea that they can sharpen the mind and call forth an overwhelming biological reaction we know as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which I previously wrote about.

The world is now littered with millions of seemingly irrational reactions to fake, un-important experiences such as apps, games, grinding and virtual socializing. It’s not just about recent advances in technology either – Winston Churchill recognized the power of these so-called “non-lethal experiences” when writing of his early years. He recounts a regimental polo match played in Southern India that went to a tie-break in the final chukka: “Rarely have I seen such strained faces on both sides,” he recalls. “You would not have thought it was not just a game at all, but a matter of life and death. Far graver crises cause less keen emotion“. He is of course referring to ‘the zone’ that people enter when they’re engaged in an activity so deeply that they lose all sense of reality.

When I talk about neuro mechanics and functions that might fire up the reward center, I’m talking about trying to keep people on a winning streak and stimulating (simulating?) feelings of euphoria. When we’re aroused by success, our appetite for opportunity expands and we want more of it. The ‘Tinder‘ generation are chasing a new kind of dragon. The dragon that goes PING and tells them there’s a match. There’s a flip-side too, on a losing streak we might struggle with a kind of digital fear – reliving the bad moments over and over. In those cases stress hormones linger in our brains, promoting a pathological risk-aversion, even depression. John Coates warns that during the down cycles of losing or being withdrawn from the highs, the stress hormones can circulate in our blood, contributing to recurrent viral infections, high blood pressure, abdominal fat build-up and even gastric ulcers.

‘Digital’ is now as much a biological activity, with as many medical consequences, as facing down a grizzly bear.

Recent advances in neuroscience and physiology have shown that when we engage in deep experiences, for example JawBone Up24, our bodies are doing a lot more than just ‘thinking’ about the outcomes and not just because it’s linked to physical activity. We actually start to crave the lessons we learn from the data it shows us. Our bodies, expecting action, switch on an emergency network of physiological circuitry, and the resulting surge in electrical and chemical activity feeds back in to the brain, affecting the way we think and behave. In this way body and brain twine as a single entity, united in the face of the approaching data storm. We’re talking about micro-milliseconds of cognition and excitement too. Most of the time we’re not even aware it’s happening. But it’s just enough to keep our sub-conscience aware that it’s something worth repeating.

One of the brains regions responsible for this early-warning system is the Locus Ceruleus (pronounced Ser-u-leus), so called because it’s cells are cerulean or deep blue. Situated in the brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, sitting atop the spine, the Locus Ceruleus responds to novelty and promotes a state of arrousel. When a correlation between events breaks down or a new pattern emerges, when something is just not right, this primitive part of the brain registers the change long before conscious awareness. By doing so it places the brain on high-alert, galvanizing us into a state of heightened vigilance, and lowering our sensory thresholds so that we hear the faintest sound, notice the slightest movement. Athletes experiencing this effect have said that when caught up in the flow of a game they can pick out every voice in the stadium, see every blade of grass.

Welcome to the Engine Room

You get that all too familiar notification push PING sound from your pocket…. Your body automatically starts to create fuel, and lots of it, in the form of glucose. The body also needs Oxygen to burn this fuel, and it needs an increased flow of blood to deliver this fuel and oxygen to gas-guzzling cells throughout the body, and therefore you need an expanded exhaust pipe, in the form of dilated bronchial tubes and throat, to vent the carbon dioxide waste once the fuel is burned. Breathing accelerates, drawing in more oxygen, and the heart rates speed up. Our bodies, unbeknownst to us, are preparing for the experience when we sense it’s approach. Metabolism speeds up, ready to break down existing energy stores in liver, muscle and fat cells should the situation demand it. Cells of the immune system take up position, like firefighters, at vulnerable points of our bodies, such as the skin, and stand ready to deal with injury and infection. The nervous system, extending from the brain down into the abdomen, has begun redistributing blood throughout our bodies, constricting blood flow to the gut, giving us butterflies, and shunting blood to major muscle groups in the arms and thighs as well as to the lungs, heart and brain. Again, often so tiny a reaction we’re not even aware it’s happening at all.

The very fact we can design experiences that create excitement and anticipation that can change people physically is a remarkable feat. In that millisecond it’s taken for Tinder to fire you a push PING notification to say someone has matched with you we just made Digital become physical. Just think about that, it’s insanely cool.

“YOU HAVE A NEW MATCH” …Bang… rising levels of testosterone increase production of hemoglobin, and consequently your bloods capacity to carry oxygen; the testosterone also increases your state of confidence and crucially your appetite for risk.

This is a moment of total transformation, that the French since the middle ages have referred to as “L’heure entre chien et loup” which translates as “the hour between dog and wolf”

The phrase refers to a specific time of day, when the light is such that one can’t distinguish between a dog or wolf. Under extreme, artificial circumstances we can lose our true selves to this virtual world we swim in.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf

In the last 15 years we’ve created dozens of new ways of firing up the parts of the body I describe above and at a mass scale. Do we even know what the effect of that might be? For millennia we’ve evolved without this wave of artificial stimulants and suddenly it’s introduced into society, globally, and in vast vast quantities. In fact it’s really only since the advent and mass adoption of the smartphone that things have got really juicy.

My name is Pete, and I’m an addict

There’s more too. The hormone, adrenaline, produced by the core of the adrenal glands located on top of the kidney, surges into your blood when this artificial stimulant – the push notification – is triggered. Another hormone, the steroid Cortisol, commonly known as the Stress Hormone, trickles out of the rim of the adrenal gland and travels to the brain, where it stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical operating along neural circuits known as the pleasure pathways. Normally stress is a nasty experience, but not at low-levels. At low-levels it thrills. A non-threatening stressor or challenge, like a sporting match, a fast drive, being matched on a dating site, seeing our portfolio increase in our trading apps or beating the system in an app, game or experience, releases Cortisol, and in combination with dopamine, one of the most addictive drugs known to the human brain, delivers a narcotic hit, a rush, a flow that convinces you there is no better moment in the world than this one right here.

It’s all happening inside us every day.

Meaning

In that hour between dog and wolf, we can’t know if we’re safe or threatened. We can’t be sure if our eyes deceive, if we truly know what we think we know. We’re caught somewhere between comfort (ignorant bliss?) and fear. It’s good, of course, to be able to distinguish between the two, but… Most people have never mastered that. It’s why the body reacts in the way it does. Irrationally. Uncontrollably. Even just on a micro level.

John Coates book analyses the phenomenon that occurs in intense periods of time on Trading Floors of major banks. The phrase “The hour between dog and wolf” feels like an appropriate description. It’s about these big heavy bursts of insanity that change people in incredible ways for good and bad. But in the world of small micro interactions we’re creating, maybe the more appropriate phase needs to be;

The SECOND between PING and POW

It feels somehow more appropriate to the Gen Y crowd.

Summary

Keep all this in mind when you question why we are becoming more and more fascinated in the biology behind experiences. It might seem silly and overkill, even benign, to start breaking these things down so deliberately, but the the body really is a marvelous machine and the potent potential we have to manipulate it with the creation of digital experiences is not just incredible but also potentially destructive. Nobody is really sure what this new surge of artificial stimulants is doing to society and biology.

A lot of people are asking me why I’m going down this path of bringing biology into the story – It’s really very straightforward – It is simply very fascinating! A story of human behaviour spiked with biology can lead to some particularly vivid moments of recognition. The term recognition is commonly used to describe the point in a story when all of a sudden we understand what is going on, and by that very process understand ourselves better. For when we understand what is going on inside our bodies, and why, we are met with repeated Aha! moments.

Today, NeuroCX more than any other subject, throws a light into the dark corners of our lives and every time I learn something new about the biology behind design and experience I get a little hit of Cortisol that keeps me wanting to learn more. :)

PG Neuro 2

Teaching customers to accentuate the positive

It may be possible to stave off depression before it even appears using brain-training software so simplistic in its design that even the psychologist testing it once bet it wouldn’t work.

Ian Gotlib‘s group at Stanford University, California, studies girls aged 10 to 14 years whose mothers suffer from depression. Such girls are thought to be at higher-than-normal risk of developing the condition themselves, in part because they may inherit their mothers’ tendency to “amplify” unpleasant information. Although none of the girls has yet experienced a depressive episode, Gotlib has found that their brains already overreact to negative emotional stimuli – a pattern they share with their mothers and other depressed people.

Gotlib is studying whether these young subjects can use interactive software and brain-imaging hardware to “rewire” their brains by unlearning this negative bias. In a pilot experiment, eight girls used a neural feedback display to learn how to control activity in a network of interrelated brain regions that have been linked to depression – these include the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The level of activity in this network was measured using an functional MRI scan and displayed to the girls in the form of a thermometer on a computer screen. The girls were shown sad or negative pictures that might ordinarily raise their “temperature”, and tried to lower that “temperature” by adopting more sanguine mental states. They were then advised to try to recreate that mindset in their daily lives.

A control group unknowingly watched someone else’s scan output instead of their own, so they didn’t actually learn how to control their brain activity.

Accentuate the positive

Another set of girls in the pilot experiment received their training through a simple computer game instead. In this game, a pair of faces appeared on a screen every few seconds: they would be either neutral and sad, or neutral and happy. Then a dot replaced one of the faces, and the “game” was to click on the dot. For the eight girls in the control group, the face replaced by the dot was selected at random, but for eight girls in the experimental group, the dot always replaced the more positive face in the pair. Over a week of playing this game daily, these girls were in effect being trained to avoid looking at the sad faces.

Gotlib himself originally found this concept, called attentional-bias training, so simplistic that he bet Colin MacLeod, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth who pioneered the technique, that it would not alter psychological symptoms. Gotlib lost his bet.

In his pilot study, both kinds of training significantly reduced stress-related responses – for example, increases in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – to negative stimuli. These stress responses are a key marker of depression, and they diminished one week after training. The girls in the experimental groups also developed fewer defensive responses to negative faces, such as startled blinking. Control groups showed no such improvement.

Jill Hooley, head of Harvard University’s clinical psychology programme, was impressed by the findings despite the small sample size: “This is highly innovative work,” she said. “Ian is breaking new ground here.”

Gotlib is adding more subjects to the training programme and plans to compare their long-term mental health with a parallel cohort of 200 girls, half of whom have depressed mothers, who aren’t participating in the study.

What I find staggering about this study is not just the social implications which are truly ground-breaking in the study and treatment of mental health, but the wider implications. It proves with some very simple mechanisms that you can train the brain to behave outside of it’s normal bias. Stop for moment and consider how this might be applied to say, Investing. Some people behave inappropriately with their investments. They cash them in too early, they poke when they should leave them, they invest when they should save or save when they should invest etc. It’s all largely cognitive bias. The brain knows what the brain knows. So this kind of research in my view gives us a rich playground to begin thinking about simple mechanisms we can add into traditional services that might help some people start to behave differently.

Welcome to the frontier of design people.

badges

Neuro Mechanics and the power of Experience Engagement

Choosing, implementing & designing the right mechanisms is the key to successful NeuroCX and experience design. There are a whole heap of ways of doing it and as previously discussed, it’s the nexus of these events that create real behavioral change and sticky engagements. Let’s take a look through some of the theory and mechanisms here in this article.

MAJOR INCLUSION: You can now download and use my Mechanics Mapping tool (in excel, sorry!) by clicking here. The framework will allow you to look at the ‘ZEN‘ of your mechanisms. What you’re punching for is a nice even spread of functions and features around the entire circle. You can also use the framework to benchmark against a competitor. Simply add in a ‘1’ against a feature in the columns to start visualising the balance of what you have. The second tab is a glossary of the functions for you to use offline.

I mentioned ‘Zen‘ as a term because zen teaches us about simplicity and balance. Sometimes in order to grow we must subtract.

  • When using the framework above ask yourself are there any Features that don’t add to the experience? Would the experience benefit from removing it or replacing it?
  • When you add New Features do you take into account balance to insure the experience remains fun?

Introduction

The growing buzz about NeuroCX can be confusing at best and downright dizzying at worst. For marketers, it takes some effort to wade through the hype and figure out how to extract what really matters. The right strategy will take you beyond badges and leaderboards to dozens of alternative little mechanics that reward attention rather than demand it. These can be combined in different ways to create powerful new experiences that tap into basic motivations.

It’s the little things that give everything meaning. Life is an accumulation of puzzle pieces that make a spectacular picture, or the collection of letters to make words to make sentences to fill pages to complete a story. Ultimately, a thousand little things make something big — and what’s more, small beings united to make something immense often lend a certain grandeur to themselves — all the more for not having done so through any intention.

So imagine the completed puzzle – a stunning picture. Imagine being awed and mesmerized by its image, and then imagine if you were able to elicit such an appreciation of every piece along the way – how much fuller and more magnificent the completion of it becomes. This is the philosophy behind NeuroCX and behind the NeuroScience of Experience Design. It’s all about learning to love the little things to create new behaviors and habits.

While we’re creating a service or product we should really ask ourselves, the team and the client some of the following questions continually throughout the process of the experience design. Keep in mind, these questions will not apply to every situation and should be taken in context to what we’re trying to achieve.

  1. What is the main reason for pimping a product / service?
  2. What are the goals?
  3. What are the main benefits we expect to achieve?

Your reason for adding neuro mechanics into your product / service has a huge affect on how you should go about designing it. If you just want people to spend more time on your website, major distractions from your core product might be fine. If not, you may want to tone down some aspects to ensure it doesn’t take away from the pre-existing experience of your more standard features. Don’t pimp a shopping experience, it’s just shopping! Nobody wants to master mine-fields when they’re buying bras.

First, actions and rewards are fundamental to engagement. The simplest form of rewards are points. The very first thing you need to do is figure out what all activities you want to reward users for and what is most important to you. You need to do Value Weighting planning to determine what is most important so it’s rewarded accordingly and in comparison to each other appropriately.

Next, you need to think of what rules your service may need to ensure you are getting the behavior you want. You may set time limits and other rules to limit users from repetitively doing something over and over when you only want to reward for it once, etc. You really need to take cheating into account to ensure the experience is fair for all users.

You also need to see things from your audiences point of view.

  1. How does it benefit the user?
  2. Do they enjoy it?

There are a lot of ways to engage and pimp elements of your experience to trigger those happiness inducing dopamine bombs to drop. Here’s an A-Z of the possible things you might want consider;

Achievements

Achievements are a great reward if implemented correctly that collectors or perfectionist type users will really love and keep them engaged as long as new Achievements are created.

  • Do you give Achievements often?
  • How long would it take for a user to get every Achievement?
  • Do you have Achievements a user would be proud of or share?
  • Do you allow them and others to see the coolness of the Achievement? Rarity?
  • Have you implemented a place for user’s to collect and show their Achievements on a profile other users can see?
  • Do you have a way for users to show off their favorite Achievements?
  • Do you have an Achievement Map to show you the Achievements you have, ones you could earn and when available info on how you can earn them?
  • Have you implemented Achievement Tiers such as the common ones like “Easy, Medium, Hard, Insane and Unknown?”
  • Do you use clever names and graphics on your Achievements to add Character? How about humor or wit not only in the names or graphics but also in how you obtain the Achievements?
  • Have you kept your users in mind and created Achievement styles that are catered towards them?
  • Do your names for Unknown Achievements (Achievements that you don’t know how you earn them) inspire curiosity/envy in users without prematurely revealing how the user earned it?
  • Do you have Achievements with real depth that require a combo of actions / variables to Unlock?

Example: a badge, a level, a reward, points, really anything defined as a reward can be rewarding.

Altruism

With great power comes great responsibility.

Online Experiences can be used for good, bad and many shades of gray. Product owners should take a moment to consider the health of their users as well as ways to use NeuroCX for Social Good.

  • Do you have methods to show the users how long they have been engaging?
  • Do you warn them when they’ve been engaging too long?
  • Do you give them substantial reasons to take a break such as a maximum on points per day, or a bonus for returning after a certain period of time?
  • Have you thought of ways to leverage your influence to have users do good in the real world through donations or other creative means?

Analysis

Constant Analysis of performance and user behavior has become the norm in the Iterative Design Process.

  • Do you have the right analytics tools and goals set in place to gauge your progress?
  • Do you know where users drop out of your experience? Where they lose interest?
  • Do you know when and where users are having the most fun?
  • How can you use the data you’ve gathered to optimize your Gamified Experience?
  • Are there new Features you can add or non-performing ones you can remove?

Anticipation

Anticipation is a strong psychological motivator that when used properly in your product can get users excited and allow them to endure longer play time at a higher level of enjoyment.

  • How can you use anticipation to motivate your users?
  • Do you “dangle a carrot” so users know what they are working towards?
  • Do users know the result of their next level, achievement, status title etc.?
  • Can you use chance to have users anticipate some random event or reward that might happen?
  • Can you use time to build anticipation?

Appointment Dynamic

A dynamic in which to succeed, one must return at a predefined time to take some action. Appointment dynamics are often deeply related to interval based reward schedules or avoidance dyanmics.

Example: Cafe World and Farmville where if you return at a set time to do something you get something good, and if you don’t something bad happens.

Avoidance

The act of inducing player behavior not by giving a reward, but by not instituting a punishment. Produces consistent level of activity, timed around the schedule.

Example: Press a lever every 30 seconds to not get shocked.

Balance

Balance is important to any good product to insure the experience is fun, has longevity and is fair.

  • How frequent are your rewards?
  • Will users get bored because your rewards are too easy to obtain?
  • How fast do users max out(max level, etc.)?
  • Will users obtain some benefit from being max that will be enough for them to continue to participate?
  • Is there a way to allow a user to “restart” while keeping what they earned? For example, users in WoW have multiple Level 70 Characters.

Behavioral Contrast

The theory defining how behavior can shift greatly based on changed expectations.

Example: A monkey presses a lever and is given lettuce. The monkey is happy and continues to press the lever. Then it gets a grape one time. The monkey is delighted. The next time it presses the lever it gets lettuce again. Rather than being happy, as it was before, it goes ballistic throwing the lettuce at the experimenter. (In some experiments, a second monkey is placed in the cage, but tied to a rope so it can’t access the lettuce or lever. After the grape reward is removed, the first monkey beats up the second monkey even though it obviously had nothing to do with the removal. The anger is truly irrational.)

Behavioral Momentum

The tendency of players to keep doing what they have been doing.

Example: From Jesse Schell’s awesome Dice talk: “I have spent ten hours engaging in Farmville. I am a smart person and wouldn’t spend 10 hours on something unless it was useful. Therefore this must be useful, so I can keep doing it.”

Blissful Productivity

The idea that engaging in a experience makes you happier working hard, than you would be relaxing. Essentially, we’re optimized as human beings by working hard, and doing meaningful and rewarding work.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk wherein she discusses how World of Warcraft players play on average 22 hours / week (a part time job), often after a full days work. They’re willing to work hard, perhaps harder than in real life, because of their blissful productivity in the online world.

Cascading Information Theory

The theory that information should be released in the minimum possible snippets to gain the appropriate level of understanding at each point during the narrative.

Example: showing basic actions first, unlocking more as you progress through levels. Making building on success a simple but staged process to avoid information overload.

Chain Schedules

Definition: the practice of linking a reward to a series of contingencies. Players tend to treat these as simply the individual contingencies. Unlocking one step in the contingency is often viewed as an individual reward by the player.

Example: Kill 10 orcs to get into the dragons cave, every 30 minutes the dragon appears.

Challenge

Challenge is fundamental to creating engagement.

  • What are the challenges in your experience?
  • Do they require skill or luck? or both?
  • Is there enough variety and depth in the challenges that users will stay engaged?
  • Do you have multiple types of challenges throughout?

Chance

Lotteries are popular for a reason, everyones loves chance, the unknown. Treasure Chests in games like World of Warcraft are a great example of chance on multiple levels because you have a chance to get a treasure chest when you kill a monster, then there is a chance of how rare of a chest you will get, then when you open it there is randomness on what item you will get.

  • How might you use the anticipation of a chance to increase fun and the engagement duration?
  • How can you implement multiple levels of chance such as the example with Treasure Chests?
  • Do you show users the likelihood of a chance happen or keep it a mystery?
  • Are chance %’s set in stone or variable based on actions or some other variable?
  • Do you have insanely rare, unique or personal rewards that can be won by chance?

Character

The reward avatar in Nike Fuel a classic example of using humor in an experience to build Character. Having unique and weird quirks can cause users to talk about your Experience. Digital enables some interesting possibilities to build Character that people will remember. In most current iterations of experience design this concept has been entirely ignored.

  • Does your company’s pre-existing brand and attitude shine through in the Gamified Experience?
  • Have you aligned your brand’s character with the User Experience to insure consistency?
  • Can you use humor, satire, etc. to build character?
  • Have you created customized content such as Achievements, Avatars, Virtual Goods etc. to match your brand that users will remember?
  • Do you use feedback or other interactions to build character?
  • Have you created content unique to your brand that users will be surprised by, such as Easter Eggs?
  • Have you implemented any features or created content that is so outlandish or unique that users will talk about and want to share?

Cheating

Cheating goes hand and hand with this stuff if you don’t properly design against it. Before and during the design process you must try to fathom how users could possibly cheat or exploit some flaw in your design. Like anything tho, if your anti-cheating measures are overdone you can hurt the User Experience. users may employ many methods to cheat such as Bots, Multiple Accounts, their own personal time and in extreme situations where real cash or valuable real world rewards are at stake they may hire people for low wages.

  • Are there repetitive tasks that are rewarded with no restrictions that users might try to exploit?
  • If so, might you limit the task with per hour, per day maximums? Perhaps you could require a combination of activity before the user gets rewarded again to create an environment that bots couldn’t exploit.
  • Have you thoroughly thought about your experience design from a cheater’s perspective to see possible exploits they would see?
  • Do you have tools and analytics in place to possibly detect unusual behavior?
  • Have you taken into account how excessive anti-cheating efforts might hurt your User Experience such as excessive captcha usage etc.?
  • Could you require users to use facebook or some other name verification method to verify their identity in the hopes that users wont cheat if people know who they really are?
  • Can you make user activity public so that users might worry others will notice unusual activity?
  • Can you enable the use of Web Reputation Systems and promote users to flag users who have unusual activity?
  • Can you create a system to reward users with points/badges etc. for catching a cheater? Do they lose a little bit of points if they’re wrong to discourage excessive flagging?
  • Do you have legal protection in place to allow you to delete user’s accounts or remove rewards if they have cheated?
  • Do you have social systems in place to reduce points dramatically if an activity was obviously done just for points without caring about quality? Such as if a user left a comment just for points and other users voted it down the user could receive no points or actually lose points.

Choices

Choices empower users, make them feel engaged and ownership over their choices.

  • Do you give users meaningful choices? Would you benefit from making them more or less frequent?
  • Do users get feedback on their choices? Do they see the effects of their choices?
  • Would your users benefit from more or less options when making choices?

Collector

Collectors will work persistently to collect everything in your experience. If you give Collectors rare achievements and items to collect they will keep on until they have them all regardless of how difficult. Not everyone is such an extreme Collector, but most people still enjoy collecting to some degree.

  • Do you have a wide variety of things for users to collect?
  • Can you create collectible content that is very difficult that will take the users a long time to collect in order to increase longevity of engagement?
  • Do you have “sets” such as item sets, achievement sets etc.?
  • Do you visibly show the user their progress in collecting? Perhaps what % they have completed of the set etc.?
  • Can you create limited edition items or other things that Collectors would go crazy for?

Community

Creating a strong bond between users, a Community is critical to long term success, virality and more.

  • Are you doing enough to promote community?
  • Do you use social network integration to leverage existing social graphs?
  • How can you give your users more ways to contact or interact with one another?
  • Have you properly implemented competition and/or cooperation so users have a need to band together and discuss?
  • Do users have a need to form groups to help each other on specific tasks or large quests, contests etc.?

Communal Discovery

The dynamic wherein an entire community is rallied to work together to solve a riddle, a problem or a challenge. Immensely viral and very fun.

Example: DARPA balloon challenge, the cottage industries that appear around McDonalds monopoly to find “Boardwalk”

Competition

Competition is the basis for most of humanity’s progress and evolution. With that being said, different personality types have different feelings about competition and sometimes competition overdone can make users shy away or hurt cooperation.

  • Do your users want competition?
  • Is there a way you can allow users different options so if they don’t want to compete, they don’t have to?
  • Have you taken into account the balance between competition and cooperation?
  • Are there opportunities where users can be competitive and cooperative at the same time?
  • Do you have multiple ways for competitive users to compete, with both others and themselves?

Control

We all want to be in control of what we do. It makes us feel important, safe and most importantly free.

  • Can you give your users more control over their experience?
  • Are there things you currently dictate to your users that could be opened for them to control or vote on?
  • Can you give users more control or power as part of a reward or status?

Cooperation

Cooperation is paramount to building a strong community. Do you have Features enabled that will allow users to collaborate?

  • Do you have various methods of collaboration, both big and small?
  • Can users collaborate with both close friends and strangers?

Countdown

The dynamic in which players are only given a certain amount of time to do something. This will create an activity graph that causes increased initial activity increasing frenetically until time runs out, which is a forced extinction.

Example: Bejeweled Blitz with 30 seconds to get as many points as you can. Bonus rounds. Timed levels

Cross Situational Leader-boards

This occurs when one ranking mechanism is applied across multiple (unequal and isolated) gaming scenarios. Players often perceive that these ranking scenarios are unfair as not all players were presented with an “equal” opportunity to win.

Example: Players are arbitrarily sent into one of three paths. The winner is determined by the top scorer overall (i.e. across the paths). Since the players can only do one path (and can’t pick), they will perceive inequity in the scenario and get upset.

Curiosity

Curiosity is one of the basic human emotions that should be heavily considered in the Experience Design Process.

  • Are your users curious about anything that might be mysterious to them?
  • Are there any ways you could increase or create curiosity with mysterious locked items, treasure chests, or other Mechanics or Features?

Data

Data is king. In experience design users can become addicted to pouring over data about the engagement and their actions, achievements etc. users love stats.

  • Are there stats you are invisibly collecting now that users would benefit from seeing?
  • Have you given users methods to see stats from the entire experience, their personal stats and those of other users or groups?

Dazzle

It is important to Dazzle your users, take them on an experience and insure it’s visually pleasant. Beauty and wowing a user keeps them engaged and makes them remember you.

  • Have you spent enough time on your User Interface and insuring users really enjoy the graphical elements of the Gamification?
  • Are there ways you could visually make things more exciting or interesting to increase engagement?

Discovery

People inherently love to explore. Consider giving more opportunities in your experience for users to discover something new.

  • Do users currently benefit from exploring your experience or content? Do they get bonuses for finding content for the first time, personally, globally or in their group?
  • Are there things users are already discovering for the first time and you’re just not telling them?
  • Could you create new content just for the purpose of users “finding it”?
  • Can you create challenges, quests etc. that use discovery as an element?
  • Can you enable users to compete or collaborate on exploring?
  • Can you provide special recognition for a user to be the first who found something?
  • Do you take advantage of data to show a user how much they have discovered and what’s still out there and undiscovered?

Economy

Economy in your Gamified Experience can add immense loyalty as users begin to care about their Virtual Currency. Just like in real life, your Economy can be difficult to balance. You must plan carefully and take many things into consideration or it will become worthless.

  • Do users value their virtual currency or goods?
  • If not, how can you make it feel more valuable?
  • Do you allow users to trade any non-merit based goods such as money, items etc.?
  • Do you have tools and analytics in place to watch for inflation and other problems in your economy?
  • Could you benefit from implementing a Dual Virtual Currency?
  • Have you created enough Sinks to help curb inflation? Such as, paying for a right to do X, or to take a risk that net sum results in the loss of currency or items.

Endless Scenarios

Experiences that do not have an explicit end. Most applicable to casual experiences that can refresh their content or experiences where a static (but positive) state is a reward of its own.

Example: Farmville (static state is its own victory), SCVNGR (challenges constantly are being built by the community to refresh content)

Engagement Curve

Engagement is one of the most important Gamification Benefits. You can expect Engagement to spike or fall off at different parts of the experience and the life of the user.

  • Do you monitor engagement so that you know the parts of your Gamified Experience that users enjoy the most?
  • If users are dropping off at a certain spot in the experience, can you remove, replace or tweak that part of the experience?
  • If users get bored after X months, can you add content at that time to re-engage them?

Envy

Envy is not always bad. users may aspire to do better due to envy of another user’s status, possessions etc and other users might try harder because they want users to envy them.

  • How do you currently use envy to motivate users?
  • Do users have easy access to see information about other users?
  • What creative ways can you devise to leverage envy without making users dislike each other?
  • Have you taken into consideration the social implications of making users too envious of one another?
  • Do you give users something special or unique that would motivate other users to earn or find it?
  • Do you give users an easy way to compare themselves to others?
  • Do you have various depths of visible status, such as shallow at a glance(not much data) and in depth if you want to see?

Epic Meaning

Users will be highly motivated if they believe they are working to achieve something great, something awe-inspiring, something bigger than themselves.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk where she discusses Warcraft’s ongoing story line and “epic meaning” that involves each individual has motivated players to participate outside the experience and create the second largest wiki in the world to help them achieve their individual quests and collectively their epic meanings.

Extinction

Extinction is the term used to refer to the action of stopping providing a reward. This tends to create anger in players as they feel betrayed by no longer receiving the reward they have come to expect. It generally induces negative behavioral momentum.

Example: killing 10 orcs no longer gets you a level up

Fairness

Fairness is important to the long term viability of your experience. If users feel things aren’t fair they will feel cheated and it could result in negative results instead of positive results. Designers should plan accordingly to create fairness and monitor user sentiment.

  • Do you have feedback mechanisms to see if your users feel treated fairly?
  • In competitions that require skill, can you insure users are matched or judged based on users with similar skill?
  • Do you try to sale any virtual goods that users might consider an unfair advantage such as XP Boosts, Special Items etc.?

Feedback

Feedback is your communication to a user of what they should do, what they did etc. Without proper feedback a user could feel lost and un-engaged.

  • Do users understand the experience and it’s rules?
  • Do they clearly know what to do next or if open ended understand the possibilities?
  • Do you properly communicate to users when they’ve accomplished something?
  • Do users see visible feedback on all of their actions that earn rewards?

Fun

Everyone likes to have fun, some say it’s the reason we live. While not always required in Gamification ( see section on Invisibility ), fun is a critical aspect of Gamification Design and should be one of your metrics for success.

  • What might your users find fun?
  • Are you overlooking something simple? Simple can be fun sometimes.
  • Could you create more mini experiences, chances or moments of skill to increase fun?

This part has less questions because it’s so open ended, we just know it’s something you should focus on. Get creative!

Fixed Interval Reward Schedules

Fixed interval schedules provide a reward after a fixed amount of time, say 30 minutes. This tends to create a low engagement after a reward, and then gradually increasing activity until a reward is given, followed by another lull in engagement.

Example: Farmville, wait 30 minutes, crops have appeared

Fixed Ratio Reward Schedule

A fixed ratio schedule provides rewards after a fixed number of actions. This creates cyclical nadirs of engagement (because the first action will not create any reward so incentive is low) and then bursts of activity as the reward gets closer and closer.

Example: kill 20 ships, get a level up, visit five locations, get a badge

Free Lunch

A dynamic in which a player feels that they are getting something for free due to someone else having done work. It’s critical that work is perceived to have been done (just not by the player in question) to avoid breaching trust in the scenario. The player must feel that they’ve “lucked” into something.

Example: Groupon. By virtue of 100 other people having bought the deal, you get it for cheap. There is no sketchiness b/c you recognize work has been done (100 people are spending money) but you yourself didn’t have to do it.

Fun Once, Fun Always

The concept that an action in enjoyable to repeat all the time. Generally this has to do with simple actions. There is often also a limitation to the total level of enjoyment of the action.

Example: the theory behind the check-in everywhere and the check-in and the default challenges on SCVNGR.

Global

The world is a big place. Gamification in many ways is a connector. Connecting the real and the digital, the local and global. Designers should take into consideration their audience and potentially untapped audience.

  • Is your content suitable for a global audience? If not, could some minor tweaks change that?
  • Do your rewards take into consideration global tastes?
  • Can you create personalized experiences for different countries while still keeping them connected at the global level?
  • Can you use Patriotism at a local or global level to inspire competition and collaboration?

Goals

Goals are fundamental to good experience design. Goals provide a reason to play and way to feel progression and accomplishment.

  • Do users understand the goal of the product and the purpose of it’s existence?
  • Can you allow users the ability to set their own goals? Can you suggest goals to them to motivate them to excel?
  • Can you use goals at a global level that everyone can help work towards to inspire collaboration? Such as how some websites have raised money for charity by showing their goal to everyone and how close they are to reaching their goal.
  • Can you use goals to promote competition?

Grinding

Grinding, or doing a repetitive task to progress in experience, is fundamental to most behavioral change models and if done with the right frequency of intensity with needed breaks from Grinding, can result in dramatic increase in time spent. But Grinding if too difficult can cause users to leave.

  • Are there repetitive tasks that might be appropriate for your Gamified Experience to encourage Grinding, such as viewing of content or other tasks?
  • Do you give something fun and rewarding to break the monotony of grinding?
  • Is this change induced based on time, chance or accomplishment? If only one way could you implement other ways?
  • Can users easily see their progress, short term objectives and long term objectives/progress?

Influence

Influence over actions is a major benefit of Gamification. Most of the time you want to do this subtly and carefully as not to be too pushy with users. Give them goals or challenges that require them to do something that is important to you or reward them more points for doing something that at that moment is of the most importance to you.

  • Can you influence actions of users through the use of Neuro Mechanics without it ruining the experience?
  • Can you tweak your User Interface to influence users?
  • Can you set rules to get users to do what you want?
  • Can you set goals to get users to do what you want?
  • Are there other creative means to influence users without them feeling you are controlling and interfering with their experience?

Imagination

Imagination captives and spires. We want to stimulate our user’s imagination but also Designers will be able to use their imagination to create creative solutions to problems.

  • Are there ways you can stimulate your user’s imagination?
  • Have you created unique and imaginative content that users will remember?
  • Does your Gamified Experience have toy like attributes that inspire child like joy and curiosity?

Instantaneous

We live in the age of instant, on demand and A.D.D. Assuming you have the technology , it’s a powerful tool in your experience design arsenal.

  • Are there aspects of your experience now that are delayed but could be more exciting if they were real-time?
  • Has your UI/UX taken into consideration the power of instant?
  • Could you create content in real-time that users would be surprised and engaged by?

Invisibility

Sometimes you’ve got to be Invisible. The beauty of Gamification is it can be weaved into every part of our lives. Some people will want to see every detail of the experience while others will not want to be bothered and they just want to see the results and rewards.

  • Are there some aspects of your Gamification Design that could benefit from being less visible or entirely invisible?
  • Can you give users options to make things visible or invisible through settings or more temporarily and situational with modes so if I want no feedback today for a specific reason, I can switch modes?

Leveling Curve

Levels are an important method in experience design to show progress and status. When designing you should take into account how fast users will level, will they reach max level and when and does the difficulty change per level?

  • Have you researched the various types of level curves such as wave, straight, progressive etc. and found the one that works best?
  • Are there rewards for levels you could give that would make the level meaningful?
  • Do you foreshadow to show users what they can earn the next level or future levels?
  • Can you create “Tiers” or milestones so that for example every 10 levels could have some major importance with a new status title, power or some other reward?

Longevity

Creating experiences that have Longevity and long term appeal takes skill and persistence.

  • Do you have a plan to continue generating interesting content and rewards so users stay interested?
  • Have you made users feel ownership over their achievements and possessions so that they will not want to lose them if they left?
  • Do you have mini experiences and meta experiences outside the main goal that will keep users busy?
  • Do you have some rewards that are insanely hard to obtain that can take a tremendous amount of time and effort?
  • Have you gave collectors content to keep them busy?
  • Are you properly monitoring how fast users progress so you will know when users need new content?

Lottery

A dynamic in which the winner is determined solely by chance. This creates a high level of anticipation. The fairness is often suspect, however winners will generally continue to play indefinitely while losers will quickly abandon the experience, despite the random nature of the distinction between the two.

Example: many forms of gambling, scratch tickets.

Mini Experiences

Mini Experiences are a great way to add character to design and give a change of pace to break monotony. The classic Nintendo game Zelda is famous for having mini games including fishing, racing and more. Mini Experiences can be obvious or sometimes are entirely hidden almost like an Easter Egg.

  • How might you create a simple mini experience that adds value to your Experience?
  • Do you closely integrate the mini experience into the main experience or just have it be a stand alone way to earn more points etc.?
  • Can you use mini experiences to increase social interaction or virality?
  • Are mini experiences constantly available, time limited or unlockable?
  • Are there creative ways you could use your mini experiences such as “Events” , Competitions etc.?

Meta Experiences

Meta Experiences are experiences played above the “experience”. Meta Experiences can be a great way to make data interesting, to show progress and much more.

  • Do you have meta experiences that give the user an extra reason to participate in the main experience?
  • Can you create a meta experience that requires no extra effort but visually is an interesting way to see your progress?
  • Can users Unlock Meta Experiences?

Meta Experiences require a lot of imagination. The possibilities are wide open to how you can use all this Product Data and Life Data in interesting and possibly fun ways.

Micro-Transactions

Micro-Transactions have opened a lot of untapped potential in experience design by helping to support Freemium Business Models and allowing users to pay for uniqueness, status, boosts and more. Micro-Transactions like many things can be implemented poorly with harmful results. If over used or implemented too early or pushed too hard, users might become unhappy and feel the game is unfair or all about money.

  • Have you created a clear set of goals to monitor the engagement etc. of your users to insure they already care about their points, status and other rewards before implementing micro-transactions?
  • Is there a way you can gradually roll out micro-transactions to ease users into it and monitor results closely?
  • Are there things that users have expressed a desire for that you could possibly charge for?

Modifiers

An item that when used affects other actions. Generally modifiers are earned after having completed a series of challenges or core functions.

Example: A X2 modifier that doubles the points on the next action you take.

Playtesting

Playtesting in traditional gaming happens very early in the design process and is important not only for finding bugs, but for determining what is fun, if experiences inspire the feelings you thought they would etc. Playtesting is different in the context of Gamification , tho still very important.

  • Are you testing your Gamified Experience privately before your release to the public?
  • Could you perhaps release to a limited set of top users to get feedback from your most trusted fans?
  • Do you play with potential new features privately before rolling them out to the public?

Progression

Progression drives engagement. Users want that next level, reward and to see how far they’ve come.

  • Do you constantly give users feedback on their progress via stats, progress bars or other means?
  • Is there more data you could surface to show users their progress for multiple things, in multiple views?
  • Could you use progress data in creative ways to entertain the user such as using the data to power a meta-experience?

Punishment

Punishment has always been used in game design to keep users from doing something you don’t want them to. In traditional gaming if you make a mistake, you might die. In Experience Design, you should use punishment carefully as it could turn off some users.

  • Are you currently punishing your users for actions you don’t want them to do?
  • Do the users feel it’s fair?
  • Can you use decay in your experience so that users must return or they begin to lose something?
  • Are you currently using any form of punishment that is excessive and users generally dislike that you could remove?

Quests

Quests lead users on a journey. In many experiences this really ends up being just a list of tasks you should complete, ordered or not, to receive X reward.

  • Can you create unique quests that help build character?
  • Can you create many quests of varying levels of difficult and time length requirements so that you have some that take only minutes and others that take months to complete?
  • Do you give difficult appropriate rewards for the completion of Quests or perhaps a unique reward for the most difficult ones?
  • If users have completed parts of a quest they don’t know about, are they informed?
  • Can you create Quests that create competition and/or collaboration?

Rewards

Rewards are fundamental to good Experience Design. Having the right Rewards is key to making sure users feel their is value to their actions. Keep in mind rewards are not necessarily physical or even things like points, sometimes acknowledgment and status are the most important rewards.

  • Do users care about your rewards?
  • Do you have unique rewards that users will cherish?
  • Do your rewards seem to be appropriate for the level of difficulty it takes to acquire them?
  • Can you possibly give users a choice in what kind of rewards they get?

Real-time v. Delayed Mechanics

Realtime information flow is uninhibited by delay. Delayed information is only released after a certain interval.

Example: Realtime scores cause instant reaction (gratification or demotivation). Delayed causes ambiguity which can incent more action due to the lack of certainty of ranking.

Risk

Risk stimulates our instincts and can make things seem more exciting when something is on the line.

  • Can you create more opportunities for users to take a risk?
  • Can you make the risks optional so they have meaning and users can chose to participate or not?
  • Can you use risk to simultaneously increase engagement and fun while also providing a Sink to help balance your Virtual Economy?
  • Do you have limits to risk set to protect against users losing too much and burning out?
  • Does risk add to your Gamified Experience or does it create a sense of unfairness to users if elements of chance are involved?

Rolling Physical Goods

A physical good (one with real value) that can be won by anyone on an ongoing basis as long as they meet some characteristic. However, that characteristic rolls from player to player.

Example: top scorer deals, mayor deals

Rules

Rules make experience engagement possible. As with many things, rules must be carefully planned to insure balanced and fun engagement.

  • Do users clearly understand the rules of the product?
  • Do you have some rules that are community policed?

Self-Expression

Self-Expression if properly done leads to a feeling of accomplishment and ownership which can result in loyalty.

  • How do you enable and encourage self-expression?
  • Do you allow users to make meaningful choices which might allow self expression?
  • Do your users have the ability to use a picture of themselves or character as an avatar?
  • If so, can they customize the avatar?

Skill / Chance Balance

Skill is the core of most engaging experiences. An “Experience” requiring no skill will eventually become boring. users love to feel they’ve became better or mastered a scenario. Some users love chance whereas others despise it and want everything to be based off of skill. The vast majority are perfectly fine with a nice balance of both.

  • How might you add more skill to your experience?
  • Is Skill optional?
  • Do you accommodate beginners while still providing a deep challenge to experts?

It is critical to balance skill/chance in your Experience. You may decide to have only one or the other but typically it’s best to have both. The balance really depends on your product Target and your goals.

Status

Status is of immense importance in experience design. It separates “them” from “us” and gives loyal users a feeling of belonging.

  • In your “Experience” how can you empower users with meaningful status?
  • Does status give them anything of reward?
  • Do other users know this?
  • How do you show the change of status? Do you show it just to the user or to others?
  • How can you give a user the chance to indirectly flaunt their status?
  • Have you taken advantage of multiple forms of visible status, such as status titles, levels, tiers, rank?
  • Can you find a way to give users status not just globally but locally based on friends, geography or some other creative way?

Social Interactions

Social Interaction is important to build a community, increase virality and encourage competition and collaboration.

  • Is your Experience enabling Social Interaction?
  • Are users rewarded for interacting with their friends?
  • Do you give users ways to compete or collaborate with one another?
  • Do users know how to contact each other and have open communication channels?
  • Do you have social interactions that take into account multiple “friend spheres” such as facebook, twitter, local users etc.?
  • Do you enable users to do light social interactions or “ping” one another through some action in the experience? If so, is there some substance to how you enable this and various ways to achieve it?

Story

Story is one of the most important aspects of Experience Design. While typically not so important in digital design, there are opportunities to have story elements in the new Experience economy.

  • Can you produce episodic content that is unveiled as the user advances?
  • Can you generate a story based on the Achievements and Facts about a user?
  • Can a meta experience be created that uses the data from the original experience to create a new experience that has a story-arc?
  • Can users create their own story content and share with others?

Surprise

Surprise seems simple, but it’s very important. People love to be surprised with something they didn’t expect and surprises are known to have an emotional impact on us that we remember.

  • What can you do to surprise users in a positive way?

Get creative, surprise is one of those areas that is so broad that you’ve really got to open your imagination.

Time

Time is our friend and enemy, a relentless and inevitable force.

  • How do you use time to your advantage?
  • Do you use scarcity of time to your advantage?
  • Do you use features such as countdowns, timers etc. to maximum effect?
  • Do you use cool downs so users will come back again and again when an ability, action or event is available again?
  • Do you use decay over time to insure users return?
  • Do you give bonuses based on time spent engaged or in any other creative way?
  • Experiences where your time is the score?

Unlockables

Unlockables are a great way to show progress in a cool way. users can unlock areas, specials, levels, status, achievements etc.

  • How might you implement locked content and unlockables to make users excited when they’ve unlocked something?
  • How can you create artificial scarcity with locked content in order to enable unlocking?

Urgent Optimism

Extreme self motivation. The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s TED talk. The idea that in proper experiences an “epic win” or just “win” is possible and therefore always worth acting for.

User Experience

User Experience has become an art form and just like with other technology is very important to insure users have a pleasant experience. When pimping a non-experience you must keep in mind the original user experience and how Neuro Mechanics will affect that experience in a negative or positive way.

  • Does your design hurt or help the original Experience?
  • Do users clearly understand the Experience, it’s purpose, Rules and how to participate?
  • Can you empower users to change how they use certain features?
  • Are you properly using your UI to influence users to take the actions you want them to?
  • Is any part of the experience painful for a user and reducing fun?

Vanity

Mirror, mirror… Many users love recognition and love to hear about themselves.

  • What features can you create to feed user’s vanity?
  • Can you create a “Customer of the Week” or similar concept so users will want the chance to be recognized for their efforts?
  • Can you do something to make users most important Achievements known to their friends, or everyone?
  • Is there a way you can more personalize feedback and communications to target the specific user so they feel special?

Virality

Virality is important to growth of user base which if done right should enrich an experience.

  • How can you increase virality?
  • How might you encourage users to “recruit” new users willingly?
  • Are your viral mechanics fun and natural or do they interfere with the flow and experience?

Virtual Goods

Virtual Goods help to build community, economy and a sense of ownership.

  • Have you created virtual goods that users care about?
  • Could you create virtual goods that actually serve some function?
  • Can you use the power of “Vanity” to make items seem more special?
  • Can you create scarcity to drive demand for items?
  • Can virtual goods be traded, gifted etc. to help build a community?
  • Do you allow users to customize their virtual goods?

Conclusion

It’s a wondrous thing the new world of Digital Engagement and your options are limitless. Just stop and have a think about some of the above before you crack on design things… you might find once you’ve launched you get a bit more engagement  and a bit less attrition.

(Based on an original article at Badgeville)

blog-matrix

Enter the Matrix – Decoded Neurofeedback

I know kung fu.

It’s one of the most memorable lines from the 1999 film “The Matrix.

Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, utters it after the martial art is “uploaded” to his brain in mere seconds.

If only it were that easy – Nowadays mastering a style of kung fu takes thousands of hours of practice. But there are some emerging hints that the pace of learning a skill can be technologically boosted. Perhaps someday, with major advances in several fields, the acquisition of knowledge and skill could happen at broadband-like speeds.

The concept is not totally implausible,” says Bruce McNaughton, a neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Canada.

Disguised brain training

Learning is a tedious process – ask any calculus student, or athlete training for the Olympics. Repetition of a task, whether solving math problems or pole-vaulting, gradually instills long-term mental and muscle memory.

A study published late last year suggests how this learning process might be amplified, and without the learner even being aware of it. The name of the technique even has a nice sci-fi / technobabble ring: scientists call it “decoded neurofeedback.

Using a brain scanner, researchers observed the patterns of activity in subjects’ visual cortexes as the subjects looked at orientations of a particular object. During hourlong sessions over several days, the subjects performed a separate mental task – concentrating on a green disk to make it grow bigger – that the researchers had pegged to the pattern for one of the orientations. Over time, the subjects got better at identifying that particular orientation of the object, without knowing they’d been trained to do so. In short, they learned.

This sort of indirect, subliminal learning could eventually translate into teaching someone how to, say, play piano or do a judo chop.

It’s not like ‘The Matrix’ yet,” said Takeo Watanabe, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University and lead author of the decoded-neurofeedback study. “But this can be developed to be a very strong tool which could realize some aspects of what was shown in the movie.

From visualizing to actualizing

For now, the technique has been attempted only for perceptual learning (specifically, visual learning). Applying it to motor learning – the coordinated movements of limbs, balance and breathing that is kung fu, for example – would be a major challenge.
Motor learning is similar to perceptual learning, so we are almost sure it can be applied to motor learning,” Watanabe said. “But motor learning requires an improvement in a sequence of motions, so it may take a lot of time.

Watanabe continued: “Maybe it is possible to make the subject learn to make one movement better than before within one year or so using this technology.

The input and output in these setups, however, falls well short of the actual “programming” of information into the brain as seen in “The Matrix.” To pull off something like that, scientists would need a far greater understanding of the physical basis of memory and thought.

Neural engineering

The brain has roughly 100 billion neurons, which are connected by trillions of neuronal junctions called synapses. Memory, at least in part, is physically “written” into the shifting interconnections of neurons and possibly the neural architectures themselves.

Rewiring a brain’s cells to form new memories would require exquisite precision on extremely small scales.

“It is in principle possible to record from a few brain cells and to stimulate them, and thus in some sense perturb the system,” said McNaughton. Another fundamental issue arises: whether everyone’s brain “speaks” the same language.

Researchers have been working for decades on deciphering the brain’s “neural code.

The brain activity patterns of learning, reasoning and stored memories may differ significantly between individuals. In that case, people’s brains would not act like standardized computers that can easily accept a generic kung fu program.

Despite all these obstacles, Watanabe is optimistic. He thinks scientists, using techniques similar to decoded neurofeedback, soon will be able to essentially delete a person’s unwanted, traumatic memories and enhance learning.

Source: Mitsuo Kawato, ATR, Japan

3028431-poster-p-1-the-brain-science-of-selling-better

Using the science behind habits to sell better

ORIGINAL SOURCE: @FastCompany

WHAT MAKES A USER? HABITS. HERE’S HOW TO GET INSIDE THE USER’S BRAIN BY HARNESSING A NEUROLOGICAL RECIPE FOR SUCCESS.

BY 

We often think of our habits as quirky things we do over and over again without really thinking about them–twirling a lock of hair, checking a cell phone on the way out of the subway, leaving the toilet seat up or down. But when we are selling a product or service, those repetitive actions are exactly what we want people to indulge in.

Be sure that when someone plows land in Farmville or clears jelly off the board in Candy Crush–over and over again, because they can’t stop playing–there is the sound of joyous ka-chinging in the Farmville and Candy Crush boardrooms.

So is there a secret to triggering habits in people so that they’ll engage and keep engaging with whatever it is you create? Pete Trainor, Associate Director UX at SapientNitro, believes that there is. And in his fascinating SXSW Interactive talk, “The Neuroscience of Success” earlier this month, Trainor shared some of the principles that he has distilled over the years from psychology, behavioral, and experimental economics and observations of the human animal: himself.

WHY WE FORM HABITS

Trainor explains that when we humans experience feel-good sensations, the central cerebral cortex releases dopamine into the meso-limbic pathway that connects to a deep brain area called the Nucleus Accumbens.

The brain’s limbic section is where we experience feel-good and feel-bad emotions. Each action that we take that triggers a feel-good hit (reward) makes us want to do it again, and again, and again.

It’s cause and effect based on the simple neurological equation: If a behavior leads to good feeling, then repeat.

When you introduce a product, app, game, tool, or service, Trainor encourages you to take direct aim at the limbic section of your customers’ brains. You want your product associated with that feel-good dopamine reward.

Trainor suggests three hacks to get the dopamine flowing inside the brains of would-be users.

1. ENCOURAGE MASTERY

Incentives are fine, but when you build an experience in which people can take actions that have effects and get better at that task, you’ve got what Trainor calls a dopamine bomb, “something positive, BOOM, good feelings.”

As we achieve mastery, the brain responds as it does with food or sex or social interaction. You feel good about reaching your goal and will be rewarded with what Trainor calls the greatest form of happiness available to human beings: satisfaction.

But, there is a trick: novelty multiplies the effect.

“You’ve got to mix it up,” Trainor says. “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. However, add some variability to the mix–say a different treat magically appears in the fridge every time you open it, and voila, desire is created.”

2. PAY IT FORWARD

We might think that acts of altruism are for the other guy, but Trainor explains that altruism is a massive trigger for our own brain’s reward center. “MRI studies reveal that when we perform an act of kindness, our reward center is aroused and we experience feelings of pleasure because dopamine bombs are dropping,” he says.

Sharing, he adds, is another form of this. When we tweet something useful or share links on Facebook, we get the same kick.

And Trainor points out there is another multiplier effect. When we see other people engage in activities like sharing, we are motivated to join in and do the same thing. Therefore, Trainor says, “Make sure you bake in viral loops and enough opportunities for a consumer to share, give feedback to each other, and do good things.”

3. KEEP IT GOING

According to the Zeigarnik Effect, we are wired to remember and be engaged by uncompleted tasks. In fact, once a task has been completed, we tend to forget it.

In order to keep our consumers coming back for more, Trainor tells us we need to make sure our product or service never has a solid conclusion.

“Literally keep them guessing and coming back for more,” he says. “It’s the old school cliff-hanger every day and with every task: What happens next?” When stories never come to conclusions, consumers crave the next hit.

Although Trainor says that none of these ideas are new, it is the skillful combination of all three techniques that leads to genuine habits and wholesale behavioral change.

To those who might accuse practitioners of these techniques for commerce of being evil brain manipulators, Trainor has two words: Weight Watchers. “Is Weight Watchers–one of the most successful mass-behavioral change products in history–wrong?” he asks.

Brands & Brains – The Emotion of Logos

The brain reacts in a unique way when it spots a famous brand name, according to scientific research.

Consumers reading a brand name do not treat it like any other word – instead they activate parts of the brain normally used to process emotions, the study claims.

Research in the journal “Brain and Language”, published on New Scientist.com, used computer testing to check the reactions of 48 students at the University of California in Los Angeles.

A brand’s power is that it conjures up a whole range of associations and ideas, which are primarily emotional

Dr Eran Zeidel, who led the study, suggests that the arrival of the “brand” in the past century has prompted brain evolution.

The students were told to watch a computer screen, and various words were flashed up, either on the left hand side or right hand side, and in capitals or lower case letters.

The words displayed were either common nouns such as “river” or “tree”, brand names such as Sony or Compaq, or “non-words” such as “beash” and “noerds”.

The students were asked to hit a button as soon as they recognised the word as real.

Noun recognition

They spotted the common nouns most quickly, followed by the brand names and then the non-words.

The common nouns were identified more quickly when displayed on the right hand side of the screen.

This suggests, as expected, that the left hand side of the brain is highly involved in processing them.

However, the reverse was true when the brand names were displayed, with the subjects spotting them more quickly when they were displayed on the left.

This probably means that the right hand side of the brain – more commonly associated with the processing of emotions – was more heavily involved.

Dr Zaidel said: “It is surprising.

The rules that apply to word recognition in general do not necessarily apply here.

A brand’s power is that it conjures up a whole range of associations and ideas, which are primarily emotional.

An fMRI study was conducted with unfamiliar and familiar (strong and weak) brands to assess linguistic encoding and retrieval processes, and the use of declarative and experiential information, in brand evaluations.

As expected, activations in brain areas associated with linguistic encoding were higher for unfamiliar brands, but activations in brain areas associated with information retrieval were higher for strong brands. Interestingly, weak brands were engaged simultaneously in both processes.

Most importantly, activations of the pallidum, associated with positive emotions, for strong brands and activations of the insula, associated with negative emotions, for weak and unfamiliar brands suggested that consumers use experienced emotions rather than declarative information to evaluate brands.

As a result, brand experiences should be considered a key driver of brand equity in addition to brand awareness and cognitive associations.

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)

or

  • 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

Choose post category

open