so what

so what

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Your brain lives in a Transactional Reality - and it can read minds.

I predict it's going to cost more than 99 cents
Part of what we do in our client work is predict the future. How we do this is a subject for another post, but we are ridiculously accurate.

The fun bit is hearing someone inevitably declare, “No one can predict the future!"

”Our response? “Billions of people do it every day.”

And they are good at it. 

This is because humans are social primates. We don’t just want to be around other people, we need to be with other people.

Because of this compulsion to mingle we enjoy thousands of years of evolutionary experience in reading the signals others send. These signals we constantly monitor—dress, body language, family interaction, voice tone, eye contact, familiarity level—are the cultural cues that fix our position relative to the group and our environment.

All of us are sending and receiving constantly and unconsciously. We are blissfully unaware of the process - until our unconscious mind spots something that demands directed attention, like a possible threat, an attractive potential mate, or simply hearing our name across a crowded room.

We live in a Transactional Reality: the steady but invisible exchange of information. It’s why we behave differently in groups than as individuals.  Far from isolated units, we are born, raised, and live our lives within a shared cultural matrix. Just as the “empty” space between the particles of an atom are alive with forces (such as gravity) that shape its behavior, the space between people is a dynamic cultural communications network.
We can do this because the human brain is essentially a pattern-seeking device. Among the leading patterns our brain searches out is human intention, based on repeated patterns of emotions, body language, context, and a myriad other variables.

Certain emotions are universals – every culture shares them and expresses them in the same recognizable way. Basic emotions are so easily profiled that we can mimic them with a few strokes of a computer keyboard to create emoticons that our brain will instantly recognize even if it is sideways. :-)  

And it appears that not only can other people read our emotional expressions, but simply making them affects our own mood. Make a frown and you will feel a bit sad; force yourself to smile and your mood will lighten slightly. Weird but true, we can change our own mental state just by faking it.

All this happens in the service of the Hidden System that enables complex social relationships that are the hallmark of human societies. This skill set is understanding the mental state of others. It’s called Theory of Mind: the conscious understanding that we each have mental states expressed as beliefs, intents, perspectives, knowledge, experience, motives, and desires.

What’s more, we understand that others also have mental states and that those states may be different than our own at any time and place.
The most astonishing fact is that we don’t think of this as astonishing at all. We just proceed to play our part in this vast transfer of subconscious information without ever realizing we are mind reading.

But we are. Constantly projecting ourselves into other people’s minds, deciding what they are thinking and feeling (and why). Even more boldly, we predict what they will do in the immediate future. The incredible reality is that our predictions so often prove correct.

Or, rather, it would be incredible if we actually thought about it. Which we don't
We aren’t born with this ability, it’s an outcome of that pattern-seeking brain of ours. what takes us a while to learn is that other people may have knowledge, feelings, motivations, and desires separate and distinct from our own. Children don’t develop full Theory of Mind until around age seven.

The outcome is empathy - the ability to understand the emotional state of others.
And that’s exactly where our little mind-reading act can go all pear-shaped.

Emotion-reading makes you powerful, but at the same time, it also makes you vulnerable. Not everyone has your best interests at heart. Some people are more empathetic than others. Besides highly empathetic people, there are two other groups who score just as high on reading emotions. Want to guess who?

Narcissists and sociopaths.

People who score high on the type of narcissism called exploitativeness find it easy to manipulate people into doing what they want. Where empathetic people can see caution and thoughtfulness, exploiters read uncertainty and low confidence. That makes those people targets.
Empathy is a powerful weapon in the wrong hands.  The world is full of manipulative types: emotional abusers, self-declared psychics, hucksters, pitchmen, and other skilled empaths, all trying to sell you something, from a new household appliance to investments to a belief system.

Now THAT is one grumpy cookie!
And there is another issue with empathy. We can also fool ourselves.

Our brains are designed to read faces for key information such as emotional state, possible intention, and potential threat.

However, we have only a single model to compare those to – our own human emotions.

Which would be ideal, if we experienced empathy just with other humans.  But our brain is so primed to detect and interpret faces that we see them everywhere, a phenomenon called “pareidolia.”

This means we see faces in clouds, rocks, trees, and flowers, and we assign precise emotions to those faces. We post their pictures on the internet. A quick search will find grumpy cookies, astonished electric sockets, happy household appliances, and hundreds – if not thousands – of other anthropomorphous objects.

It’s even easier to do when what you are looking at actually has a face.  So we apply human face-reading to animals. We read their faces as if they were human, and Angry Bluebird, Grumpy Cat, and Stoner Dog becomes internet memes.
Complicating the problem is that vision doesn’t work as we think it does. That’s a story for another post, but the short form is that we don’t always see what’s actually there. Instead we see what we expect to see.

There is speculation that empathy plays a part in human spirituality. The thinking is that since the brain is programmed to find meaning and intention in people’s behavior, it also can find intention in everything else – from natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, to accidents, illness, business failures, social unrest, and even the ultimate disruption – death.

It’s not too surprising, then, that psychologists have found that the religious are more prone than atheists to see faces in ambiguous photos.
There are well-documented reports of Christians seeing images of The Virgin Mary in a window of a bank in Clearwater, Florida,  the window of a private home in a Chicago suburb, and burned into a piece of toast. But Christians never see Buddha in a cloud bank or a piece of toast because they don’t expect to.

Neither do Buddhists. Buddha was not divine but simply a man who had found enlightenment and taught others the way. He didn’t do miracles, therefore Buddhists don’t expect to see him in a vision. And they don’t.

We see what we expect to see. For American Christians, that includes Jesus, Mary, and occasionally Elvis, but we never see Henry Ford or Isaac Newton. It wouldn't even occur to us.

So What?

Given the intuitive nature of empathy itself, it is very hard to avoid breaking the species barrier. But when we attribute human motivations to nonhuman species and events we enter into dodgy territory.

Which is important to remember since empathy is highly functional, allowing us to form social networks, comfort the afflicted, avoid conflict, negotiate across diverse cultures, feel the pain of abused animals, and share grief – in other words, do what makes us human.

Empathy drives our emotions.  And our emotions drive our choices, our judgments, our buying habits, and our public policy.

And we can get empathy very wrong.

Just thought that may be something you'd like to keep in mind.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Would Don Draper Do? Five reasons people don’t see commercials.

I know a lot of people in the advertising industry who miss Mad Men.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper was every ad man’s favorite dysfunctional role model.

Draper got away with horrible behavior because, ultimately, he understood how advertising really worked in people’s minds. Not how people thought it worked, or believed it should work, but how it actually worked.

He famously said, “I don’t sell advertising. I sell products.” Remember the Kodak Carousel pitch? “This isn't a space ship... it's a time machine… Good luck at your next meeting.”  No wonder Kodak never took that next meeting.

We’ve been dealing with ad agencies for over two decades.  Our expertise is human behavior, not products. We’ve advised them on how people find value in their client’s products and how they intuitively recognize that value when they see it.

We’ve shaped pitches to prospective clients. We’ve worked on campaigns. We even provided the information to help one agency dramatically increase their client’s sale of diamonds – on the radio! Try selling jewelry the buyer can’t see.

We’ve also sat on the other side of the table, working for the agency client. The ones who actually produce the products they advertise. We’ve listened to the pitches and have been surprised by what some professionals appear not to grasp about basic human behavior. 

One of the hallmarks of humanity is that we use tools to extend our natural capabilities - hand tools to enhance our physical strength, information technology to increase our mental abilities. Television is a tool like any other. The question is, how do people actually use television?
So, in the spirit of Don Draper, for our agency friends, and for everyone’s general amusement, here are five basic facts about how people actually use television as a medium.

1. It’s not a home theater, it’s a campfire.
TV is a social medium. People are hyper-social primates. We are biologically driven to group together.  TV is the 21st-century campfire – the place where people throughout history have been intuitively drawn to share stories about who we are, how we got here, and what is expected of us.

Sure, we live in an age of ever-expanding media alternatives and pretty much every member of a household has their own TV set or they watch everything online.

However, ethnographic research--the kind where you actually watch what people do--shows that no matter how many sets and computers in the home, members of the household (defined as people living under the same roof) still gather in front of the same set for at least an hour, at least four days a week.

No, it doesn't look like this, but it still happens.
Anything people have been doing for 35,000 years isn’t going to stop tomorrow. That means the household will choose a “consensus” show, one that everyone in the group can watch together.

Reality shows don’t just dominate TV because they are cheap to make. People have to want to watch, but it's even better if they feel compelled to watch. And the thing that our brains are hard-wired to pay close attention to is the emotional behavior of other people.

That's why the people who watch these shows say they are addictive. 

2. People don’t watch TV, they listen to TV.
Why do you think they invented the instant sports replay? Because a lot of people miss the actual play! They were doing other things – eating, drinking, socializing, working. They heard the roar of the crowd, but they caught the action on the replay.

We watch movies; we listen to TV. All the longest-running TV shows share one thing in common – the scripts read like radio plays. Once you are familiar with the characters, you don’t have to watch to understand what is going on. Most people literally don’t even see the beautiful art direction and expensive CG effects that win advertising industry awards.

3. The only people who “see” ads are people already interested in what the product does.
Forget about edgy ads and CGI for “cutting through the clutter.” Your brain does that automatically. It’s called selective attention. It’s the same mechanism that grabs your focus whenever you hear your name across a crowded room at a party.
Your unconscious brain is always scanning, and it knows what you need long before you are consciously aware of it. This is why people start noticing car advertising about a year before they even begin actively thinking about buying a new car.

If they’re in the market—even if they are unaware of it—they’ll notice your ad. If they’re not, you can’t convince them, because they won’t even connect with your ad.

4. Women are not in the room to watch the Super Bowl.
Yes, major TV sports events do show a spike in women viewers. Yes, some women actually like football. But most women aren’t in the room for the game.

This is because women are the relationship monitors for the group. For them, the game they are interested is not football, it’s the family dynamic. If there is a large social gathering, they’ll be there, watching the interaction between the family members, checking that everything is OK.

In the meantime they are multitasking, serving food, folding laundry, reading, and a hundred other things. You don’t need to create special sport-themed ads for women’s products. Selective attention works for women too. If they need it, they will see it. 

5. Humor is cheating.
People notice humorous ads, talk about them, post them on YouTube, and can turn the punch line into a national meme. The only thing they don’t do is remember the product the ad is supposed to be selling.

The only way that happens is when the punch line is the name of the product – the GEICO Gecko, Aflac--that’s about it. Using humor to “cut through the clutter” without tying it directly to the product is an easy sell - if the client laughs (has an emotional response)  they'll think it is a good ad. But the client already knows the name of the product. Trouble is, while humor is entertaining, it doesn’t sell products.

So What?

If you work for an agency, factor these into your thinking and you’ll sell products, which will make your clients happy. Ignore them and you’ll win industry awards which will make you happy – until the client fires you.

If you are an agency client, watch out for humor in your advertising. Does it directly link to your brand name in a memorable way? If not, the ad is aimed at you, not your customers.

If you don’t work in advertising, have a Martini anyway. Don would approve.

Your brain: Who’s in charge here?

“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”   -- Emo Philips

Like most people raised in the tradition of western culture, Americans like to think of themselves as rational thinkers, rooted in fact. However, the science is in on this one - and we aren’t.
Not even close.

Like most people of my age I was taught that our unconscious mind took care of the autonomic functions—breathing, pumping blood, digestion, and so on.  Thinking was the province of the conscious mind.

Except it turns out that it isn’t.

Recent discoveries about the brain are leading to critical redefinitions of what the human mind is aware of, how we think about the world, what we believe about ourselves, our environment, and others — even our concepts of the past, present, and future.

Thanks to a combination of government initiatives and technological advancements, nearly everything we now know about how the brain works has been discovered within just the past two decades. It’s been a fun ride, and more than a little bit spooky.
It turns out that a set of hidden systems operate deep in our minds - hidden because they run beneath conscious awareness.  We use them every day. We use them to make decisions, choose our friends, find our way, plan our future, and find value in products, services, and ideas. These systems are powerful because we don’t even realize they influence every aspect of what we do and how we make decisions.

The amazing thing is that, thanks to new imaging technology, we can actually watch the brain thinking. The spooky part is that it nearly all our thinking is happening subconsciously – far beneath our conscious horizon. We’re making decisions all the time and we have no idea it is even happening.
Our subconscious mind filters and processes data, sets goals, judges people, evaluates products, detects danger, formulates stereotypes, sets priorities, and infers causes — all without our being aware that there even is a process taking place. It’s an elegant solution that evolved to prevent the mind from being overwhelmed by simple routine tasks.

The implications of a finding such as this are enormous. Our cognitive subconscious processes the world in milliseconds, far more quickly than our consciousness can even grasp. It’s been estimated that over 90% of our decisions are made at this intuitive level and the data the mind uses to reach those decisions resides deep in our subconscious.
The conscious process – what we classify as critical, logical thought — is, in reality, the weighting of data pre-selected by another thinking process that is effectively invisible to us, which then passes the results on to our conscious logic.

In short, it means that “facts” are what people use to validate decisions already made at a hidden subconscious level, forever beyond our conscious control.
Think about that.

Compared to our subconscious, our conscious, what we call “logical” brain, is relatively slow at taking in new information. For one thing, the sense don’t all process at the same speed.

So before the conscious brain can stitch sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing (plus all the sensory information we don’t think about, like skin temperature, pressure, and mood) into a coherent whole, it must wait for the slowest response to check in.

Basically, then, our conscious brain thinks at the Speed of Smell.

But while our conscious brain has a limited processing capacity, our unconscious mind has access to a huge database of information already processed and instantly accessible – our lifetime of experience all reduced to significant patterns, constantly updated and integrated, all encoded and stored in the memory.
With that much more brainpower at its disposal, it makes sense to leave the complex decisions to our unconscious mind, and hand over the heavily filtered and presorted results to our more limited conscious mind. It’s a bit like an adult solving a complex problem for a particularly dim child, then allowing the child to think he solved the problem by finishing the last bit of simple addition.

Well, that takes the human ego down a peg, doesn’t it?
Who is really in charge here? It seems backwards somehow – it is the reverse of everything we’ve believed for most of human history. It just happens to be true.
And yet our own experience tells us there is something to this. We all have seen - and done – things that make little logical sense in retrospect, but they just seemed natural at the time.

For example: market surveys of U.S. automobile-buying patterns reveal that more than one-third of all male car buyers deliberately stopped at the dealership when it was closed for the night  to “spy” on the cars when no one else was around.

Think about that. How much useful information can you get through a display window or a chain-link fence?  Not much, if the answer to why people choose one car over another is rooted in “facts” about handling or miles per gallon. But that’s not why we buy cars.
We don’t buy products, we buy the values that we associate with the product. In the US, cars are about freedom and mobility, status and power; expressions of who we are. Car buying is a complex problem that’s better left to our subconscious, hence the stalking.

So What?

That’s what this blog is all about--why we really do the things we do. 

We’ve been studying how people really make decisions at a subconscious level for over two decades. We’ve been swept along in the flood of new learning and applied work to make sense of it.
It’s impossible to get outside your own brain, but it is possible to make the invisible visible, bring some of these hidden systems out into the open. We’ll tell you things about how humans think that you’ve never thought of before – because you’re not supposed to need to.

We’ll tell you how to understand your subconscious in order to make better decisions within a visible process. And we’ll have some fun along the way. After all, what's more fun than human nature?
Don’t give up on your conscious brain just yet. You’re going to need it.