so what

so what

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Belonging Becomes Believing: What Religion and Cheesesteaks Have in Common.

Pilgrims waited ridiculously patiently for hours to attend the Papal Mass,
Two weeks ago I spent three days inside the Black Zone.

The Black Zone is what the City of Philadelphia chose to call the secure area on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway where Pope Francis would, among other things, celebrate an open-air mass for up to a projected million pilgrims. They apparently called it the Black Zone because, when first outlined on a map, they used a black marker.

That loud sound you just heard:  all our colleagues in marketing, advertising, and public relations simultaneously slapping their foreheads in disbelief.

But surprisingly, a missed marketing opportunity is not what I’m going to focus on in this post. The reason the name was so inappropriate? The pilgrims inside the Black Zone were the least psychologically dark people I have ever seen – and there were over eight hundred thousand of them packed onto the temporarily car-free Parkway.

Still waiting patiently
They were camped out on the grass, side by side, without any noticeable regard to race, age, or class: church youth groups from Central American villages and American suburbs, families with camp chairs and picnic baskets, Spanish-speaking families spread out on a blanket with lunch in a paper bag. Nuns from other countries wearing habits I hadn’t seen in the US since high school. Senior citizens side by side with young family groups, old hippies and young tattooed hipsters with babies, Midwesterners and Canadians, Vietnamese and Guatemalans – far too many cultures and ethnicities to enumerate. 

To the surprise and dismay of our upscale restaurants, these weren’t free-spending tourists. They were pilgrims, and many had made sacrifices to get here; the family that drove thousands of miles from Argentina, the kids who worked all summer to raise the money for their family trip, the three ladies who spent 16 hours on the bus from Indiana... everyone had a story. 

All on a pilgrimage to see their Pope, they were happy to be here, and they were – to use a word I haven’t used since the 1960s – mellow.

How mellow? After dealing with crowds of nearly a million over the long weekend, the police announced they made only three event-related arrests.


So what made this crowd unique?  The Parkway has hosted huge crowds before – everything from concerts to fireworks to festivals—July 4th is the big one here. Why was this crowd so casually indifferent to the social, racial, and class distinctions that usually divide us?

The answer lies not in the Catholic faith, but in the larger question: why people choose to join an organized religion in the first place.

It was long thought that those who volunteer their time for church activities are those with the strongest belief. That assumption turned out not to be true.

Fundamentalist Christian trying to convince
Catholic Pilgrims of the error of their ways.
Yep. 1 Timothy 2:5 ought to do it.

Church authorities usually cite three principal motives for joining religious groups: Belief, Behavior, and Belonging, although they may prioritize them differently.

Most Christian churches put believing first – they think people join to validate their faith. That’s why certain Christian sects punctuate their sermons with Biblical quotes. Jews and Muslims, on the other hand, traditionally give first priority to stressing behavior as the pathway to stronger belief.

There has been a lot of research on this question over the past two decades. And the evidence is now clear: when it comes to belief systems, behavior and beliefs are outcomes of belonging, not the reverse. 

We join first to belong, and a strong sense of belonging affects our behavior and beliefs.

That shouldn’t be surprising. As social beings, we all exhibit a compelling preference to be among people like ourselves.  We don’t do well on our own, which is why school shooters and serial killers are inevitably described as “loners.”

We not only want to be with others, we need to be with others. But we don’t want to be with just anybody. This tendency to associate and bond with others similar to ourselves is called homophily or affinity

The beauty of a belief system is that people don’t have to look like you – they simply have to share the same values. Thus the apparent blindness to race, class, and social markers of the Parkway pilgrims.

The days when the priest told the congregation to pray to save their immortal souls are over. This Pope asked the congregants to pray for him

Today belief and behavior are recognized as outcomes of a social bonding process. It turns out that people don’t leave their church because they no longer believe. They leave when they feel they no longer belong.
Buddy Pope.

In the marketing world we recognize that brand loyalty can disappear when the manufacturer changes the product so much that the values customers originally saw in it can no longer be recognized. Vatican II started the first exodus when they changed the structure of the mass so much that it no longer evoked the rituals and traditions so central to belonging. The child molestation scandals and cover-up sparked another mass exit.

These people didn’t lose their faith, they just lost their sense of belonging.  I know, because I talked to many people from both groups on the parkway while they waited for the papal mass to begin. Like I said, everyone had a story.

As social beings, shared rituals and traditions are central to reinforcing our sense of belonging, no matter what the group. For example, colleges and universities with strong and deep rituals and traditions have the most loyal and supportive alumni. My old Catholic high school, which was big on rituals and traditions, has a larger and more loyal alumni organization than many universities. Belonging is believing.
Rituals also drive customer loyalty for products. Do I have to even explain Disney? It’s the gold standard for a values-based company.

Coca-Cola, like Disney, is another values-based company. Their advertising traditionally has been based on family events and holidays—high values-based cohesive moments, and basic to memory. Coca-Cola has one of—if not the—highest levels of brand loyalty in the world.

Coca Cola ads defined what Santa looked like in the 1940s and 50s.
Coke drinkers don’t drink Pepsi, and Pepsi drinkers don’t drink Coke. Most people cut back or stop drinking carbonated soft drinks altogether around age 50.   But research shows that brand loyalty remains strong even among people who no longer drink the product!

For my generation, Coke advertising pretty much defined what Santa Claus looked like. That left Pepsi and other cola brands to focus their advertising on youth, a key demographic but a diverse and proximity-driven audience with lower rates of engagement and community.

And as the ultimate example, you’ve probably heard of the Philadelphia cheesesteak, considered the city’s signature sandwich.

A few blocks from our home in South Philadelphia are two famous cheesesteak takeout joints, Pat’s and Geno’s, each with legions of loyalists. And the basis of that loyalty is that the “best” place is the one your family first took you to.

Cheesesteaks are a social food, they are a food designed to celebrate - and you don’t celebrate alone. You go there in groups, where years of tradition and ritual made their mark on the believers.

In Philly, cheesesteaks are not just food - they are a belief system.

Now you must understand, these places have a particularly South Philly style of rivalry. They are right across the street from each other. They use the same meat, the same ingredients, the same bread, the same equipment, the same cooking style - and whenever one shop is extremely busy, some of the employees of the other will walk across the street to help out.

They’ve been doing this for years. There is no earthly way you can tell the difference between a cheesesteak from Pat’s and one from Geno’s. You couldn’t even do it with a laboratory analysis.

But you could never, ever, convince their customers of that. Both groups believe that their choice is the best, and they demonstrate that belief, over and over again, by standing in long lines rather than cross the street to the less busy joint to buy the exact same sandwich.

Whether it is a religion, a theme park, a product, a university, or a cheesesteak, it’s the feeling of belonging that inspires strong belief and loyalty, not the other way around.
Source: Flickr user Yuri Long

Monday, October 12, 2015

That’s Entertainment! Why I Write the Way I Do.

“I don’t remember the last time I read a piece that combined scholarship with wit and  tantalizing sequences of intellectual ‘peek-a-boos’ that keep the reader enthralled”
-          Herb Adler, M.D. Ph.D.

That’s an actual review I received for one of my posts.

It’s flattering, and way more effusive than I am used to, but that’s not why I cited it. I cited it because his phrase “…tantalizing sequences of intellectual ‘peek-a-boos’” makes me suspicious.

I think he is on to me.

You see, that's pretty much sums up how your brain processes information, and those initials after his name are a damned good indicator that he knows it.

So I'll tell you a secret. That’s why I write the way I do. 

I’m not writing for you—I’m writing for your brain.

Let me explain.  
Your adult brain weighs about three pounds. That is, on average, about 2% of your body weight. However, it consumes 20% of your energy.

Most of that energy is spent connecting neurons to one another, thereby connecting thoughts and ideas. Reading burns a lot of calories; so does sitting through a class. And you burn even more when you are trying to comprehend unfamiliar information.

Familiar information is easier to integrate because the neural links involved are already in place. Think of your brain as an enormous file cabinet, brimming with folders. If you already have a file folder for the category, it’s a simple task to slide any related information into it. No sweat.

But unfamiliar information is much harder to integrate. Your brain can’t stand random data. It has to make sense of it by comparing it to what you already know and discovering the relationships between the new information and the information already stored in your brain.

In other words, the first question your brain is trying to answer about incoming data is “So what?”

First your brain has to compare it to what it already has on file, then, on failing to find a simple match, it must then decide whether the new information is important enough to take the trouble of opening a new file. If your brain can’t answer the question “So what?” new information simply gets dumped in the trash – immediately forgotten.

But if it does seem important, the brain has to decide where the new file should fit into the existing system.

That’s a lot more work, so you burn a lot more calories. The brain runs exclusively on glucose – that’s high-test fuel – which is why we get the urge to consume sugary snacks when we’re working on the computer.

Thinking is hard work, so you get tired simply from reading or sitting in a classroom. The average time tolerance for sustained attention is about 20 minutes. The average college class is 50 minutes.

Your brain gives up well before the rest of your body does, but since it is controlling your emotional state, you feel fatigued even though you haven’t been doing anything more physical than sitting and reading or listening to a lecture.

 So what does all this have to do with how I write for this blog?

There is a word in English that means “to capture and hold the attention.”  Writing for the internet is all about capturing and holding your attention, and doing it fast.

It has to be fast. Because the average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds.  The average attention span today is just 8.25 seconds.

By way of comparison, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.

That doesn’t mean what you think it means.

It doesn’t mean that people are dumber than goldfish. It means that people are getting smarter than previous generations. Because we now have generations raised on smart technology, we have a lot more practice than our parents and grandparents in absorbing and evaluating chunks of information.

That requires instant grasp of theme, scope, and importance across the vast terrain of Internet content. And anything the brain does a lot of, it learns to do faster and more efficiently.

Which means we are getting better at evaluating information based on smaller samples. Your average web page is 593 words. We read about 28% of them.  We can scan 100 words in 4.4 seconds. This means we spend just under seven seconds assessing the average new website.

Not read, scan. We don’t read every word, we scan for significant clusters of words. When we read for information, we scan for concepts and themes (including visuals), rather than focus on individual words. (Reading for pleasure is a totally different system.)

So what is the word that means “to capture and hold the attention?”

The word is “entertain.” People confuse that word with “amusement”; there is a huge difference. 

Entertainment is serious. 

We entertain ideas. Ideas capture and hold our attention. To amuse means the polar opposite: to divert or distract, as in diversion. Completely unlike activities.

So I write in a style that slips information into your brain in the most efficient way possible. Your brain likes that and, not only does it not make you feel tired,  but rewards you by releasing chemicals that make you feel great.

This is how it works:

To start with, my subject is the most important subject in the world. I am writing about you.

There is nothing more important to the brain than YOU. Your brain is constantly scanning at the subconscious level for anything that either enhances or threatens your survival.  It’s so fine-tuned that it will pick up a mention of your name across a crowded, noisy, room—while you are in the middle of a conversation with someone else.

So my topic is that very thing your subconscious brain is already the most interested in. 

Second, I am releasing this information in short, easily integrated bursts. There are no paragraphs longer than three sentences.

Each chunk of information slides into place with a minimum of fuss, making it easy for you to continue reading. After all, it’s just another three sentences – and then another three, and another - no sweat.

Third, the brain likes novelty, so I try to couch information in ways you might not have thought of before. It helps that I am a bit of a smartass.

And finally, there are those drugs I spoke of. Besides building neural nets, your brain manufactures its own neurochemicals. You may know the names of the more popular ones: serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine.

Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter and plays important roles in motivation, arousal, cognitive control, reinforcement, and reward.

To your brain, a reward is a stimulus it uses to modify your behavior. Your brain actually likes learning new stuff, so when you connect up a new neural pathway, it rewards you with a shot of dopamine, and that makes you feel good (this is sometimes called the Aha! moment).

What you reward is what you get more of. You’ve heard of adrenaline junkies? Same thing. The clinical name for adrenaline is epinephrine.

The same with serotonin. It's the neurotransmitter that maintains mood balance, fights depression and anxiety, and underlies general well-being. Ecstasy and LSD boost serotonin levels, which is why they are popular.

Your brain, the drug dealer.

So that’s it. I write the way I do to fit the way your brain naturally takes in information. 

(1) Write about something the brain is predisposed to pay attention to.
(2) Give information in sequential, easily integrated chunks.
(3) Mix in a little novelty and humor at regular intervals to keep things interesting.
(4) Organize the flow of ideas to make it easy for the reader to make new connections in a way that the brain will reward you with a shot of happy juice.

And you will notice that at no time did I “dumb down” anything.

And you just read 1300 words.