The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #114 — Great Stories Release Brain Chemicals

diagram of stories and brain chemicals

George Lucas and the Hero’s Journey — In 1975 George Lucas had written two drafts of Star Wars, but the story had not yet “come together”. He then re-read a 1949 book by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Lucas had read the book first in college, and now he re-read it. He decided to revise his Star Wars story to match one of the story archetypes that Campbell described in his book, The “Hero’s Story. A typical hero’s story usually contains the following steps:

  1. The hero is living in his ordinary world, but then he receives a message that calls him to adventure and a higher purpose.
  2. He often is reluctant to go on the adventure.
  3. He has an encounter with someone wise who encourages him to take the first step.
  4. He faces some kind of test.
  5. He encounters helpers.
  6. He has to undergo a harrowing ordeal.
  7. He is successful and brings back some kind of treasure.
  8. He is transformed and brings the treasure to the rest of the world.

The Hero’s Journey is an example of one of the 7 archetypal story plots that Campbell described. The Hero’s Journey is a version of the “Overcoming a monster” story. Here’s a summary of the seven:

  1. Overcoming a monster—The protagonist has to defeat an antagonist (monster) who is threatening the protagonist’s homeland (for example, Star Wars).
  2. Rags to riches—The protagonist is poor and suddenly becomes wealthy with money, power, and/or a mate. The protagonist loses it all, but then grows as a person and gets the important riches back (for example, Cinderella).
  3. The quest—The protagonist and friends set out to get something important, face lots of challenges along the way, and eventually are triumphant (for example, The Lord of the Rings).
  4. Voyage and return—The protagonist goes to a foreign place, makes it through many dangerous situations, and comes back without anything of value, except a personal transformation (for example, The Chronicles of Narnia).
  5. Comedy—The protagonist is somewhat of a fool and gets into lots of embarrassing situations and near-disasters, but in the end triumphs over all the adversities and finds happiness (for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
  6. Tragedy—There may be a protagonist, or an antagonist. He or she ends up with a tragic ending/death. He or she may learn from the troubles encountered along the way, but not enough to be redeemed in this life (for example, Macbeth).
  7. Rebirth—Instead of a protagonist, there’s an antagonist. He or she learns and is redeemed over the course of the story (for example, Beauty and the Beast).

These common plots resonate with people. When a story follows one of these plots, people can easily understand the story and are more likely to become involved.

Drawing blood while you are watching a video — Paul Zak is a neuroscientist who is interested in brain chemicals. He drew blood from study participants while they watched different videos to measure brain chemicals. Zak was interested in what story elements would cause which brain chemicals to release. He found that when people felt distress they released cortisol, and when they felt empathy they released oxytocin.

The dramatic story arc comes from Gustav Freytag, a nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist. Freytag studied plays and stories from the Greeks and Shakespeare through to stories from his own time. According to Freytag, an effective story is divided into five parts:

Diagram of dramatic story arc


  1. Exposition—The exposition is the introduction. It sets the time and place, the protagonist or hero, the antagonist or villain, other characters, and the basic conflict of the story.
  2. Rising action—The rising action is where the conflict that was introduced during the exposition starts to grow. Tension increases. The initial conflict becomes more complicated.
  3. Climax—The climax is the turning point. At the climax, the protagonist has a change of fate. If it’s a comedy, then before the climax things were not going well for the protagonist, but after the climax things look up. If it’s a tragedy, then the opposite happens. Things get worse for the protagonist. The climax is the highest point in the arc.
  4. Falling action—After the climax, it may seem that everything is done, but that’s actually not true. This is the last point of suspense. Unexpected things may still happen, so the outcome that the audience thought was set during the climax may or not occur.
  5. Denouement—People tend to call the last part of the arc the conclusion, but Freytag called it the denouement. This is a French word referring to an unraveling or untying of a knot. The protagonist either comes out on top (comedy) or the antagonist does (tragedy).

Zak found that during the rising action people release cortisol, at the climax people release oxytocin if they feel empathy with the main character, and if there’s a happy ending people release dopamine. Interest can be maintained by cycling through these story pieces and keeping the brain chemistry going (see the image at the top of the post).

What do you think? Do your favorite stories follow the dramatic story arc? Are they one of the 7 archetypal stories? Is this why Batman vs. Superman was considered a not great movie?

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

Posted in brain, psychology, stories Tagged with: , , ,

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #113 — Some Gestures Are More Natural Than Others

photo of someone touching a tablet screenTell a friend about the last time you went to visit a family member, and you’ll notice that you’re moving your hands and arms while telling the story. Your body is gesturing without you even thinking about it. It’s often thought that people gesture while they talk to convey information. Although that’s true, the latest theory is that the most important reason people gesture is because when you gesture you think better. (It’s an example of embodied cognition which I’ll cover in an upcoming blog post).

Gesturing to manipulate a device — Now we use gestures to use some of our devices (smartphones, tablets, smart watches, mixed reality).  Designers have been designing interactions with keyboards, mice, trackballs, track pads, pens, and touching with fingers. Moving forward we’ll use even more complicated hand, finger, and body movements as gestures for interacting with device interfaces. It’s now possible for people to “grab” something on a screen by making a grabbing motion in the air, or hold out a hand with the palm facing out to tell a robot to stop.

Natural gestures versus forced gestures — many gestures come naturally, others don’t. Moving a finger clockwise to signify that you want to rotate something is a natural gesture, as is holding up your hand with your palm out to tell someone or something to stop. Swiping with two fingers to mean one thing and swiping with three fingers to mean something else are not natural gestures.

Should people have to learn new gestures that aren’t natural to them in order to interact with devices? — You could argue that people often learn new movements to interact with devices. Many people type quickly on a keyboard without thinking about it, yet this is something they had to learn. On the other hand, if you have to read a manual to find out what gestures to use in order to use your latest gadget, that might not be a good thing.

What do you think?– Do we invest enough design time, energy, and knowledge when designing in gestures? Will people “just learn it” or should we be studying and applying natural gesturing more?


  • Feel free to gesture when you talk. It will help you think.
  • If you are designing a product that works with gestures spend some time first studying gestures that are natural and use those as much as possible.
  • Test your gesture designs out before you commit to them in hardware and software development.


If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

Posted in design, Gestures, psychology Tagged with:

Reserve Your Speaking/Interview Slot Now

Photo from Business to Buttons conferenceWe’re putting together our speaking and interview calendar for the rest of 2016 and early 2017. In addition to yours truly (the brain lady), we’ve got another  person for you to consider to speak at your event or interview for your blog or podcast — my colleague, Guthrie. Guthrie is a behavioral economist with a degree in Economics from University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a law degree from Loyola University in Chicago. He is the host of our new HumanTech podcast. And, he’s also my son that joined our business full time last year!

4th quarters and 1st quarters are usually in high demand, so if you have an event coming up let us know.

Here are some of our most popular talks and topics right now:

Top 5 Things You Need To Know About People
Brain and behavioral science research is exploding with new and sometimes strange insights about how people perceive, pay attention, think, learn, and take action. We share our top 5 things you need to know about people, including surprising research on vision, unconscious mental processing, and what triggers our brains to make a decision.(We’ve just finished a new updated version with the latest research).

The Future of Human-Technology Interactions
Computer hardware and software has advanced to the point where industrial robots, driver-less cars, sociable robots, and virtual reality are real. If you are a designer you are or will be soon crafting the relationships between machines and people. Get a glimpse of the near (3-5 year) future and what that future means to the design of our interactions with technology.

From Sock Hop To Snapchat: Truths and Myths About Generational Differences
How does being in one generation versus another affect expectations for using technology, apps, and devices? We share the truths and myths about generations and how you can use these insights to better understand your products and design them for different generations.

See our website for more details.

And if you have an idea for a new topic for a talk or webinar email us ( and let us know your idea(s)!

Posted in psychology Tagged with: ,

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #112 — More nouns = more clicks

picture of someone pressing a button at a smartphoneIf you’ve ever had to name a button on a website, app, or landing page, then you’ve probably had the moment where you’re going back and forth between options.  Do I name the button “Sign up” or “Register”?  Do I use “Donate Now” or “Be a Donor”?

Is there a way to word requests, or buttons that encourages people to take action?

Gregory Walton at Stanford studies connectedness and affiliation between people. In a series of experiments, he tested how different labels affect behavior. We tend to think that preferences and attitudes are stable. People like opera or they don’t. People like to go dancing or they don’t. Walton thought these attitudes and preferences might not be so stable after all. Maybe how people think of themselves—and how that influences their behavior—is more temporary and fluid. And maybe whether they act, or not, can be influenced by labels.

He conducted a series of experiments to test this out. In the first experiment, participants evaluated the preferences of others described with noun labels or with verbs:

“Jennifer is a classical music listener.”


“Jennifer listens to classical music a lot.”

He tested a wide variety:


  • X is a Shakespeare reader.
  • X reads Shakespeare a lot.


  • X is a coffee drinker.
  • X drinks coffee a lot.


  • X is a chocolate eater.
  • X eats chocolate a lot.


  • X is a PC person.
  • X uses PCs a lot.


  • X is an Austin Powers buff.
  • X watches Austin Powers a lot.


  • X is a classical music listener.
  • X listens to classical music a lot.


  • X is an indoor person.
  • X spends a lot of time indoors.


  • X is a dog person.
  • X enjoys dogs a lot.


  • X is a Pepe’s pizza eater.
  • X eats Pepe’s pizza a lot.

Sleeping time

  • X is a night person.
  • X stays up late.


  • X is a baseball fan.
  • X watches baseball a lot.

Walton tried to use statements that are used in conversation, for example, “Beth is a baseball fan,” and “Beth watches a lot of baseball.” He didn’t use “Beth is a baseball watcher,” even though that’s technically a better word match.

He found that when people read nouns to describe other peoples’ attitudes they judged those attitudes to be stronger and more stable than when the attitudes were described with the verbs.

In a second experiment, he used similar sentences and had people describe themselves. People would fill in the blanks, for example:


  • I’m a ___ lover. (chocolate . . .)
  • I eat ___ a lot. (chocolate . . .)


  • I’m a ___ person. (Mac/PC)
  • I use ___ a lot. (Mac/PC)


  • I’m an ___ person. (outdoors/indoors)
  • I spend a lot of time ___. (outdoors/indoors)

After the participants had filled in the blanks, Walton asked them to rate their strengths and preferences. For example, on a scale from one to seven:

  • “How strong is your preference for this topic?”
  • “How likely is it that your preference for this topic will remain the same in the next five years?”
  • “How likely is it that your preference for this topic would remain the same if you were surrounded by friends who did not enjoy what you prefer?”

When the nouns were “regular” (i.e, not made-up words or phrases) then participants evaluated their preferences as being stronger.

To vote? Or to be a voter

Christopher Bryan and Gregory Walton (2011) conducted additional studies to see if this idea of nouns and verbs would affect voting.

They contacted people who were eligible to vote, but hadn’t registered yet (in California in the United States). The participants completed one of two versions of a brief survey.

One group of participants answered a short set of questions that referred to voting with a noun:

“How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?”

Another group answered similar questions worded with a verb:

“How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”

The researchers’ hypothesis was that using the noun would create more interest among the participants, and that they’d be more likely to register to vote. After completing the survey, the participants were told that to vote they would need to register and they were asked to indicate how interested they were in registering. Participants in the noun group expressed significantly more interest (62.5 percent) in registering to vote than participants in the verb group (38.9 percent).

Bryan and Walton didn’t stop there. They recruited California residents who were registered to vote but hadn’t yet voted by mail. They used the same noun and verb groups the day before or the morning of the election.

They then used official state records to determine whether or not each participant had voted in the election. As they had predicted, participants in the noun condition voted at a significantly higher rate than participants in the verb condition (11 percent higher).

They ran the test again in New Jersey for a different election and, again, the people in the noun group voted more than those in the verb group.

Invoking a group identity — I have a theory about this, too. In How to Get People to Do Stuff, I wrote that everyone has a need to belong. Using a noun invokes group identity. You’re a voter, or you’re a member, or you’re a donor. When you ask people to do something and phrase it as a noun rather than a verb, you’re invoking that sense of belonging to a group and people are much more likely to comply with your request.


  • When naming a button on a form or landing page, consider using a noun, not a verb: “Be a member” or “Be a donor” instead of “Donate now.”
  • When writing a description of a product or service, use nouns instead of verbs. For example, say, “When you’re ready to be an expert, check out our training courses,” rather than “Check out our training courses.”
  • Use common nouns. Don’t make up words just to have a noun.

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

Posted in design, psychology, research Tagged with:

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #111 — When People Feel Connected, They Work Harder

Gregory Walton is a professor at Stanford who has studied the important effects of belonging on behavior. In one of his experiments, Walton (2012) found that when college students believed they shared a birthday with another student, they were more motivated to complete a task with that student and performed better on the task than if they were not told about any connection. He found the same effect with four- and five-year-olds.

Tandem Bicycle

In another experiment with Walton, David Cwir (2011) had people who were part of the experiment jog in place in pairs, raising their heart. Participants who felt they were socially connected to their running partner (for example, were told they had the same birthday) had an increase in their heart rate as the other person’s heart rate increased from jogging. They also rated the other person as being more connected to them than people who were not told they had the same birthday.

Cwir and Walton concluded that it’s easy for people to take on the goals, motivations, emotions, and even physical reactions of people whom they feel even minimally connected to.

The social facilitation effect — When people think they’re working together, they work better and longer, and enjoy it more. Research on the “social facilitation effect” goes all the way back to 1920. Floyd Allport (1920) conducted a series of experiments with male college students. In some situations, students worked on word association or writing tasks in a room alone; in other situations, they worked in a group, although all the work was done individually. Allport controlled carefully for things like light and noise.

Here’s what he found:

  • People working in a group came up with ideas faster (from 66% to up to 93% faster) than people working alone.
  • People working in a group came up with more ideas than people working alone.
  • Most individuals did better in the group settings, but a few people who were, in Allport’s words, “nervous and excitable,” showed no difference or a slight decrease when they were with the group.

Priyanka Carr and Gregory Walton (2014) did a more recent series of experiments where they implied that people were working together, when actually everyone was working alone.

In the psychologically together group, participants were told that the study investigated how people work on puzzles together and that they and the other participants would each work on a puzzle called the “map puzzle.” Participants in this together group were told that, after working on the puzzle for several minutes, they would either be asked to write a tip for another person working on the puzzle, or they would receive a tip from another participant also working on the map puzzle. The experimenter explained the puzzle, told the participant to take as much or as little time as they wanted on the puzzle, and then left the room.

A few minutes later the experimenter came back and gave the participant a tip that said, “Here’s a tip one of the other participants here today wrote for you to help you as you work on the puzzle.” The tip was actually from the experimenter, but was presented as though it was from another participant. It had a “To” line with the participant’s first name, and a “From” line with the supposed first name of another participant.

In the psychologically separate group, the experimenter told participants that the research investigated how people work on puzzles and that they would work on a puzzle called the “map puzzle.” The instructions implied that the other participants in the study were working on the same puzzle but no mention was made of working together.

Participants in this separate group were told that, after working on the puzzle for several minutes, they would either be asked to write a tip for or would receive a tip from the experimenter about the puzzle. When they received a tip it said, “Here’s a tip we wrote for you to help you as you work on the puzzle” and it was presented as being from the experimenter. Instead of “To” and “From,” there was a “For” line with the participant’s first name. Otherwise the instructions were the same as for the psychologically together group.

The participants in the together group worked longer on the puzzle, rated the puzzle as being more enjoyable, performed better, and were more likely to choose to work on a related task one to two weeks later than those in the separate group.


  • When you want your target audience to feel connected to your brand or product, point out anything that you share in common with them.
  • When you’re designing in a team, make sure to point out things that the team members have in common, even if they seem small and superficial.

Here’s the research references:

Allport, Floyd Henry. 1920. “The Influence of the Group Upon Association and Thought.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3: 159-182.

Carr, P. B. and Gregory Walton. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169-184.

Cwir, D., P.B. Carr, Gregory Walton, and S.J. Spencer. 2011. “Your heart makes my heart move: Cues of social connectedness cause shared emotions and physiological states among strangers.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 661-664.

Walton, Gregory M., Geoffrey Cohen, David Cwir, and Steven Spencer. 2012. “Mere belonging: The power of social connections.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(3): 513–32. DOI: 10.1037/a0025731
If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

Posted in psychology, research, teams Tagged with: ,

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #110 — How Your Customers Are Really Using Their Phones

What do people really do on their smartphones?

It may seem like people are using their smartphones to text a friend, check Facebook, or browse the news if they’re bored, but according to the Pew Research Center  more than half of the people with smartphones have also used their phones for important tasks.

  • 62 percent get information about a health issue
  • 57 percent use online banking
  • 44 percent look for a place to live
  • 40 percent access government services
  • 30 percent take a class
  • 18 percent apply for a job
  • People who earn less than $30,000 (USD) are almost twice as likely to use a smartphone to look up employment information and four times as likely to apply for a job with their smartphones.

These numbers are even higher for people aged eighteen to twenty-nine:

  • 75 percent get information about a health issue
  • 70 percent use online banking
  • 44 percent take a class
  • 34 percent apply for a job


If you provide job listings for lower-income people online, remember that most of them will be accessing the information and applying via a smartphone. Make sure your product is designed to work well with a smartphone.

If you provide local or world news, products related to health banking, employment, or online education, assume that a large percentage of your target audience is accessing your information from a smartphone.

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.



Posted in design, mobile Tagged with: ,

Attract More Business With Inbound Content Marketing — New Online Video Course

Course IconI’m a huge fan of inbound content marketing. Most major brands use it as well as lots of small and medium sized businesses. We use it in our business. It works.

I taught a semester course at the University of Wisconsin on the topic and now we’ve created an online video course.  This might not be the course for all of you. It’s for people who need to know how to attract more customers, increase revenue, and grow their business.

Inbound content marketing is the proven way to attract customers to you who want and need your products and services. The course includes:

How to use great free content to attract people to your business or organization
How to identify which of your customers will want which content
How to decide what content to offer
How to plan and implement a campaign of targeted content
A step-by-step foolproof process
Tools to use to implement your campaign

The course fee is $45, but we are offering a special promo code for the first 100 people or until April 7, whichever comes first. The promo code will get you the course for only $30. You can find the course at our course site:

and the promo code is: morebus


Let me know if you are interested or if you have any questions.

Posted in Inbound content marketing Tagged with: ,

HumanTech — Check out the new podcast

Logo for HumanTech podcastJust a quick announcement to let you know we’ve started a new weekly podcast called HumanTech.

I’m hosting this podcast with my (amazing) son, Guthrie. Here’s the description at iTunes:

HumanTech — A podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. We explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

Check out our first episode on the Internet of Things, and I hope you will subscribe to the weekly podcast on iTunes and on Stitcher.



Posted in behavioral science, brain, psychology Tagged with: , ,

Looking for a User Experience and/or UI Design Job?

picture of a desk with papersI love connecting people and opportunities, and here’s a chance for one of those connections.

I often get emails from people who are looking to build a career in user experience and/or UI Design. If that’s you, or if you know someone who is looking, then here’s some great news:

Our colleagues at Balanced Experience are looking for talented staff to place at Fortune 500 clients in the U.S. One position is posted so far at their site, but they will have more shortly, so if you are interested please see their careers page, and/or email them:

New college graduates (Bachelors or Masters) are especially encouraged to apply.

Tell them that The Brain Lady sent you!

Posted in user experience Tagged with: , ,

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #109 — People Prefer Symmetry

Man with symmetrical face

Take any object—a photo of a face or a drawing of a circle or a seashell—and draw a line down the middle either horizontally or vertically. If the two halves on either side of the line are identical, then the object is symmetrical.

People rate symmetrical faces as more attractive. The theory is that this preference has to do with an evolutionary advantage of picking a mate with the best DNA.

Steven Gangestad (2010) at the University of New Mexico has researched symmetry and shown that both men and women rate people with more symmetrical features as more attractive. But symmetry isn’t only about faces: bodies can be more or less symmetrical, too.

So why do people find symmetry to be more attractive? Gangestad says it may have to do with “oxidative stress.” In utero, babies are exposed to free radicals that can cause DNA damage. This is called oxidative stress. The greater the oxidative stress there is, the greater the asymmetry in the face and/or body. From an evolutionary and unconscious viewpoint, people look for partners who have no DNA damage. Symmetrical features are a clue that someone has less DNA damage. As further proof, research shows that men who are rated more attractive have fewer oxidative stress chemicals in their blood.

So, when deciding what photos to use on your website, for example, choose pictures of people who are more symmetrical than less, since those people will be viewed as more attractive.

Measuring face symmetry — You can use a ruler to measure the symmetry of a face. Using the face at the top of this blog post as an example, you would:

  1. Measure the distance from the left edge of D1 to the centerline.
  2. Measure the distance from the right edge of D1 to the centerline. Write down the difference between the two lines. For example, if one side of D1 is .5 inch longer than the other side, write down .5.
  3. Take the same measurement for D2, D3, D4, D5, and D6. It doesn’t matter which side is longer or shorter. All your difference numbers should be positive—no negative numbers.
  4. Add up all the differences.
  5. The higher the sum of the differences is, the more asymmetrical the face. If the sum of all the differences is 0, then the face is perfectly symmetrical. The further from zero the total is, the more asymmetrical the face.

Gender differences — Men prefer symmetry in bodies, faces, and just about everything else, including everyday items, abstract shapes, art, and nature. But research by Kathrine Shepherd and Moshe Bar (2011) showed that women prefer symmetry in faces and bodies, but not as much as men for everything else.

  • If you’re designing for a primarily male audience, then pay special attention to symmetry, whether it’s in faces, bodies, natural or man-made objects, or product pages with TVs—try to use symmetrical objects and show them in an equal right/left and top/bottom view. Men will find symmetrical images most appealing.
  • If you’re designing for a primarily female audience, then symmetry in faces and bodies of people is the most important. You don’t have to be as concerned with making sure all the products are symmetrically displayed.

Why do people prefer symmetry in objects? — There might be an evolutionary advantage for preferring symmetry in a mate, but why do people prefer symmetry in objects? Some researchers have proposed that the brain is predisposed to look for symmetry, and so people see symmetrical objects faster and make sense of them faster. The theory is that this visual fluency with symmetrical objects makes people feel as though they prefer the objects. They may just find them easier to see and understand. But why this is true for men and not for women remains a mystery.

What about symmetrical web page designs? — Does the research on symmetry mean that your design should always be perfectly symmetrical? If you design a symmetrical layout, then you know that people will perceive it quickly and will more likely prefer it—especially if your target audience is men. On the other hand, if you go with an asymmetrical layout, then people will most likely be surprised by it. That may grab their attention initially, but the advantage of surprise and initial attention getting may be offset by fewer people liking it.

Here’s the research:

Gangestad, Steven W., Leslie A. Merriman, and Melissa Emery Thompson. 2010. “Men’s Oxidative Stress, Fluctuating Asymmetry, and Physical Attractiveness.” Animal Behaviour 80(6), 1005–13. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.09.003.

Shepherd, Kathrine, and Moshe Bar. 2011. “Preference for Symmetry: Only on Mars?” Perception 40: 1254–56.

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.



Posted in beauty, design, psychology, vision Tagged with: ,

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