The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #119 — Games Can Enhance Brain Flexibility

Picture of a video gameWhen my son was about six years old, we were shopping in Target. He saw a group of ten-to thirteen-year-olds playing video games on the demo machines, and was fascinated (video games were not part of his life at that time), so he stopped to watch. Not wanting him to get too interested, and also being in a rush to get my shopping done, I said something like, “You don’t want to play video games. It’s scrambling their brains.” I started walking to the checkout lanes and then realized he hadn’t followed me. I turned back to where he was standing at the video game section and found him staring intently at one of the boys playing the video games. “What are you doing?” I asked. My son turned to me and said thoughtfully, “He doesn’t look like his brains are scrambled.”

I was pretty strict with my children about video games. We never owned a game console, and I limited their video game time to “educational” games. My daughter never did become a fan, but my son did when he went off to college and beyond.

Now, looking at the research, I realize I may have been wrong about games.

Games can increase perceptual learning — Some of you may be parents who appreciate gaming, and others may be parents like I was, who thought that games were not a good way for children to spend time. Research shows that playing games isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are benefits: training in action games can increase the speed of perceptual processing and something called perceptual learning. It’s possible to train the senses—vision, hearing, motor skills—and improve their capabilities, especially with action games.

When people play games, it can increase how quickly they’re able to process sensory stimuli. It can increase the ability to filter out extraneous sensory stimuli and focus on one perceptual channel.

Brian Glass (2013) cites research studies showing that when people who are new to games are taught how to play action games, they can process visual information faster as a result, even outside of the gaming context.

Even adults can create new neuron structures — For many decades, it was assumed that the brain has the most flexibility and neurons at birth and that it’s basically downhill from there. There’s the old adage about not consuming too much alcohol, lest it kill the finite number of brain cells you have. Along with this idea came the theory that brain structures become more rigid over time—that as people get older, their brains can’t be rewired. This has all turned out to be untrue. The adult brain has neuroplasticity—its neural structures can change and keep changing and learning. The skills learned from  gaming are an example of neuroplasticity.

Strategy games increase cognitive flexibility — In addition to the perceptual learning that action games provide, research shows that strategy games can also improve cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to coordinate four things:

  1. What you’re paying attention to
  2. What you’re thinking about
  3. What rules to use
  4. How to make a decision

The more cognitively flexible you are, the higher your intelligence and psychological health.

Cognitive flexibility is trainable — Glass took women who were not gamers and had them play games for an hour a day for forty days. One group played Sims 2, another played StarCraft with one base, and the third group played StarCraft with two bases at different locations. Cognitive flexibility was measured before and after the training. The two groups playing StarCraft raised their cognitive flexibility scores more than the group that played Sims 2. And the group that managed two bases increased even more than the group that managed one base.
What do you think? Have games improved your perceptual skills and/or cognitive flexibility?

Here’s the research reference:  Brian Glass, Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait, PLOS, August 7, 2013.

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.

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The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #118 — You Can’t Trust Memories

Photo of woman thinkingHow accurate are memories? Did you see the movie Inside Out? In the movie memories are stored as round colored balls. And the balls can be retrieved and played back. This seems intuitively right. You think back to when you were last at a family gathering or an annual work celebration. You run the event back in your mind, and it almost seems like you’re watching a movie. We think that memories are like digital recordings of specific facts or events. But that’s not how memories are stored or retrieved.

The latest research on memory shows that memories are formed from particular neurons firing. Your brain is being rewired every time you form a memory. But your brain is also firing when you retrieve the memory. And every time you retrieve the memory, it may change based on new information and new memories. You re-create the memory when you retrieve it, so it’s subject to new neuron firings. Each time you retrieve the memory it changes a little more, especially for this type of “autobiographical” memory.

Anything that’s occurred since you first created the memory may affect the original memory. For example, you remember that your Aunt Kathy was at the family reunion last August, but actually she wasn’t at that reunion, she was at the holiday party in October. The memory has been altered and you probably aren’t aware of the alteration.

But some memories are accurate, right? — If I ask you what you were doing on July 21, 2008, you probably won’t remember much, and your memories may be vague, “Was that a weekday? If it was a weekday, I was probably at work.” However, if I ask you what you were doing when you found out about the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, you probably have a very strong memory of where you were and what you were doing, because that memory was encoded with a strong emotional charge — these are called “flashbulb” memories.

Ten years later — Within a week of September 11, 2001, several researchers joined together (William Hirst, 2015) in the US and sent out surveys about the event. They then sent out follow-up surveys to the same people eleven months, twenty-five months, and 119 months (almost ten years) after the event. They found that people’s memories of the event (where they were, how they reacted, what happened during the event) changed a lot in the first year, and included many inaccuracies. After the first year the memories stabilized—meaning they didn’t change, but they still contained many inaccuracies. At the ten-year mark the memories remain stable, but still inaccurate.

The researchers also studied also whether external events—how much people watched media accounts, talked to friends, or were personally affected by the events—had an effect on the memories or the inaccuracies. They found no effect. Flashbulb memories change a lot over about a year and then seem to resist change after that.

Memories can be erased — Did you see the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that came out a few years ago? It’s about a service people can hire to erase specific memories. When the movie came out there was speculation that this might be possible, but strong proof wasn’t in. Now, however, we know that it is possible to erase memories. In fact, there are several ways to erase a memory. They’re all based on the idea that when you retrieve a memory you’re actually not retrieving an intact memory and playing it back—you’re recreating the nerve impulses and brain activity you had when you first formed the memory. If you can disrupt the nerve firings, then you can’t create the memory—ever.

There are several ways to disrupt the firings:

1)   Particular proteins facilitate the process of forming a memory. If those proteins are stopped from being created, then you won’t form a memory. There are drugs that inhibit the protein.

2)   Xenon gas interferes with signal pathways in the brain, so if you breathe xenon gas it while recalling a memory it will erase the memory. Xenon gas is used as an anesthetic.

3)   Laser light can change genes and, in doing so, change a memory. The laser light turns genes on or off by stimulating or inhibiting proteins. Interestingly, this method of memory erasing, called optogenetics, is reversible. Amy Chuong (2014) now has developed a way of doing this that doesn’t require anything be implanted in the brain. It can all be done with light outside the brain.

And for those of you who do customer or user research… Uh oh… As a consultant I often do customer and user interviews and testing. During a user test of a clothing website, one person I was working with commented that he didn’t like the purple colors at the website. Half an hour later, when we were discussing his experience, he commented on how much he liked the purple color at the website. Another person I tested was using online banking software to send a wire transfer. The user experience of the product was poor. The person I was testing was so frustrated that she alternated between using bad language and being almost in tears. Half an hour later she said she thought the site was really easy to use. I told her she didn’t have to say that, that she could be honest about her experience. She looked at me in confusion and said, “I am being honest.” It had only been an hour or less, but even after that amount of time the memories of the experience are often different than the experience itself. Interviewing and user testing are one of the main ways to get customer and user feedback, but because they rely on memory, they are flawed methods. What’s a researcher to do?!

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.

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The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #117 — Why People Spend More When They Use A Credit Card

Photo of a wallet with credit cardsBudget and financial counselors often advise people to withdraw cash each week and use it to pay for daily and weekly expenses rather than putting purchases on a credit card. The theory is that if you see the money leaving your wallet, you’ll spend less. The theory is correct, as several research studies have shown. But it’s not exactly using cash that’s important—it’s the transparency of the payment.

Lower the transparency = more money spent — Payment transparency refers to how tangible the payment is. The more real or tangible a payment is, the more transparent it is. Here’s what we know about methods of payment:

  • Cash is very tangible. You can touch it and put it in your pocket — it’s real—which means you don’t like to see it go away. It’s very tangible and very transparent.
  • Writing a check is a little less transparent than cash, but it’s more transparent than credit cards. When you hand over a check, you don’t get it back, like cash.
  • Credit cards are tangible since there’s an actual card, and if you’re using it at a store, you do hand over the card, but then the card gets handed back to you, so there isn’t a reinforcing sense of loss. Credit cards are less transparent than cash or checks.
  • Using a credit card online is even less transparent. If you have your credit card number memorized or if the retailer you’re purchasing from has your credit card information stored, then you don’t even have to touch the credit card. The transparency is lower than cash or handing over a credit card in a store. You’ll likely spend more.
  • Amazon’s one-click purchasing lowers transparency even further, since all you have to do is click the Buy Now button.
  • Subscriptions for products and services where you sign up once and then money is taken from your credit card automatically are less transparent than any of the other methods.

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

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #116 — Everyone Can Be Creative


picture of man with artist paints all over his handsCreativity isn’t a trait that some people have and others don’t. Before I explain why that’s true, let me first define what I mean by creativity. If one hundred people looked at the same abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, many of them might say, “Oh, that artist is really creative,” but not everyone. If one hundred people watched the TV series So You Think You Can Dance, many of them might say, “The dancers are creative,” or “The choreographers are creative.” If one hundred people listened to music by Philip Glass, some might say, “That composer is creative.”

What if one hundred people went to a fashion show? Would everyone say that the clothing designers are creative? Or what if they saw a graffiti artist’s work on a wall—would they say that the artist is creative? What about people who design technology? Are they creative?

There are many possible definitions of creativity. We probably won’t agree entirely on the definition or on the results. However, here’s a definition I’ve put together that I find descriptive and useful:

Creativity is the process of generating new ideas, possibilities, or alternatives that result in outcomes that are original and of value.

Here’s why I like this definition:

  • Process—The word “process” is in the definition. So, creativity isn’t a trait that some people have and other people don’t. There’s actually a creative process that you can follow.
  • Outcomes—Just doing the process isn’t necessarily being creative. If you follow a creative process, and by doing so you end up with something, that’s an outcome. Being creative means that you have something when you’re done.
  • Original—The definition includes the word “original.” Being creative isn’t just copying what somebody else did. When you’re creative, you end up with something unique.
  • Value—When you’re creative, the outcome is of value to someone. It doesn’t have to be of value to everyone, but it has to be of value to someone.

Even with this definition, we may not necessarily agree on who’s creative and who’s not. But the definition gives us a place to start talking about creativity, and a way to evaluate whether or not a particular activity is creative.

Myths about creativity

Let’s clear up some myths about creativity:

  1. Some people are “naturally” creative and other people aren’t. It’s true that some people spend more time in creative activity than others. But brain science is clear about the fact that there are creative brain states that can be turned on by some fairly simple actions. This means that everyone can learn how to be more creative.
  1. Creativity means creating “works of art.” Being creativity doesn’t equate only with creating fine art, such as painting a landscape or writing a symphony. There are many ways to be creative, and creating works of art is just one way. Creativity includes many things, for example, cooking, programming, interface design, and problem solving.
  1. Some people are left-brained (analytical) and others are right-brained (creative). My PhD research was on the right and left halves of the brain, so I can get pretty involved in a conversation about the subject. The human brain has two hemispheres: the left and the right. It’s a common misconception that the left side of the brain is all about being logical and analytical and rational, and the right side of the brain is all about being intuitive and creative. That description is not accurate.

There definitely are two sides to the brain—the left and the right—and it’s true that there are some brain structures on one side that aren’t on the other. For instance, the ability to speak and to understand language is on the left, and some spatial awareness is on the right. However, it’s simplistic to say that when you listen to music, you’re listening to it only with the right side of your brain. Even people who don’t play an instrument show activity on both sides of the brain when listening to music. (Although those who play an instrument show more activity in more areas of the brain than those who don’t.) It’s simplistic to say that the right side is the creative side.

The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right halves of the brain. Information (nerve impulses) passes through the corpus callosum very quickly. So even if something started on one side of the brain, it doesn’t stay there very long.

When people say “I’m a left-brained person” or “I’m a right-brained person,” they’re actually not referring to sides of the brain. They’re referring to styles of thinking, learning, or processing information. There are different ways to process information, but they don’t correspond to specific halves of the brain.

Hopefully this debunks some of the myths about creativity.

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.

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The Best Psychology Books You Should Read

Every few years I update my list of favorite psychology books and it’s that time again. It turns out that this is my most popular blog post. There are a lot of people searching on Google for “Best Psychology Books”. So here’s my latest list. Let me know if you have some favorites that you think should have made it on my list.

(These are in no particular order, i.e., #1 doesn’t mean it’s my favorite.)

I do have an Amazon affiliate account, so I’ve included a link to each book after the description if you are interested in purchasing or just getting more info.

1. Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, 2011 – If you want to understand how people think and how and why they react, then this is a must read. Daniel Kahneman is a Psychologist and a Nobel prize winner in Economics, but this book is all about how people think and react. It’s very well written, but I will warn you, it’s not an easy read. Plan to spend time reading this one. But it will be worth it for the understanding you get into why we do the things we do.

2. Redirect, by Timothy Wilson, 2011 – This is the second book of Timothy Wilson’s on my list. If you want to know how to make permanent and lasting change in your behavior, or the behavior of someone you know, then this is the book to read. Wilson covers the recent and often very surprising research on interventions and therapies that result in people actually changing. Permanent behavior change is hard to come by. This book tells you what does and doesn’t work based on research.

3. Drive, by Daniel Pink, 2011 – What really motivates people? This book covers the research on human motivation in the last few years. It’s well written, and an easy read, and will explode some long-standing beliefs.

4, The Invisible Gorilla by Chabris and Simon, 2011 – Chabris and Simon explain their research that shows how what we think we are seeing and experiencing is not really what’s out there. A fun book about how we deceive ourselves.

5. Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unconscious, by Timothy Wilson, 2004 – This is the book that actually got me started seriously on the topic of the unconscious. I had read Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) and although that was an interesting book, I wanted more depth and detail. Gladwell referenced Wilson’s book so I started reading it and light bulbs went off for me. This one is a bit more academic and psychological, especially the first few chapters, but all in all, a great book with lots of interesting insights and strong research.

6. Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert, 2007 – This is a fun read. I don’t think it’s really about happiness, so I don’t totally understand the title. To me it’s mainly about memory of the past, and anticipation about the future, and the research on how accurate or inaccurate we are about both past and future. It’s full of fascinating research, but is written in a very readable way.

7. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini, 2006 – This is a newer version of the original book that came out several years ago. This book is the “granddaddy” of all the other books on the topic of persuasion. A very worthwhile read. Interesting too, because at the time he originally wrote this book each chapter had a section on how to RESIST the persuasive techniques. He wasn’t a proponent of using them; he wanted you to know about them so you wouldn’t fall prey. He did a turn-around on that mindset for his later work and writing.


8. Brain Rules: 12 Principles For Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, by John Medina, 2009 – This is a somewhat misleading book. From the way it’s described you would think it’s a very practical book, for everyone, not academic or research oriented. But actually it’s quite a treasure trove of research, which I think is a good thing. He has this weird section at the end of each chapter where he tells you how to apply the principles in that chapter to your everyday life. I think those sections are the weakest, actually. But the material in the body of each chapter is solid, well referenced and well written. If you want a basic book that explains some basic brain functioning I would definitely read this book.


9. Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely, 2008. There is some great content in this book, but I have a basic disagreement with the premise. If you have read my blog posts or books you know that I believe that it is not that our decision-making or mental processing is “irrational”.  It’s unconscious, but that doesn’t mean irrational or bad. Our unconscious mental processing works most of the time. Ariely’s view is that we are irrational and irrational means bad, and that we should learn how to counteract our mental processing. I don’t agree. But the research in the book is still good (it’s his interpretations and recommendations I take issue with).


10. Hooked, by Nir Eyal, 2014. This book takes the research on classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and habits and rolls it together and applies it to the design of software and apps. The basic question is how can you develop products that people can’t stop using. Eyal has some unique takes on the topic that make for interesting and “a-ha” moment reading.

11. The Power of Habit , by Charles Duhigg, 2014. The science of habits — how we form them, change them, and why they are so powerful. Actually the information in one of the Appendices is, I think, the most powerful part of the book.

12. The Art of Choosing , by Sheena Iyengar, 2011. This is a thick book and research oriented, but it’s the best book out there for a survey of decision-making. Why do people make certain decisions? Why do they choose one thing over another? What makes them take action?

13. Made To Stick , by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, 2007. This is a little book that brings together research on what captures our attention, makes us remember, and makes us take action. It’s an easy read, but it explains well a fairly large body of research. Use this book when you want to convince your boss, the marketing department, some sales people and so on.

14. The Moral Molecule , by Paul Zak, 2013. There’s a brain chemical called oxytocin that regulates much of our social behavior. Paul Zak explains the effects of what he calls this “moral molecule” on human behavior.

15. The Emotional Brain , by Paul LeDoux, 1998. This one’s not an easy read, but if you want to know what emotions are, how they work in the brain and what that means for human behavior, this is a good book to read to get a start on that topic.

16. The Paradox of Choice , by Barry Schwartz,2005. The premise of this book is that we all want lots of choices, but lots of choices don’t help us to choose. It’s easy to read and has lots of great research in it too.

17. And please forgive me if I put one of my books on the list!How To Get People To Do Stuff

Do you agree with my list? Do you have some favorites that I’ve failed to mention?


Posted in psychology

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #115 — Emotions Are Contagious

photo of two girls laughingOne time when in Chicago I went to an improv theater performance. I’d had a busy week, and it was fairly late at night. I was tired and not that excited to be there. In fact, I’d been thinking of not going at all.

As the room began to fill up before the performance started, I noticed that almost everyone there seemed happy and excited. There was a buzz in the room. I found myself waking up, and feeling happy and excited too.

Research has long shown that emotions are contagious. James Fowler (2008) wrote about the spread of happiness over twenty years in one community. There were happy and unhappy groups of people in the network. Happiness extended up to three degrees of separation. People who were surrounded by happy people were more likely to become happy in the future. The statistical analysis showed that this was not just because happy people tended to interact with other happy people, but because people were more likely to become happy when they were around happy people. Even physical distance was important: those who had a happy friend within a mile were 25 percent more likely to become happy themselves. Those with a happy next-door neighbor had a 34 percent greater probability of becoming happier.

And it’s not only happiness that’s contagious. A 1985 study by M. J. Howes showed that people without depression who roomed with someone who suffered from even mild depression would themselves become depressed over time.

In the Fowler study, the effects of emotional contagion were seen in people who knew each other over time and were in physical proximity. What about the emotional contagion of strangers? Or people in a video?

Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School researches how taking certain postures can cause neurochemical changes in the brain. If you’re feeling sad, you frown, hang your head, and contract your body. What you may not realize is that the opposite is also true. Even if you’re not sad, if you frown, hang your head, and contract your body, then your body will release neurochemicals that actually make you feel sad. The same is true for other bodily postures and feelings. For example, opening the body with your arms and legs leads to feeling confident and powerful.

One theory about why emotions are contagious is that people tend to mimic the bodily postures of those around them, or of those they see in a video. This, in turn, makes them start to feel the feelings of the people around them, even strangers or people in a video.

We now know that people are affected by the emotional states of other people even in a matter of seconds. Facial expressions are particularly contagious, even through watching a video.

P.S. The improv theater was T.J. and Dave. And afterwards I knew why there was so much buzz in the room — they were amazing.

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 emotions, psychology Tagged with: ,

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:

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