100 Things You Should Know About People: #11 — Why You Can't Resist Paying Attention to Food, Sex, or Danger

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Food Captures Attention

Have you ever wondered why traffic always slows when people are driving by an accident? Do you moan about the fact that people are attracted by the gruesome, and yet find that you glance over too as you drive by? Well, it’s not really your fault, you (and everybody else) can’t resist looking at scenes of danger. It’s your “old brain” telling you to PAY ATTENTION.

You have 3 brains — In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I talk about the idea that you really don’t have one brain, you have three. The “new brain” is the conscious, reasoning, logical brain that you think you know best; the mid brain” is the part of the brain that processes emotions, and the “old brain” is the part of the brain that is most interested in your survival.

From reptiles to people — If you look at brains from an evolutionary perspective, the “old brain” developed first (hence the name “old brain”!). In fact, that part of our brain is very similar to the brain of a reptile, which is why some people call it the “reptilian” brain.

“Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Will it kill me?” – The job of your old brain is to constantly scan the environment and answer the questions: “Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Will it kill me?” That’s really all the old brain cares about, is food sex and danger. When you think about it, this is important. Without food you’ll die, without sex the species won’t continue, and if you are killed the other two questions don’t matter. So animal brains developed early on to care intensely about these three topics. As animals evolved they developed other capacities (emotions, logical thought), but they retained a part of their brain to always be scanning what is going on for these three critical questions.

You Can’t Resist — What this means is that you just can’t resist noticing food, sex, or danger. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to not notice these 3 things in your surroundings, you will always notice them. It’s the old brain working. You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you notice, for example, you don’t have to eat the chocolate cake when you see it, you don’t have to flirt with the attractive person who walked into the room, and you don’t have to run away from the large scary guy that walked in the room with the good looking woman. But you WILL notice all of those things whether you want to or not.

Cake, Pretty Woman, and a Crash on the home page — I get emails from people who have read about the old brain in my book. They will write to me wanting advice about how they should fit a picture of cake, a woman in a bikini, and an industrial accident all at the home page of their corporate website. (I do get some interesting emails!). I’m not advocating that you do that! I am pointing out that if you want to get someone’s attention at a website, then any images or headlines that include or imply food, sex, or danger will definitely get attention. But you will have to decide what is appropriate!

Have you seen any good examples of websites that use these ideas effectively (besides just sex sites — don’t send me URLs for those)?

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Posted in attention, brain, neuro web design, psychology
10 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #11 — Why You Can't Resist Paying Attention to Food, Sex, or Danger
  1. Susan Weinschenk says:

    Cole,

    Thanks for writing in. We should probably explain to readers that by PFC you mean the pre-frontal cortex. I agree with your comments and am planning to talk more about the pre-frontal cortex in some other blogs.

  2. Jay says:

    I’ve heard the phrase “curiosity crawl” on television. After waiting an hour in a traffic jam, it terribly annoys me to find out that the cause of my agony is an accident on the other side of the road! I’ve learned to resist slowing down with the rest of the herd and discontinue the pain that others behind me are experiencing.

  3. Juliana says:

    Here in Brazil it is quite common to see newspapers as well as websites using such technique. They often post *any* kind of news, as long as they can attach a almost naked woman to it…

  4. Lisa says:

    Really interesting article Susan and insightful series.

    One great example I came across is Elephant Journal http://www.elephantjournal.com/. This is a site that publishes articles on personal growth and spirituality – but encourages subscription to the site by using headlines and photos that appeal to the “old brain”.

  5. ninarose says:

    why do we always have to associate sex with women? why does the question “can i have sex with it?” have to automatically be imagined as a women in a bikini or just a female related to some kind of sexual image/act? why when people think of sex they think of women degrading and humiliating themselves for a mans pleasure? why do women have to be shown completely naked and a man is always depicted with only his shirt off and he is never completely naked? thats not fair.

    • warren says:

      Because men are repulsed by naked men, where women are usually comfortable with female nudity. (even if they disapprove they don’t yell “GROSS” and shred the paper into little bits before lighting it aflame.)

      By posting female nudity you maximize the male attention grab and minimize the negative response.

    • SumAnon says:

      Because there are no women on the interwebs. /sarcasm

    • Mike says:

      Because a man with no pants on is generally not sexy.

    • jimbean says:

      For the same reason you think of an elementary school teacher as a woman.

  6. Jason says:

    The MSN homepage pretty much nails every one of these. It’s a bit like a tabloid, but it’s difficult to turn away until I’ve looked at every image/section on the page. And I hate MSN, it’s the home page of my IE browser which I only use for testing purposes.

4 Pings/Trackbacks for "100 Things You Should Know About People: #11 — Why You Can't Resist Paying Attention to Food, Sex, or Danger"
  1. Food, Sex, Danger « Scott Alumbaugh/Weblog says:

    […] Thing number 11 is entitled, “Why You Can’t Resist Paying Attention to Food, Sex, or Danger.”  In the article, she explains that humans have three brains: a new brain, a mid brain, and an old brain.  The old brain is the one interested in survival.  So it’s job is to scan the environment and ask, “Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it?  Will it kill me?”  I don’t know if all scientists agree with this assessment, but it’s a fun read.  As are many of the other things we should know about people.  Here is a link that brings up all of the article titles. […]

  2. […] what she writes in her 11th article about a part of the human brain that resembles that of a reptile: “The job of your old brain is […]

  3. […] I was constantly asked why do we need icons here and there, not that I am a big fan of icons, they do help:) And, keep in mind that, the visuals about food and human faces you put on your website or apps may draw better attention than others: 100 things you should know about people #11: Why you cannot resist paying attention to food, sex, an…. […]

  4. As heard on the Double Q « The Double Q 94.7 says:

    […] -Want people to pay attention to you? Here’s what makes us tick… MORE […]

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I'm a Ph.D. psychologist and I write and videoblog about how to apply psychology and brain science research to understand how people think, work, and behave. For more information about me and about the Weinschenk Institute, check out the the Team W website.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
The "Brain Lady"

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