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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100 Things You Should Know About People: #12 -- When it comes to technology, you definitely "act your age".
100 Things You Should Know About People: #10 -- You Want More Choices and Information Than You Can Actually Process

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

  1. 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. Pingback: Food, Sex, Danger « Scott Alumbaugh/Weblog
  3. 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.

  4. 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…

  5. 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”.

  6. Pingback: As heard on the Double Q « The Double Q 94.7
  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. 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.

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