Your Brain On Stories

Drawing of a brainOne day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who didn’t want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I said  “Hello everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class wasn’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought to myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story,” I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the ship Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen.  Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do.”

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever.

Everyone likes stories. We like to listen to stories, read stories, watch stories (movies, TV, theatre) and tell stories. In fact, stories are our normal mode of information processing. Stories are so normal to us that we don’t even stop to think about why that is.

Let’s say you are listening to me give a presentation on the global economy. I’m NOT telling a story, but giving you facts and figures. If we had you hooked up to an fMRI machine we would see that your auditory cortex is active, as you’re listening, as well as Wernicke’s area of the brain where words are processed. If you were reading a newspaper article on the same topic then we would see, again Wernicke’s area as well as your visual cortex as you are reading.

But what if I started telling you a story about a family in South America that is being affected by changes in the global economy – a story about the father going to work in a foreign country to earn enough for the family, and the mother having to drive 100 kilometers for health care… what’s going on in your brain now?  the Wernicke’s area would be active again, as well as the same auditory or visual cortices, BUT now there’s more activity. We would see many other parts of your brain light up. If, in my story, I described the sharp smell of the pine forest high in the Andes where this family lives, your olfactory sensory areas of the brain would be active as though you were smelling the forest. If I described the mother driving over rutted muddy roads, with the vehicle careening from side to side, your motor cortex would be lighting up as though you were driving on a bumpy road. And if I started talking about the devastation the family felt when their young son died before he could get medical treatment, then the empathy areas of the brain would be active.

Which means that you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont College and author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, researches the role of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical in the brain that Zak says gives the “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. In his research he has discovered that:

  • If you develop tension in the story you will sustain attention.
  • If you sustain attention then it is more likely that the people hearing the story will start to share the emotions of the main characters in the story.
  • If people share the emotions of the main characters then they are likely to mimic the feelings and behaviors of the characters when the story is over.
  • Listening to a character story like this can cause oxytocin to be released.

And if oxytocin is released then it is more likely that people will trust the situation and the storyteller and more likely that they will take whatever action the storyteller asks them to take.

What do you think? Do you use stories purposely to increase engagement when you communicate?

365 Ways To Persuade & Motivate: #1 Direct Eye Contact Is Not Always Best

Photo of Presidents Clinton and Ford looking at each other

We’ve all been told how important it is to make eye contact when interacting with other people. Direct eye contact makes you seem trustworthy, confident, and interested in the topic you are discussing, right? All those things are true BUT new research shows that direct eye contact can lessen the effectiveness of your message in one critical situation:

Frances Chen researched people listening and watching videos of other people talking about controversial social and/or political topics. Participants watched videos with speakers discussing topics with a strong viewpoint that was opposite to what the participants believed. Some participants were asked to watch the speaker’s eyes, and others were asked to watch the speaker’s mouth. Participants who watched the speaker’s eyes were LESS likely to change their opinion on the topic than the participants who watched the speaker’s mouth.

Why would this be true? Chen’s hypothesis is that direct eye contact can be seen as threatening.

Implications?:

  • If you are talking to people who agree with you, and trying to get them fired up to take action, then use direct eye contact.
  • But If you are talking to people who don’t agree with you, then you may want to minimize the amount of direct eye contact you have.
  • If you are making a video and you believe that people will agree with you, then look right into the camera lense.
  • If you are making a video and you think people don’t agree with you, then look off to the side instead of into the camera.

What do you think? Have you experienced this difference between eye contact and whether you agree with the person speaking?

Here’s the research citation:

Chen, F.S., Minson, J.A., Schöne, M., & Heinrichs, M. (in press). In the eye of the beholder: Eye contact increases resistance to persuasion. Psychological Science.

To learn more check out our 1 day seminar on The Science of Persuasion.

4 Reasons Why Online Video Is Compelling & Persuasive

Why is online video so compelling compared to text?

I’ve been in my video studio working on my new online video course (Designing For Engagement). It’s a lot of work to create my online video courses (through Udemy.com), but it’s also fun to work on them, and it’s exciting to have people taking and enjoying the courses.

It got me thinking again, about why online video is so compelling as a medium, and so while I was in the studio I made this short video “4 Reasons Why Online Video Is Persuasive”:

Here are the 4 reasons:
#1: The Fusiform Facial area makes us pay attention to faces
#2: Voice conveys rich information
#3: Emotions are contagious
#4: Movement grabs attention

What do you think? Do you find online video more engaging than reading text? Why do you think it is (or isn’t)?

How To Get People To Do Stuff: #2 — Break Through A Confirmation Bias

A confirmation bias is a form of “cognitive illusion”. People tend to pay attention to what they already believe and filter out information that doesn’t fit with their opinions and beliefs. You can breakthrough these biases, however. Watch the video to find out how:

For more information check out:

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast And Slow

and my new book (when it comes out in March 2013 — available for pre-order now at Amazon) How To Get People To Do Stuff

In order to get through a confirmation bias, start first with something you know the person or your audience already believes. That way they will let the information/communication in through their attention gate. Once you’ve made it past the confirmation filters you can then slip in a new idea.

What do you think? Have you tried this to break through a confirmation bias?

The True Cost of Multi-tasking

Picture of a sunset over water
My view last week “off the grid”

I spent last week “off the grid” on an island in Lake Michigan.  No internet, no email, no cell phones. It was different, interesting, and strange. I was actually glad to get back to the grid. But the experience made me think. The major difference for me was that I stopped “multi-tasking”.

Task switching, not multi-tasking —  A while ago I wrote a post about multi-tasking, and the research at Stanford that shows that even younger people aren’t good at multi-tasking.  But the term multi-tasking is actually a misnomer. People can’t actually do more than one task at a time. Instead we switch tasks. So the term that is used in the research is “task switching”.

Task switching is “expensive” — There has been a lot of research on task switching. Here’s what we know from the research:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.
  • Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.
Does having more communication channels encourage task switching? When I was off the grid I found that I started doing one task at a time. I would do one thing for several minutes, and in many cases several hours. I believe that being online encourages task switching. When you can go from email to chat to texting to twitter to phone to facebook you switch tasks more. When I was off the grid all my channels were gone. So instead I spent time with one task and with one program. One day I worked in IPhoto for 3 hours straight.
Additional costs– One last insight from my week off the grid: I was much less agitated. It’s my hypothesis that task switching not only wastes time and increases errors. Task switching causes fatigue, exhaustion and agitation.
Less task switching = more happiness? — Now that I am back on the grid I wonder if I can break the task switching addiction and improve my mood, energy, happiness, productivity, and error rate? Can I beat the task switching habit?
What do you think? Have you been able to do less task switching? Have you tried?
And for those of you who like to check out the research:

Meyer, D. E., Evans, J. E., Lauber, E. J., Gmeindl, L., Rubinstein, J., Junck, L., & Koeppe, R. A. (1998). The role of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for executive cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1998, Vol. 10.

5 Reasons Why Online Video Is So Persuasive

picture of videogenie testimonial
Video Genie lets customers record video testimonials

Let’s say you are browsing for shoes at your favorite online shoe store. You see a pair that looks like what you are looking for, but you aren’t 100% convinced. Then you notice that in addition to the regular reviews written by other shoppers, there is a video you can click on. You click on the video and watch a stream of customers show you the shoe and talk about why they like it. Persuasive? You bet!

Video is one of the most powerful media choices for online persuasion. Here are 5 reasons why:

#1 — Movement in peripheral vision grabs attention — In a previous post I talked about why movement in your peripheral vision is so powerful at grabbing attention. Video online is movement, and so will automatically grab attention more than anything else on the screen.

#2 — Speakers and listener’s brains sync up — In a previous post I talked about the research by Stephens (Stephens, Greg, Silbert, L., & Hasson, U., 2010. Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2010.) that shows that the brain patterns of listeners synch up with the brain patterns of the speaker they are listening to. This means that a video of someone talking  is going to be more powerful than just reading words on a page.

#3 — Video compensates (somewhat) for the asynchronous problem — In a previous post I wrote about the research by Wiltermuth and Heath (Scott S. Wiltermuth  and Chip Heath,  Synchrony and Cooperation, Psychological Science, Volume 20 Issue 1, Pages 1 – 5) on how synchronous behavior bonds people together. A lot of online communication is asynchronous — the communication is not occurring simultaneously in real time. Emails, Facebook posts, twitter posts, are asynchronous. Chat is synchronous. Synchronous communication is, in general, more persuasive. Video can be synchronous (think Skype) or asynchronous (think TED talk or YouTube). But video does have the advantage of allowing you to hear and see an actual person, rather than the more removed reading of text. In this regard it is the most powerful of the asynchronous media.

#4 — Video can convey emotional info, not just factual — In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I talk about how important it is to speak to the emotional mid-brain if you want to get your message across and have your message be remembered. Video has the advantage (over just reading text) of communicating social and emotional information, not just facts.

#5 — Video testimonials combine all the powerful elements together — If you haven’t seen Video Genie in action, I suggest you go to videogenie.com and check out their example videos. This is a new technology that allows customers to easily make a video testimonial and post it to your site (you get to moderate it, i.e. watch it before it gets posted). I’ve talked a lot (in books and other posts) about why testimonials and reviews are so powerful (it’s the principle of social validation). Video testimonials are social validation on steroids. Social validation, brain syncing, emotional content… you just can’t beat this for persuasion.

The technology for video is finally getting easier and easier to create and integrate online. (Another interesting example is Vokle.com — it allows anyone to host their own video talk show, live, with people calling in.)

What do you think? Are you using video at your site?

 

100 Things You Should Know About People: #100 — Sustained Attention Lasts 10 Minutes

chart showing drop in attention after 10 minutes
After 10 Minutes Attention Wanes

You are sitting in a meeting, and someone is presenting sales figures for last quarter. How long can this person hold your attention?

7-10 — If the topic is of interest to you, and the person is a good presenter, the maximum you can focus on the presentation is about 7-10 minutes. And if you are not interested in the topic and/or the presenter is particularly boring, then you’ll lose interest much faster. For most people performing most tasks, they can hold attention for 7 to 10 minutes, and then the attention will start to wane.

Break buys you another 7-10 — People can take a short break and then start over with another 7 to 10 minutes period, but 7 to 10 minutes is about how long they can pay attention to one task.

The end of a journey — For those of you who have been following my series, “100 Things You Should Know About People”, you probably realized that with this post I have reached the end of my 100 Things. Stay tuned for what comes next!

 

100 Things You Should Know About People: #99 — Well Practiced Skills Don't Require Conscious Attention

Person playing the violin
Guthrie Weinschenk Playing Violin

I have two grown children. The entire time they were growing up they took Suzuki method music lessons. My son studied violin, and my daughter studied piano. After attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals, I asked her what she was thinking about while she was performing the piano sonata piece (from memory, no music in front of her). Was she thinking about the dynamics of the music? When to get louder or softer? About particular notes or passages that were coming up? Speed or tempo? She looked at me in confusion. “Thinking?”, she said, “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just watching my fingers play the song.” It was my turn to be confused. I turned to my son and said, “Is that how you play the violin in a recital? Are you thinking?” “No, of course I’m not thinking, he answered. I’m watching my fingers play the violin too.”

Muscle memory — The Suzuki method of music instruction (and perhaps other methods too, it’s the only one I’m really familiar with) requires students to intensely practice particular skills on their instrument. In a Suzuki recital students usually do not have music in front of them. All the pieces (and quite complicated pieces) are memorized. This requires that particular passages and songs be practiced over and over. A term that is used in music instruction is “muscle memory”. The piece is practiced so often, that the muscles remember how to play it on its own, without thinking involved.

Automatic execution? — If a skill is practiced so well that it is automatic, then it can be performed with a minimum of conscious attention. If it is really automatic then it almost allows multi-tasking. I say almost because multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #99 — Well Practiced Skills Don't Require Conscious Attention”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #98 — Attention Is Selective

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Filtering out stimuli — In many situations people get easily distracted. In fact, you can often grab people’s attention away from what they are focusing on. But it is also possible for people to pay attention to one thing and filter out all other stimuli. This is called selective attention.

Unconscious selective attention — You are walking down a path in the woods, thinking about an upcoming business trip you are taking, and you see a snake on the ground. You freeze and jump backwards. Your heart starts racing. You are ready to run away. But wait, it’s not a snake. It’s just a stick. You calm down and keep walking on the path. You noticed the stick, and even responded to it, in a largely unconscious way.My book,  Neuro Web Design: What makes them click, is all about unconscious mental processing. Some of the time you are aware of your conscious selective attention, for example, when you were reading the paragraph at the beginning of the chapter. But there is also a lot of selective attention that operates unconsciously.

What do you think? How good are you at selective attention?

100 Things You Should Know About People: #97 — People Filter Information

Have you ever met someone that has a long held belief that they just won’t change, no matter how much evidence you show them that their belief is not tenable? People seek out and pay attention to information and cues that confirm the beliefs that they have. They don’t seek out, in fact they ignore, or even discount, information that doesn’t support what they already believe.

Photo of military personnel in a control room
USS Vincennes

Useful strategy or bad idea? — Filtering is often a useful strategy, since it reduces the amount of information that you have to pay attention to at any one time. But sometimes filtering can lead to bad choices.

Shooting down a commercial jet — In 1988 the US Navy had a ship in the Persian gulf called the USS Vincennes. One day, while scanning the radar on the screen on the ship, the crew saw aircraft headed their way. They decided early on that the approaching aircraft was not a commercial airliner, but a hostile military plane. They shot down the plane, which did turn out to be a commercial airliner with 290 passengers and crew. Everyone died.

Many factors led to this erroneous conclusion — The situation was stressful , and the room was too dark. There were many unclear or ambiguous pieces of information that made it hard for the crew to understand what they were looking at on their screen. Most significant, however, in the incident, is what they chose to pay attention to and what they chose to ignore.

The crew filtered — Several crew members were convinced from the start that it was a hostile military plane, and from that point on they filtered all the information coming in. The crew had rehearsed the a training scenario many times on what to do when there is a hostile military plane in their air space. They ignored evidence that it was, in fact, a commercial plane, paid attention only to the information that led them to think it was a hostile military craft, and then proceeded to carry out the training scenario. All leading them to an incorrect resolution.

What do you think? Are you aware when you are filtering?