iPhone X? Yes or No? It Might Come Down To Which Part Of Your Brain Is Active.

Picture of iphone tenThis week Apple announced the iPhone X. Some of you have decided you are definitely NOT going to buy it, others have decided you definitely are, and others are on the fence. Whether you go for it or not at least partially depends on whether you are making a habit-based decision or a value based decision.

Two parts of the brain for decision-making –– It turns out that there are two different parts of the brain that make decisions. One area is in the basal ganglia, deep in the brain, and is based on habitual responses. The other is in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) which is behind your forehead. If you are making decisions in the OFC area those are value based decisions.

Habit decisions take over — Research by Christina Gremel shows that if the OFC is quiet, then habit-based decisions take over. If the OFC is busy, though, then the habit area is over-rided. What does this mean? If you are comparing features, thinking logically, reviewing data, then you can’t make a decision based purely on habit. But if you aren’t evaluating which product is best for you, then it is likely your habitual responses will kick in.

Always buy the latest iPhone? — So if you are someone who loves Apple products and you always buy the latest iPhone, then chances are you will buy the iPhone X.  The only thing that might stop you is if your Android-loving friend starts bombarding you with data comparing the new iPhone with his or her Android phone. As soon as you start doing a side-by-side comparison your OFC is engaged, making it impossible to make that quick habit-based decision.

So, which type of decision are you making?

Research citation: Christina M. Gremel, et, al, Endocannabinoid Modulation of Orbitostriatal Circuits Gates Habit Formation. Neuron May 2016.

Heuristics: The Unsung Heroes Of How People Think

Logo for HumanTech podcastWe talk a lot about “cognitive biases” — the tendencies we have to think and act in ways that are not always logical, and not always accurate, but we forget that many of these brain shortcuts are very adaptive and very successful.

In this podcast episode we dive into the positive side — Heuristics. What they are, why we use them, and how they are so successful that we may even want to program them into machines.


Human Tech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Learn About Brain and Behavioral Science

Optical Illusion pictureWe’ve launched our new course curriculum in Brain and Behavioral Science!

If you’re interested in learning more about why people are the way they are, why people do what they do, and how to work more effectively with people and communicate more clearly, then check out our new series of courses:

You can take one course, or you can take all of them, pass the Certificate exam,  and earn the Brain and Behavioral Science Certificate.

Check out the new courses, and let us know if you have any questions (info@theteamw.com)

Use Promo Code: BBSNew and receive 30% off any of the Brain and Behavioral Science courses from now through Feb. 21, 2017.

Let us know what you think!

The Science of Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work (And What To Do About It)

Notebook and penHow many New Year’s resolutions have you made in your life? How many have you successfully accomplished? The estimate is that less than 10% of New Year’s resolutions are actually achieved (University of Scranton Psychology Professor John C. Norcross, Ph.D.). There’s a lot of homespun folksy advice out there this time of year about how to make sure you reach your New Year’s goals, but I thought I’d share the actual science of how to change behavior.

There’s two main lines of brain and behavior science that influence New Year’s resolutions: The science of habits and the science of self-stories.

Let’s start with the science of habits.

A lot of New Year’s resolutions have to do with making new habits or changing existing ones. If your resolutions are around things like eating healthier, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, texting less, spending more time “unplugged” or any number of other “automatic” behaviors then we are talking about changing existing habits or making new habits. Habits are automatic, “conditioned” responses. You get up in the morning and stop at Starbucks for a pastry and a latte. You go home at the end of work and plop down in front of the TV.  Here’s what you need to know about the science of changing existing habits or making new ones:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not hard to change habits IF you do so based on science.
  • To change a new habit you essentially have to create a new one, so whether you are changing an existing habit or creating a new one, the “scientific” method for doing so is the same.
  • You have already created literally HUNDREDS of habits that you have now, and you don’t even remember how they got started, so creating habits can’t be that hard or you wouldn’t have so many of them!

To create a new habit you have to follow these three steps (based on B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg)

  1. You MUST pick a small action. “Get more exercise” is not small. “Eat healthier” is not small. This is a big reason why New Year’s resolutions don’t work. If it’s a habit and you want a new one it MUST be something really small. For example, instead of “Get more exercise” choose “Walk 1/3 more than I usually do” or “Take the stairs each morning to get to my office, not the elevator”, or “Have a smoothie every morning with kale in it”. These are relatively small actions.
  2. You MUST attach the new action to a previous habit. Figure out a habit you already have that is well established, for example, if you already go for a brisk walk 3 times a week, then adding on 10 more minutes to the existing walk connects the new habit to an existing one. The existing habit “Go for walk” now becomes the “cue” for the new habit: “Walk 10 more minutes.” Your new “stimulus-response” is Go For Walk (Stimulus) followed by “Add 10 minutes.” Your existing habit of “walk through door at office” can now become the “cue” or stimulus for the new habit of “walk up a flight of stairs.” Your existing habit of “Walk into the kitchen in the morning” can now be the stimulus for the new habit of “Make a kale smoothie.”
  3. You MUST make the new action EASY to do for at least the first week. Because you are trying to establish a conditioned response, you need to practice the new habit from the existing stimulus from 3 to 7 times before it will “stick” on its own. To help you through this 3 to 7 times phase make it as EASY as possible. Write a note and stick it in your walking shoe that says “Total time today for walk is 30 minutes”. Write a note and put it where you put your keys that says: “Today use the stairs.” Put the kale in the blender and have all your smoothie ingredients ready to go in one spot in the refrigerator.

If you take these three steps and you practice them 3 to 7 days in a row your new habit will be established.

Now let’s tackle the science of self-stories.

The best (and some would say the only) way to get a large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-story.

Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a “story” operating about yourself at all times. These self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.

Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.

If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you’d better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you’ll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.

In his book, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is “story-editing”:

  1. Write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything about the story that goes AGAINST the new resolution you want to adopt. So if your goal is to learn how to unplug and be less stressed, then write out a story that is realistic, that shows that it’s hard for you to de-stress, that  you tend to get overly involved in dramas at home or at work.
  2. Now re-write the story — create a new self-story. Tell the story of the new way of being. Tell the story of the person who appreciates life, and takes time to take care of him/her-self.

The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.

I’ve tried both of these techniques — creating new habits using the 3-step method, and creating a new self-story. The research shows they work, and my own experience shows they work.

Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year’s resolutions.

What do you think? What has worked for you in keeping your resolutions?

For more info:

Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect:

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit:

My book, How To Get People To Do Stuff

B.J. Fogg’s website:  tinyhabits.com

Reading Is Weird

Logo for HumanTech podcastWe are born with the capability to speak, but not the capability to read. In this HumanTech podcast we look at the research on how the brain  “steals” resources in order to learn to read.

HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Hack Your Brain, Part 2

Logo for HumanTech podcastThis is Part 2 of two episodes of the HumanTech podcast where we explore how you (or others!) can hack your brain. Your brain is more flexible than you may think. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who is trying to hack it!

HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Hack Your Brain, Part 1

Logo for HumanTech podcastYour brain is more flexible than you may think. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who is trying to hack it! This is Part 1 of two episodes of the HumanTech podcast where we explore how you (or others!) can hack your brain.

HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

The Brain’s Bonding Chemical: Oxytocin

Logo for HumanTech podcast

What makes you feel connected to another person, a team, or even a pet? It’s oxytocin. In this HumanTech podcast episode we talk about the amazing brain chemical that makes you feel loving towards whatever you are with when it gets released.

HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

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.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0070350

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.

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.