100 Things You Should Know About People: #29 – Brand Names Talk To Our "Old" Brains

You are planning on buying a new TV. Will you buy a brand you recognize? Or will you go for the unfamiliar “no name” brand that is less expensive? What if you are buying luggage?

Talking to the “old brain” — In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I write about the “old brain”. This is the part of the brain that developed first from an evolution point of view (sometimes called the reptilian brain because it developed with reptiles). The old brain is continually scanning the environment and asking, “Can I eat it?”, “Will it kill me?”, “Can I have sex with it?”. Basically the old brain is interested in food, survival and sex. This pre-occupation with our well-being also makes the old brain sensitive to the idea of loss. The old brain is therefore more motivated by the fear of losing something than it is by the possibility of gain.

Brands activate “safety” — Brand names talk to the old brain because they activate the idea of safety. A brand name means that the item is not an unknown. And if the brand name is positive to you, then the brand name signals safety to the old brain. (If you have had a negative experience with the brand then it will be the opposite. I had a bad experience with Panasonic once many many years ago, and for over two decades I wouldn’t buy anything made by Panasonic. Recently I’ve reluctantly let go of that “ban”, but I still prefer not to buy Panasonic. I can’t even remember what the product was that upset me so much, but in my head Panasonic = maybe not reliable).

Brands are shortcuts — One of the things our old brains are really good at is making quick “blink” decisions. You can’t consciously process all the information that comes into your brain. The estimate is that 40,000,000 inputs come into your brain from your senses every SECOND. You can only process 40 of those consciously, so it is your unconscious that is processing most of that information, and it uses lots of shortcuts to make the processing go faster. Brands are a shortcut. A brand you have a positive and emotional experience with equals a signal to the old brain that this is safe.

Brands are even more powerful online — I’m currently analyzing some data I’ve collected on people making purchases online. (I’ll be sharing that data in another post shortly). The study I conducted has to do with customer reviews. But an interesting piece of information that emerged along the way was how important brand was to the purchasing decision. Some of the participants in the study were asked to shop for luggage online, and others were asked to shop for TVs. All the participants commented during the study about the brand, saying things like, “I don’t know. This one is a good price, but I’ve never heard of this brand”.  In the absence of being able to see and touch the actual product, the brand becomes the “surrogate” for the experience. This means that brands have even more power and sway when you are making an online purchase.

What has been your experience? Do you go for “name” brands more when you are shopping online?

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #26 — Culture shapes our brains

college students
Photo Credit: Katie Ricard

My entire career I’ve been worried about the fact that most psychology research is conducted on 18-24 year old college students. What if the way 18-24 year old college students react, think, and behave is not the same as everyone else? We are drawing conclusions about PEOPLE in general, but only collecting data from a small subset of people whose brains are still changing. It seemed silly that there were rigorous rules about how to conduct scientific studies in psychology, and yet this basic premise about who was being researched and how applicable the research was to different people was ignored. It’s made me secretly skeptical about research. Which is ironic, since I spend a fair amount of time searching out research, thinking about it, interpreting it and writing about it. I guess some research is better than no research?

Does culture shape “basic” cognitive processes?– And now I’ve come across an entirely new reason to be skeptical about the theories we have about how the brain works — cultural effects. In his book, The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbitt discusses research that shows that how we think — our cognitive processes — are influenced and shaped by culture. For example, if you show people from “the West” (US, Europe) a picture, they focus on a main or dominant foreground object, while people from Asia pay more attention to context and background. Asian people who grow up in the West show the Western pattern, not the Asian pattern, showing that this is based on culture, not genetics.

Is most of our research in psychology based on what “westerners” think? — This has profound implications for some of the theories we have about cognitive processing. We have research about how people think, how many items can be stored in memory, etc. What if these theories about how people think are really theories about how Western people think and are not universal?

Do cultural differences show up in brain activity? — Sharon Begley recently wrote about this in Newsweek. She reports on recent neuroscience research that confirms the cultural effects. “… when shown complex, busy scenes, Asian-Americans and non-Asian–Americans recruited different brain regions. The Asians showed more activity in areas that process figure-ground relations—holistic context—while the Americans showed more activity in regions that recognize objects. To take one recent example, a region behind the forehead called the medial prefrontal cortex supposedly represents the self: it is active when we (“we” being the Americans in the study) think of our own identity and traits. But with Chinese volunteers, the results were strikingly different. The “me” circuit hummed not only when they thought whether a particular adjective described themselves, but also when they considered whether it described their mother.”

Will it ever end? — This is the curse of research. Just when we think we know something, we find out there are more questions than answers!  One trend that should help is that there is more and more research coming out of Asia. If you peruse the psychology scientific journals you will see that more than half of the research that is being published today comes from Asia. Another big chunk comes from Europe, so the psychology research now is not so US centric. This will help, or will it? Will we now have to worry that the results from Asia don’t apply to the West? Should all psychology research be done using different cultures?

What do you think?

For more reading:

Ambady, N., Freeman, J. B., Rule, N. O. (in press). Culture and the neural substrates of behavior, perception, and cognition. In J. Decety & J. Cacioppo (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sharon Begley’s article in Newsweek:  West Brain, East Brain

Click the link below to find out more about The Geography of Thought, by Richard Nisbett (affiliate link):

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Who is The Most Romantic?: The Brain Science of Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's DayIt’s almost Valentine’s Day and you go online to look for a gift to buy that special someone in your life. What will you buy? I posed that question to both men and women in a small research study I conducted recently. And the answers I got surprised me.

When research answers a different question than the one you meant to ask — Actually, the question I thought I was studying was about how much money people would be spending online. I had a theory that if people stated up front what their Valentine’s gift budget was, then they would be more likely to stick with that budget. So I ran two groups: people who were asked how much money they planned to spend before the shopping started, and people who weren’t. And I split both of those groups into men and women to see if there were any gender differences to the budget question.

The budget question was a bust — It turns out that when you ask people what their budget is, it doesn’t affect how much they buy at all, not men, not women. I saw the lack of a trend right away as I started analyzing the data, but then the data told me something totally different.

The gifts that men and women were buying were VERY different. Watch the video first, and then read on:

A disclaimer — This is not a formal research study with statistical analysis. It’s an exploratory study. Having said that, though, I was careful to present everyone with the same instructions, and I had people responding from all over the USA.

So here are the findings — Men picked traditionally romantic Valentine’s gifts, such as flowers, chocolate, and jewelry. Just about all the men picked these traditional gifts. The only slight deviation was one man who said he was buying tickets to dinner and a show. None of the women picked what would be considered a traditional Valentine’s gift. None. The women were purchasing: books, cell phones, pajamas, keychains, TVs….

Does this mean the men are more romantic? — Well, I guess it depends on what you call romantic. The men definitely mentioned love more than the women. The men would say things like:

Continue reading “Who is The Most Romantic?: The Brain Science of Valentine's Day”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #25 — Trust Your Gut or Be Logical? It Depends On Your Mood

Picture of Woman Looking In Mirror
Photo Credit: Katie Ricard

In a previous post on how mood affects your reaction to brands you know (see You Are Most Affected By Brands And Logos When You Are Sad And Scared), I talked about the research from Marieke de Vries of Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. De Vries also did research on two types of decision making: a trusting -your- gut intuitive method vs. following a logical, deliberative decision-making process of weighing alternatives and thinking through pros and cons. De Vries was interested in whether one method of decision-making was better than another, and also whether your mood affected the outcome of the decision.

When to use deliberative decision-making — Research by Dijksterhuis shows that when you have simple decision to make you make better decisions when you use a logical deliberative method.

When to use intuitive decision-making — Research by Shiv shows that when you have a complicated decision to make, you make better decisions when you use an intuitive or “gut” method.

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #25 — Trust Your Gut or Be Logical? It Depends On Your Mood”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #24 — You Are Most Affected By Brands and Logos When You Are Sad Or Scared

Here’s Scenario 1: You get together with your friends to watch your home team play a game on TV. They win! After an afternoon of fun and friendship you stop at a grocery store on your way home. You are in a good mood. Are you more or less likely to buy the usual cereal you always buy or will you try something new?

Here’s Scenario 2: It’s Friday afternoon and your boss calls you in to tell you that he’s not happy with your latest project report. This is the project that you repeatedly told him was in trouble and you asked that more staff be assigned. You feel all your warnings were ignored. Now he’s telling you that this work will reflect badly on you and you may even lose your job. On the way home you stop at the grocery store. You are sad and scared. Are you more or less likely to buy the usual cereal you always buy, or will you try something new?

You Want What’s Familiar — A series of research studies by Marieke de Vries of Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, shows that when people are sad or scared, they want what is familiar. When people are in a happy mood they are not as sensitive to what is familiar, and are willing to try something new and different. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #24 — You Are Most Affected By Brands and Logos When You Are Sad Or Scared”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #22 — Peripheral Vison — Keeping You Alive or Channel Surfing?

You have probably heard the term “peripheral vision”, but did you know that you use your peripheral vision to get the gist of the scene around you?

Two kinds of vision — Basically, you have two types of vision: Central and Peripheral. Central vision is the vision you have when you look at something directly and see the details. Peripheral vision is the rest of the visual field that is visible, but that you are not looking directly at.

Keeping you alive on the savannah — The theory, from an evolutionary point of view, is that thousands of years ago, people who were sharpening their flint, or looking up at the clouds, and yet still noticed that a lion was coming at them from their peripheral vision survived to pass on their genes. So peripheral vision has always been important. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #22 — Peripheral Vison — Keeping You Alive or Channel Surfing?”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #21 — You Overestimate Your Reactions to Future Events

Lottery ticketHere’s is a thought experiment — On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, rate how happy you are right now. Write that number down. Now, I want you to imagine that today you win the lottery. You now have more money than you ever thought you would. You have millions and millions of dollars. At the end of today what would be your happiness rating? Write that number down. What about 2 years from now? What will be your happiness rating 2 years from now if today you win millions and millions in the lottery?

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #21 — You Overestimate Your Reactions to Future Events”

Quick Review of Jonah Lehrer's Book How We Decide

Here is a quick video review of one of my favorite psychology books ever written. First the video review and then below I have a text summary of the review.

Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide is a best seller. It’s a relatively short book, but it is packed full of all the latest science on how people make decisions, including the latest research on unconscious mental processing. Lehrer is both a science writer and a neuroscientist, which means that the book has lots of substance, but is also easy to read. He uses stories and examples to explain what might otherwise be complicated and difficult science. Continue reading “Quick Review of Jonah Lehrer's Book How We Decide”

10 Best Posts of 2009

It’s that time of year — so here is my list of the 10 best posts from my blog in 2009. I chose the 10 that I believe have had the greatest impact/most thought provoking/most interest from my readers.

#1: Dopamine Makes You Addicted to Seeking Information — I thought this was an interesting post when I wrote it, but it surprised me how quickly it took off virally; more than any other post I’ve written!

#2: Eyetracking — 7 Traps to Avoid — Another surprise to me how popular this post was.

#3: 7 Steps to Successful Web Site Redesign — I think Jacek Utko has an important view of the world.

#4: Your Attention is Riveted By Pictures of People — If people knew how important this is I think they’d change the pictures they put at their web site.

#5: Web Site User Experience Anatomy — Not one of my posts, but a guest post by Craig Tomlin, and an interesting way to think about web sites. Continue reading “10 Best Posts of 2009”