100 Things You Should Know About People: #10 — You Want More Choices and Information Than You Can Actually Process


If you stand in any aisle in any retail store in the USA you will be inundated with choices. Whether you are buying candy, cereal, TVs, jeans, you name it, you will likely have a huge number of items to choose from. This is because people want lots of choices. If you ask someone whether they would like to choose from a few alternatives or have lots of choices, most people will say that they want lots of choices.

Too Many Choices and We Freeze — In my book, Neuro Web Design, What makes them click? I talk about the classic research in the field of choice. Iyengar and Lepper (2000) decided to test out the theory that if you have too many choices you don’t choose at all. They  set up booths at a busy upscale grocery store  and posed as store employees. They alternated the selection on the table. Half of the time there were six choices of fruit jam for people to try and the other half of the time there were twenty-four jars of jam.

Which Table Had More Visitors? — When there were twenty-four jars of jam, 60% of the people coming by would stop and taste. When there were six jars of jam only 40% of the people would stop and taste. So having more choices was better, right? Nope, that’s wrong. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #10 — You Want More Choices and Information Than You Can Actually Process”

The 11 Best Psychology, Persuasion, and Usability Books You Should Read

NOTE: This blog post was written in 2009. I have a new list of books at a newer blog post.

I love to read. I read fiction and history and psychology… I’m an avid reader. Which means when I give talks on psychology, usability, user experience, or my book, Neuro Web Design,  I often say, “Oh, there’s this great book…” and people then ask me for my “favorite books” list. I always tell them I’ll put one together, and then I never do. Well, here’s a start. Some of these are my favorites, and others I take issue with, but I still think you might want to read. I do have an Amazon affiliate account, so I’ve included a link to each book after the description if you are interested in purchasing or just getting more info.

How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer, 2009 – This is my favorite book on the topic of decision-making. It came out after I wrote my book (Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?) or I would have quoted him many times in my book. It’s a small book, and has lots of research in it, but it is quite readable. Highly recommended if you want to understand the how and why of human decision-making.

Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unconscious, by Timothy Wilson, 2004 – This is the book that actually got me started seriously on the topic of the unconscious. I had read Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) and although that was an interesting book, I wanted more depth and detail. Gladwell referenced Wilson’s book so I started reading it and light bulbs went off for me. This one is a bit more academic and psychological, especially the first few chapters, but all in all, a great book with lots of interesting insights and strong research.

Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert, 2007 – This is a fun read. I don’t think it’s really about Happiness, so I don’t totally understand the title. To me it’s mainly about memory of the past, and anticipation about the future, and the research on how accurate or inaccurate we are about both past and future. It’s full of fascinating research, but is written in a very readable way.

Neuro Marketing:  Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer’s Brain, by Patrick Renvoise and Christophe Morin – This book is short and easy to read. It applies some of the latest neuro psychology work specifically to marketing and sales. A good book to give to someone who wants an overview without all the research details. A nice concise and quick read that will orient you to the neuro marketing mindset, and give you some quick tips about more effective marketing and selling.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini, 2006 – This is a newer version of the original book that came out several years ago. This book is the “granddaddy” of all the other books on the topic. A very worthwhile read. Interesting too, because at the time he originally wrote this book each chapter had a section on how to RESIST the persuasive techniques. He wasn’t a proponent of using them; he wanted you to know about them so you wouldn’t fall prey. He did a turn-around on that mindset for his subsequent book that I talk about next. Continue reading “The 11 Best Psychology, Persuasion, and Usability Books You Should Read”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information

iphone with text message
Does the unpredictability of a text message trigger dopamine release?

Do you ever feel like you are addicted to email or twitter or texting? Do you find it impossible to ignore your email if you see that there are messages in your inbox? Have you ever gone to Google to look up some information and 30 minutes later you realize that you’ve been reading and linking, and searching around for a long time, and you are now searching for something totally different than before? These are all examples of your dopamine system at work.

Enter dopamine — Neuro scientists have been studying what they call the dopamine system for a while. Dopamine was “discovered” in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, and motivation, seeking and reward.

The myth — You may have heard that dopamine controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain: that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment, pleasure, and therefore motivates you to seek out certain behaviors, such as food, sex, and drugs.

It’s all about seeking — The latest research, though is changing this view. Instead of dopamine causing us to experience pleasure, the latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases our general level of arousal and our goal-directed behavior. (From an evolutionary stand-point this is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps us motivated to move through our world, learn, and survive). It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and fuels our searching for information. The latest research shows that it is the opioid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information”

7 Strategies to Replace Multi-Tasking

In a previous blog I talked about the research that shows that multi-tasking is not effective. (See 100 Things You Should Know About People: #7 — People Can’t Multi-Task) So if multi-tasking is not effective what should you do? How do you effectively cope with all the input and distractions you have in your life, especially at work?

1: Remember the 80/20 rule — I’m sure you’ve heard about the 80/20 rule. The context here is that 20% of the work you do gives 80% of the impact and effectiveness. We often make the mistake of thinking that being busy means being effective. And the busier we get the more multi-tasking we end up doing. According to the research that means we are getting less effective the “busier” we get. Focus on identifying the 20% of your tasks that are really effective.

2: Implement “batch processing” — Do you sit at your desk with your email open and then get sucked into reading and answering emails all day long every time they come in? This encourages multi-tasking. Instead, try batch processing your emails. Decide on certain times of the day (in the morning, at noon, in the late afternoon, for example) that you are going to check and deal with email. Some people (Timothy Ferriss, for example, author of The 4-Hour Workweek) say that you can get really radical with this idea. Ferriss advocates that you check email once a day or less! If you are like me, that radical an idea is probably not feasible, but experiment with this idea of batch processing. You can use this not only for email, but for anything that is usually a distraction for you, such as making phone calls, checking voicemail, etc. If you do batch processing you can then eliminate that task as a multi-tasking distractor during the other parts of your day. Continue reading “7 Strategies to Replace Multi-Tasking”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #7 — You Actually Can't Multi-Task

I know it’s popular to think that you are multi-tasking, but the research is clear that people actually can’t multi-task, with one specific exception.

One thing at a time — For many years the psychology research has shown that people can only attend to one task at a time. Let me be even more specific. The research shows that people can attend to only one cognitive task at a time. You can only be thinking about one thing at a time. You can only be conducting one mental activity at a time. So you can be talking or you can be reading. You can be reading or you can be typing. You can be listening or you can be reading. One thing at a time.

We fool ourselves — We are pretty good at switching back and forth quickly, so we THINK we are actually multi-tasking, but in reality we are not.

The one exception — The only exception that the research has uncovered is that if you are doing a physical task that you have done very very often and you are very good at, then you can do that physical task while you are doing a mental task. So if you are an adult and you have learned to walk then you can walk and talk at the same time.

Then again, maybe there isn’t an exception —  Even this doesn’t work very well, though. A study being published in December shows that people talking on their cell phones while walking, run into people more often and don’t notice what is around them. The researchers had someone in a clown suit ride a unicycle. The people talking on a cell phone were much less likely to notice or remember the clown.

But the millennial generation can multi-task, right? — A study at Stanford University demonstrates well that multi-tasking doesn’t work, even with college students. Clifford Nass’s study (published in August of 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), found that when people are asked to deal with multiple streams of information they can’t pay attention to them, can’t remember as well, and don’t switch as well as they would have thought.

So what should you do? — One thing at a time!

For more information:

on the Stanford study:Stanford Study on Multi-Tasking

On the clown and unicycle research: Ira E. Hyman Jr *, S. Matthew Boss, Breanne M. Wise, Kira E. McKenzie, Jenna M. . “Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone”. Applied Cognitive Psychology, December, 2009.


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100 things You Should Know About People: #6 — You Reconstruct Your Memories

Try this task — Think back to a particular event that happened at least 5 years ago. Maybe it was a wedding, or a family gathering, or a dinner you went to with friends, or a vacation. Pick one for our purposes here, and remember the event. Remember the people, and where you were and maybe you can remember the weather, or what you were wearing.

Memories as movies? — We tend to experience our memories of events like this as little movie clips that play back in our minds. And because we experience them this way we have a tendency to think that memories are stored in entirety and never change. But that’s not what happens.

Memories are reconstructed — Our memories are actually reconstructed every time we think of them. They aren’t movie clips that are stored in the brain in a certain location like files on a hard drive. They are nerve pathways that are firing anew each time we remember the event. This makes for some interesting effects. For example, the memory can change.

Subsequent events can affect the memory — Other events that occur after the original event can change the memory of the original event. At the original event, you and your cousin were close friends. But later on you have an argument and a falling-out that lasts for years. Your memory of the first event might include your cousin being aloof and cold, even if that is not true. The later experience has changed your memory.

Mixing events — It is easy to start mixing up memories. So that things that happened at two separate events become fused into one. Your cousin was pleasant at one event, and not pleasant at the other, but over time your memories about which is which can become confused.

Filling in of gaps — You will also start to fill in your memory gaps with “made up” sequences of events, but these will seem as real to you as the original event. You can’t remember who else was at the family dinner, but Aunt Jolene is usually present at these events, and so over time your memory of the event will include Aunt Jolene.

Eyewitness testimony — Elizabeth Loftus is one of the earliest psychology researchers to study reconstructive memory. She was studying eyewitness testimonies, and was especially interested in whether language can affect memory.

Bumped, hit, or smashed — In her research Loftus would show a video clip of an automobile accident. Then she would ask a series of questions about the accident. She would change the way she worded the questions, for example, sometimes she would phrase it as: “How fast would you estimate the car was going when it hit the other vehicle”, or “How fast would you estimate the car was going when it smashed the other vehicle.” And she would ask participants in the study if they remembered seeing broken glass.

You can guess — When she used the word smashed the estimated speed was higher than when she used the word hit. And more than twice as many people remembered seeing broken glass if the word smashed was used rather than the word hit.

So what’s the impact? — Since memories are reconstructed, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The words you use are important. They can actually affect people’s memories.
  • You can’t rely on self-reports of past behavior. People will not remember accurately what they or others did or said.
  • Watch out for how and what you say if you are interviewing people, for example, interviewing users for a usability or user experience study. You can influence their responses with the words you use.
  • Similarly, take what users say later, when they are remembering using an interface, with a grain of salt. It’s being reconstructed

And if you’d like to read some of Elizabeth Loftus’ seminal work in the area:

Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer, Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction:
An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589 (1974).


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100 Things You Should Know about People: #5 — You Make Most of Your Decisions Unconsciously

You are thinking of buying a TV. You do some research on what TV to buy and then you go online to purchase one. What factors are involved in this decision making process?

It’s not what you think — I cover this topic in my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? You like to think that when you make a decision you have carefully and logically weighed all the relevant factors. In the case of the TV, you have considered the size of TV that works best in your room, the brand that you have read is the most reliable, the competitive price, whether you should get blu-ray, etc etc. But the research on decision-making, especially the recent research, shows that although you want to think that your decision-making is a conscious, deliberate process, it’s not. Most decisions are made through unconscious mental processing.

Unconscious decision-making includes factors such as:

What are most other people buying (social validation): “I see that a particular TV got high ratings and reviews at the website”

What will make me stay consistent in my persona (commitment): “I’m the kind of person that always has the latest thing, the newest technology.”

Do I have any obligations or social debts that I can pay off with this purchase (reciprocity): “My brother has had me over to his house all year to watch the games, I think it’s time we had them over to our place to watch”

and on and on.

Don’t Confuse Unconscious with Irrational or Bad. I take exception with Dan Ariely and his book, Predictably Irrational. Most of our mental processing is unconscious, and most of our decision-making is unconscious, but that doesn’t mean it’s faulty, irrational or bad. We are faced with an overwhelming amount of data (11,000,000 pieces of data come into the brain every second!) and our conscious minds can’t process all of that. Our unconscious has evolved to process most of the data and to make decisions for us according to guidelines and rules of thumb that are in our best interest most of the time. This is the genesis of “trusting your gut”, and most of the time it works!

So What To Do? — The next step is to think about what this means for people who design things like websites, where you are providing information and/or engaging customers to make a decision. This is, of course, the topic of my book, but let’s hear from you. If we know that people are making decisions unconsciously, rather than consciously, what are some strategies we should employ at the website to encourage them to engage?

And for those of you who like to read, great books on this topic are:

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer — The BEST book on the topic of decision-making in general.

Strangers to Ourselves: The adaptive unconscious by Timothy Wilson — A little bit more academic, but still a great book.

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

and of course

Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?


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100 Things You Should Know about People: #4 — You Imagine Objects From Above and Tilted (The "Canonical Perspective")

Why you should believe the research in this blog post even though it’s from 1981 — Whenever I talk about “old” research some people start right away to dismiss it. It’s easy to think that research done in the 1990s or 1980s, or heavens! the 1970s! couldn’t hold any interest for us now. I heartily disagree. If the research is sound and it’s about people, then the chances are high that it still has relevance. Certainly if you are talking about research from the 1980s showing that it is hard to read text on a computer screen, then more recent data is important —  the quality of computer monitors has changed so dramatically from the 1980s till now (believe me on this one, as I was around to see the screens of the 1980s. I am aware that many of you reading this blog have only seen a screen from the 80s in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, or maybe you saw it in an old black and white movie (joke), or, as my daughter likes to say to me, “that must have been when you were younger and the dinosaurs roamed).

Have an Open Mind — So the purpose of the above long preamble to ask you to have an open mind about the following research that was done and written up in a book from 1981.

Draw a Coffee Cup — If you ask someone to draw a picture of a coffee cup, chances are they will draw something that looks like this:

Everyone Drew A Similar Picture — In fact, a researcher named Palmer went all around the world and asked people to draw a coffee cup and the pictures above were what people drew. Notice the perspective of the cups. A few of them are “straight on”, but most are drawn from a perspective as if you are slightly above the cup looking down, and offset a little to the right or left. This has been dubbed the “canonical perspective”.

Why Not This? — No one he studied drew this:

which is what you would see if you were looking at a coffee cup from way above and looking down. Of course not, you say, but…. why not? And if you are going to say that the first perspective is the one that we actually see most of the time, when we look at a coffee cup… that it is the angle we are used to seeing the cup on our kitchen tables, I will tell you that this research has been done on many objects. For example, people were shown pictures of horses from various angles and perspectives and they most quickly recognized it as a horse when it was from this same canonical perspective. Yet I am fairly sure that most of us have not looked at horses from above most of the time. And the research was done with people recognizing a very small dog or cat. The canonical perspective still won out, even though when we see cats or very small dogs we are mainly looking at them from high above, not just slightly above. In fact the research shows that when we imagine an object we imagine it from this canonical perspective.
So, Why Care? — It seems to be a universal trait that we think about, remember, imagine and recognize objects from this canonical perspective. Why care? Well, if you want to use icons at your web site or in your web or software application that people will recognize, then you might want to use this perspective. This is probably not so critical if you are using a well known logo, for example, the logo for itunes or Firefox, but becomes important if the icon is not as familiar, such as recognizing below that one of the logos is of a truck, or a photo printer.

What Do You Think? — Should we continue to use the canonical perspective?
And for those of you who like to read research:
Palmer, S. E., Rosch, E., and Chase, P. (1981). “Canonical Perspective and the Perception of Objects.” In Long, J., and Baddeley, A.  (Eds.), Attention and performance IX, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


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100 Things You Should Know about People: #3 — You Can Only Remember 3 to 4 Things At A Time (The Magic Number 3 or 4)

7 +  –  2???

3 or 4???

Those of you who have been in the field of usability or user experience for a few years have probably heard the phrase “The Magic Number 7 Plus Or Minus 2”. This refers, actually, to what I would call an urban legend. Here’s the legend part:

Legend: “A guy named Miller did research and wrote a research paper showing that people can remember from 5 to 9 (7 plus or minus 2) things, and that people can process 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information at a time. So you should only put 5 to 9 items on a menu, or have 5 to 9 tabs on a screen”.

Have you heard this? If you’ve been reading about usability for a while I’m sure you have. Well, it’s not quite accurate. Another guy named Baddeley questioned all this urban legend. Baddeley dug up Miller’s paper and discovered that it wasn’t a research paper, it was a talk that Miller gave at a professional meeting. And it was basically Miller thinking out loud about whether there is some kind of inherent limit to the amount of information that people can process at a time.

Baddeley conducted a long series of studies on human memory and information processing. And what he concluded is that the number is 3 to 4, not 5 to 9.

You can remember about 3-4 things (for about 20 seconds) and then they will disappear from memory unless you repeat them over and over. For example, let’s say you are driving in your car and talking on your cell phone (ok, you shouldn’t be doing that) and someone gives you a number to call. But you don’t have a pen handy, and anyway you are driving. So you try to memorize the number long enough to hang up from one call and dial the new number. What do you do? You repeat the number over and over (putting it back into short term memory each time, which buys you another 20 seconds). The interesting thing about phone numbers is that they are more than 3 or 4 numbers long. So they are hard to remember for more than 20 seconds.


We also tend to chunk information into groups that have 3-4 items in them. So a phone number in the US is: 712-569-4532. Three chunks, with 3-4 items in each chunk. If you know the area code “by heart” (i.e., it’s stored in long term memory), then you don’t have to remember that, so one whole chunk went away. Phone numbers used to be easier to remember because you mainly called people in your area code, so you had the area code memorized (plus you didn’t even have to “dial” the area code at all). And then if you were calling people in your town each town had the same “exchange” — that is the 569 part of the phone number above. So all you had to remember was the last four numbers. No problem! I know I’m “dating” myself here by telling you how it used to be back in the old days. (I live in a small town in Wisconsin, and people here still give their number out as the last four digits only).

But that’s not all! Researchers working in the field of decision-making tell us that people can’t effectively choose between more than 3 to 4 items at a time.

So, what does all this mean? Can you really only have 4 items on a navigation bar? or 4 tabs on a screen, or 4 items on a product detail page at an e-commerce web site? No, not really. You can have more, as long as you group and chunk.

Here’s an example: At the Upton Tea site they have lots of tabs, but the tabs are not chunked into groups of 3 or 4.

So people will tend to do a partial scan and not even look at or read all the tabs. (I love their teas, by the way.. just wish they would do some work on the layout and emotional aspects of their site, but that’s probably another blog!).

I’ve covered more than 4 items in this blog post, so I’ll stop now! For those of you who like to read research here are some references:

  • Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Baddeley, A. D. (1994). The magical number seven: Still magic after all these years? Psychological Review, 101, 353-356.
  • Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97


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