100 Things You Should Know About People: #36 — People are Inherently Lazy

Photo Credit: Mr. Thomas

Ok, I’ll admit it, I am exaggerating a little bit when I say people are inherently lazy. What I really mean is that people will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.

Is lazy another word for efficient? — Over eons of evolution humans have learned that they will survive longer and better if they conserve their energy. We’ve learned that we want to spend enough energy to have enough resources (food, water, sex, shelter), but beyond that we are wasting our energy if we spend too much time running around getting stuff.

How much is enough? — Of course questions about how much is enough, and do we have enough stuff yet, and how long should the stuff last (and on and on), still vex us, but putting the philosophical questions aside, for most activities most of the time humans work on a principle that is called “satisficing”.

Satisfy plus suffice = Satisfice — According to Wikipedia, Herbert Simon was the person who coined the term satisfice. It was originally used to describe a decision-making strategy whereby the person decides to pick the option that is adequate rather than optimal. The idea is that the cost of making a complete analysis of all the options is not only not worth it, but may be impossible. According to Simon we often don’t have the cognitive faculties to weigh all the options. So it makes more sense to make a decision based on “what will do” or what is “good enough” rather than trying to find the optimal or perfect solution.

Designing with satisficing in mind — So if people “satisfice” rather than “optimize”, what are the implications for those of us who design web sites, software, products, or even design surveys? Satisficing leads to some interesting design guidelines which I’ve listed below.

Design web sites for scanning, not reading — In his excellent book Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug applies the idea of satisficing to the behavior you can observe when someone comes to your web site. You are hoping the visitor will read the whole page, but we know that “What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky) is glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are usually large parts of the page that they don’t even look at.”

Assume that people will look for shortcuts — People will look for ways to do something faster and with less steps. This is especially true if it is a task they are doing over and over.

But if the shortcut is too hard to find — Then people will keep doing it the old way. This seems paradoxical, but it’s all about the amount of perceived work. If it seems like too much work to find a shortcut then people will stay with their old habits (they are even satisficing about satisficing).

Provide defaults — Defaults  reduce the amount of work. When you provide defaults on a web form, for example, the person’s name and address is already filled in, this means there is less that people have to do. The downside of this is that people often don’t notice defaults, and so may end up accepting a default without knowing. Here again, the answer lies in the amount of effort. If it takes a lot of work to change the result of accepting a “wrong” default, then think twice about using them.

Take care with the order and wording of your survey questions — Satisficing is particular difficult for surveys. People will get into a “groove” of answering all the questions the same way because it’s easier and they don’t have to think. If your survey is more than a few questions long you will have to mix it up, and provide different options and formats for the questions or you will find that a given individual has chosen twenty-five “6’s” in a row on your scale.

What are your experiences, either as a user or a designer, with the concept of satisficing?

Photo credit by Mr. Thomas

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #34 — Too Much Stress Results In Poor Performance

Yerkes Dodson LawA few days ago I found myself in a hotel room outside of Chicago with my 19 year old daughter moaning and sometimes howling in pain. She’d been sick for a week, each day with a new symptom, and this morning her eardrum felt like it was going to burst. We decided that I should cancel my client meeting and take her to an urgent care clinic instead. Of course, we don’t have universal health care here in the States, so first I had to call my insurance provider to find out if there were “in network” doctors we could go to and still be covered by our plan. The insurance company told me to go to a particlar web site,  and said that any doctor we picked through that site would be considered in network.

Using a web site under stress — By now 10 minutes have passed and my daughter is still sitting on the bed behind me moaning and wailing. Instead of helping her, I have to go to a web page and fill out forms and look at maps. The first thing that happens is that I encounter a drop down menu that is meaningless to me:

Beechstreet.com website

When I look at this web page now (days later, crisis has passed), it doesn’t seem too confusing, but when I was trying to fill it out, trying to get my daughter some help, the web page was daunting and impossible, and not at all intuitive.

Stress changes your perceptions — Research on stress shows that a little bit of stress (called arousal in psychology terms) can help you perform a task, because it heightens awareness. Too much stress, however, degrades performance. Two psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson first postulated this arousal/performance relationship, and hence it has been called the “Yerkes-Dodson law” for over a century.

Arousal helps up to a point — The law states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. Research on the law shows that the amount of stress/arousal that is optimal depends on how difficult the task is. Difficult tasks require less arousal to reach optimal performance, and will start to break down if the arousal level is too high. Simpler tasks require more arousal and don’t fall off as fast.

Yerkes-Dodson Law
Yerkes-Dodson Law

Tunnel vision — When arousal first goes up then there is an energizing effect, as the person is paying attention. But as the stress increases there are negative effects. Attention gets unfocused, people have trouble remembering, problem solving degrades and “tunnel vision” sets in. Tunnel vision is where you keep doing the same task over and over even though it isn’t working.

Glucocorticoids — More recent research has shown a similar curve when studying the presence of glucocorticoids. These are the hormones that are released when we experience stress, so the Yerkes-Dodson law appears to have direct physical evidence.

Maximum frustration — As I tried to use the web page to find a doctor I kept getting errors, and typical of someone under stress, I kept doing the same task over and over even though it wasn’t working (tunnel vision). At one point I was crying tears of frustration, cursing over the lack of usability of the web site, and upset that I could not just find the name and address of a clinic we could go to.

Patient care, not computer care — I finally turned away from the computer, got my daughter some tylenol, gave her warm washclothes to hold against her ear, and got us both calmed down. Then I found a clinic at the website  (where we went later that day, only to have them say she was fine. By the way, our insurance didn’t work and we had to pay cash after all — i.e., I didn’t need the web site). My daughter is better, and I didn’t even have to cancel the client meeting.

Test under stress — If you might have people using your site when they are under stress, keep in mind that too much stress will change the way they see and use the web site. And here’s a plea to BeechStreet.com… test your website thoroughly assuming that people are tense, stressed, and with howling children in the background. It’s a totally different experience.

If you’d like to read the research —

Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation”. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Yerkes/Law/.

Lupien, SJ, Maheu F, Tu M, Fiocco A, Schramek TE (2007). “The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition”. Brain and Cognition 65: 209–237. PMID 17466428.

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The Insight Improv Sessions

picture of an improv theater classI sat in a folding chair in a high-ceilinged room in an old building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I signed up for my first improvisation theater class (many years ago), I didn’t know what to expect.

As I waited for the “leader” to arrive I felt more than a little apprehensive. The room was spare, with a wood floor and 20 chairs, most of them filled with a motley group of people, ranging in age from 18 to 65. It was very quiet. A few people were talking in low voices. I was still, staring at a point on the floor about 10 feet in front of me. I didn’t know anyone in the class. What had I gotten myself into?, I wondered. Could I sneak out before the leader arrived?

Then the door opened and a bright confident woman of about 35 swept in, looked us all over while smiling, asked us to stand up, and led us through a rapid-fire series of  “theatre exercises”. We scrunched up our faces to relieve tension, and played an unusual version of follow the leader to experience the relationship between how we hold our bodies and how we feel. We listened to people have a conversation in “gibberish” and learned how much communication happens with tone of voice, pitch, and gestures rather than the words we speak. We played out various scenes with team members to learn to listen, think, speak, and react in the moment.

The 2-hour class was over before we knew it, and we left talking and laughing together. For those two hours I had been in a “flow state”. All the cares of my day-to- day life had vanished and in their place I had experienced being in the present, and creating with others.

As I walked to the bus stop I felt buoyant, hopeful, and elated. In just 2 hours time I had learned skills that would stay with me for a lifetime, and had a lot of fun in the process. I had learned how to watch and listen to other people, how to “read” a situation intuitively, how to make decisions quickly, and communicate my ideas clearly in words and in actions. I had learned when to be a leader and when to be a follower, and how to pull a team together.

Now it is many, many years later. With knowledge about research in psychology, 30 years of teaching and leading seminars and workshops, and several years of theatre “under my belt”, I am very excited to be re-creating that experience I had all those years ago for others. I’m now offering the Insight Improv workshop: Take proven improv theatre exercises, mix them with research on psychology, a group of people (you or you and your team) and a workshop leader (me), and you have fun and insights at the same time.

People ask me what the insights are that I learned back in Cambridge, and what the insights are that they will learn when they come to a workshop. And of course I have to answer “It depends!” After each improv exercise we stop to talk about what the psychology research has to say on the topic, for example, when we do the exercise called “follow the leader” I share the recent research that shows that when you move your muscles in a certain way it can trigger a release of hormones which then affects your mood. Recent research shows that when men puff out their chests more testosterone is released and when men cave in their chests the testosterone is lessened. When you frown chemicals are released in the brain that lower your mood. Conversely, if you smile then endorphins are released that make you feel better. This is just one example of the psychology research that we talk about after each improv exercise.

In addition to talking about the research, different people share some of the insights that they have. Everyone reacts differently to each exercise, so this is where your personal insights come in. For example, one person talked about an “a-ha” moment she had in one of the exercises – she tends to feel the need to be the leader, and she always thought that being a leader took more skill than following. But in one of the improv exercises she realized it could be hard work to be a follower. She had a choice about following without caring, or following well, and that it was not necessarily easy to follow well. For her, following had meant not caring, or being weak, and now she was going to have to re-evaluate that in her day-to-day work.

What did I learn those many years ago in Cambridge? Here are just a few of my learnings and insights:

  • How to think quickly on my feet; how to make quick decisions when I need to
  • How to listen to what people are really saying by watching what they do with their body
  • How to listen to what people are really saying by hearing their pitch and the emotional tone
  • When I should be a follower and when I should be a leader
  • How to get a team or group to bond quickly
  • My interaction styles that are effective and those that are not
  • And how to have fun with a group of people I don’t know at all!

I’m excited to be offering these workshops. What do you think? Any questions or comments?

And if you are interested in sponsoring, hosting, or attending, send an email to InsightImprovInfo@gmail.com.

100 Things You Should Know About People: #32 — Synchronous activity bonds the group

Photo of sports fan doing a cheerWhat do members of a marching band, fans at a college football game, and people at Sunday church have in common? They are all engaging in “synchronous” activity.

What is synchronous activity? — It is when you take action with others, where everyone is moving, singing, chanting, in time together.

What happens when we engage in “timed” behavior together? — Anthropologists have long been interested in rituals among certain cultures. Many rituals in a culture involve singing, chanting, drumming, dancing, or moving together. A recent study (see below for full reference) shows that when people take part in synchronous activities they then are more cooperative with each other when participating later in different activities.

You’ll make more personal sacrifices — In the research the people who were involved in synchronous behavior with other people were then more cooperative in subsequent activities, and ended up making more personal sacrifices in their decisions.

Not just about feeling good — The research also shows that you don’t have to feel good about the group or the group activity in order to be more cooperative. Just the act of doing the synchronous activity seems to strengthen social attachment among the group members.

Here’s my list of synchronous activities I can think of:

  • Singing together
  • Cheers at sporting events
  • Drumming or dancing together
  • Pledge of allegiance
  • Shouting slogans at rallies or marches
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Can you think of other examples?

The reference — Scott S. Wiltermuth  and Chip Heath,  Synchrony and Cooperation, Psychological Science, Volume 20 Issue 1, Pages 1 – 5

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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: #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: #23 — You Are Hard-Wired For Imitation and Empathy

Baby sticking out tongueIf you put your face right in front of a young baby and stick out your tongue, the baby will stick out his or her tongue too. This happens from a very young age (even as young as a one month old). So? What does this have to do with anything? It’s an example of the built-in, wired-into-our-brain capacity we have for imitation. Recent research on the brain shows how our imitative behavior happens.

Mirror neurons firing— In the front of the brain there is a section called the premotor cortex; motor as in movement. This is the part of the brain where you make plans to move. (It talks to the primary motor cortex which is the part of the brain that sends out the signals that actually make you move). So if you are holding an ice cream cone and you think about moving your arm to bring the ice cream cone up to your mouth, and then you do it, you can see first the premotor cortex lighting up and then the primary motor cortex lighting up. Neurons in the premotor cortex are firing — nothing surprising there. But here is where it gets interesting. If you watch someone else lift their arm and eat the ice cream cone a subset of the same neurons also fire. Just watching other people take an action causes some of the same neurons to fire as if you were actually moving. This subset of neurons have been dubbed, “mirror neurons”. We share these mirror neurons with other primates as well.

Who is taking action? — How does your brain know when you are taking the action vs. watching someone else take the action? After your mirror neurons fire from watching your friend take a lick of the ice cream cone, there is a feedback loop. Your brain registers that no ice cream was tasted, and therefore you know that you are watching someone eat ice cream, not that you just ate ice cream. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #23 — You Are Hard-Wired For Imitation and Empathy”

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”