Category Archives: the emotional brain

The non-conscious mind of Mumbai

When Suketu Mehta described Mumbai, he mentioned it as being all about transaction – dhandha. Sure, since Mumbai originated as a trading city, this culture of making quick money has become very unique to Mumbai. Because of how we naturally evolved as a people, that is why this city is fundamentally wired like this – the never-ending quest to make more wealth. This is the bigger context that has made Mumbaikars far more smarter than others in making money.

No wonder, this city also hosts some of the brightest minds in corporate marketing and advertising. With immense industry clout and persuasion powers, they have managed to rake in truckloads of money. But, shift your gaze from the corridors of corporate Mumbai and see what’s happening at street level, your perspective changes.

While the bigwigs have the power of money that can buy our attention, the other street-smart people are instinctively using a more fundamental understanding of the non-conscious human brain as their weapon in making money. Fundamentally, all of us exist at a conscious level, with our sub-conscious mind drowned out by the daily humdrum of everyday life. This sub-conscious mind shapes how we think, because like a large hard disk, it has stored every experience we have into long-term limbic memory. This influences everything that we do, but, rarely are we able to explain our actions.

It seems that these very street-smart people have developed the ability to speak to the non-conscious mind with techniques only a neuroscience genius can spot. They have identified patterns of sub-conscious behaviour, so subtle, that they are hardly noticed. This is commendable. They know the hustle, and they run it effortlessly.

For starters, by just observing daily life in Mumbai, one can uncover information into how our non-conscious brain influences thinking and behaviour.

Waterproof proof

Take the example of the waterproof watch seller. He successfully works on your non-conscious at a subliminal level. How is he attracting people? He could have sold them the way everyone other vendor peddles watches. But no, he chose to influence our buying decision by subtly changing the context. Continue reading The non-conscious mind of Mumbai

Metaphorically speaking…

(Source: Hugh McLeod, gaping void)

The Boston Globe recently carried an article about metaphors and the mind. While metaphors have always been popularized by poets or politicians, now the psychologists are nudging for some space. They have a different motive though. Turns out, they have begun to see basic metaphors that we use not just as phrase, but as keys to structure of thought.

Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how “warm” or “cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how “weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful.

What they have found is that, in fact, we do. Metaphors aren’t just how we talk and write, they’re how we think.

No wonder, when people primed with a hot cup of coffee and asked to rate the personality of a person described to them, they consistently described the subject as a warmer person in personality. This shows that human thought itself is metaphor driven. Affection is warmth; important is big; difficulties are burdens; similarity is closeness; categories are containers.

Ultimately, metaphors are used so that we can make sense to one another. While metaphors are literary creations, how do they fundamentally function? From all the work we’ve done on trying to understand the human brain, every new thing we learn points back to the way our memory system is organized.

Memory cannot be created from scratch.

Our entire memory is stored in schema. Every new stimulus must activate relevant existing schemas in the mind before any new information is presented. Only then are newer memories formed and collected. The more number of relevant schemas, the stronger the connection and the bond with that new stimulus. That’s where metaphors come in. Our prior knowledge affects how we perceive new information, and our expectations regarding a particular experience influence how we interpret it.

For example, someone gets called a couch potato, your friend starts thinking fondly about their old flame, or you’ve probably just had a rough day. All of these metaphors are activating pre-existing schema within your memory system to help you better understand the context. Good metaphors help us see the world anew, in fresh and interesting ways. These metaphors wouldn’t make sense in themselves if it were not for the intricate memory storage system of the human brain.

This understanding of the existing memory system has huge implications in the field of marketing. We have talked earlier about how brands must try to live in the long-term memory rather than just visit the short-term memory.

Fair & Lovely is a great example of a brand that has blended itself into the memory schemata of the fairness category. There is an existing memory pattern that surrounds the concept of fairness in this Indian society. Fair skinned brides are preferred; fair denotes status value; fair is aspirational. Ultimately, fair skin is what gets you ahead in life. Fair & Lovely is leading category thinking by attaching itself to this entire “transformation of women” schemata by discussing issues that are more than skin deep (the ambition of aspiration that one can achieve). Nevertheless, all this new information is grounded in their in-depth understanding of the current memory patterns in the category. All of this reflects in everything Fair & Lovely does, right from product to packaging to communication. And it’s going strong.

Successful brands are those which identify and fit themselves onto the existing memory schemata of the category. By driving newer perceptions that are grounded to these existing schemata, these brands are in a great position to garner more emotional loyalty.

This is when consumers will feel that your brand somehow seems to know exactly what they want, and they are only more than happy getting it from you.

Increasing prediction efficiency.

Mindhacks has an interesting take on the ongoing $1MM Netflix challenge to create an algorithm that will predict what unseen films customers will like based on their past preferences. But the bigger question is how can we reconcile numerical data with human thought and behaviour? Is human behaviour so predictable, that with available relevant data, we will be able to finally influence it to what is desired?

To predict preferences, what a company would typically do is look at subscriber past behaviour and form hypothesis. For example, families with kids at home might prefer more cartoons. But when these hypotheses are tested through experiments, all future predictions are more likely to be based on past conclusions, theories, even just hunches. Making logical decisions and hypotheses like these works at a superficial level.

Interestingly, what Netflix is doing is looking inside. It’s “If You Liked This, You’re Sure to Love That” algorithm identifies that common thread connecting movies across genres. It could be the extent of nerdiness in a movie, or maybe movies depicting certain nuances of urban life, or even movies with a particular type of indescribable humour. But now, as per the article, the SVD technique used in those self-learning algorithms has evolved to finding deep subconscious connections across movie genres that customers themselves wouldn’t even recognize.

Sure, our movie preference ranges across genres, but now the Netflix SVD algorithm can probably explain why Pretty Woman sits with the Terminator and Jerry Maguire in your list.

In these cases, it’s tempting to think there’s some deeply psychological property of the film that’s been captured by the analysis. Maybe all trigger a wistful nostalgia, or perhaps each represents the same unconscious fantasy…

This prediction is based on emotional decisions made by the subscriber. Its about decoding emotional data, not rational logical data. In cases like these, past behaviour can be a great indication of future behaviour, because emotions are empirical in nature. But remember, all the answers cannot come directly from the data. Interpretation of meaning is more important.

Experimental methods go from meaning to data, while exploratory methods go from data to meaning. Somewhere in the middle is our mind.

Embrace the swine flu panic.

Business breakfast over swine flu

Biju wrote an article in Live Mint about how panic about swine flu actually ensured that the epidemic is kept in check.

For those who would like to save an extra click, the article text is copied below:
Posted: Wed, Aug 19 2009. 8:48 PM IST

Right after the first casualty of swine flu this month, India witnessed headlines screaming about the epidemic. News channels kept covering its spread until it wasn’t breaking news any more. Schools, colleges and even movie theatres have been closed for days together, affecting business, entertainment and education.

As if this panic wasn’t enough, only a few government laboratories were allowed to test for the disease. Even in large cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, only a handful of hospitals were permitted to treat swine flu patients. Such scarcity created a pressure-cooker situation, and the panic multiplied. Thousands of people rushed to the few hospitals for testing. We suddenly noticed many people wearing N95 masks. Even handkerchiefs and dupattas substituted masks while walking in public. Share prices of multiplex companies have gone down, some big Bollywood movie launches have been cancelled and sales at shopping malls have decreased.

But, given human nature, has this panic been all that detrimental?

Before getting to that, we should ask ourselves: Should the government have approached the whole swine flu epidemic in a calmer way?

Consider an alternative scenario where the government educates all airline passengers about the symptoms and consequences of this flu. People are requested to visit the hospitals in their locality in case of any symptoms, and those with the disease are asked to take precautions by not leaving their homes. If they do visit a crowded place, they are advised to wear a mask. Educational messages about swine flu are communicated through both television and newspapers. Thanks to these messages, the general public is now aware of this disease and starts taking precautions.

But is this alternative calmer and educational approach better in managing the crisis to the panic- creating one that currently exists?

As human beings, we are not as rational as it may seem. Even while making life-and-death decisions, we do not want to change our existing behaviour. Blame it on the human brain’s huge bias towards status quo. For example, if we were told that swine flu death rates are similar to a normal flu, and that there was no need to panic, our human brain that is hardwired to be overconfident of managing any future problems would tend to ignore swine flu completely. Meanwhile, we, as a country, prefer cure to prevention; preventive healthcare and public hygiene are rare behavioural traits. Until the disease became serious and widespread, no one would have visited a hospital. And before the panic hit, even if masks were distributed for free, who would wear a mask while in public?

The first stage of any epidemic management is containment. Thanks to the panic created, anyone with even a slight symptom has visited a hospital. A very large number of people are wearing masks. Had it not been for the benefits of this panic situation, as the government and health authorities moved to the second phase of the epidemic management—the treatment phase—they would have been facing a catastrophe. This is when millions more would have been infected with swine flu. And that would have been a very dangerous situation for a large country such as ours to manage.

Cognitive scientists have told us that the first response to any situation is always emotional. In times of crisis when one’s very survival is in danger, the decisions of the emotional part of the brain can be depended upon more than those of its rational part. I wouldn’t know if this panic situation in India happened by design or if it was an accident. Either way, it has performed wonderfully to activate the emotional part of our brain. This has helped us take better decisions and contain this epidemic at a very nascent stage by altering our behaviour and ensuring that all will be well. Soon.


Where does your brand sit?

Just recently, Wooster Collective introduced us to Scott Wayne: Indiana’s Memory Lane In Central Park. Scott decided to pull off a simple experiment when he was at Central Park, New York.


What he did was simple…

I decided to draw (with masking tape) a floorplan to scale of my childhood home to see what memories would reveal themselves to me. I chose a location in Central Park alongside ballfields where I’d feel comfortable spending time in my space.

Personally, his experience turned out to be more about the sensory memory that consumed him in the various spaces of his Indiana home and less about interesting details.

That brings us to an important aspect about brand building. For any brand to be strongly embedded into one’s life, it is vital that it commits itself to being a part of the long term memory of the user.

Mike Moser of United We Brand puts it well:

Long-term memory is where brands live, and short term memory is where brands visit.

It is imperative to ensure that your brand becomes lodged in people’s long-term memory.

But in today’s world, with fragmentation and clutter becoming the order of the day, marketers are only clamouring for more attention. Promotions, contests and sales will get you immediate results and save the Managers for another quarter by meeting their sales target, but it’s not information that customers will hang on to.

So while sales come and go, it escapes the long-term memory of the shoppers, because they know that information will be obsolete in a few days from now. This explicity memory system is notoriously forgetful. There is no residual effect, and most marketing falls into this category.

Long term memory, on the other hand is information that’s meant to be stored. According to Joseph Ledoux in The Emotional Brain, this memory captures the emotional part of the relationship. This is where emotions are created and established, long after the experience. What a good brand does is that it leverages these long term memory implications, and does it in such a way that the emotions increase in their potency as time wears on.

Sadly, there are only a handful of brands out there that pay credence to this thinking…

Take for example, the New York Times. The flag or the nameplate still looks very similar to what it did in 1860. Even though it has been simplified over the years, the core brand values have been retained, and as a result the newspaper evokes a cohesive emotional memory among its readers.

Or for that matter, take Coca Cola. The brand has become iconic, not entirely through its marketing other tactics, but also because Coke has established so many rituals that are centered around the product and the situation it is consumed in.

For Coke, these things include the temperature, the bottle shape, and all that imagery you see in their ads – fishing around in a red cooler for a cold Coke, smiles, and the “aaaahhh” after the first sip.

What strong brands do well is understand these implications of long term memory, and constantly keep reinforcing it. Because while short-term explicit memory is easily discardable, it is the long-term implicit memory that creates emotion and affects behaviour.