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People buy emotion


If you want to succeed digitally, you need to embrace the elephant in the room.

I’ll be honest and say that I always thought that I’m quite rational person. And so by the time I got 25 I thought I had the world figured out - you know, thinking that the world can’t really surprise me.

But then Brexit happened. I still remember the day - or better say night - when the vote happened. I was sleeping, and around 5am - as the sun rose - my boyfriend who was watching the news all night came to the bedroom and told me ‘We’re out.’

‘Okay,’ I thought to myself the next day as I was getting to work. ‘Time to get deported then,’ I joked with my colleagues. But later that year Trump happened, and this led me to seek answers, as my whole understanding of how the world worked had seriously challenged.

What is it that really governs our choices?

In my attempt to reconcile with what happened in that year, I turned up at a Waterstones shop and there I bumped into a book titled ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics’. Intrigued, I bought the book, and it proved immensely useful.

I read the whole thing on my vacation in Thailand (getting sunburnt in the process, as you do). The part that intrigued me the most was when the author started painting a rather sobering picture of our decision making process as humans.

He listed three theories - one by philosopher Plato, who believed that reason has the power to govern our unconsciousness, second by another philosopher, David Hume, who believed it was the other way around, and that it’s actually our intuition that governs our consciousness. And finally, there was a theory by the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that both heart and brain are equal.

Who do you think was right?

The author of the book, Jonathan Haidt, thinks it’s David Hume who was the closest to the reality.

It transpired through one of the scientific studies listed in the book that if the part of your brain responsible for emotions gets wiped out for whatever reason (as a result of, say, a brain injury), you will not only not become become perfectly virtuous and rational, but with no intuitions to guide you, your decision making process will completely collapse.

Intuition comes first, reasoning second

He described the relationship between the conscious mind and our intuitions as one of elephant and its rider. And just as you can see me cautiously approaching the creature on this picture below, the power ultimately rests with the elephant.

Now, the rider represents the conscious reason and its aspiration to choose the way forward, but in the end it’s the massive elephant representing all the unconscious that lies within us that will have the final say (I can try to ride the elephant and steer it, but most likely it’s gonna do what it wants to do, ignoring me most of the time).

To really drive this home, here is an excerpt from the book. I’d like to ask you to read it and think whether what those siblings did was right or wrong - and why:

Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them.

Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

It’s interesting... while only about 20% agreed with the behaviour of the siblings, the remaining 80% weren’t able to come up with a compelling and sound rational explanation. The affective flash of disgust (that’s the elephant in us) took over, and the rider - that’s your consciousness - tried to fabricate an explanation to support your stance.

Elicit emotions and the rest will take care of itself

To recap; the mind is divided into two parts, like a rider (controlled processes) on an elephant(automatic processes - like your reaction to the story above). The rider evolved to serve the elephant. It creates post-hoc rational justifications for our subconscious (the elephant).

Once you manage to evoke emotions, the rational part inside us will try to do whatever it can to protect those gut feelings, acting almost like a (sometimes really bad!) spokesperson.

Knowing the above, can you now see why signs like this

Or this...

… were able to cut through all the rational ‘noise’ of experts?

What does it all mean for your digital assets?

Because we live in a world where intuitions come first and reasoning second, the moment you engage in any form of communication (online or offline), you are entering the business of eliciting new intuitions, not rationales.

To use the metaphor from the book one last time, it means that your website or mobile app needs to speak to your users’ elephants first and riders second.

Many times, it boils down to simply making your users’ experience intuitive and being empathetic to their needs, but you can go beyond that:

  • Think in terms of the whole experience, rather than discrete areas like copy or UI elements (they do matter, but it’s equally important for them to be in harmony with each other). What emotions do you want to elicit?

  • Learn what the applications of behavioural economics in digital design are. From well-documented cognitive nudges like social proof, anchoring and loss aversion to image treatment and choice architecture, there’s a wealth of information out there on the subject.

  • Test all of the above (who said that dealing with all that’s irrational is not a rational thing in the end?).

Embracing our predictable irrationality also means that you can stay away from dark patterns and, in general, use the light side of the force. Just like several online hotel booking sites are now being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority over their overly aggressive methods of abusing the unconscious in us, you too don’t want to become the Brexiteers or Trumps of the digital landscape.

To learn more about how you can ride this new wave of digital, I’d like to invite you to an event some of my colleagues are organising. They have been trying to figure out the intersection of human behaviour and tech for years, and are sharing what they learned along the way. You can RSVP for the Limitless event here.

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