How do products tempt us? What makes them so alluring? It is easy to assume we crave delicious food or impulsively check email because we find pleasure in the activity. But pleasure is just half the story.
Temptation is more than just the promise of reward. Recent advances in neuroscience allow us to peer into the brain, providing a greater understanding of what makes us want.
In 2011, Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, gained unheard of access to sensitive information about the way undergraduates were using the Internet. His study tracked students on campus as they browsed the web. Chellappan was looking for patterns, which not only revealed what students were doing online, but provided clues about who they were.
“We believe that your pattern of Internet use says something about you,” Chellappan wrote in the New York Times. “Specifically, our research suggests it can offer clues to your mental well-being.” Chellappan concluded that there was, in fact, predictive power in the data. He found students with early signs of clinical depression used the Internet differently and he could identify students most likely to face mental health issues simply by looking at how they clicked.
“We identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression,” wrote Chellappan. “For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage.”
Chellappan developed the technology in hopes of creating an early-warning system to identify struggling students. But his study raised another question, why do people with depression check email more?
I was honored to present at WordCamp this year but had to make do with the small amount of time allotted. I crammed my talk into a very short intro to the Desire Engine that sounds like I’m talking while on fast forward. Enjoy!
Step 1: Build an app. Step 2: Get users hooked to it. Step 3: Profit. It sounds simple and, given our umbilical ties to cell phones, social media, and email inboxes, it may even sound plausible. Recently, tech entrepreneurs and investors have started to look to psychology for ways to strike it rich by altering user behavior. Perhaps you’ve read essays on how to create habit-forming technology and figured you’d give it a shot?
Well hold your dogs Pavlov! Though I’m an advocate for understanding user behavior to build high-engagement products, the reality is that successfully creating long-term habits is exceptionally rare. Changing behavior requires not only an understanding of how to persuade users to act — for example, the first time they land on a webpage — but also necessitates getting them to behave differently for long periods of time, ideally for the rest of their lives.
The good news is that that companies that accomplish this rare feat are the ones associated with game-changing, wildly successful innovation. Google, Apple, Twitter, and Android come to mind. As we enter a world where, according to Paul Graham, everything is becoming more addictive, the companies that successfully form and control habits in the future will come to dominate the industries of tomorrow.
Habits or Hype?
But claiming that habits are the keys to success is a tall order. If people like me provide ready-made formulas and guidebooks on how to create habits, why isn’t every company that alters user behavior succeeding?
This week, fans packed stadiums in London wearing their nation’s colors like rebels ready for battle in Mel Gibson’s army. They screamed with excitement and anguished in defeat. Many paid thousands of dollars to travel around the globe to be there.
What the hell is going on here? How do sports engage, delight, and motivate people to put their lives on hold and become totally engrossed in watching other people play games? If sports can motivate people to go to great lengths, can businesses learn to instill the same loyalty and passion in their customers?
In fact, the psychology that makes fans do crazy things in the name of their team can be harnessed to turn people into avid users. Innovative companies are minting habitual customers by understanding the mechanics of human behavior. Here are a few examples of the psychology of sports and the companies who have learned to exploit these same principles:
“This Might Be the Year”
For a stunning example of customer loyalty, look no further than the fans of the heartbreaking Chicago Cubs. The team suffers from “the longest drought in North American sports,” 104 years without a World Series win. Yet, despite the century of defeat, Forbes magazine rated the team as having the 4th most loyal fans in baseball.
Today Facebook will sell shares in one of the biggest tech IPOs in history. New investors will gobble up the stock to get a piece of the global phenomenon famously started in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room in 2004. But while owning the stock will have quantifiable value when it trades on the open market, few buyers will be able to say truthfully that they understood the value of the company just a few years ago.
Ask yourself candidly, what did you think of Facebook the first time you landed on its homepage? Were you blown away? Could you see how it would fill a gaping need in the lives of nearly a billion people? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not Peter Thiel, your answer is probably, “No, not really.”
Don’t feel bad. Like many of the astoundingly successful web companies of the last decade, it was hard to appreciate the value of Facebook at first glance. But one person who “got Facebook” early on was Noah Kagan, who in October of 2005 joined the company as one of its first product managers. In 2006, Noah was the source for an analysis of Facebook written by Nisan Gabbay. The essay identified one of the most important reasons for the company’s ascent to Internet glory and offers a prescient description of opportunities still to come:
“The Facebook success story is most interesting to me because of how daily offline social behavior drove usage of the site. There are plenty of activities in our daily life that could benefit from a complementary online product … Facebook demonstrates you have a great Internet service if offline behaviors can drive nearly daily usage online.”
My wife put our daughter to bed, brushed her teeth, and freshened up before bed. Slipping under the covers, we exchanged glances and knew it was time to do what comes naturally for a couple on a warm night in Silicon Valley. We began to lovingly caress–but not each other, of course. She began to fondle her cell phone, while I tenderly stroked the screen of my iPad. Ooh, it felt so good.
If our nightly habits were any indication, we were having a love affair with our gadgets instead of each other. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones substituting foreplay for Facebook. According to a recent study, fully one-third of Americans would rather give up sex than lose their cell phones.
Fortunately for my wife and I, we learned how to end our liaisons with gizmos and successfully reclaim our lovelife. However, technology continues to change many of our most intimate behaviors and the story of how we broke our technophilia illustrates a method to break any number of habits we’d be better off without.
CUCKOLD BY THE INTERNET
First, we took a look at the problem and realized it was bigger than our sex lives. As technology becomes more pervasive, it is also becoming more persuasive. The result is products so seductive that they are increasingly difficult to resist. We are forming habits with unintended consequences and new bedroom practices are symptomatic of technology evolving faster than we are. The confluence of increased access, greater sharing of personal information, and at higher transmission speeds, has created the perfect storm of addictive technology.
Quick: what’s the biggest bottleneck in your company? Yup, we both know it’s the Information Technology department. Let’s face it, nobody likes IT people. For all of their technical wizardry, IT is where good ideas go to die. We follow their onerous documentation requirements and patiently wait in line through endless backlogs, yet somehow IT still can’t seem to get their work done.
Hating the IT department is a common sentiment in almost every company big enough to have such a group. But the truth is, it’s not the IT people’s faults. In fact, a despised IT department is a symptom of a CEO who doesn’t understand psychology. It is a corporate dysfunction for which management, more than anyone else in the organization, is responsible.
TO CREATE IS HUMAN, TO IMPLEMENT DIVINE
Why does the IT department drive everyone nuts? The answer lies deep in our primal need to contribute to our tribe. As Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright pointed out, the workplace is our modern-day clan. We come to the office with the same mental hardwiring we acquired 200,000 years ago when our species emerged. Back then, tribes with individuals creative enough to make new discoveries survived better than less innovative groups. Today, our workplace is our tribe and our impulse to create is no less important. Evolution gave us the mental machinery to seek to improve the welfare of our social groups through discoveries made by each individual.