50 Greatest Mind Hacks and Facts

What You See Is Not What Your Brain Gets

Can you read this?:

Aoccdrnig to reserach at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, the oredr of lteetrs in a wrod is nto vrey iprmoetnt. Waht mttaers is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The ohter letetrs can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed wthuot mcuh probelm. Tihs is bcauseae yuor brian deos not raed ervey lteter, but raeds wrods and gruops of wrods.

I came across a similar paragraph in a book on Cognitive Psychology (Solso, 2005).

What our eyes see is not what our brain ends up with – We think that we are walking around looking at the world around us with our eyes, and that our eyes are sending information to the brain which processes it and gives us a realistic experience of “what’s out there”. But the truth is that what our brain comes up with is not exactly what our eyes are actually seeing.

The great interpreter – Our brain is constantly interpreting everything it sees. Take, for example, the picture below:


What do you see? Your first reaction is probably that you are looking at a triangle with a black border in the background, and a white triangle upside down on top of it. Of course that’s not really what is there, is it? What’s there are some partial lines and some partial circles. Your brain creates the shape of an upside down triangle out of blank space, because that is what it is expecting to see. This particular illusion is called a Kanizsa triangle, named after an Italian psychologist (G. Kanizsa) that first came up with it in 1955.

Shortcuts to the world – Our brains create these shortcuts in order to try and quickly make sense out of the world around us. There are so many (millions) of sensory inputs coming into our brain every second, that it has to try to make it all make sense. So it uses rules of thumb, and extrapolates what it has experience with, to make guesses about what it is seeing. Most of the time that works, but sometimes it causes errors.

What you design may not be what people see – The take-away is that what we think people are going to see may not be what they do see. It might depend on their background, knowledge, familiarity with what they are looking at, and expectations. Conversely, we might be able to persuade people to see things in a certain way, depending on how they are presented. Here’s another example from the Solso book:


By using different colored backgrounds we can draw attention and change the meaning of the sign.

What do you think? Do you think designers use these principles to draw attention on purpose? If you are a designer do you use these ideas? If we can read so well with all these misspellings, are typos even a problem?

Here’s the Solso book reference: Cognitive Psychology, edited by Solso, 7th edition, Allyn and Bacon, 2005.

The Brain Looks For Simple Patterns

The Brain Looks For Simple Patterns

What do you see when you look at the x’s below?

xx    xx    xx    xx

Chances are you will say you see four sets of 2 x’s each. You won’t see them as 8 separate x’s. You interpret the white space, or lack of it, as a pattern.

People are great at recognizing patterns – Recognizing patterns helps you make quick sense of all the sensory input that comes to you every second. Your eyes and your brain will want to create patterns, even if there are no real patterns there. Your brain wants to see patterns.

Individual cells respond to certain shapes – In 1959, two researchers, Hubel and Wiesel showed that there are individual cells in the visual cortex of your brain that respond only to horizontal lines, other cells that respond only to vertical lines, other cells that respond to edges, and cells that respond only to certain angles. (In 1981 Hubel and Wiesel won a Nobel price for their work on vision).

The Memory Bank Theory – Even with Hubel and Wiesel’s work in 1959, for many years the prevailing theory of pattern recognition was that you have a memory bank that stores millions of objects, and when you see an object you compare it with all the items in your memory bank until you find the one that matches.

You recognize objects by simple shapes – But research now points to the idea that we recognize certain basic shapes in what we are looking at, and we use these basic shapes, called geons, to recognize objects. Irving Biederman came up with the idea of geons in 1985. It’s thought that there are 24 basic shapes that people recognize, and that these shapes are the building blocks of the objects we see and identify.

The picture at the beginning of this article shows examples of Biederman’s geons and how they are incorporated into objects for pattern recognition.


  • Use patterns as much as possible, since people will automatically be looking for them. Use grouping and white space to create patterns.
  • If you want people to recognize an object quickly, use a simple geometric drawing of the object. This will make it easier to recognize the underlying geons, and thus make the object easier and faster to recognize.

What do you think? Have you tried using simple shapes to create your drawings and icons for people to recognize?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Biederman, I., Human Image Understanding: Recent Research and a Theory in Computer Vision, Graphics and Image Processing, 1985, Elsevier.

9 Percent Of Men And .5% Of Women Are Colorblind

9 Percent Of Men And .5% Of Women Are Colorblind

The term color blindness is actually misleading. Most people who are “color blind” are not blind to all colors, but really have a color deficiency that makes it hard for them to see differences between some colors.

Different types of color blindness – There are many different kinds of color blindness, but the most common is a difficulty distinguishing between reds, yellows, and greens. This is called “red-green” color blindness. Other forms, such as problems distinguishing blues from yellows, or where everything looks grey, are very rare.

What people see – Let’s compare what people see who have different types of color blindness. I’ve put three different screen captures from a post at this blog. The first picture below is  how it appears to someone who has no color blindness, the second is how it appears to someone with red-green color blindness, and the last one is how it appears o someone with blue-yellow color blindness.

When colors become a communication problem – So what’s the big deal you might be saying? What colors you use in your photos, illustrations, maps, etc, can become problematic if you are trying to communicate information via the colors. For example, here is a map of winter driving conditions in Wisconsin that has color coding. And below that is a map that shows what it looks like if you have  red/green color blindness.

If you are going to use color as a way to communicate — then you need to have a redundant coding scheme, for example color AND line thickness so that people who are color blind will be able to decipher the coding without needing to see specific colors.

Or pick colors that work or everyone — Another approach is to pick a color scheme that will work for people who have the various types of color blindness. In the example below they have purposely picked colors that look the same for people regardless of the type of color blindness they have, and even if they are not color blind.

You can test your colors — You can use websites to check for color blindness effects.



What do you think? What approach do you use to make sure your images work for people who are color blind?

You React To Colors Based On Your Culture

You React To Colors Based On Your Culture

Many years ago I worked with a client who had created a color map of the different business regions for their business, showing the total revenue for the quarter for each region. Yellow was for the Eastern part of the US, green for the Central, etc. They had used red for the western states. The VP of Sales gets to the podium and starts his slide show to the financial and accounting staff of the company. Up comes the colored map. A gasp can be heard in the auditorium, and then there is the buzz of urgent conversation. The VP tries to continue his talk, but he has lost everyone’s attention. They are all talking amongst themselves. Finally someone blurts out, “What the heck is going on in the West?!” “What do you mean?”, the VP asks, “Nothing is going on. They had a great quarter”.

What does red mean? – To an accountant or financial person red is a bad thing. It means that they are losing money. The presenter had to explain that they had just picked red as a random color.

Colors have associations and meanings — Red means “in the red” or financial trouble, or it could mean danger. Green means money, or “go”. You want to pick colors carefully since they have these meanings.

Color meanings change by culture – Some colors have similar meanings everywhere, for example, gold stands for success and high quality in most cultures, but most colors have different meanings in different cultures. For example, in the US, white stands for purity and is used at weddings, but in other cultures white is the color used for death and funerals. David McCandless of Informationisbeautiful.net has a color chart that  shows how different colors are viewed by different cultures.


  • Choose your colors carefully, taking into account the meaning that that color may invoke.
  • Pick a few major cultures/countries that you will be reaching with your design and check them on the cultural color chart from David McCandless to be sure you do not have some unintended color associations for that culture.

What do you think? What color meanings have you found in your work that surprised you?


You Know How To Do Things You’ve Never Done Before

You Know How To Do Things You've Never Done Before

Imagine that you’ve never seen an iPad, but I’ve just handed one to you and told you that you can read books on it. Before you turn on the iPad, before you use it, you have a model in your head of what reading a book on the iPad will be like. You have assumptions about what the book will look like on the screen, what things you will be able to do, and how you will do them—things like turning a page, or using a bookmark. You have a “mental model” of reading a book on the iPad, even if you’ve never done it before.

If you’ve used an iPad before, your mental model of reading a book on an iPad will be different than that of someone who has never used one, or doesn’t even know what an iPad is. If you’ve been using a Kindle for the past year, then your mental model will be different from someone who has never read a book electronically. And once you get the iPad and read a couple of books on it, whichever mental model you had in your head before will start to change and adjust to reflect your experience.

What is a mental model? – The term mental model has been around for at least the last 25 years. One of my favorite definitions is from Susan Carey’s 1986 journal article, “Cognitive science and science education”, which says:

“A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.”

Users create mental models very quickly — often before they even use a website or a product. Users’ mental models come from their prior experience with similar sites or products, assumptions they have, things they’ve heard others say, and also from their direct experience with the product or device. Mental models are subject to change.

Mental models vs. conceptual models – In order to understand why mental models are so important to design, you have to also understand what a conceptual model is and how it is different from a mental model. A mental model is the representation that a person has in their minds about the object they are interacting with. A conceptual model is the actual model that is given to the person through the design and interface of the actual product. Going back to the iPad ebook example, you have a mental model about what reading a book will be like in the iPad, how it will work, what you can do with it. But when you sit down with the iPad, the “system” (the iPad) will display what the conceptual model of the book app actually is. There will be screens, and buttons, and things that happen. The actual interface is the conceptual model. Someone designed an interface and that interface is communicating to you the conceptual model of the product.

Why care about this mental model/conceptual model idea? –Here’s why you should care: If there is a mismatch, between the person’s mental model and the product’s conceptual model, then the product or website will be hard to learn, hard to use, or not accepted. How do mismatches occur? Here are some examples:

  • The designers thought they knew who would be using the interface and how much experience they had with interfaces like this, and they designed according to those assumptions without testing them, and it turns out their assumptions were wrong.
  • The audience or the product or website is varied. The designers designed for one “persona” or type of audience, and the mental model and conceptual model match for that group, but not for others.
  • There are no real designers. The conceptual model wasn’t really designed at all, It’s just a reflection of the underlying hardware or software or database. So the only people whose mental model it fits are the programmers. If the audience is not the programmers then you are in trouble.

What if the mental models the users have won’t work? — What if it’s a brand new concept and you don’t want to match the current mental model? – What about the idea that people who have only read real, physical books will not have an accurate mental model of reading books on the iPad? In this case you know that people will not have an accurate mental model that fits. You will need to change their mental model. The best way to change a mental model is through training. You can use a short training video to change the mental model before the iPad even arrives at their door. In fact, one of the best purposes of training on a new product is to adjust the audiences’ mental model to fit the conceptual model of the product.

A different use of the term – By the way, the way I’m using the term mental model is, I believe, the most common definition, but it does not fit with at least one of the new definitions I’ve been reading and hearing about lately. Indi Young has written a book called Mental Models, and she’s using the term in a different way. She diagrams the behavior of a particular audience doing a series of tasks, including their goals and motivations. Then underneath that she describes what the “system” or product will do, or be like, in order to match the task. This entire structure she calls a “mental model.” Her methodology and its output look useful, but it doesn’t match the definition of mental models that I’m using here.

The Best Designers – a) understand the mental models of the intended audience (with task analysis, observations, interviews, etc), and  b) design a conceptual model to fit the audience’s mental model, or a design a new one and know how to get us to switch from old to new.

Take Aways:

  • People always have a mental model, and it often doesn’t match what the conceptual model that someone designed (or forgot to design!).
  • The secret to designing an intuitive and delightful product experience is making sure that the conceptual model of the product matches, as much as possible, the mental models of your audience.
  • If you have a brand new product that you know will not match anyone’s mental model then you will have to provide training to prepare the person to create a new mental model.
  • If you are struggling to learn how to use a new website, software or device, it might be because you are holding on to an old mental model that doesn’t work anymore. Try letting it go and looking at the product without so many assumptions about how it works.

What do you think? What products have you had a hard time with because your mental model didn’t match the conceptual model? If you are a designer, what do you do to try and get a better match?

People See Cues About How To Use An Object

People See Cues About How To Use An Object

You’ve probably had the experience of encountering a door handle that doesn’t work the way it should – for example, it has a handle that looks like you should pull, but in fact you need to push. In the “real” world, objects communicate to you about how you can, and should, interact with them. For example, by their size and shape, some door knobs invite you to grab and turn them; other door knobs invite you to grab and pull; the curved handle on a coffee mug tells you to curl a few fingers through it and lift it up. A pair of scissors invites you to put fingers through the circles and move your thumb up and down to open and close. Psychologists call these cues “affordances”.

When the cues go wrong – If an item is missing cues, or gives you incorrect cues, you get annoyed and frustrated. If the cues inherent in the object itself aren’t enough to convey its use, then we resort to putting labels on to fix the cue mismatch, as in the door handle above.

The equivalent of door handles online –– Have you ever thought about what makes people want to click on a button on a computer screen? If you use certain cues in the shadow of a button it looks like it can be pushed in, the way a button on an actual device, like a remote control, can be pushed.

Websites are losing affordance cues – Have you noticed that we are starting to lose affordance cues? When graphical user interfaces first came out, almost all the buttons had these shading cues. They were built into the button widgets that came with the Windows or Mac styles. When everything moved to the web there weren’t required interface widgets. Everyone could create their own buttons. Many buttons don’t have the cues anymore.

The Average Reading Level In the USA Is Grade 8

The Average Reading Level In the USA Is Grade 8

Dan Frommer, Business Insider

If you are a biologist, then the paragraph below might make sense to you:

“The regulation of the TCA cycle is largely determined by substrate availability and product inhibition. NADH, a product of all of the deydrogenases in the TCA cycle, with the exception of succinate dehydrogenase, inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase, isocitrate dehydrogenase, a-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase, while succinyl-CoA inhibits succinyl-CoA synthetase and citrate syntase.”

But if you are not a biologist, it might take you a long time to understand what that paragraph says. You can technically read the paragraph, but that doesn’t mean you understand it. In order to understand information you need one or both of the following:

You will understand new information more easily if there is already a framework of knowledge to fit it into.

The information needs to be at the appropriate reading level.

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Score – The most common formula for calculating the readability of a particular passage of text is the Flesch-Kincaid method. The method gives you a Reading Ease formula and also a reading grade level score.

The formula to calculate how readable your text is:

reading formula

The higher the score the easier the passage is to read. Low scores mean the passage is hard to read.

An online tool for calculating readability – Luckily, you don’t actually have to use the formula. Some word processing software has the Flesch-Kincaid formula built in. Or you can use this online tool:


to calculate the reading level of a particular passage. The calculator gives you a Reading Ease Score as well as a Grade Level Score.

I decided to try out the calculator. First I used a paragraph from the State of Colorado Governor’s website:


This web page had  a reading level of Grade 12 and a reading ease score of 40. Americans average a reading level of Grade 8, so 12 is harder than the average American can read. For the reading ease score, higher is better. Comic books are at 90, and legal documents are often 10 and under.

Next I tried out the calculator on the State of Wyoming Governor’s home page. Not much difference – a Grade level of 11 and a Reading Ease score of 42.

Feeling quite smug, I decided I would run one of my blog posts through the calculator.

Uh oh! Reading Grade level of 15 and Reading Ease score of 55?! The Reading Ease is not too bad, but Grade level 15 is a bit high. Well, I knew my readers were smart!

What do you think? Do you ever test the readability level of what you write online?

For those of you who like to read the research:

Stedman, L. and Kaestle, C. (1991) Literacy and reading performance in the United States from 1880 to present. In Kaestle, C. (ed.) Literacy in the United States: Readers and Readings Since 1880. Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 75–128.

Your Brain Is Just As Busy When You Sleep As When You’re Awake

Your Brain Is Just As Busy When You Sleep As When You're Awake

RebeccaPollard via Flickr

Why do people sleep? — Well, not just people, but all kinds of animals sleep. When you think about it, it’s actually quite a strange idea that for 1/4 to 1/3 of each day we go unconscious and are oblivious to the world around us. Scientists for years have wondered and studied what goes on when we sleep and why we do it.

Some of the best research happens through serendipity — Matthew Wilson was studying brain activity in rats as they run mazes. One day he accidentally left the rats hooked up to the equipment he used to record their brain activity. The rats eventually fell asleep, and to Wilson’s surprise, he found that the brain activity while they were asleep was almost the same as the brain activity when the rats were running the maze.

Learning and consolidating – Wilson started a series of experiments to study this more. And through his experiments he has come up with a theory, not just about rats, but about people too: When you sleep and when you dream you are reworking, or consolidating, your experiences from the day. Specifically you are consolidating new memories and making new associations from the information you processed during the day. Your brain is deciding what to remember and what to let go of, or forget.

Sleep don’t cram – Of course we’ve always heard the advice to “get a good night’s sleep” before a big event, or exam. It turns out that that advice was solid. If you want to remember what you have learned the best thing to do is to go to sleep after you learn and before you need to remember it.

And if you like to read research:

Ji D, Wilson MA (2007). ”Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep.” Nature Neuroscience 10: 100-7.


People Process Information Best In Story Form

People Process Information Best In Story Form


One day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who did not want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I started the session with a big “Hello Everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class weren’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought to myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story”, I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen.  Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do.”

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever. Now I make sure to use that magic phrase, “Let me tell you a story” at least once in every talk I give, or class I teach.

Stories are very powerful — They grab and hold attention.  But they do more than that. They also help people process information and they imply causation.

Tried and true story formats — Aristotle identified the basic structure of stories, and many people have expounded on his ideas since. One model is the basic three act structure: Beginning, Middle and the End. This may not sound very unusual, but when Aristotle came up with it over 2000 years ago it was probably pretty radical.


In the Beginning you introduce your audience to the setting, the characters and the situation or conflict. In the story above I introduced you to the setting (I had to give a class), the characters (me and students), and the conflict (the students don’t want to be there.

My story was very short, so the Middle part was short too. In the middle part of a story, there are typically obstacles and conflicts that the main character has to triumph over. These are usually somewhat resolved, but not completely resolved. In my story above the main character tried her usual opening and it failed Then she started to panic.

In the End of the story the obstacles come to a peak and then are resolved. In my story above I thought of what to do (tell a story to the class), which I did, and which succeeded.

This is just a basic outline. There are many variations and plots that can be added and woven in.

Classic stories — There are many stories that appear over and over in literature and in movies. Here are some of the popular themes that have been identified:

The Great Journey

Coming of Age

The Sacrifice

The Epic Battle

The Fall From Grace




The Trick


Stories can be used to imply causation — Stories imply causation. Because stories usually involve some form of chronological narrative (first this happens, next this happens), they can imply causation even if it is not there. People are quick to assign causality. The human brain is always looking for causation. Stories make it even easier to make this causal leap. (Chabris and Simon, 2010)

Stories are important in all communications – Sometimes I hear people say, “Stories are fine for some communications, but not the one I’m working on now. I’m designing the website for the Annual Report of the company. Stories aren’t appropriate there; it’s just financial information.” Not true. There are always appropriate stories you can use any time you are trying to communicate.

How do you use stories in your communication? How could you use them more effectively?

For reading about how stories imply causation, see the book, The Invisible Gorilla, by Chabris and Simon, 2010. For a whole chapter on why stories are important in communication, and the research on this topic, see my book: Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?

There Are 4 Types Of Creativity

There Are 4 Types Of Creativity

By Chuck “Caveman” Coker on flickr

Have you heard someone say, “Oh, John – he’s so creative! I wish I was creative like that.” It makes it sound as if creativity is a natural skill or talent, like the ability to sing or paint. Other times people say “I’m going to a seminar to learn how to be more creative.” That makes it sound as if creativity is a skill that anyone can learn. So, which is it? Well, kind of both and kind of neither.

Four Types of Creativity – Arne Dietrich (2004) identifies 4 different types of creativity with corresponding different brain activities. Think of it like a matrix:


Creativity can be either emotionally or cognitively based, and it can also be spontaneous or deliberate. That gives you the four quadrants.

#1: Thomas Edison – Deliberate and cognitive creativity is the kind of creativity that comes from sustained work in a discipline. For example, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb, was a deliberate and cognitive creator. He ran experiment after experiment before he would come up with an invention. In addition to the light bulb, Thomas Edison also invented the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. One of his famous quotes is:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Deliberate and cognitive creativity comes from the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) in your brain.  The PFC allows you to do 2 things: 1) pay focused attention and 2) make connections among information that you have stored in other parts of your brain. In order for deliberate, cognitive creativity to occur, you need to already have a body of knowledge about one or more particular topics. When you are being deliberatively and cognitively creative you are putting together existing information in new and novel ways.

#2: Personal breakthrough “a-ha” moments – If you’ve ever had a personal crisis (relationship break-up, got fired, gone through a bankruptcy), and then had a flash of insight about yourself and what chain of bad decisions you might have made that contributed to the crisis, then you may have experienced deliberate, emotional creativity. This type of creativity also involves the PFC. That is the deliberate part. But instead of focusing attention on a particular area of knowledge or expertise, people who are engaging in deliberate, emotional creativity have a-ha moments having to do with feelings and emotions. The cingulate cortex is the part of the brain that processes complex feelings that are related to how you interact with others, and your place in the world. And the cingulated cortex is connected to the PFC. These two brain areas are active with this type of creativity.

#3 Isaac Newton “Eureka” moments – Have you ever been working on a problem or idea that you can’t seem to solve. Maybe you have been trying to figure out how to staff a project at work, and you just don’t see how you can free up the right people to do the project. Then you go to lunch, and on your way back you get a flash of insight about how to staff the project. This is an example of spontaneous and cognitive creativity.

Spontaneous and cognitive creativity involves the basal ganglia of the brain. This is where dopamine is stored, and it is a part of the brain that operates outside of your conscious awareness. During spontaneous, cognitive creativity, the conscious brain stops working on the problem, and this gives the unconscious part of the brain a chance to work on it instead. If a problem requires “out of the box” thinking then you need to remove it temporarily from conscious awareness. By doing a different, unrelated activity, the PFC is able to connect information in new ways via your unconscious mental processing. The story about Isaac Newton thinking of gravity while watching a falling apple is an example of spontaneous and cognitive creativity. Notice that this type of creativity does need an existing body of knowledge. That is the cognitive part.

#4: “Epiphanies” — Spontaneous and emotional creativity comes from the amygdala. The amygdala is where basic emotions are processed. When the conscious brain and the PFC are resting, then it is possible for spontaneous ideas and creations to emerge. This is the kind of creativity that you think of when you think about great artists and musicians. Often these kind of spontaneous and emotional creative moments are quite powerful, such as an epiphany, or a religious experience. There is not specific knowledge necessary (it’s not cognitive) for this type of creativity, but there is often skill (writing, artistic, musical) needed to create something from the spontaneous and emotional creative idea.


  • Deliberate and cognitive creativity requires a high degree of knowledge and lots of time
  • Deliberate and emotional creativity requires quiet time
  • Spontaneous and cognitive creativity requires stopping work on the problem and getting away
  • Spontaneous and emotional creativity probably can’t be designed for

For more information see Arne Dietrich’s paper: The cognitive neuroscience of creativity.  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2004, 11 (6), 1011-1026.

People See What They Expect To See

People See What They Expect To See

During December of 2009, Farid Seif, a businessman from Houston, Texas, boarded a flight in Houston with a loaded handgun in his laptop case. He made it through security without a problem. Farid is not a terrorist. The gun is legal in Texas; he forgot to take it out of his laptop case before his travel. Farid realized the mistake when he got to his destination at the end of the trip.

Airport security at the Houston airport did not detect the gun. It would have been easily seen by a security screener through the scanner at the airport, but no one noticed it.

Homeland Security in the US routinely tests the ability to pass security screening with guns, bomb parts, and other forbidden materials, by sending people through undercover with material. The US government hasn’t released the figures officially, but the estimate is that 70% of these tests fail, meaning most of the time the undercover people are able to get through security, like Farid Seif, with objects that are supposed to be spotted.

People get used to the frequency of an event Why do the security personnel notice the bottle of shampoo that is too large, but miss a loaded handgun? Research on attention gives a hint on why this might happen. It has to do with the expectation of how frequently an event does or does not happen.

They expect the shampoo — The security personnel miss the loaded handgun and bomb parts at least in part because they don’t encounter them frequently. The security person is working for hours at a time, watching people, and looking at the scanner screen. An expectation develops about how frequently certain violations occur. For example, he or she probably encounters too large containers of shampoo, or nail scissors fairly often, and so expects to see those, and then notices them when they appear. On the other hand, he or she probably does not encounter loaded handguns or bomb parts very often. Bellenkes (1997) conducted research these frequency expectations, and found that people create a mental model about how frequently an event is likely to occur. Unconsciously, that expectation affects how much they look for an event to occur, which affects how much attention they pay to looking for the event.

You can watch an ABC news clip on the Farid Seif incident here.

And for those of you who like to read the research: Bellenkes, A. H., Wickens, C. D., & Kramer, A. F. (1997). Visual scanning and pilot expertise: the role of attentional flexibility and mental model development. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 68(7), 569-579.

No Two People Perceive Time In The Same Way

No Two People Perceive Time In The Same Way

Muffet via Flickr

Has this ever happened to you? You are traveling 2 hours to visit friends. It’s two hours to get there and 2 hours to get back, but the trip there feels much longer.

It’s about the mental processing — In his interesting book, The Time Paradox, Philip Zimbardo discusses how our experience of time is relative, not absolute. There are time illusions, just like there are visual illusions. The more mental processing you do, the more time you think has elapsed. If people have to stop and think at each step of a task, they will feel that the task is taking too long. The mental processing makes the amount of time seem longer.

It’s about expectations — The perception of time and your reaction to it, is also greatly influenced by predictability and expectations. Let’s say you are editing video on your computer. You’ve just clicked the button to produce the video file from your edits. Will you be frustrated by how long it takes to produce the video? If you do this task often, and it normally takes 3 minutes, then 3 minutes will not seem like a long time. If there is an in-progress indicator, for example a bar that is moving, or a message that says “2 minutes 48 seconds left to completion”, then you know what to expect. You’ll go pour yourself a cup of coffee and come back. But if it sometimes takes 30 seconds and sometimes takes 5 minutes, and you don’t which one it is going to be this time, then you will be very frustrated if it takes 3 minutes. Three minutes will seem much longer than it usually does.

Time expectations change – Ten years ago if it took 20 seconds for a website to load you didn’t think much of it. But these days if it takes more than 3 seconds you get impatient. There’s one website I go to regularly that takes 12 seconds to load. It seems like an eternity.


  • Always provide in progress indicators so people know how much time something is going to take.
  • If possible, make the amount of time it takes to do a task or bring up information regular, so people can adjust their expectations accordingly.
  • If you want to make a process seem shorter, then break it up into steps and have people think less. It’s mental processing that makes something seem to take a long time.

What do you think? If you are a designer do you take time, or the perception of time into account in your designs?


Remembering Is One Of The Most Taxing Processes For The Brain

Remembering Is One Of The Most Taxing Processes For The Brain


You are paying bills at your online banking website. You have to think about what bills need to be paid when, look up your balance, decide how much to pay on your credit cards, and push the right buttons to get the payments processed. As you do this task, you are thinking and remembering (cognitive),  looking at the screen (visual), and pressing buttons, typing, and moving the mouse (motor).

In human factors terminology these are called “loads”. The theory is that there are basically three different kinds of demands or loads that you can make on a person: Cognitive (thinking and remembering), Visual, and Motor.

Not all the loads are equal — Each of the loads uses up different amounts of mental resources. You use up more resources when you ask people to look at something or find something on a screen (visual) than when you ask them to press a button or move a mouse (motor). You use up more resources by asking people to think or remember or do a mental calculation (Cognitive), than when you ask them to look at something on a screen (Visual). So from a human factors point of view, the order of the loads from most “expensive” to least is:

  • Cognitive (most “expensive”)
  • Visual
  • Motor (least “expensive”)

It’s all about trade-offs — From a human factors point of view, when you are designing a product, application, or website,  you are always making trade-offs. If you have to add a few clicks, but by doing so the person doesn’t have to think or remember as much, that is worth it. Clicking is less of a load than thinking. I once did some research on this topic. People had to go through more than 10 clicks to get the task done, and at the end they would look up and smile and say, “That was easy!” because each step was logical and gave them what they expected. They didn’t have to think. Clicking is less of a load than thinking.

Reduce loads to make it easier — Most of the time when considering loads in design we are looking to reduce the loads (especially cognitive and visual) to make the product easier to use.

Increase loads to grab attention — But sometimes you want to increase the load. For example, to grab someone’s attention you might put more visual information (pictures, animation, a video) and thereby increase the visual load of the product.

Increase loads = gaming — The best example of purposely increasing loads is gaming. A game is an interface where one or two or three of the loads has been intentionally increased in order to provide challenge. Some games have high cognitive loads, some have high visual loads, some have high motor loads, and some have purposely increased more than one load.

Have you evaluated a website or product from this point of view? Have you designed a product or website from this point of view?

People Learn Best By Example

People Learn Best By Example

Let’s say you are a marketing person and you are going to send out an email to your customers about a new product offering. And let’s assume that you use a web application like MailChimp to create and distribute your emails. Here are some directions from the MailChimp web site on how to build an email campaign: (Hint: You don’t have to read it word for word… read a few of the steps and then skim to the end).

1. From the Dashboard or the Campaign Tab click on the big ol’ “Create Campaign” button and select the type of campaign you’d like to create (start with regular ol’ campaign.).

2. On Step 1 of the Campaign Builder, select the list you’d like to send to. Once you’ve selected the list use the “next” option to move forward, or click “send to entire list”.

3. On Step 2 of the Campaign Builder, you will have the options to name your campaign, set up a subject line, from name reply-to email and personalize your “To:” field with *|MERGETAGS|*. You will also find your options for tracking, authentication, analytics tracking and social sharing. (Use the “next” and “back” options to navigate through the steps (not your browser’s back button)).

4. Select a Template for your email by clicking on “pre-designed”, “autoconnect”, “premium”, or “start from scratch”, etc (to get a basic template layout that you can fully customize) under the templates heading. Templates you’ve set up and saved will live under “my templates”. If you’re providing your own code use the “paste/import HTML” or “import from URL” options. If you want to create an editable (or non-editable) Template for your clients, choose “code custom templates”.

5. Once you choose your template you’ll remain on Step 3 of the Campaign Builder. The content editor is where you will edit your styles and content. Click on “show style editor” to bring up the style options.

6. With the Style Editor visible and you’ll have options to edit the styles for each section. Here the “Body” tab is selected and the “title style” subheading has been clicked. This will allow you to set the line height, font size and more for this section.

7. Click anywhere inside the dotted red borders to bring up the content editor box

8. After you click save wait for your content to refresh then click on the “next” option. Our plain text generator will automagically create the plain text version from your HTML version. Just look this version over to make sure it looks the way you like and click “next” to move to the last step of the Campaign Builder.

9. Step 5 of the Campaign Builder is a “pre-delivery checklist”. If we see anything missing on your campaign you’ll be alerted in red on this screen. Click on “edit” to be taken directly back to any area that needs attention.
You can preview the campaign once more by clicking on the “pop up preview” button.
Then we recommend sending tests to several email addresses to see how the campaign looks in your recipient’s inboxes. If everything looks good, you can schedule or send out your campaign.

 Luckily that’s not really how MailChimp explains this – The above is long and hard to understand and learn from, right? This is actually NOT how the information is presented at MailChimp. The text is the same, but it is combined with screen shots to show an example of what the text is talking about.

So here is what part of the page really looks like, with text and picture together.



The power of the example – People learn and understand best by looking at and following examples.

Video too — Screen shots or pictures are not the only way to provide examples. At the MailChimp site there are also links to videos that walk you through the same steps. Videos are some of the most effective ways to give examples online. Videos combine movement, sound and vision, and don’t require reading. So they are attention-getting and engaging.

What are some of the ways you show people rather than just tell people how to do something?

People Love To Categorize

People Love To Categorize

bellissima_italia via Flickr

If you are between the ages of 5 and 60 and grew up with a television in the US, you probably will know what I mean if I say, “One of these things is not like the other.” This was (is) a favorite snippet from the popular children’s show Sesame Street. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can view an example at the Sesame Street website. The Sesame Street lessons teach young children how to notice differences, and how to to categorize.

Categorizing develops around age 7 — Interestingly, it’s probably unnecessary, and perhaps even ineffective, to try and teach young children how to create categories for two reasons:

  1. People naturally create categories. Just like learning a native language happens naturally, so does learning to categorize the world around us.
  2. Categorizing doesn’t emerge as a skill until about age 7. Younger than 7, and certainly younger than 5, thinking about categories just doesn’t make sense to children. After the age of 7, however, people become fascinated with categorizing information.

If you don’t give people categories they will create their own – Just as the visual cortex will impose patterns on what we see, whether there are really patterns there or not (see the post on patterns), people will impose categories when they are confronted with large amounts of information. People use categorization as a way to make sense of what is around them, especially when they feel overwhelmed with information.

Self-organized vs. other-organized – While working on my master’s thesis at Pennsylvania State University, I conducted research on whether people would remember information better if it was organized by other people, or whether they would remember it better if they organized it themselves. What I found was that it didn’t really matter. What mattered most was how well it was organized. The more organized the information the better people remembered it. Some people (those who measured high on “locus of control” measures) preferred to organize the information in their own way, but self vs. other organization schemes did not really matter as long as the information was well organized.

What do you think? Are you one of the people who prefer to organize information into your own categories? Do you appreciate it when a website is well-organized? If you are a website designer, do you spend enough time figuring out how to best organize the information? Do you use techniques like card sorting to work through different organization strategies with your target audience?

Group Decision-Making Is Faulty

Group Decision-Making Is Faulty

Guzman Lozano via Flickr

If your work life is anything like mine, your day is filled with groups meeting by phone or in person and making decisions. Unfortunately research shows that group decision-making has some serious flaws.

The Danger of Group-Think — Andreas Mojzisch and Stefan Schulz-Hardt (2010) presented people with information on prospective job candidates. People who received information on the group’s preferences before reviewing the candidate information, did not review the candidate information fully, and therefore did not make the best decisions. In a memory test they did not remember the most relevant information. The researchers concluded that when a group of people starts a discussion by sharing their initial preferences, they spend less time and less attention on the information that is available outside of the group’s preferences. And they therefore make a less than optimal decision.

The majority start with group discussions — The estimate is that 90% of group discussions start with group members talking about their initial impressions. According to the research this is a poor idea.

But two people can be better than one — The wide receiver catches the football right at the corner of the end-zone. Is it a touchdown or not? Two referees saw the play from two different angles. Are they more likely to make a correct decision if they talk together or if they think and decide individually? Research by Bahador Bahrami shows that “two heads are better than one” IF

a) they talk together, and

b) they are both competent in their knowledge and skills.

Bahrami (2010) found that pairs do better than individuals at making decisions as long as they freely discuss their disagreements, not only about what they saw, but also about how confident they are about what they saw. If they aren’t allowed to freely discuss, and they just give their decision, then the pair does not make better decisions than just an individual would.

What do you think? Do we have too many meetings and too many group decisions? Should we try to work in pairs more instead of groups?

And for those who like to read the research:

Bahrami, B., Olsen, K., Latham, P. E., Roepstorff, A., Rees, G., & Frith, C. D. (2010). Optimally interacting minds. Science 329(5995), 1081-1085 doi:10.1126/science.1185718.

Mojzisch, A., & Schulz-Hardt, S. (2010). Knowing others’ preferences degrades the quality of group decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(5), 794-808.


Groups Are Swayed By A Dominant Personality

Groups Are Swayed By A Dominant Personality


In the last blog post I talked about how groups end up making faulty decisions. How many times have you been part of a group discussion and decision-making process and there is one person who is dominating the conversation and the decision. Just because decisions are made in a group setting doesn’t mean that the entire group really made the decision. Many people give up in the presence of one or more dominant group members, and may not speak up at all.

Why does the leader become the leader? — Anderson and Kilduff (2009) researched group decision-making. They formed groups of four students each and had them solve math problems from the GMAT (a standardized test for admission to graduate business school programs).

Everyone agrees who the leader is – During the problem solving session the researchers videotaped the group conversations and reviewed them later to decide who was the leader of each group. They had multiple sets of observers view the videos to see if there was consensus about who the leaders were. They also asked the people in the groups who they thought was the leader of their group. Everyone agreed on who the leader was in each group.  Before the groups started, everyone filled out a questionnaire to measure level of dominance. As you might imagine, the leaders had all scored high on the dominance measure. But that still doesn’t say how they became leaders. Were they the people with the best math SAT scores? (No). Did they bully everyone else into letting them be the leader? (No).

The leaders speak first – For 94% of the problems the group’s final answer was the first answer that was proposed, and the people with the dominant personalities were the ones that spoke up first.

The dangers of focus groups – This is one reason why I am skeptical about focus groups for user research (as opposed to one-on-one interviews or user testing).

What do you think? Do you use focus groups?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Anderson, Cameron & Kilduff, G. (2009). Why do dominant personalities attain influence in face-to-face groups? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(2), 491-503.

Only Seven Emotions Are Universal

Only Seven Emotions Are Universal

RobertFrancis on flickr

If you go to the other side of the world and interact with people there, can you recognize the emotions they are feeling by looking at their facial expressions? Paul Ekman says the answer is yes. He has been studying emotions for many years and in different geographies and cultures. He has identified seven emotions that seem to be universal:

  • Joy
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Contempt
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Fear

What is an emotion? – Considering how important emotions are in our everyday life, there is not as much research on emotions as you might think. In order to study emotions it’s necessary to define them first. Scientists studying emotions contrast them with moods and attitudes:


  • Emotions = have physiological correlates, expressed physically (gestures, facial expressions), often result in an action, and result from a specific event.
  • Moods = last longer than emotions, perhaps a day or two, may not be expressed physically, and may not come from a specific event.
  • Attitudes = have a more cognitive, conscious brain component.

Learn how to read facial expressions — Paul Ekman is the expert in how to read emotions in facial expressions. He has two books (2007 and 2009) and is a consultant on Fox for their TV series “Lie to Me”. According to Ekman’s work, there are 40 facial muscles that are the main muscles used in showing emotion. He offers a one-hour online course to learn how to read “micro-expressions” to tell what people are feeling. Several different research teams around the world are working on software to automate the reading of facial expressions (for security and anti-terrorism work for example).

Gestures are not universal – Facial expressions seem to be universal, and so are many vocalizations that are used to express emotions such as crying and laughing (Sauter, 2010) but gestures accompanying emotions are not as universal.

What do you think? Would you spend an hour to learn how to read facial expressions?

For those of you who want to read more:

Ekman, Paul. (2007). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, 2nd Edition. Holt.

Ekman, Paul. (2009). Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, 3rd Edition. Norton.

Sauter, D., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S. K. (2010). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(6), 2408-2412.

If You Never Frown, You Won’t Feel Sad

If You Never Frown, You Won't Feel Sad

Botox is a popular cosmetic procedure to reduce facial wrinkles. Botox is injected into various muscles, for instance in the face, and it paralyzes the muscles thereby causing the wrinkles to “relax”. It’s been known for a while that one of the side effects of Botox treatments are that people can’t fully express emotions (for example, they can’t move the muscles that would show they were angry, or even happy). New research shows another interesting side effect – people who have Botox injections can’t feel emotions either.

Muscles and feeling are tied together – If you can’t move your muscles to make a facial expression you can’t feel the emotion that goes with the expression. So if you have recently received a Botox injection and you go to a movie that is sad, you will not feel sad because you won’t be able to move the muscles in your face that go with feeling sad. Moving muscles and feeling emotions are linked.

Botox injections – Joshua Davis (2010) from Barnard College and his team tested this idea with some research. They injected people with either Botox or Restylane. Restylane is a substance that when injected fills out sagging skin, but does not limit muscle movement like Botox does. Before and after injecting the participants, they showed them emotionally charged videos. The Botox group showed much less emotional reaction to the videos after the injections.

Controlling muscles controls anger — David Havas (2010) gave people instructions to contract specific muscles – the muscles used in smiling. When the participants contracted those muscles they had a hard time generating a feeling of anger. When he instructed them to contract the muscles that are used when you frown, the participants had a hard time feeling friendly or happy.

What do you think? Should we try and get people to smile with something funny while they are at a website because then they will be in a good mood (and more willing to take the action we hope they will take such as buy, register, etc)?

And if you like to read the research:

Davis, Joshua Ian, Senghas, A., Brandt, F., & Ochsner, K. (2010).
The effects of BOTOX injections on emotional experience.
Emotion, 10(3), 433-440.

Havas, D. A., Glenberg, A. M., Gutowski, K. A., Lucarelli, M. J., & Davidson, R. J. (2010). Cosmetic use of botulinum toxin-A affects processing of emotional language. Psychological Science, 21(7), 895-900.

Personal Stories Are More Persuasive Than Scientific Data

Personal Stories Are More Persuasive Than Scientific Data

U.S. Trust Insights of Wealth and Worth

Let’s say you have to make a presentation to several department heads at work about your latest conversations with your customers. You interviewed 25 customers and surveyed another 100, and have lots of important data to share. Your first thought might be to present a summary of the data in a numerical/statistical/data driven format, for example:

  • 75% of the customers we interviewed….
  • Only 15% of the customers responding to the survey indicated…

Perhaps you are thinking about pie charts vs. bar charts.

Don’t present the data first — A data based approach will not be as persuasive as anecdotes. You may want to include the data in the presentation at some point, but your presentation will be more powerful if you start with and focus on one or more anecdotes, for example:

  • “Mary M from San Francisco shared the following story about how she uses our product: …”

and then go on to tell Mary’s story.

Why anecdotes speak louder than data –– Anecdotes are in story form. They will invoke empathy, which triggers emotional reactions. With emotional reactions people will process the data and the feelings. Emotions will also trigger the memory centers in the brain.

Processing emotions is more important for decision-making than processing data — In my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I explain that most mental processing occurs unconsciously. It’s easy to forget that information is coming in and being processed from many sources. It’s easy to forget that people are processing emotions too. If you want people to act on the data, then you need to couple it with emotional data.

Better yet, use video – For the most impact, don’t just tell Mary’s story in the presentation, let Mary tell the story herself, either in person or on video.

What do you think? What has happened when you’ve used emotional “data” instead of or in addition to statistics?


Smells Evoke Emotions and Memories

Smells Evoke Emotions and Memories

rkimpeljr via Flickr

Do you have a type of food that makes you feel a certain way? When you smell it you have an emotional reaction? For me it is kasha. Kasha is a form of buckwheat. You cook the buckwheat kernals in oil and then boil them (with salt, pepper, onion, and garlic).  I’ve never met very many people that have actually eaten kasha, much less know what kasha is.

When I smell kasha cooking I get a big smile on my face and I feel happy. This is because my mom used to cook kasha. I have a positive emotional memory of my mom when I smell kasha cooking.

A special path for smells – The thalamus is a part of the brain that is between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain. One of the functions of the thalamus is to process sensory information and send it to the appropriate part of the cortex. For example, visual information comes from the retina, goes to the thalamus and then gets routed to the primary visual cortex. All of the senses send their data to the thalamus before the information goes anywhere else, with the exception of smell. The olfactory system does not go through the thalamus. When you smell something, that sensory data goes right to your amygdala. The amygdala is where emotional information is processed. This is why people react emotionally to smells: You smell a flower and it makes you happy. You smell rotten meat and it makes you feel disgusted. The amygdala is right next to the memory centers of the brain. This is also why you can smell something and have memories invoked.

Smells from a web site? – For a reasonable amount of money you can now buy an olfactory machine that hooks up to your PC, and software that emits many different scents (forest, ocean, turkey, chocolate, etc).  It’s the ScentScape from ScentSciences (www.scentsciences.com)

What do you think? Is there a smell in your favorite websites future?

Your Brain Craves Surprises

Your Brain Craves Surprises

In Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I talk about the role of the “old” brain in scanning the environment looking for anything that is dangerous. This also means that the unconscious, old brain is looking for anything that is new or novel.

Water vs. fruit juice — Research by Gregory Berns (2001) shows that the human brain is not only looking for the unexpected, it actually craves the unexpected. Berns used a computer-controlled device to squirt either water or fruit juice into people’s mouths while their brains were being scanned by an fMRI device. Sometimes the participants could predict when they were going to get a squirt, but other times it was unpredictable. The researchers thought that they would see activity based on what people liked. For example, if people liked juice then they would see activity in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain. The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain that is active when people are experiencing pleasurable events.

Liking surprise – The nucleus accumbens was most active when the squirt was unexpected. It was the surprise that showed activity, not the preferred liquid.

Berns must have enjoyed the research since he was surprised himself!

What do you think? Are you surprised that people crave surprise?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Berns, Gregory S., McClure, S., Pagnoni, G., & Montague, P. (2001). Predictability modulates human brain response to reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21(8), 2793–2798.

People Are Happier Busy And With A Challenge

People Are Happier Busy And With A Challenge

jared via Flickr

Consider this scenario: You just landed at an airport and now you have to walk to the baggage claim to pick up your luggage. It takes you 12 minutes to walk there. When you arrive your luggage is coming onto the carousel. How impatient do you feel?

Contrast that with this scenario: You just landed at an airport, and the walk to the luggage carousel takes 2 minutes. But then you stand around waiting 10 minutes for your luggage to appear. How impatient do you feel now? In both cases you it took you 12 minutes to pick up your luggage, but chances are you are much more impatient, and much more unhappy in the second scenario where you have to stand around and wait.

The paradox – Research by Christopher Hsee and colleagues shows that you are happier when you are busy. This is somewhat of a paradox. In another post I write about the research that shows that people are actually lazy. Unless people have a reason for being active, they choose to do nothing, thereby conserving energy. But doing nothing makes people impatient and unhappy.

We love a challenge — Hsee asked participants to study a bracelet. Then he gave them the option of either spending fifteen minutes waiting with nothing to do (they thought they were waiting for the next part of the experiment), or spending the same time taking the bracelet apart and re-building it while waiting. Some of the participants were given the option of rebuilding it into its original configuration, and others were given the option to re-assemble the bracelet into a different design.

Happier when busy — Participants who had the option of re-building the bracelet as it was before, preferred to just sit idly. But the participants who were told they could re-assemble the bracelet into a new design, preferred to work on the bracelet rather than sit idle. Those who spent the fifteen minutes busy with the bracelet, reported feeling happier than those who sat idle.

What do you think? Why are people unhappy when they are lazy? Why do they tend to want to be lazy?

And if you like to read the research:

Hsee, C. K., Yang, X., & Wang, L. (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for justified busyness. Psychological Science. 21(7), 926–930.

People Like Pastoral Scenes

People Like Pastoral Scenes


Walk into any hotel, house, office building, museum, art gallery, or any place where there are paintings or photographs hanging on the wall, and chances are that you will see a pastoral landscape.

Looking for protection, food, and water – According to Denis Dutton, a philosopher and the author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, this is because of evolution and the Pleistocene era. (see Dutton’s TED talk: http://bit.ly/cIj9uo). Dutton says that this typical landscape scene includes hills, water, trees (that are good for hiding in if a predator comes by), birds and animals, and a path moving through the scene. This is an ideal landscape for humans (protection, water, food).

Beauty helps us survive — Dutton’s theory about beauty is that we have evolved to feel a need for certain types of beauty in our life, and that this pull towards things such as these landscapes has helped us to survive as a species.  He notes that all cultures value artwork that has these scenes, even people who have never lived in a geographical location that looks like this.

Pastoral scenes promote healing – Roger Ulrich (1984) found that patients whose hospital window overlooked scenes of nature had shorter stays in the hospital, and needed less pain medication compared to patients whose rooms looked onto a brick wall.

What do you think? Are we “programmed” to like scenes that represent our best survival? Is our definition of beauty based on places to live where we have the best chance of survival?

And if you want to read the research:

Ulrich, R.S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.

People Who Trust Others Are Happier

People Who Trust Others Are Happier

If you want to know who is happiest, then figure out who feels the most trust.

Which country has the happiest people? – Eric Weiner traveled all over the world in search of answers to the questions: Which countries have the happiest people and why? His answers surprised him and they surprised me too. Based on research, Iceland comes out towards the top of the pile, and Saudi Arabia towards the bottom.

Happiness factors — Here is some of what he discovered and writes about:

Extroverts are happier than introverts.

Optimists are happier than pessimists.

Married people are happier than singles, but people with children are the same as childless couples.

Republicans are happier than democrats.

People who go to church are happier than those who don’t.

People with college degrees are happier than those without, but people with advanced degrees are less happy.

People with an active sex life are happier than those without.

Women and men are equally happy, but women have a wider emotional range.

Having an affair will make you happy, but not if your spouse finds out and leaves you.

People are least happy when they are commuting to work.

Busy people are happier than those with too little to do.

Trust is the best predictor — But the best predictor of happiness is trust. If people trust the people around them, friends, and family, and if they trust their government, then they will score highest on the happiness surveys.

What do you think? Why is trust such a big predictor?

The Look Of A Website Is More Important Than Its Content

The Look Of A Website Is More Important Than Its Content

There isn’t a lot of actual research on trust and website design. There are a lot of opinions, but not necessarily much real data. Research by Elizabeth Sillence and team (2004) provides some solid data, at least in regard to health websites. Sillence researched how people decide whether and which health websites to trust. Participants in the study were all patients with hypertension. (In previous research Sillence used the topic of menopause, and found similar results). In this study participants used websites to look for information about hypertension.

Design is the first filter – When participants in the study rejected a health website as not being trustworthy, 83% of their comments were related to design factors, such as an unfavorable first impression of the look and feel, poor navigation, color, text size and the name of the website.

Content is the second filter — Once the first filter was applied, if the website hadn’t been rejected, then participants mentioned content rather than design factors. 74% of the participants’ comments were about content being important in deciding whether they found a site trustworthy (after the initial design impression). For example, if the sites were owned by well known and respected organizations, advice written by medical experts, and sites that were specific to them and that they felt were written for people like themselves.

A One-Two Punch — People use both design factors and content in deciding whether to trust a website, but the design impression comes first. If the design is not professional and deemed trustworthy they’ll never see the content.

What do you think? Do you find that you do that initial first impression based on design?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Sillence, Elizabeth, Briggs, P. Fishwick, L., & Harris, P. (2004). Trust and mistrust of online health sites. CHI’04 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference On Human Factors In Computer Systems. New York: ACM.

Listening To Music Releases Dopamine In The Brain

Listening To Music Releases Dopamine In The Brain


Have you ever been listening to a piece of music and experienced intense pleasure, even chills? Valorie Salimpoor and team (2010) conducted research that shows that listening to music can release the neurotransmitter dopamine.

A wide range of music — The researchers used PET (positron emission tomography) scans, fMRI, and psychophysiological measures such as heart rate to measure reactions while people listened to music. The participants provided music that they said gave them intense pleasure and chills. The range of music varied, from classical, folk, jazz, elecronica, rock pop, tango, and more.

Pleasure vs. anticipated pleasure — The researchers saw the same pattern of brain and body activity when people were listening to their music as they see when people feel euphoria and craving when they get a reward. The experience of pleasure corresponded with dopamine release in one part of the brain (striatal dopaminergic system). When people were anticipating a pleasurable part of the music (participants were listening to their favorite music, so they knew what part of the music was coming next), then there was a dopamine release in a different part of the brain (nucleus accumbens).

Somewhat related is the very interesting TED talk by Benjamin Zander on Music and Passion.

What do you think? Do you get “chills” listening to music? Do you think the anticipation is as good as, or better than the experience?

And if you like to read the research:

Salimpoor, Valorie, N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience.

The More Difficult Something Is To Attain, The More People Like It

The More Difficult Something Is To Attain, The More People Like It

Needed: Account executive with no fear of successAlessandro Reginato

You’ve heard about fraternities that have difficult initiation rituals to get in. The idea is that if an organization is hard to get into, then the people in it like it even more than if entry was not so difficult.

More difficult = more like — The first research on this initiation effect was done by Elliott Aronson at Stanford University in 1959. Aronson set up three initiation scenarios (severe, medium and mild, although the severe was not really that severe) and randomly assigned people to the conditions. He did indeed find that the more difficult the initiation, the more people liked the group.

Cognitive dissonance theory — Leon Festinger was the social psychologist who developed the idea of cognitive dissonance theory, and Aronson uses the theory to explain why people like groups that they had to endure hardship to join. People go through this painful experience only to find themselves part of a group that is not all that exciting or interesting. But that sets up a conflict (dissonance) in their thought process – if it’s boring and uninteresting, why did I submit myself to pain and hardship? In order to reduce the dissonance then, you therefore decide that the group is really important and worthwhile. Then it makes sense that you were willing to go through all of that pain.

Scarcity and exclusivity – In addition to the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain this phenomenon, I also think scarcity comes into play. If it’s difficult to join the group then not very many people can do it. I might not be able to make it in, then I would lose out. So if I went through a lot of pain it must be good.

What do you think? Do you find you like things better if they are difficult? Does this mean we should design products that are hard to use so that people will decide in the end it was worth it? (I hope not!)

And for those of you who like to read OLD research:

Aronson, Elliot, & Mills, J. (1959). The Effect of Severity of Initiation On Liking For A Group. U.S. Army Leadership Human Research Unit.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Anticipation Trumps The Actual Experience

Anticipation Trumps The Actual Experience

Fortune/Philip Elmer-DeWitt

You are planning a trip, 7 months away, with your sister to the Cayman Islands. The two of you talk on the phone at least once a week, discuss the snorkeling you plan to do, and talk about the restaurants that are close to the place you are staying. You look forward to the trip for a long time.

Anticipation vs. reality — Contrast that with the actual experience of the trip and you may find that the anticipation was better than the trip. In fact, Terence Mitchell (1997) conducted research on just this situation. He studied people who were taking either a trip to Europe, a short trip over the USA Thanksgiving holiday weekend, or a 3-week bicycle tour of California.

Trip ratings differ — Before the event people looked forward to the trip with positive emotions, but during the trip their ratings of the trip were not that positive. The little disappointments that always occur while traveling colored their emotional landscape to the point where they felt less positive about the trip in general. Interestingly, a few days after the trip, the memories became rosy again.

How to Have A Great Vacation and Great Memories — While we are on the subject of vacations, here are some interesting bits of information from a variety of research. To get the most enjoyment out of vacations:

  • Several short vacations are better than one long one
  • How the vacation ends affects your long term memory of it more than what happened at the beginning or middle
  • Having an intense “peak” experience makes you more likely to remember the trip positively, even if the intense experience wasn’t necessarily positive
  • Interrupting a trip makes you enjoy the uninterrupted part even more

What do you think? If you ask customers for feedback on a product or website should you ask them while they are doing it? Or later when things are “rosy”? And if you say you want to get more “honest” feedback, which is the more honest?

For those of you who like to read the research:

Mitchell, T. R., Thompson, L., Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal adjustments in the evaluation of events: The “rosy view”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(4), 421-448.

Not All Mistakes Are Bad

Not All Mistakes Are Bad

Justin Marty

You buy a new digital camera and you start learning how to use it. Chances are that in the first few days of using it you will make a lot of mistakes –press the wrong buttons, forget where things are in the menus, and so on. We tend to think that mistakes are bad and should be avoided. Not necessarily, says Van Der Linden who conducted research on exploration strategies that people use when learning how to use computers and electronic devices.

Consequences are not always negative — Van Der Linden’s idea is that errors have consequences, but, contrary to what most people think, not all of the consequences are negative. Although it’s possible, and even likely, that making an error has a negative consequence, it’s also likely that the error has a positive or a neutral outcome.

Positive consequences – Errors with a positive consequence are actions that do not give the desired result, but provide the user with information that helps them achieve their overall goal. For example, let’s say that you have designed a new tablet device to compete with the iPad. You’ve got an early prototype of the device, and you put it in the hands of potential buyers to see how usable the device is. The person moves the slider bar that he thinks is the volume control, but instead the screen gets brighter. He’s chosen the brightness slider, rather than the volume slider. It’s a mistake, but now he knows how to make the screen brighter. If that’s a feature that he also needs to learn in order to accomplish the task of watching a video (and assuming he does eventually find the volume slider), then we could say that the error had a positive consequence.

Negative consequences — Errors with a negative consequence are those that result in a dead end, undo a positive consequence, send people back to a starting point, or result in action that cannot be reversed. For example, your potential customer is now trying to move a file from one folder to another, but he misunderstands the meaning of the button choices and he deletes the file instead. That’s an error that has negative consequences.

Neutral consequences – Errors with a neutral consequence are errors that don’t affect task completion at all. For example, the potential buyer tries to select a menu option that is not available. He’s made an error, but it the consequence isn’t positive or negative – it’s neutral.

What do you think? Is it useful to think about errors this way?

For those of you who like to read the research:

van der Linden, Dimitri, Sonnentag, S. Frese, M. & van Dyck, C. (2001). Exploration strategies, error consequences, and performance when learning a complex computer task. Behaviour and Information Technology, 20, 189-198.

People Use Groupings Of Things To Remember

People Use Groupings Of Things To Remember


If I ask you to describe what a “head” is, you might talk about the brain, hair, eyes, nose, ears, skin, neck, etc. A head is made up of many things, but you’ve gathered all that information together and called it “head”. Similarly I could talk about the concept “eye”. And you would think about all the things that make up an eye: the eyeball, iris, eyelash, eyelid, etc. Psychologists call these groupings a “schema” (the plural is schemata). You use schemata to store information in ,and retrieve information out of, your long term memory.

A schema builds associations – If you can connect new information you encounter to information that is already stored, then it will be easier for it to stick, or stay in long-term memory, and easier to get it out of your memory. A schema allows you to build up these associations in long term memory. Just one schema helps you organize a lot of information.

Experts have information stored as a schema — The more expert you are at something, the more organized and powerful your schema will be. For example, someone who is new to the game of chess has to have a lot of little schemata —  Schema 1: how to set up the pieces on the board, Schema 2: how a Queen can move, and so on. But an expert chess player can pile a lot of information into one schema with ease. They can look at a chess board in the middle of a game and tell you what some of the starting moves were, the strategies for each player, and what the next move is likely to be. They could certainly recite how to set up the board and how each piece can move. What would take many schemata for the novice player, the expert player has stored in one schema. This makes retrieval of information faster and easier, and also makes it easier for the expert to put new information about chess into long term memory.

What do you think? Can you use the idea of a schema to present information in a way that people will process it better? Can you use this idea for yourself when you are trying to learn something new?

People of Different Ages Have Different Error Strategies

People of Different Ages Have Different Error Strategies

Ollie Craaford via Flickr

Let’s say you study two people using a smartphone that has an advanced still and video camera. One is 22 years old, and the other is 47 years old. Neither of them has used this smartphone/camera before. You give them a set of tasks to do. Will there be a difference between them? Will they both be able to complete the tasks? Will they make the same mistakes? Neung Kang and Wan Yoon (2008) conducted a research study to look at the types of errors both young and older (not very old, but older) adults make when learning how to use new technologies. In their study they identified and tracked different error strategies:

Systematic exploration — When people use  systematic exploration, this means that when they make a mistake they stop and think about what procedures they are going to use to correct the error. For example, let’s say that a user is trying to figure out how to email a picture with the smartphone/camera. She tried one menu and that didn’t work, so now she sets out to see what each item in the menu system does for the camera part of the device. She starts at the first item in the first menu and works her way through all the choices in the part of the product controls having to do with the camera. She is systematically exploring.

Trial and error — In contrast to systematic exploration, trial and error means that the person is randomly trying out different actions, menus, icons and controls

Rigid exploration – If someone does the same action over and over, even though it does not solve the error, that is called a rigid exploration. For example, the person is trying to send a picture via a text message, presses a button and gets an error. She then chooses the picture again, and presses the button again. She keeps repeating this combination of actions, even though it doesn’t work.


Age and Expertise — Here is what Kang and Yoon found in their study:

There was no difference in completion rates for the tasks on the devices due to age, but the older (40-50 year olds) used different strategies than the younger (in their 20s) adults.

  • Older adults took more steps to get the tasks completed, mainly because they made more errors as they went along, and they tended to use more rigid exploration strategies more than younger adults.
  • Older adults often failed to receive meaningful hints from their actions and therefore made less progress toward the task goal.
  • Older adults showed more motor-control problems.
  • Older adults didn’t use their past knowledge as much as younger adults.
  • Older adults had a higher level of uncertainty about whether their actions were correct. They felt more time pressure and less satisfaction.
  • Older adults adopted more trial and error strategies than younger adults, but analysis of the data showed this was not due to age, but due to lack of background and experience with the type of device.

What do you think? What is more important in terms of errors, age or experience with that type of device?

Here’s the research:

Kang, Neung E., & Yoon, W.C. (2008). Age- and experience-related user behavior differences in the use of complicated electronic devices. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 66, 425–437.


Behavior Can Be Shaped

Behavior Can Be Shaped

If you studied psychology years ago, you may remember BF Skinner and his work during the 20th century on operant conditioning. Skinner studied whether behavior increased or decreased based on how often, and in what manner, you provide a “reinforcement” (reward).

What the casinos know — Let’s say you put a rat in a cage with a bar. If the rat presses the bar he gets a food pellet. The food pellet is called the reinforcement. But what if you set it up so that the rat does not get the food pellet every time he presses the bar. Skinner tested out various scenarios, and found that how often you give the food pellet, and whether you give it based on time or bar presses, affected how often the rat would press the bar. Here’s a synopsis of the different schedules:

Interval Schedules – You provide a food pellet after a certain interval of time has passed, for example, 5 minutes. The first time the rat presses the bar after 5 minutes is up, then he gets a food pellet.

Ratio Schedules – Instead of basing the reinforcement on time, instead you base it on the number of bar presses. For example, you provide a food pellet after every 10 bar presses.

There’s another twist — You can have fixed or variable variations on each of the above. If it’s a fixed schedule then you keep the same interval or ratio, for example, every 5 minutes or every 10 presses. If it’s variable then you vary the time or ratio, but it averages out, for example, sometimes you provide the reinforcement after 2 minutes, sometimes after 8 minutes, but it averages out to 5 minutes.

So altogether there are four possible schedules:

  • Fixed Interval – Reinforcement is based on time and the time is always the same interval
  • Variable Interval – Reinforcement is based on time, the amount of time varies, but it averages to a particular time.
  • Fixed Ratio – Reinforcement is based on the number of bar presses, and the number is always the same.
  • Variable Ratio – Reinforcement is based on the number of bar presses, the number varies, but it averages to a particular ratio.

It turns out that rats (and people too) will behave in predictable ways based on which schedule you are using.

You can predict — how often someone will engage in a certain behavior based on the way they are getting reinforced or rewarded. If you want someone to engage in a certain behavior the most, then you would use a variable ratio schedule.

If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas, —  then chances are you’ve seen a variable ratio schedule in operation.  You put your money in the slot machine and press the button. You don’t know how often you’ll win. It’s not based on time, but is based on the number of times you play. And it’s not fixed, it’s a variable schedule. It’s not predictable. You aren’t sure when you are going to win, but you know that your odds of winning increase the more times you play. So it will result in you playing the most, and the casino making the most money.

What do you think? How have you used these ideas of operant conditioning (whether you knew what to call them or not)?

Unexpected Rewards Are Most Compelling

Unexpected Rewards Are Most Compelling

sean dreilinger via Flickr

Let’s say you are an art teacher, and you want to encourage your students to spend more time practicing their drawing. You create a “Good Drawing Certificate” to give to your students. If your goal is to have them draw more, and for them to stick with it, how should you give them the certificate? Should you give them one every time they draw? Or only sometimes? Lepper, Greene and Nisbett conducted research on this question way back in 1973. They divided children into 3 groups:

Group 1, the Expected Group — The researchers showed the children the “Good Drawing Certificate” and asked if they wanted to draw in order to get the certificate.

Group 2, the Unexpected group — The researchers asked the children if they wanted to draw, but didn’t mention anything about a certificate. After the children spent time drawing, they received an (unexpected) drawing certificate.

Group 3, the Control Group — The researchers asked the children if they wanted to draw, but didn’t mention a certificate and didn’t give them one.

What happened 2 weeks later? — The real part of the experiment came 2 weeks later. During playtime the drawing tools were put out in the room. The children weren’t asked anything about drawing, the tools were just put in the room and available. So what happened?  Children in Groups 2 and 3, the Unexpected and the Control Groups spent the most time drawing. The children in Group 1, the ones who had received an expected reward, spent the least time drawing. “Contingent” rewards (rewards given based on specific behavior that is spelled out ahead of time) resulted in less of the desired behavior. Later the researchers went on to do more studies like this, and with adults as well as children, finding similar results.

What do you think? Do you use intrinsic or extrinsic rewards at your workplace? At your website?

And if you like to read the research:

Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

People Are Motivated By Progress And Mastery

People Are Motivated By Progress And Mastery

MikeOliveri via Flickr

Why do people donate their time and creative thought process to Wikipedia? Or the open source movement? When you stop and think about it you realize that there are many activities that people engage in, even over a long period of time, that require high expertise, and yet are of no monetary or even career building benefit. People like to feel that they are making progress. They like to feel that they are learning and mastering new knowledge and skills.

Small signs of progress can have a large effect — Because mastery is such a powerful motivator, even small signs of progress can have a large effect in motivating people move forward to the next step in a task. At Linked In, they encourage you to finish filling in information on your profile by showing you how much information you have already answered.

LiveMocha is a website where you can learn languages. They have several forms of mastery and progress built in:

At a glance you can see where you are in the course, where you are in the lesson, and how much progress you have made overall.

They have points that you can earn by completing your training, as well as by helping other people learn a language you already know. The points can be accumulated and redeemed for access to premium learning exercises.

Everytime you sign on to LiveMocha you see a dashboard that shows your progress.

Daniel Pink has a  great animated video about motivation and mastery from his book, Drive.

What do you think? Are you motivated by mastery?

People Will Use Shortcuts Only If They Are Easy

People Will Use Shortcuts Only If They Are Easy

David July via Flickr

Do you use keyboard shortcuts when you are typing on the computer? Do you have some you use, but not others? For example, as I’ve been writing my new book on my computer, I use the keyboard shortcuts for cut and paste about 100 times a day. But I never use the keyboard shortcut to save my file. I always take my hands off the keyboard and use the trackpad to move my cursor up to the Save icon in the toolbar, and then click on save. Why do I do that?

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, or if a habit is ingrained, 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.

Defaults can reduce the amount of work needed to complete a task — When you provide defaults, for example, filling in the person’s name and address automatically on a web form, then there is less work to finish the form. There are some potential problems with defaults. One is that people don’t always notice defaults, and so may end up accepting a default without meaning to.  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 in your design.

When defaults create more, not less, work – Recently I bought a pair of shoes for my daughter online. The next time I went to the website was to buy a pair of shoes for myself. But the default shipping address was the last address used – my daughter’s, not mine. I didn’t notice that the shipping address had filled in with a default that was not my home address. My daughter was surprised to get a pair of shoes she didn’t ask for (in a style she definitely did not want to wear, and a size that wasn’t hers). In this case, having a default meant a lot more work for both my daughter and myself.

Are there shortcuts you could take but don’t? Are there times when defaults have gotten you in trouble?


Average Time To Form A Habit Is 66 Days

Average Time To Form A Habit Is 66 Days


You turn on your computer each morning and do the same activities: First you check your email, then you check Facebook, and go to weather.com to check the weather. (Or whatever your particular pattern is). You do this every day. It’s a habit. Why are you motivated to do these same tasks every day? What did it take for these activities to become a habit? What would it take to change the habit to something else?

Cementing a habit – Philippa Lally (2010) recently studied the how and how long of forming habits. She had people choose an eating, drinking or activity behavior to carry out every day for 12 weeks. In addition, the participants in the research would go online and complete a self-report habit index (SRHI) each day, to record whether they had carried out the behavior.

66 Days – The average amount of time it took for people to form a habit was 66 days, but that number doesn’t really tell the story, because there was a wide range. For some people and some behaviors it took 18 days, but depending on the person and the behavior, it went all the way up to 254 days for the behavior to become an automatic habit. What she found is that people would initially show an increase in the automaticity of the behavior, and then they would hit a plateau.

Some behaviors faster than others – The more complex the behavior the longer it took for it to become a habit (no surprise there). Participants that chose to create an exercise habit took 1 and a half times longer to make it automatic than those who were building a new habit about eating fruit at lunch.

Miss a day? — Lally found that if people missed a day here and there, that did not have a significant effect on how long it took to build the habit. But too many missed days, or multiple days in a row, did have an effect, and slowed the creation of the habit.

What’s your experience with habits? 66 days or longer?

If you want to read the research:

Lally, Phillippa,  van Jaarsveld, H., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

More People = Less Desire To Compete

More People = Less Desire To Compete

Did you take standardized tests to get into college? Like the SAT and ACT? How many people were in the room when you took the test? Does it matter? Research by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom Tor shows that it may matter a lot.

Less people = higher scores – Garcia and Tor first compared SAT scores for locations that had a lot of people in the room taking the test versus locations that had smaller numbers. They adjusted the scores to control for the educational budget in that region and other factors. Students who took the SAT test in a room with less people scored higher.

You’ll try harder if you have a good chance of winning — Garcia and Tor hypothesized that when there are just a few competitors, you (perhaps unconsciously) feel that you can come out on top, and so you try harder. And, the theory goes, when there are more people, then it is harder to assess where you stand and therefore you are not as motivated to try to come out on top. They called this the N-effect (N standing for number as in formulas).

10 versus 100 competitors – Garcia and Tor decided to test their theory in the lab. They asked students to complete a short quiz as quickly and accurately as possible.  They were told that the top 20% would receive 5 US dollars. Group A was told that they were competing against 10 other students.  Group B was told that they were competing against 100 other students. Participants in Group A completed the quiz significantly faster than the participants in Group B. The interesting thing is that there was no one actually in the room with them. They were just told that there were other people taking the test.

What do you think? Are you more motivated if there are just a few people you are competing against?

If you want to read the research:

Garcia, S., & Tor, A. (2009). The N effect: More competitors, less competition. Psychological Science. 20(7), 871-877.

Handwritten Letters Are Most Honest

There are many ways to communicate: paper and pen, emails, face to face, telephone, instant message. Some researchers have been interested in whether there are differences in how honest we are based on the medium.

92% of the graduate students lied – Charles Naquin from DePaul University and his colleagues have conducted research on how honest people are when they communicate with emails vs. pen and paper. In one study, forty-eight graduate business students were given $89 (imaginary money), and had to decide whether to tell their partner how much money was in the “kiddy”, as well as how much of the money to share with their partner. One group communicated by email and the other group by writing on pen and paper. The group that wrote emails lied about the amount of money (92%) more than the group that was writing by hand (63%). The email group was also less fair about sharing the money. In addition, participants in the email group felt justified in not being honest or fair.

Managers lie too – Lest you think only the students would lie, Naquin and team performed additional studies with managers. One hundred and seventy-seven managers played a group financial game. Participants were assigned to teams of three. Each member of the team had a chance to play the role of a manager of a project team who was allocating money for projects. They played with real money, and they were told that the amount of money that was available would be revealed after the game. Some participants were told to communicate via email and others with paper and pen. The managers who communicated via email lied more, and kept more money for themselves, compared to the managers who communicated with paper and pen.

People lie most on the telephone – At this point you might be thinking that emails are the worst in terms of lying. They are not. Hancock (2004) conducted a diary study. Using self-reporting, participants admitted to lying most on the phone, and least in email, with face-to-face and instant messaging interactions equal and in the middle of the other techniques.

What do you think? Are you aware of lying in different amounts depending on the medium?

If you want to read the research:

Hancock, Jeffrey T., Currya, L.E., Goorhaa, S., & Woodworth, M. (2008). On lying and being lied to: A linguistic analysis of deception in computer-mediated communication. www.informaworld.com, 45(1), 1-23.

Naquin, C.E., Kurtzberg, T.R. & Belkin, L.Y. (2010). The finer points of lying online: e-mail versus pen and paper. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 387-394.

Speaker and Listener Brains Sync Up During Conversation

Speaker and Listener Brains Sync Up During Conversation


When you listen to someone talking your brain starts working in sync with the speaker. Greg Stephens (2010) put participants in his research study in an fMRI machine and had them record or listen to recordings of other people talking. What he found is that as someone is listening to someone else talk, the brains patterns of the two people start to couple, or mirror each other. There is a slight delay, which corresponds to the time it takes for the communication to occur. Several different brain areas were synced. He compared this with having people listen to someone talk in a language they did not understand. In that case the brains do not sync up.

Syncing + anticipation = understanding – In Stephen’s study, the more the brains were synced up the more the listener understood the ideas and message from the speaker. And by watching what parts of the brain were lighting up, Stephens could see that the parts of the brain that have to do with prediction and anticipation were active. The more active they were, the more successful was the communication.

Social parts light up too – Stephens noted that the parts of the brain that have to do with social interaction were also synced, including areas are known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful  communication, including the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires, and goals of others.

What do you think? Have you been synced with any speakers lately?

Stephens, Greg, Silbert, L., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2010.


Your Brain Has A Special Response To People You Know

Your Uncle Arden invites you over to watch the World Cup and tells you to bring some friends. When you get there you see that there are several people you know (relatives and friends of relatives), and some you don’t know. It’s a lively bunch, and over food and the game on TV, lots of topics are covered, including soccer and politics. As you would expect, you have similar opinions on the topics of soccer and politics with some of your friends and relatives, and you disagree with some of them. You actually have more in common, in terms of soccer and politics, with some of the strangers you just met today than you have with some of your friends and relatives. The chart below shows the four possible combinations of people and similarities:


Does your brain react differently to these 4 combinations? — The questions that Fenna Krienen conducted research on are: Do you make judgments about other people based on how similar they are to you? Or is it more important that they be close to you, either a close friend or a relative? And if there are differences, will they show up on fMRI brain scans? When you think about people that you don’t know, but feel similar to, do the same brain regions light up as though you were connected to them through kinship or previous friendship?

Your brain responds to people you know — Krienen and team found tested these theories. They found that when people answered questions about friends, whether or not they felt they were similar to their friends, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) was active. The MPFC is the part of the brain that is active in perceiving value and regulating social behavior. When people thought about others that they don’t know, but have common interests with (are similar to), the MPFC was not active.

What do you think? Does your brain respond specially to people you know?

If you want to read the research:

Krienen, Fenna M.,Pei-Chi, Tu, & Buckner, Randy L. (2010). Clan mentality: Evidence that the medial prefrontal cortex responds to close others. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(41), 13906-13915; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2180-10.2010.

You Can Tell If A Smile Is Real Or Fake More Accurately With Video

You Can Tell If A Smile Is Real Or Fake More Accurately With Video

Research on smiling started as far back as the mid-1800’s. A French doctor named Duchenne used electrical currents with research subjects. He would stimulate certain facial muscles and then take pictures of the expressions that people made.   This was painful and many of the pictures look like the people are in pain.

Real or fake? — Duchenne identified two different types of smiles. Some smiles involve contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and makes your eyes crinkle). Smiles that contract both of these muscle groups are called “Duchenne” smiles. In a “non-Duchenne” smile only the zygomatic major muscle contracts, in other words your mouth turns up, but your eyes don’t crinkle.

Can you fake a smile? — After Duchenne, several researchers used these ideas to research smiling. For years it was believed that the Duchenne smiles were the ones that were seen as genuine, that it was not possible to “fake” a smile, because up to 80% of people can’t consciously control the muscles around the eyes that make them crinkle. Why all the interest in whether a smile is real or fake? Because people are quicker to trust and like other people who are showing what is believed to be genuine emotions rather than fake or contrived ones.

Questioning the 80% figure — Krumhuber and Manstead (2009) decided to research whether it was true that most people couldn’t create a fake smile that looks real. Their results were fairly astounding. They found the opposite of what was previously believed. In their research 83% of the people could produce fake smiles that other people thought were real when they looked at photos of the people pretending to smile.

Videos tell more of the story — They also decided to test videos rather than just photos. What they found was that it was harder to fake a smile in a video, but not because of the crinkly eyes. People could tell real from fake by paying attention to other factors, such as how long they held the smile, and whether they saw other emotions besides happiness, for example, a flicker of impatience. The video made it easier to detect a fake smile because it lasted longer and was dynamic, instead of just an instant’s snapshot.

What do you think? Can you tell a fake smile from a real one?

If you want to read the research:

Krumhuber, Eva G., & Manstead, A. (2009). Can Duchenne smiles be feigned? New evidence on felt and false smiles. Emotion, 9(6), 807-820.

Recognition Is Easier Than Recall

Recognition Is Easier Than Recall


Let’s say I asked you to remember this list of words:










And then later on I asked you to reconstruct the list from memory. That is called a “recall” memory task. Now let’s say I bring you into a kitchen and ask you what items in the kitchen were on the list. That is called a “recognition” memory task.

Recognition is easier than recall – Recognition is easier than recall. Recognition makes use of context. And context can help you remember.

Inclusion errors — Without looking at the the list of words at the top of the blog again, try to write down all the words that were there. Do this now before we continue. Now compare the list of words you wrote down with the list of words at the top. All the words related to things you might find in a kitchen, some were utensils and others were fruit.  There are probably some words that you wrote down that weren’t even in the original list, but that go with the kitchen or fruit, for example, you might have written down “banana”. Banana wasn’t on the list, but it is related to the list through the schema “fruit”. (See the article on schema for more information on how we use schema to think and remember).  A schema can help you remember items, but it also can cause these inclusion errors.

Making things easier – Recognition vs. recall is one of the ways that computer interfaces have changed over time. Many years ago (back before graphical user interfaces were around), people would have to recall a lot more information. For example, there weren’t pull down menus with lists of choices. You had to remember what the choices were and type them in from memory. Worse you probably had to remember what the code was for the choice you wanted and type the code in. This is a recall memory task, and added to the difficulty of use of these early systems. One reason that “Windows” interfaces are easier is that they don’t require as much recall memory. They make more use of recognition memory.

What do you think? How do more modern interfaces make less use of recall and more use of recognition?

Size Matters When It Comes To Fonts

Size Matters When It Comes To Fonts

Briancray via Flickr

When it comes to fonts, size matters a lot. The font size needs to be big enough so that people can read it without strain.

Not just old folks – For older people this is critical. Starting in their 40′s, most people have increasing difficulty reading small fonts. But it’s not just older people that need fonts to be bigger. I’ve conducted many usability tests on web sites and heard people in their late teens and early 20′s make spontaneous comments about the font being too small.

x-height magic — Some fonts can be the same size as others, but look bigger, due to the x-height. The x-height is literally the height of the small letter x in the font family. Look at the illustration at the top of the post to see how the x-height is measured. Different fonts have different x-heights, and as a result, some fonts look larger than others, even though they are the same font point size.

The same but not – Some of the newer font families, such as Tahoma and Verdana, have been created with large x-heights so they will be easier to read on a screen. The paragraphs below show different font families that are all the same size. Some look bigger, however, because of the larger x-height.

What do you think? Do you have trouble reading fonts online? What font types and sizes do you use?

There Is A Brain Area Dedicated To Perceiving Faces

There Is A Brain Area Dedicated To Perceiving Faces

Courtesy of The Faces Of Tomorrow

You are walking down a busy street in a large city and suddenly you see the face of one of your close relatives. Even if you were not expecting to see this person, and even if there are dozens, or even hundreds of people in your visual field, you will immediately recognize this as your (brother mother, sister, cousin). Not only will you recognize them immediately, you will also have an accompanying emotional response (love, hate, fear etc).

Fusiform face area – Although the visual cortex is huge and takes up a large amount of brain resources, there is a special part of the brain outside of the visual cortex whose role it is to recognize faces. It’s called the fusiform face area, or FFA (Kanwisher, 1997). This special part of the brain is also near the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. This means that faces grab attention, are recognized quickly, and bypass the usual brain interpreting channels.

What do you think? Do you find you react to faces at websites? Do they grab your attention?

If you like to read the research:

Kanwisher, N., McDermott J., Chun, M. (1997). The fusiform face area: a module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception. Journal of  Neuroscience, 17(11), 4302–4311.

Titles Provide Context

Titles Provide Context

Read this paragraph:

First you sort the items into like categories. Using color for sorting is common, but you can also use other characteristics, such as texture or type of handling needed. Once you have sorted the items, you are ready to use the equipment. You want to process each category from the sorting separately. Place one category in the machine at a time.

What is the paragraph about? It’s hard to understand. But what if I give you the same paragraph with a title:

Using Your New Washing Machine

First you sort the items into like categories. Using color for sorting is common, but you can also use other characteristics, such as texture or type of handling needed. Once you have sorted the items, you are ready to use the equipment. You want to process each category from the sorting separately. Place one category in the machine at a time.

The paragraph is still poorly written, but now at least it is understandable.

Titles and headings are critical. They provide context and cue your brain and memory for what comes after. Whether or not something is well written or poorly written, titles activate the appropriate schema (see the post on schema for more information).

Titles are important for text, but also for field labels on forms. If you want people to understand what to do, use a clear title that makes sense to them.

What do you think? Do you spend enough time crafting titles?

Repetition Physically Changes Your Brain

Repetition Physically Changes Your Brain

Have you ever wondered what a memory is exactly and how it gets formed? You have hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of memories in your brain. Songs you remember how to sing. Scenes from movies. Memories of last year’s holiday. Facts such as the names of all the planets, and on and on. Do you know what a memory is and how it gets created?

Neurons firing – There are 10 billion neurons in your brain that store information. Electrical impulses flow through a neuron and are moved by neuron-transmitting chemicals across the synaptic gap between neurons. Neurons in your brain fire every time you repeat a word, phrase, song, or phone number you are trying to memorize. Memories are stored as patterns of connections between neurons.

How a memory gets stronger — When two neurons are activated, the connections between them are strengthened. If you repeat the information enough times, the neurons form a “firing trace”. Once the trace is formed, then just starting the sequence triggers the rest of the items, and allows you to retrieve the memory. This is why you need to hear information over and over in order for it to “stick”.

Physical changes in your brain — Experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a few seconds new circuits are formed that can change forever the way you think about something or remember information.

Practice does make perfect – So whether you are trying to remember facts for your next text in school, or learn how to say “I would like a glass of wine” in a new language, or how to play the piano, the more you repeat the activity or thought, the stronger a trace you are making in your brain, and the more likely you will be to remember the information.

The Look Of Someone’s Eyes Determine Whether We Think That Person Is Alive

In a previous post, I talked about the special part of the brain that is for recognizing faces. New research by Christine Looser shows that “the eyes have it” when it comes to faces.

When is a face human and alive? — Christine Looser takes pictures of people and then morphs them in stages into inanimate manniquin faces. She shows the stages and has people decide when the picture is no longer a human and alive. Here is an example of the pictures she uses:


Her research found that there is a spot, about 75% down the continuum, where people say they are not people/alive anymore. She also found that people primarily use the eyes to decide if a picture is human and alive.

What do you think? Starting from the left, which face is “no longer alive”?

And if you like to read the research:

Looser, Christine E. & Wheatley, T. (2010). The tipping point of animacy: How, when, and where we perceive life in a face. Psychological Science, 21(12), 1854–1862.

Past Experience And Expectations Determine Where People Look In A Situation

Past Experience And Expectations Determine Where People Look In A Situation

philoo 14

Where do people look first on a computer screen? Where do they look next? It depends partially on what they are doing and expecting.

Left to right? — If people read in languages that move from left to right, then they tend to look at the screen from left to right. If they read from right to left, it is the opposite.

Not the edges – People tend to ignore the edges of screens. Because people have gotten used to the idea that there are things on computer screens that are not as relevant to the task at hand, such as logos, blank space, and navigation bars,  they tend to move towards the center of the screen and avoid the edges. After the first look at a screen people then move in whatever is their normal reading pattern, in other words left to right/top to bottom in cultures that read that way.

Grabbing attention – If there is something that grabs attention, for example, a large photo (especially one with someone’s face), or movement (animated banner, video) somewhere else on the screen, then you can pull them away from their normal reading path and get them to look elsewhere, at least briefly.

Where to find certain tools and features — People have also gotten used to the location of certain items on a screen. For example, navigation bars are usually on the left or the top. Logos are at the top left. Search is expected at the top, either in the middle or towards the right. Help links or buttons are usually at the top right.

What do you think? Is it important to design with these conventions in mind? Or do you sometimes break out of the mold?

People Filter Information All The Time

People Filter Information All The Time

Have you ever met someone that has a long held belief that they just won’t change, no matter how much evidence you show them that their belief is not tenable? People seek out and pay attention to information and cues that confirm the beliefs that they have. They don’t seek out, in fact they ignore, or even discount, information that doesn’t support what they already believe.

Useful strategy or bad idea? — Filtering is often a useful strategy, since it reduces the amount of information that you have to pay attention to at any one time. But sometimes filtering can lead to bad choices.

Shooting down a commercial jet — In 1988 the US Navy had a ship in the Persian gulf called the USS Vincennes. One day, while scanning the radar on the screen on the ship, the crew saw aircraft headed their way. They decided early on that the approaching aircraft was not a commercial airliner, but a hostile military plane. They shot down the plane, which did turn out to be a commercial airliner with 290 passengers and crew. Everyone died.

Many factors led to this erroneous conclusion – The situation was stressful , and the room was too dark. There were many unclear or ambiguous pieces of information that made it hard for the crew to understand what they were looking at on their screen. Most significant, however, in the incident, is what they chose to pay attention to and what they chose to ignore.

The crew filtered – Several crew members were convinced from the start that it was a hostile military plane, and from that point on they filtered all the information coming in. The crew had rehearsed the a training scenario many times on what to do when there is a hostile military plane in their air space. They ignored evidence that it was, in fact, a commercial plane, paid attention only to the information that led them to think it was a hostile military craft, and then proceeded to carry out the training scenario. All leading them to an incorrect resolution.

What do you think? Are you aware when you are filtering?

Attention Is Selective

Attention Is Selective

Esrah Boulton via Flickr

In the paragraph below, read only the words that are bold, and ignore all the other text.

Somewhere Among hidden on a the desert island most near the spectacular X islands, an cognitive old Survivor abilities contestant is has the concealed ability a box to of gold select won one in a message reward from challenge another. We Although do several hundred this people by (fans, focusing contestants, our and producers) have attention looked on for it certain they cues have such not as found type it style. Rumor When has we it focus that 300 our paces attention due on west certain from stimuli tribal the council message and in then other 200 stimuli paces is due not north X marks clearly the spot identified. Apparently However enough some gold information can from be the had unattended to source purchase may the be very detected island!

Filtering out stimuli – In many situations people get easily distracted. In fact, you can often grab people’s attention away from what they are focusing on. But it is also possible for people to pay attention to one thing and filter out all other stimuli. This is called selective attention.

Unconscious selective attention — You are walking down a path in the woods, thinking about an upcoming business trip you are taking, and you see a snake on the ground. You freeze and jump backwards. Your heart starts racing. You are ready to run away. But wait, it’s not a snake. It’s just a stick. You calm down and keep walking on the path. You noticed the stick, and even responded to it, in a largely unconscious way.My book,  Neuro Web Design: What makes them click, is all about unconscious mental processing. Some of the time you are aware of your conscious selective attention, for example, when you were reading the paragraph at the beginning of the chapter. But there is also a lot of selective attention that operates unconsciously.

What do you think? How good are you at selective attention?

Well Practiced Skills Don’t Require Thinking

I have two grown children. The entire time they were growing up they took Suzuki method music lessons. My son studied violin, and my daughter studied piano. After attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals, I asked her what she was thinking about while she was performing the piano sonata piece (from memory, no music in front of her). Was she thinking about the dynamics of the music? When to get louder or softer? About particular notes or passages that were coming up? Speed or tempo? She looked at me in confusion. “Thinking?”, she said, “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just watching my fingers play the song.” It was my turn to be confused. I turned to my son and said, “Is that how you play the violin in a recital? Are you thinking?” “No, of course I’m not thinking, he answered. I’m watching my fingers play the violin too.”

Muscle memory – The Suzuki method of music instruction (and perhaps other methods too, it’s the only one I’m really familiar with) requires students to intensely practice particular skills on their instrument. In a Suzuki recital students usually do not have music in front of them. All the pieces (and quite complicated pieces) are memorized. This requires that particular passages and songs be practiced over and over. A term that is used in music instruction is “muscle memory”. The piece is practiced so often, that the muscles remember how to play it on its own, without thinking involved.

Automatic execution? — If a skill is practiced so well that it is automatic, then it can be performed with a minimum of conscious attention. If it is really automatic then it almost allows multi-tasking. I say almost because multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.

Too many automatic steps can lead to error – Have you ever been using a software application that requires you to go through a series of steps in order to delete an item? You have to click on the item you’re your mouse, then click on the delete key, then a window pops up and you have to click on the “Yes” button to confirm. You need to do about 25 of these, so you position your fingers on the mouse and keyboard in an optimal way and start pressing and clicking. Before too long your fingers have taken over, and you aren’t even thinking about what you are doing. It’s very easy in this type of situation to accident ly keep deleting past where you were supposed to.

What do you think? Are there tasks you do automatically?


Sustained Attention Lasts 10 Minutes

Sustained Attention Lasts 10 Minutes

You are sitting in a meeting, and someone is presenting sales figures for last quarter. How long can this person hold your attention?

7-10 — If the topic is of interest to you, and the person is a good presenter, the maximum you can focus on the presentation is about 7-10 minutes. And if you are not interested in the topic and/or the presenter is particularly boring, then you’ll lose interest much faster. For most people performing most tasks, they can hold attention for 7 to 10 minutes, and then the attention will start to wane.

Break buys you another 7-10 – People can take a short break and then start over with another 7 to 10 minutes period, but 7 to 10 minutes is about how long they can pay attention to one task.

The end of a journey — For those of you who have been following my series, “100 Things You Should Know About People”, you probably realized that with this post I have reached the end of my 100 Things. Stay tuned for what comes next!