The Psychology of UX: Part 8

Hello and welcome back to the Psychology of UX series! Today we are going to be learning about how your unconscious affects your decision-making and how this relates to the web.

Most mental processing occurs unconsciously

The brain often acts without our conscious knowledge. The reason for this is that we have three brains. The old brain, the mid brain (emotional), and the new brain.

The old brain makes most of our decisions

…based on food, sex and danger. These things grab our attention because they determine our possibilities for survival. The old brain was the first to be developed in the evolutionary history of animals and humans. It is the part of the brain that constantly, unconsciously, assesses your environment, deciding what is safe and what isn’t. It controls automatic unconscious processes like breathing and digestion.

As the old brains is concerned with survival above all, nothing is more important that ‘YOU’ to your old brain.

As soon as something relates to you, or the word ‘you’ is used, your old brain switches its focus to that thing. Susan Weinschenk gives this example in her book ‘Neuro Web Design’ where she demonstrates the power of using the word ‘you’ to sway people towards a product.

First product description: “This software has many built-in features that allow for photos to be uploaded, organised and stored. Photos can be searched for with only a few steps.”

Now read this paragraph for the same product: “You can upload your photos quickly, organise them any way you want to and then store them so that they are easy to share with your friends. You can find any photo with only a few steps.”  Which product would you buy? You’d likely buy the one that says “you” and “your”. This is not a conscious decision. Your non-conscious brain will tell you that the second product is better for you.

In addition, the old brain is always looking for potential threats, food or opportunities for sex and therefore is very skilled at noticing change. As mentioned above, it is constantly scanning its environment observing changes. And there are a LOT of changes in your environment. The estimate is 11 million piece of information every second. Of that, only 40 are conscious. The unconscious mind lets us process all incoming data and evaluate what is good or bad.

“The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jet liner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.”

Timothy D Wilson

It is a hugely efficient tool that shows us what to pay attention to consciously while skimming through the rest. As you might remember from my previous post, multitasking is impossible– we can only focus on one thing at a time– so we need to make sure it’s worth our conscious attention. That’s why it’s such a successful system.

“The only way that human beings could ever have survived as a species for as long as we have is that we’ve developed another kind of decision-making apparatus that’s capable of making very quick judgements based on very little information.”

Malcolm Gladwell

The emotional brain is impulsive.

The emotional brain is (obviously) where all emotions are processed, and it is the root of impulses. Because of this it makes a big impact on our decision-making. The old brain and the emotional brain are very connected in the sense that if the old brain is highly aroused (by fear, or desire) the emotional brain deeply processes this information and etches it in our memory.

Because we are natural visual processors, we respond to pictures and imagery the most. Changes in visuals are easily picked up. Similarly when we think of stories or read, we break the ideas into images in our minds. These images arouse emotions in us. Imagine a news story of a plane crash with a front-page cover of burning, twisted metal shrapnel. That’s going to affect your emotional brain quite a bit. Similarly photos of a sexual nature, food or potentially dangerous scenarios will grab our attention with the old brain and sway our emotions with the midbrain.

Our behaviour is affected by things we aren’t consciously aware of.

“Unconscious processing can give rise to feelings, thoughts, perceptions, skills, habits, automatic reactions, complexes, hidden phobias and concealed desires.”- Wikipedia

One way that scientists have observed this is in the instance of ‘framing’. In ‘framing’, your old brain and new brain receive these unconscious messages and you act upon them. In one study, they saw that using the words “retired”, “Florida” and “tired” actually made people walk slower. Amazingly, a great portion of people’s behavior is driven by factors that they aren’t even aware of.

Both brains act without our knowledge. Rational reasoning is normally not the deciding factor.

Both the old brain and the emotional brain act without our conscious knowledge. People will always assume they made a rational and conscious decision, but in reality our decisions always start from our old- and mid-brains, and sometimes finish there too. Some decisions may come from your new brain (rational), but most are based on the subliminal messages our other brains give us based on things we react to in our environment.

How does this affect web design?

When a website addresses all three brains, then we click and engage with the site.

If a site is visually arousing, we’ll pay attention. If it seems to address ‘our’ needs and relates to ‘you’, we’ll pay attention. If there are a lot of changes, such as movement, carousels, videos, banner ads… it will grab our attention (even if we don’t like it).

By tending to our old and mid-brain triggers (food, sex, danger, movement, change, visuals/imagery, and focus on ‘you’) with appropriate web design decisions, users won’t stand a chance at resisting clicking around a bit.

Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed it. Next time we’ll be learning about how mental models affect how we should design our products.


One thought on “The Psychology of UX: Part 8”

    “The emotional brain is (obviously) where all emotions are processed, and it is the root of impulses. Because of this it makes a big impact on our decision-making. The old brain and the emotional brain are very connected in the sense that if the old brain is highly aroused (by fear, or desire) the emotional brain deeply processes this information and etches it in our memory.”
    MD – Feb 1 2012
    The emotional brain is certainly highly sensitized to all sort of emotional input, but does this necessarily nullify human control of even the chiefist of impulses? Most Yanks (and Brits) exercise impulse control through established value systems, further directing impulse and desire. Yet this appears to be minimized in your analysis (excellent by the way). Yet I would argue that an established Value model, along with such amazing processing of environmental data, further separates human from non-human, and makes me and “You” special!
    Finally, I wonder if your description of the dual coordination of old and emotional brains must always end in memory etching? Gate theory suggests a filtering process directing emotion, desire, and impulse toward or away from memory etching. Hence, input control.
    Love your work!
    From the Yank side,

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