Archive for the ‘Neuroscience & Psychology’ Category

February 10th, 2011


By Kyle Morich

This past Sunday, I hosted my annual Super Bowl party for my family and friends. The ambient noise drowned out much of the game and many of the famously expensive commercials, which for the most part is a good thing (I’m looking at you GoDaddy).  However, one ad I did actually watch this year, for Bud Light, caught my attention.  It reminded me of popcorn.

In a study currently under peer review, a team of researchers led by David Neal1 set out to discover if goals and preferences truly control human behavior.  Neal’s team brought in a large group of moviegoers, gave them a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water, and asked them to review movie trailers.  However, the study wasn’t about the movie trailers, it was about the popcorn.

The researchers divided the moviegoers into two groups.  One group got fresh popcorn, made that day.  The other group got a warmed-up bag of stale popcorn that had been made seven days prior to the experiment.  Upon leaving the theater, the bags of popcorn were collected and weighed to assess how much of the 60-gram bag each moviegoer had eaten.  These moviegoers were then given a version of the Self-Report Habit Index to assess how habitually they ate popcorn whenever they went to the movies.

For non-habitual popcorn eaters, the results are unsurprising.  They ate most of the bag of fresh popcorn and barely touched the stale bags.  For the habitual popcorn eaters, however, the amount eaten was high regardless of the popcorn’s freshness.  They chowed down.  Neal’s team then asked the moviegoers to rate the taste of the popcorn.  Amazingly, the habitual popcorn eaters who received the stale popcorn knew the popcorn tasted bad. But they ate it anyway.  Their behavior was completely controlled by the movie theater context, not their taste.

Just to confirm the role of context in habitual behavior, Neal performed the same experiment again, but in a well-lit laboratory using a small-screen television.  This time, the habitual popcorn eaters wanted nothing to do with the stale popcorn.  Only in a darkened theater, surrounded by the sights, smells, and other stimuli their brains had associated with the context, was the habit cued.


January 21st, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions and the Myth of 21 Days

By Kyle Morich

We’re 21 days into the New Year: how are your new habits going?

I felt compelled, like many of us, to come up with a list of resolutions for the New Year.  Some I’ve done well with (enjoying more quality leisure time) and others have been completely ignored (spending less time during the day browsing the web).  Numerous publications and commercial blogs (Lifehacker, for instance) got a lot of mileage in the first few days of 2011 on articles discussing good and bad habits and how to change them.  One of the more frequent pieces of advice alluded to the “21 Day Habit Theory.”  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it originated with Maxwell Maltz’s 1971 self-help book Pscho-Cybernetics that suggested the brain needs 21 straight days of a behavior to make the proper neural connections that allow habits to form.  The idea has stuck around because A) it was a popular book, selling over 1 million copies and B) because it SEEMS right.


October 15th, 2010

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

By Kyle Morich

Priming occurs when exposure to some stimulus affects the way you respond to another stimulus.  A classic study of priming by John Bargh (1) examined how exposing an individual to traits and stereotypes from another group affected that individual’s behavior.  Bargh took 30 NYU psych students and had them complete a scrambled sentence test.  Unbeknownst to half of the students, their tests contained words associated with elderly stereotypes (e.g., Florida, old, grey, wise, bingo, retired, etc.).  None of the students had any idea they had been primed with the sentence tests.  What Bargh did next was brilliant, and provided some of the first evidence that what our brains perceive has a tangible impact on our subsequent behavior.  After each student completed his or her test, he timed how long it took for the student to walk down the hall to the elevator.  Bargh discovered that those students primed with the elderly stereotype walked slower to the elevator.

But the curiosities of priming on social behavior don’t stop here.  Bargh’s experiment showed that an individual tends to assimilate the behavior traits of a different group when exposed to stereotypes of that group.  We actually see the opposite effect when an individual is exposed to the traits of another individual.  In a recreation of the Bargh experiment by Dijksterhuis (2), individuals primed with a specific example of an elderly individual (in this case, the Dutch Queen Mother) walked faster than the control group.  This behavioral contrast occurs because our brains implicitly compare its traits with that of the primed example.  We tend to naturally contrast ourselves against individuals we see as different than us. (more…)

September 30th, 2010

Beyond 70.3: The Habit Vacuum

By Kyle Morich

Last Sunday, I competed in the ESI Ironman 70.3 in Augusta, Georgia.  A half-Ironman, the race was a grueling 1.2 mile swim in the Savannah River, a 56 mile bike ride in the rolling hills of South Carolina, and a 13.1 mile run on the flat city streets of downtown Augusta.  I finished in 4 hours and 57 minutes, beating my goal by 3 minutes, and I consider the athletic feat one of the better accomplishments in my lifetime.

But now it’s all over.  After 4 straight months of training six days a week, swimming 50,000 yards, biking nearly 1500 miles, and running 250 miles in preparation for the five hours of athletic performance, I have nothing to do.  While my body is certainly appreciative of the break, my mind feels very uncomfortable with the whole thing.  Consider the routine behaviors that are now disrupted or eliminated by the abrupt end to my triathlon season:

  • The time I wake up in the morning
  • The type of breakfast I eat
  • The exercise session before work
  • The number of meals I eat during the day, and the types of food I eat
  • The time I leave from work
  • The route I take home from work
  • The exercise session after work
  • The time I eat dinner
  • The time I go to bed
  • The time I wake up on weekends
  • The long training sessions on Saturday and Sunday mornings
  • The daily tracking of my training progress

And so on.  (more…)

August 9th, 2010

Priming Bunches of Oats

By Kyle Morich

I have a cereal habit.  Every morning, I eat two bowls of cereal for breakfast. This week my cereal options were Honey Bunches of Oats and Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds (yes, they actually taste exactly the same, but there was a 2-for-1 deal at my grocery store and I couldn’t bring myself to buy two of the same box).  If I have the supplies, I almost always add some fresh fruit to the bowl – usually bananas, strawberries, or blueberries, depending on what strikes my fancy.  I’ve been doing this for years, and with the exception of Lent and other periods of time where I try to consciously cut my carb intake, I do it automatically.

This morning, I had a shocking revelation.  With the regular Honey Bunches of Oats, I usually add bananas or strawberries.  But unless I’m actively trying to use up some overripe fruit, I almost always add blueberries to the Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds.  Remember, except for the slivers of almonds, these cereals taste identical.  My only explanation is that the color of the box (a vibrant blue for the Almond variety) is subconsciously priming me to choose the blueberries to accompany my cereal.

Priming occurs when something perceived by the brain on the non-conscious level influences a future behavior.  Scientists have demonstrated priming through a variety of ways.  In one study, participants who were shown pictures of stadiums and other loud settings unknowingly increased the volume at which they spoke.  In another, students were asked to write down the last two numbers of their social security number and then bid on a bottle of wine.  The students with higher SS digits tended to bid higher.  In yet another, participants completed a word search puzzle before playing a card game.  Some of the word search puzzles contained words associated with achievement.  The participants who were primed by the achievement-laden puzzles were shown to play the card game much more competitively.

I’m not advocating subliminal advertising or manipulation here, nor implying a vast conspiracy between Post Cereals and the Blueberry Industry.  I like the cereal and I like the blueberries, and at some point in my life I made a conscious decision to use both products.  The Blue Box wouldn’t have primed me to choose blueberries over strawberries if I didn’t like blueberries.  Priming is a powerful tool, but a subtle one.

This is a good lesson for marketers.  Priming behavior is extremely important when it comes to establishing consumer habits for products and services.  It is basically giving the unconscious mind clues about what it should be doing.  The unconscious mind is responsible for up to 95% of behavior, but most advertising and marketing efforts consist of verbal, conscious-level appeals.  Priming is silent and non-verbal, and is a way to speak to the part of the mind that controls the majority of consumer behavior.

June 18th, 2010

Habit Making and Breaking, Part 1: What is a Habit?

By Kyle Morich

The press is quick to throw around the word ‘habit’ these days, without much pause for what a habit really is.  Habit is used as a pejorative lament about our inability to change our health or financial actions, like with smoking, eating junk food, or using credit cards.  At the same time, it’s also used as a brilliant panacea for those very same problems.  These same articles disparaging or extolling the influence of habits in our lives tend to omit any strategies for breaking or building these habitual behaviors beyond general mantras of “avoid it” or “do it a lot for three weeks.”

So what is a habit?  By colloquial usage, a habit is something you do automatically, without thinking consciously.  But scientifically, it is much more specific than that.  A habit is an unconscious behavior that has four key elements:  a context, repetition, reinforcement, and cues. (more…)