Mind Your Language

ImageWords matter. We all know that.

The difference between someone choosing life-changing surgery might be whether you tell them it has an 80% survival rate, or a 20% mortality rate.

We know it as conversationalists, when we use the wrong word and watch our friend’s face fall.

We know that as advertisers. It’s why we change a runny yoghurt into a ‘probiotic drink’, mark it up 100% and sell it as a health product. It changes the frame of reference, both for the category its sold in, and the consumers who buy it. 

Now this study about how words prompt us what to see. If prompted with ‘dog’, participants were more likely to see the image of the dog being shown – an aspect of priming perhaps. But also proof that language and sight are intertwined. That language helps us order our world and also makes sense of it.

The most interesting part is the last:

Lupyan now wants to study how the language we speak influences the ability of certain terms to help us spot images. For instance, breeds might be categorised differently in different languages and might not all become visible when volunteers hear their language’s word for “dog”.

It’s something literary criticism has struggled with before. How is the signified – the object itself – related to the referent – the word? And how does this change across languages and cultures?

There’s an amazing two parter here about how we divided up the colours in our cultures, naming them differently. What is distinctly either blue and green to us might just be purueda in Korean. 

And what fascinates me too is the words that simply can’t be translated, full of the promises and shapes of hidden cultural structures, that have risen to the surface in some of the world’s languages, but not others. My favourite’s iktsuarpok – to keep going to the front door and looking outside to check if someone you’re waiting for is coming down the road.

What we haven’t studied is how this matters. Do you see more vividly, do you notice individual objects more closely, if those colours are separated? Do you care more about certain breeds if you classify them as ‘dog’ over ‘large rabbit’? The Eskimos may not have a hundred words for snow, but the myth that they do has captured our imaginations.

When we carve up and name our world, language matters.

We just don’t know how yet.

What’s In A Name?

doff thy nameMaybe your parents chose it for you. Maybe you chose it for yourself. It’s probably your father’s surname, though I know people who have hyphenated, or a husband’s, or a great-grandmother’s, or even a hippy blend of both their parents’ first names. And your parents picked out your first name, hopefully checking it for potential teasing nicknames and terrible combinations of initials. But your name might have even further-reaching consequences.

There’s a bizarre phenomenon where people’s own surnames guide them towards their career paths. The New Scientist nicknamed this ‘nominative deternism’ after noticing trend in scientists’ names to reflect on their subjects, including a paper on incontinence, written by J W Splatt and D Weedon.* It might also be genetic – that a good baker comes from a long line of ‘Bakers’, who were originally named for their trade. (No comment on the urologists though.)

The Economist even identifies that world leaders are much more likely to have surnames with A-M than the last half of the alphabet.* It might be that the early-letter surnames spend their time sitting alphabetically, at the front of the class, receiving more attention, being asked to speak more often, and learning more. Or that we still see lists as orders of merits – with those at the top, with the earliest surnames, being the best. The same effect is found for fellowships and Nobel Prizes in economics, where names of contributors are cited alphabetically, but not for psychology, where you’re credited according to the size of your contribution.*

People are even more likely to give to a hurricane relief effort if the initial of the hurricane matches that of their name.*

Our names form a crucial part of our identities, something others label us by. How often have you felt more drawn to, or more competitive with, someone who shares your name? And notice how weirdly intimate you feel when a relative stranger keeps calling you by your name all the time: a standard persuasive technique for pushy salespeople or flirty shop assistants.

‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet might have asked, but a Rose by any other name may not be as sweet.

In your prime

older_manI’ve just started reading Lean In and Sheryl Sandberg has a great piece on priming.


Sandberg calls it the ‘stereotype threat’ – that if you suggest a stereotype to people, they are likely to live up to it. So, as boys are stereotyped as better at maths and science than girls, you ask children to tick a gender box on the top of their maths test. The girls then perform worse.* But it’s also an example of social priming.


Here’s another example: students were given words that reminded them of elderly people, such as retirement, wrinkle, forgetful, in an unrelated test then measured secretly as they walked down the corridor. Those primed with elderly words walked more slowly than those primed with neutral (unless you disliked elderly people, and then you walked faster!) Another group were primed with rude and neutral words: those with rude were more likely to interrupt.*


So even the words we use, without being aware of it, change the way we act towards others. Considering how often we’ve filled in our names and dates of birth on the front of tests, how have we quietly primed ourselves to succeed or fail, based off subliminal stereotypes?


Currently, priming is having a moment of crisis, as some studies fail to replicate the original results. (Replication means the ability of an entire study to be done again, or done by other people, to cross-check the results, and is a cornerstone of scientific knowledge.)*


Yet social priming still seems a powerful tool. How can we overturn the implicit stereotypes in our society? And how can we use our primed selves to demonstrate greater empathy, or prime ourselves for more positive traits? 


And if you suddenly feel a little more frail, check the photo at the top of this post again, and wonder if you’ve been primed.


* http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00362.x/abstract

* http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.230

* http://www.nature.com/news/disputed-results-a-fresh-blow-for-social-psychology-1.12902

Our (remembering) self

ImageOne of the experiments that most powerfully affected me from Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow was the cold water trial.

Participants went through a trial where they measured levels of pain while placing one hand in cold water. They had one 60 second trial in 14 degree Celsius water, which is painfully cold but not unbearable. They had a second trial that lasted longer – for 90 seconds, where 60 seconds were in the cold water, then another 30 seconds in that water that was secretly made one degree warmer. The trials were carefully controlled – participants were randomly assigned different hands and different orders for their trials, and didn’t know how long their trials were.

They were then given the option of repeating one of the trials. Over 80% chose the longer trial, voluntarily choosing to suffer 30 extra seconds of needless pain. If they’d been told the trial was longer, they wouldn’t have picked it. But how people remembered pain and how they actually experienced pain was different.

This is due to a conflict between our remembering and experiencing selves. Our experiencing self suffers more pain while the trial is happening – but our remembering self remembers only the worst or best moment, and the end. This is called the ‘peak-end rule’. Kahneman then explores the implications of this for doctors, national happiness, and palliative care at the end of life. Should doctors aim to minimise pain at the end of the procedure, not control it during? Are you happier with more money?

However, what blows me away about this is how this changes our notion of self. We constantly alter how we actually experience the world around us, in order to fit in with our memories and our sense of self. Every minute, we are changing what is actually happening in order to construct our own narratives, overcoming actual real-life experience in order to form cohesive memories.

Who we are is not what we are experiencing – but what we remember.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

Extra link: Daniel Kahneman on The Riddle of Experience vs Memory, TED



What is this picture?

It is not merely, as it seems, a photo of some samples of Lush leave in hair conditioner sitting on my bathroom shelf.

It is, in fact, a behavioural problem. Or to be more specific, a context problem.

See, these samples, so generously given by a Lush employee (who then pursued me for a date over Facebook, which is an entirely different problem, mired in the delicate etiquette of flirting for free samples) have sat in my bathroom, unused, for about a year now.

I put them in the bathroom because that’s where I shampoo and condition my hair and do other various beautification tasks to make me the glossy-haired vision of perfection you see before you.

But this is a leave-in conditioner – an altogether different beast – meaning it needs at least ten minutes on my hair to permeate through before being shampooed out. And I’m always in the bathroom either about to shower and impatient, or just leaving the shower when it’s already too late.

The fact is – this conditioner is in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Behaviourally, contextually, it just doesn’t work.

Where and when have always been important in behavioural change. The people who persuaded consumers to use Listerine as a once-a-day bad breath prevention product, instead of an occasional salve for cuts and grazes, understood that, as surely as they understood inventing neurosis over halitosis and the laws of volume (mouthwash using up more product than treating scrapes).

Habit formation really interests me. You might have heard the adage ‘it takes 21 days to form a new habit’ – though current research pegs it at more like 66 days (depending on the complexity of the task).

It’s also easier to do something every day rather than every other. If you go to the gym every day, for example, it becomes a habit, rather than requiring constant bursts of willpower. Good habits are hard to form, and bad ones hard to break. A habit has a powerful cultural context that comes attached to it – think of toothpaste, or shaving.

So two small conclusions.

Firstly, put something in the right place at the right time.

Secondly, if you want to do it more than once, turn it into a habit.

We Love Our Pack

ImageThere is a single line that can increase the rate of tax repayments by around 15%. And that line is:

‘Nine out of ten people in your area pay their tax on time.’ *

We are in many ways still pack creatures. We act as a herd. We obey certain social norms. We fit in.

And we like to copy people around us. We like to do what they do.

When someone near you yawns, you often find yourself stifling a yawn a few seconds later. No one knows why yawning is ‘contagious’ but it’s easier to catch if we feel emotionally connected to the person yawning – relatives first, then friends, then strangers. There are suggestions as to why we catch yawns – to help synchronise sleeping patterns as a pack, to put us all into the same mood, to show empathy – but no one knows why this behaviour is quite so social.

Studies have showed that even dogs catch yawns from humans – they will yawn and settle down if we do, but they’re not fooled if we only open and close our mouths. Younger dogs don’t catch the yawns in the same way – it’s only over 7 months old that the puppies begin to copy us. *(Have fun practising on your dog today!)

Such social behaviour is vital even now. The code of morals and expectations we all agree on keeps the fabric of society together. We still yearn to be part of the pack.

* Behavioural Insights Team report

* http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7541633.stm

Drake’s Uncle

I never really had no one like you man this all new, shit,

Made the world I knew bigger, changed the way that I viewed it.

Drake – Look What You’ve Done


We all need someone like Drake’s uncle. Someone who comes with a fresh perspective, expands our existing frame of reference and changes the way we see things. Someone who, as Daniel Kahnman might say, provides the outside view, not the inside view.


We plan ahead based on what we know – the inside view of our lives, of past experiences and our abilities. This, combined with usual human optimism, means we always think forecasted projects will be faster, cheaper and less risky than it is. Big government projects continually come in wildly over budget and over time, as the general public could gloomily predict. Or, on a more local level, your kitchen renovation always costs double what it was meant to.


Kahneman and Tversky recommend instead ‘reference class forecasting’. Instead of relying on what you know – or what you think you know, study the outcomes of other, similar projects and estimate the probability of the most likely outcome of yours.


The outside view shouldn’t just be for the economics of new train lines and Olympic Games. It’s worth us remembering that everything we do is praised and okay’d within a very small circle of similar people. In advertising, we optimistically predict our Youtube advert will be a huge viral success – after all, have we not lavished our talents on it, sweated over it, produced it? Our client loves it. But just one person less close to the project could tell us how boring it really is.


Often in meetings, I have to stop myself saying ‘my brother wouldn’t get this’ or ‘my mum would love this’. And while it’s a mistake to base a whole campaign off one relative’s likes or dislikes, it’s probably worth hearing their views. After all, the target customer is unlikely to be the web-savvy, hyper-connected, bandwagon-leaping advertising exec. Maybe you can’t imagine life without them, but only 16% of the UK’s population are on Twitter and 50% are on Facebook. So it’s time to ask – what are the other half doing? How can they make our world bigger?


'Limited time only' - BUY BUY BUYThe posts below in my blog are often a collection of behavioural observations or psychological science pieces that I find interesting and thought provoking. But what I struggle with is how they can usefully be applied to advertising.

It’s intriguing to know how bitter drinks make us more judgemental (especially if we’re conservative over liberal) or that heavy shopping bags make us make ‘weightier’ decisions. But are there ways we can usefully apply these conclusions to advertising?

Some of these unconscious markers have no doubt been put to use already. Supermarkets long found out that pumping the smell of baking bread throughout a store powerfully triggers the shoppers’ memory, salivary glands and impulse to buy, more so than a simple image of a loaf.

But perhaps we should be using this instinct for good – steering shoppers towards fresh tomatoes or ripe strawberries instead. We can usefully place charity boxes at the top of escalators to increase takings; we can also plaster billboards with tempting images of McDonalds burgers that are activated only during lunch breaks, when people are hungry and worse at making healthy food choices.

With advertising power should come great responsibility. Our ability to optimise choice architecture and the ethics of doing so is extensively covered in Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge so I won’t go into it here, but we should be wary of manipulating our own survival instincts and unconscious urges for the worse.

Some human behaviours are more general. My favourite thought to keep in mind when thinking of advertising is that humans are inherently lazy. We won’t go out of our way if we can help it – only very interesting campaigns (or the usual ‘Win an iPad’) break through consumer apathy. So remove as many of the barriers to entry for your idea as possible.

Sure, it’s altruistic and nice to sign up to the bone marrow register and save lives but it seems like a lot of hassle, and it doesn’t appear or affect our day to day life. We’ll get round to it some day, probably. That’s why ideas like this Cannes Lion award winner are so good – they make things easy for a person to join in, and they’re part of his or her everyday. Tiny changes, like moving the most helpful reviews to the top on Amazon, can increase revenues by millions of dollars. If you make things easier and more natural for the consumer, sales and engagement will automatically increase. No wonder UX or UCD (user centred design) is becoming more prominent and important in advertising agencies.

Back to the question of application, I don’t think the science of decision making or our understanding of ourselves is broad or deep enough yet to effectively and consistently use these conclusions. This is why behavioural economics has not entirely taken over the ad industry.

Yet we can see how far we have come from a rational model of consumer motivations, to research and focus groups, to selling on emotion and Steve Jobs’ statement that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” I thus have no doubts we’ll continue to, if not fully understand, at least explore and comment on our unconscious motivations to ‘do things’. Hopefully, we’ll learn to exploit our natural behaviours to make us healthier, happier and kinder. Or maybe we’ll just be unconsciously persuaded to buy more stuff we don’t need.