48 Psychological Facts You Should Know About Yourself

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Photo: Kevin Dooley via Flickr

The key to figuring out what isn’t working in your life is understanding some basic psychological facts about yourself — like why we can’t resist paying attention to sex and danger, or that people see what they want to see.

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In the past few months we’ve published 100 Mind-Blowing Psychological Facts You Should Know About Yourself. Today we’re highlighting our favourites from the list.

Dr. Susan Weinschenk is a behavioural scientist. All slides have been republished from her blog, Whatmakesthemclick.net.

#1: Why You Can't Resist Paying Attention to Food, Sex, or Danger

#2: Bite-Sized Chunks Of Info Are Best

I am about to head to Portugal for a week, and I was interested in exploring different possible destinations in Portugal. I may not have much time for touring (I'm going to speak at the UXLX conference there), but if I did have time, where should I go? I have to admit to pretty much total ignorance about Portugal, the different regions, landscapes, and parts of the country, so I went to the official tourism web site for the country.

Give me a little bit at a time -- The Portugal tourism site did an OK job of what is called progressive disclosure. This is fancy term that is used in the field of psychology to refer to providing information in increasing chunks of size and complexity.

We can only handle so much -- Humans can only process small amounts of information at a time (consciously that is… the estimate is that we handle 40,000,000 pieces of information every second, but only 40 of those make it to our conscious brains). One mistake that web sites make is to give too much information all at once, like this web site from the Canadian government:

There is no chunking here, there is not progressive disclosure. It's just all the information thrown on the page all at once. The result? You don't read it, you just leave.

Feeding bits of information -- The Portugal site was just OK when it came to progressive disclosure. New Zealand does a much better job. The New Zealand tourism site has multiple levels of disclosure, feeding you the information bit by bit. Here's the first page on the regions of New Zealand:

Here, I see the overall map and names of the different regions. If I hover over one of the regions in the list then I see a thumbnail of information:

Continuing on with this idea of progressive disclosure, if I click on that region then I link to a page with more pictures and little more detail:

There is a big map and there are tabs to go to for more information. If I scroll down I'll have details on the region:

This is a great example of how to use progressive disclosure.

It's not the clicks that count (pun intended) -- One thing I'd like to point out is that progressive disclosure requires multiple clicks. Sometimes you will hear people say that websites should minimize the number of clicks that people have to make to get to the detailed information. The number of clicks is not the important criteria. People are very willing to make multiple clicks, in fact that won't even notice they are making the clicks, if they are getting the right amount of information at each click to keep them going down the path.

Think progressive disclosure, don't count clicks.

Should I let the web site design influence whether I book a ticket? Not this time at least. This time I'm headed for Portugal, where I plan to use the Portugal tourism site as a case study in my workshop!

Originally published on WhatMakesThemClick.net.

#3: You Know How To Do Things You've Never Done Before

#4: Even The Illusion Of Progress Is Motivating

#5: 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 realised 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.

#6: People Process Information Best In Story Form

#7: Your Unconscious Knows First

#8: What People Look At On a Picture Or Screen Depends On What You Say To Them

#9: You Overestimate Your Reactions to Future Events

Here's is a thought experiment -- On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, rate how happy you are right now. Write that number down. Now, I want you to imagine that today you win the lottery. You now have more money than you ever thought you would. You have millions and millions of dollars. At the end of today what would be your happiness rating? Write that number down. What about 2 years from now? What will be your happiness rating 2 years from now if today you win millions and millions in the lottery?

People are poor predictors -- In his great book, Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert discusses the research he and others have conducted on predicting or estimating emotional reactions to events. What he has found is that people greatly overestimate the reaction they think they will have to both pleasant and unpleasant events that happen in one's life. Whether it is predicting how you will feel if a negative event happens, for example, if you lose your job, have an accident, or if a loved one dies, or predicting how you will feel if a positive event happens, such as coming into a lot of money, landing the dream job, or finding the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, everyone tends to overestimate their reaction. If the event is negative you predict that you will be very upset and devastated for a long time. If the event is positive you predict that you will be deliriously happy for a long time.

A built-in regulator -- The truth is that you have a built-in regulator of sorts so that whether negative events happen or positive events happen, you stay at about the same level of happiness most of the time. Some people are generally happier or less happy than others, and this level of happiness stays constant no matter what happens to them.

Preference vs. Reality -- One interesting implication of this is in the field of marketing or user experience research. Be careful of believing customers if they tell you that by making this change or that change to a product that means that they would be much happier with it, or that they would never use it again. People may prefer one thing over another or think they will, but the strength of their reaction, either in a positive or a negative way, is probably not as much as they imagine it will be.

Have you experienced this difference between your own predictions and reactions? Have there been times when you were sure that a particular event would mean you would be really happy or unhappy and it turned out differently than you imagined?

For more reading:

Stumbling on Happiness By Dan Gilbert

Originally published on WhatMakesThemClick.net.

#10: Peripheral Vison — Keeping You Alive or Channel Surfing?

#11: Too Much Stress Results In Poor Performance

#13: You Are Hard-Wired For Imitation and Empathy

#15: Your Most Vivid Memories Are Wrong

#16: No Two People Perceive Time In The Same Way

#17: You Are Most Affected By Brands and Logos When You Are Sad Or Scared

Here's Scenario 1: You get together with your friends to watch your home team play a game on TV. They win! After an afternoon of fun and friendship you stop at a grocery store on your way home. You are in a good mood. Are you more or less likely to buy the usual cereal you always buy or will you try something new?

Here's Scenario 2: It's Friday afternoon and your boss calls you in to tell you that he's not happy with your latest project report. This is the project that you repeatedly told him was in trouble and you asked that more staff be assigned. You feel all your warnings were ignored. Now he's telling you that this work will reflect badly on you and you may even lose your job. On the way home you stop at the grocery store. You are sad and scared. Are you more or less likely to buy the usual cereal you always buy, or will you try something new?

You Want What's Familiar -- A series of research studies by Marieke de Vries of Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, shows that when people are sad or scared, they want what is familiar. When people are in a happy mood they are not as sensitive to what is familiar, and are willing to try something new and different.

Related to Fear of Loss -- This craving of the familiar, and a preference for familiar brand is probably tied to our basic fear of loss. In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I have a chapter on the fear of loss. When we are sad or scared, our old brain and our mid (emotional) brain are on alert. We have to protect ourselves. And a quick way to be safe is to go with what you know; what you are familiar with. A strong brand is familiar. A strong logo is familiar. So when we are sad or scared we will reach for a brand and logo we know.

It's Easy to Change Someone's Mood -- It turns out it is remarkably easy to affect someone's mood, especially in the short term (like long enough for them to make a purchase at a web site). In Marieke de Vries's research they showed video clips of the Muppets (to instigate a good mood) vs. the movie Schindler's list (to instigate a bad mood). People reported their mood as significantly elevated after the Muppets and significantly lowered after Schindler's list. This mood change then affected their actions in the rest of the research study.

Take-Aways -- If you are giving messages of fear, loss, problems etc, that will result in more action taken if your brand is familiar. If you are giving messages of fun, lightness, and humour, that will result in more action taken if your brand is new.

Have you found this to be true in your experience?

Originally published on WhatMakesThemClick.net.

#18: Trust Your Gut or Be Logical? It Depends On Your Mood

#19: Culture Shapes Our Brain

#21: The more uncertain you are, the more you dig in and defend your ideas

#22: Your Mind Wanders 30% of the Time

#23: Synchronous activity bonds the group

#24: People Make Mistakes

#25: People Are Inherently Lazy

#26: People Assume It's You, Not The Situation

#27: The Desire For Control And Choice Is Built In

#28: People Expect Online Interactions to Follow Social Rules

#29: When Uncertain, People Look To Others to Decide What To Do

#30: You Choose (And Vote For) The First One On The List

#31: You READ FASTER With a longer Line Length But PREFER Shorter

Have you ever had to decide how wide a column of text you should use on a screen? Should you use a wide column with 100 characters per line? or a short column with 50 characters per line?

It turns out that the answer depends on whether you want people to read faster or whether you want them to like the page!

Research (see reference below) demonstrates that 100 characters per line is the optimal length for on-screen reading speed; but it's not what people prefer. People read faster with longer line lengths (100 characters per line), but they prefer a short or medium line length (45 to 72 characters per line). In the example above from the New York Times Reader, the line length averages 39 characters per line.

The research also shows that people can read one single wide column faster than multiple columns, but they prefer multiple columns (like the New York Times Reader above).

So if you ask people which they prefer they will say multiple columns with short line lengths. Interestingly, if you ask them which they read faster, they will insist it is also the multiple columns with short line lengths, even though the data shows otherwise.

It's a quandary: Do you give people what they prefer or go against their own preference and intuition, knowing that they will read faster if you use a longer line length and one column?

What would you do?

Originally published on WhatMakesThemClick.net.

#32: You Can Only Remember 3 to 4 Things At A Time (The Magic Number 3 or 4)

#34: You Make Most of Your Decisions Unconsciously

#35: You Reconstruct Your Memories

#36: You Actually Can't Multi-Task

#37: Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information

#38: Blue and Red Together is Hard On Your Eyes (Chromostereopsis)

#40: You Want More Choices and Information Than You Can Actually Process

#41: Want To Change a Habit? Use Fun, Surprise, and a Crowd

Have a habit that you want to change? Or maybe you are trying to change the behaviour of people at work? Or you want to change the behaviour of people coming to your blog or website? If you read any of the research on habits you will find that habits are hard to change. (I'll do a separate post on that shortly). You can change habits, but it takes a lot of work. Or maybe not?

Have you seen the video on the musical stairs? Many of you probably have. If so, watch it again before reading on, and if you haven't then you'll enjoy it. I believe that there are some lessons about habit change in the video:

Shortcuts to changing habits -- I've been thinking about that video and I am thinking that there might be ways to shortcut all the work it takes to change a habit, or at least jump start the process. Based on the video here are 3 ideas I've come up with:

Make it fun -- When you are changing a habit, you substitute a new habit for the old one. To jump start this process, make the new habit fun. It will probably need to be a lot more fun for it to even begin to be enticing.

Make it a surprise -- People like surprises (as long as the surprise is pleasant or fun). Research on the brain shows that surprises capture human interest and attention. There is also research to show that things that are unpredictable elicit activity in the parts of the brain that anticipate rewards. If you surprise people you will therefore get their attention, and prime them to think that what comes next might be pleasurable (Berns, McClure, Montague, 2001).

Use a crowd -- In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I have a chapter on social validation. The research in this area shows that people are influenced by the behaviour of others. When they see lots of people doing something they will tend to join in.

The musical stairs in the video had all three elements. Having stairs that look like a piano and make piano sounds is fun, and also a surprise. On top of that, everyone else was using the stairs… and there you have it, people are ready to use the stairs.

We don't know if this use the stairs habit would sustain, or what happens when you take the musical stairs away. But next time I am choosing a new habit to try and replace an old habit, I'm going to pay attention to the factors of fun, surprise, and social validation.

And for those of you who like to read research:

Berns, GS, McClure, SM, Montague, PR (2001) Predictability modulates human brain response to reward. J. Neuroscience 21(8):2793-2798

Originally published on WhatMakesThemClick.net.

#42: Reading Text Online Is Not Fun

#43: People Value A Product More Highly If It Is Physically In Front Of Them

#44: What You See Is Not What Your Brain Gets

#45: 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 recognising patterns -- recognising 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 recognise objects by simple shapes -- But research now points to the idea that we recognise certain basic shapes in what we are looking at, and we use these basic shapes, called geons, to recognise objects. Irving Biederman came up with the idea of geons in 1985. It's thought that there are 24 basic shapes that people recognise, 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.

Take-Aways:

  • 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 recognise an object quickly, use a simple geometric drawing of the object. This will make it easier to recognise the underlying geons, and thus make the object easier and faster to recognise.

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

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.

#46: You React To colours Based On Your Culture

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

#48: There Are 4 Types Of Creativity

And even if you know these facts, you'll still make mistakes

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