Diogo Gonçalves

There Are Free Lunches

The Snake, the Dog and the Calculator

How to create a website that talks to the three brains of its users

Posted Jun 03, 2016

Imagine you are a European who goes to the United States to do an MBA. Because your stay will be long, you decide to buy a car, so you can travel around and get to know the country. When you buy the car, the sales representative explains you how the car works, but during the first two months, every time you turn the key to put the car to work, your left foot moves itself automatically to press the clutch. Only then you remember: the gears are automatic.

You are walking around downtown in the city where you live... you come across hundreds of people but you are so involved with your thoughts that you don't really give a dam about what is happening around. Suddenly you hear a baby crying and when you look into the direction where the sound is coming from you see a baby to the mother's lap. You become fascinated with the complicity that exists between the mother and the child..the smile of the baby in response to his mother's jokes. You imagine your son when he had the same age, and you can't help feeling emotional when you think that you and your wife will have a second child in a few months.           

It's 8 am and you just arrived to the office. You take a seat on your desk and start planning the day. You make a list of your activities, you prioritize them and ponder when is the best time of the day to accomplish each one of them. 

These three paragraphs were written to illustrate behaviors directly linked to three different structures of the brain. The first paragraph presents an instinctive and automatic behavior, the second a behavior whose emotional charge is preponderant, and the third introduces us to the intellectual dimension of the brain. In fact, the brain presents, in terms of its structure, three big overlapping layers that due to their specificity can legitimate the idea that we actually have three distinct brains (Triune Brain). This Triune Model of the Brain was developed by Paul McLean, and it’s based in a vertical specialization of the brain, which divides it in three parts, each one of them developed in different points of an evolutionary development period of hundreds of millions of years.    

These three layers are called: reptilian, limbic, and neocortex brains. 

The Triune Model of the Brain

The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain, the one that we share with reptiles, and has its origins about 500 million years ago. It reflects the most primitive human behaviors such as routine acts, habituation, stereotyped behaviors, reflexes and automatic gestures, defense of the territory, instinctive answers. It is responsible for vital basic functions such as breading, heart rate and metabolism. It is also responsible for the human consciousness, since it works as an alert system for the limbic and the neocortex brains, calling their attention to the distinction between what is a usual and normal stimulus from something new that we need to be aware. It is also responsible for the freeze-flight-fight response that determines how we react to imminent dangers in our environment, with the help of other parts of the brain (such as the amygdala and hypothalamus). Low-level threats (e.g., someone saying something that makes you feel uncomfortable) usually result in a freeze response, while when we find ourselves in positions of extreme danger, the threat-response system becomes highly triggered, initiating a fight response (e.g., when we are crossing the road and a car comes towards us). This aptitude for assessing new stimuli as potentially risky is the reason why we tend to prefer things that are familiar: they seem safe. It also justifies why, according with advertiser Rory Sutherland, the two best ways to sell a product or a service are “to make new things seem familiar, and to make familiar things seem new.” Last but not least, the reptilian brain is involved in arousal, and responds to opportunities to have sex. That is the reason why using images that merely hint at sexual potential (e.g., images of youthful, smiling faces) attracts so much attention.

The limbic system is constituted by the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus and hippocampus, and it's the center of our emotions. It is the brain that we share with the horse, the dog, the cat and other mammals. The functioning of the limbic system is not based in instinctual automatism such as in the reptilian brain, but in the experience of pleasure or pain, good or bad. It has an important role in the treatment, filtering and integration of the information from the sensory organs, and consequently, in the awareness of the neocortex. But, if the selection of the reptilian brain was based on the survival of the specie, the selection made by the limbic is related with more emotional criteria, based on interest, security, and pleasure. This originates that the information that is considered more interesting by the limbic reaches the neocortex more easily. Even if it doesn't helps us to learn how to read or to write, the limbic system allows us to access emotional states (e.g., security or insecurity, well-being or pain) and to experience motivational mechanisms (of penalty or reward). In sum, it help us to understand what is important.  

The neocortex composes the rational brain, and it's the brain responsible for planning, organizing and problem solving. It draws inputs from almost all other regions of the brain, integrating this information to form the near and long-term goals that enable us to plan ahead. It is the area of the “whys”, of the reflection and of the conscious and voluntary behavior. It allows to integrate the sensory impressions through a rational interpretation that connects our feelings to what we think about them. The neural processes that take place in the neocortex are responsible for the different types of social learning and innovation, and also for the human language, abstract thought, imagination, and even consciousness. It is the part of the brain that allows us to think strategically and to plan in the long-term, because it gives us the future dimension.

The Triune Website

When it comes to the human brain, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, if we want to be persuasive online (or offline) we have to target the three areas of the brain. Not only because the functioning of the upper brain is dependent of the filters of the previous brains but also because, in order to be persuasive, we need to convince each one of the three brains, and avoid conflicts between them. A message that is convincing at the intellectual level but is presented in a negative framework will not persuade. We need to create messages that are arousing (reptilian), emotionally effective (limbic) and intellectually compelling (neocortex).       

One of the most effective ways to target the primal brain is through images, particularly if this images include cues for sex. It doesn't mean that we need to plaster pictures of naked models all over our website, but even small cues can make a difference, in terms of getting the attention of the primal brain. We all experience the feeling of excitement associated with spotting a beautiful face in the crowd, and in the online environment our brain works pretty much the same way. Thus, simply using images off attractive people with symmetrical faces (to convey health, and a good reproductive partner choice) can be enough to entice users in. Movement and contrast are also ways of engaging the primal brain. The primal brain responds well to motion, since it is always looking for the distinction between what is a usual and normal stimulus from something new that we need to be aware. That might be the reason why we witness a hypervisualisation of online data. Also, because for our ancestors the ability to make fast, sound decisions meant the difference between life and death, our brains evolved to respond to contrast. Depending on what we want to persuade our users to do, we can convey the benefits of our product or service to online customers by using images that highlight scenarios of before and after, with and without, and risky and safe. This principle is normally use by house repair companies, when showing pictures of a room before and after the repair. Other important principle to target the primal brain is the Scarcity principle. As we saw the primal brain responds strongly to threats, and when it sees that other people are all clamoring for a particular item, it perceives a scarcity threat. This is the principle that explains the success of Groupon and other deal-a-day websites. It also helps to explain why telling our users they have a limited time to buy (or a limited stock to buy from) can motivate them to take action. Related with the principle of scarcity is the principle of Concreteness. Because the oldest part of the brain is self-centered, it worries about the defense of the territory, and wants to know “what's in it for me?.” Thus, it can work wonders to be sure the language you use is familiar, friendly and concrete. For example, if you want people to buy insurance, don't tell them what rates they can expect per annum, but how buying insurance can make their loved ones safe. 

After targeting the reptilian brain, we need to appeal to the emotional brain, in order to increase engagement. One of the best ways to engage the emotional brain is through empathy. The mirror neurons are vital to our ability to empathize with others. They are the reason we feel uplifted when looking at photos of happy faces, sad when we watch a movie drama, in love (or wanting to be in love) after viewing a romantic comedy. Thus, the simple use of photos or videos conveying the emotional state that we want our customers or citizens to experience, can have a significant effect in the perception of our organization, and the usability of our services. Story-telling is also a very powerful method to engage emotionally with others, and should be used much more often by organizations when they want to convey information to their customers and employees. When someone listens to a story (i.e., an emotionally charged event), her brain releases dopamine into the system, making it easier to remember and with greater accuracy. Also, a story can activate a process called “neural coupling,” where the listener turns the story into their own ideas and experience. Last but not least, a process of “mirroring” will take place, where the listeners will not only experience a similar brain activity to each other, but also to the speaker. Thus, telling stories is one of the best ways to reach the emotional brain of the people we are communicating with. Color is also one of the most powerful and instantaneous ways of conveying emotion. When applied correctly, it can influence users to experience positive outcomes towards our website, such as perceiving it as more trustworthy, valuable and authoritative. The way we react to color is, of course, strongly influenced by our cultural background. However, there are already some robust evidences about the way different colors can influence people's behaviors and motivations. Brighter and more saturated colors generally make us feel happier and more excited. Websites with a blue color scheme are perceived as more credible and trustworthy. White can also contribute to build trust, since it creates an atmosphere of calm (a precursor of trust). Orange is considered cheap. Yellow color schemes e-commerce sites tend to evoke a sense of distrust. 

How to Create a Triune Website?

Imagine you want to help poor people all over the world to start their own small businesses by convincing wealthier people to make donations. How would you use the knowledge about the brain that was discussed in this article to create a website that targets the primal, emotional and rational parts of the brain to persuade people from all over the world to donate to your cause?

To target the reptilian brain you would need to be sure that your website would have photos of the (happy) faces of the people you would like to benefit from the loans. In order to capitalize on the reptilian preference for movement, you would want the user to open a pop-up, as soon he presses one of those smiling faces. When the pop-up opens, then it would be the right time for you to target the emotional brain of the user, by showing him the story corresponding to the face he chose. That could be a complete photo of the person, her name (e.g., Suhair), which country she's from (e.g., Jordania) and why she needs a loan (e.g., “Suhair is a 29-year-old divorced woman who lives with her parents and son in Wadi Mousa. She has a lot of will power to overcome all the ‎obstacles in her life. Suhair decided to do her best to work hard to help her family and be a productive woman. She started selling ‎cosmetics and make-up along with clothing in a shop that is near her home so she could be near her son. Suhair is ‎working hard to provide a living for her son but does not have enough money to buy supplies. Suhair is requesting a loan to buy more cosmetics, accessories, and make up to sell. She is a very ambitious and ‎patient woman. Suhair will use her loan to increase her income to cover the needs of her ‎son and improve the living standards of her family. She ‎needs your support to achieve her dreams.‎”). Still targeting the emotional brain, you would want to be sure that at the bottom of the pop-up there is a bright (to convey happiness and excitement) orange (to convey its inexpensive) button emblazoned with the words “Lend now.” After you had the heart strings of the user fully engaged, now it’s time to give a bit of reasoning to back up the decision to donate. For that you would need to have a handy information box at the center of the page, highlighting the fact that over 98 per cent of the loans are repaid, conveying that your investment is a safe one. If the neocortex of the user is still asking for more, it would also be useful to tell him that over 4000 new lenders joined this week (and 129,265 “Liked” this on Facebook) – if everyone else is doing it, it must be a good thing (social proof).

Maybe you are wondering...do this small tips really work? Please visit Kiva's micro-lending site (kiva.org) and find out yourself how using the techniques I just described you, they were able to raise $800M since 2005, with a rate of about $1 million every three days, since November 2010. The good news is that we can also do it.