I Did Not See That Coming

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist, and Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer

While it may not seem like it, simply thinking about what to cook for dinner or choosing which tv series you want to binge next both require some rather strenuous behind-the-scenes effort. Surprised? It does seem odd to think of the brain as a voracious consumer of physical energy. However, research in neurobiology suggests that for us big-brained humans, thinking is not nearly as effortless as it might appear. In fact, approximately 1/2 to 2/3 of our body’s total daily glucose energy is used by our brains. Thinking is indeed hard work. However, our miserly brains have some automatic shortcuts at their disposal that streamline the process and help conserve that precious surgery resource they like so much.

Some shortcuts, like the Gestalt principles, are biologically built into the system. These shortcuts allow us to see continuity in a dotted line or achieve closure while viewing an abstract image. By automatically closing these gaps in our environment, our miserly brain finds an easier way to process a large amount of information by predicting a simple “whole” in a cost-efficient manner.

Other shortcuts come from our exposure to the environment we live in, where we expect certain events to occur given the pattern of their occurrence in the past. Once in place, these schemas serve us well in automatically predicting what we are expected to do or how something will play out (like if we go out to dinner at a restaurant with cloth napkins vs. one with peanut shells on the floor).

A recent article published by the Max Planck Institute labeled our brains as prediction machines; Automatically predicting everything from what our favorite TV characters will say in their next monologue, to how the next bite of our dinner will taste. Our brains are continuously putting together a narrative of what might happen next, and if it’s right, well then, we move on, nothing more to see here. But what happens when our miserly brain predicts the wrong thing? We sit up and take notice.

When the brain fails in its effort to predict an event, it deactivates the autopilot function. Wrong predictions equal novelty, learning, and possible danger to the more primal parts of our brain. That glucose miser (the brain) is more than willing to spend the energy when it is surprised by a wrong prediction. In fact, it is eager to do so. Studies show that curiosity is an extremely powerful human motivator, and all it takes to get us there is a little cognitive disruption. To better understand consumer psychology and to learn more about how you can leverage psychological principles like cognitive disruption in your marketing, give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].