Brain-based triggers of impulse buying: How “Hot Papaya” chocolate hijacked my brain

I went to a book store in a local mall the other day. As I was passing a small chocolate shop, a hugeHot Papaya Chocolate sign in front – “Store Closing – Sale 50-70% off”- caught my eye.  Inside the shop, there was a commotion of people that you’d expect to see on a Valentine’s Day.  It was May, not February.  I didn’t have any plans to buy chocolate that day, and while I can appreciate good dark chocolate, I am not a chocoholic.  The dark force pulled me into the shop nonetheless, and there I was, browsing half-empty shelves for a perfect bar of chocolate.  On one of the shelves, I saw “Hot Papaya” – dark chocolate with papaya and chili peppers – only two bars left on the shelf.  My hand grabbed one quickly.  Leaving this massive sale with just one bar of chocolate didn’t seem right, so I picked another truffle type with soft filling and headed to the cashier.

Most people would eat their chocolate and forget about the experience, but not me, the brain alchemist and the student of awareness.   I was curious what was happening to my brain as I decided to go into the store and buy the “Hot Papaya.”

Impulse buying isn’t new, which doesn’t make it any rarer, by the way.  You’d think we should know better but we fall for it all the same.  There were powerful triggers at play that afternoon that lured my brain into the short-term reward, also known as “I-want-it-now” scenario.

Our brains are averse to losses, so spending money should not be easy for us.  But there are caveats.  The loss aversion principle works best if we deal with cash in our wallets and literally have to part with our money.  When it comes to credit cards, however, paying with plastic is too abstract to trigger the areas of the brain associated with negative feelings.

On top of that, our emotional brain likes immediate rewards.  The sales signs catch our attention.  Bargains make us feel like we’ve won a lottery.  They detract from the fact that we are spending money and, instead, emphasize the immediate gains.  Instead of focusing on loss aversion, our brains are captivated by the “I-want-it-now” urge, conveniently forgetting that we didn’t plan to buy anything in the first place.  It’s even more challenging to resist immediate rewards when they scream indulgence.

The brain is wired to seek pleasure.  The anticipation of it is as important to the brain as actually getting what you want.  Looking for a perfect chocolate bar with the highest cocoa content and fancy additions was fun.  The promise of dark chocolate with a layer of papaya marmalade, infused with the heat of chili peppers, was tantalizing to my brain.

When the brain is busy searching for patterns and making predictions, it produces more neuromodulator dopamine, which is responsible for more pleasurable experience, as neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz uncovered in his famous experiment with a monkey craving apple juice.  The researcher played a loud tone, waited for a few seconds, and then squirted a few drops of apple juice into the monkey’s mouth.  While the monkey was waiting for the juice, the researcher monitored the response of the monkey’s brain.  First, the dopamine neurons didn’t get excited until the juice was delivered.  However, once the monkey learned that the tone always preceded the arrival of juice, the same neurons began firing at the sound of the tone instead of the reward.  Schultz called these cells “prediction neurons” since they were more excited making predictions than receiving the rewards themselves.  Schultz also discovered that when the monkey received juice without warning, a surprise reward caused even more activation in the dopamine neurons.

Were the windows of the chocolate shop with their colorful displays of chocolate in glossy wrappers enough to activate the dopamine neurons in my brain in anticipation of the rich, decadent chocolate goodness?  It’s quite possible because there I was, staring at the half-empty shelves.

It turns out that you may be more inclined to buy impulsively when both your glass and the store shelf are half-empty.  A shopping spree can feel especially good after a disappointing day.  My trip to the chocolate shop was preceded by a visit to the dentist – not something I looked forward to.  Studies show that willpower and self-control diminish when people are in a bad mood, while their search for pleasure and comfort increases. Thus, we compensate for distress by overindulging.  To make things worse, people have difficulty appreciating the power of temptation and overestimate their capacity to control their own impulses.  In fact, those who are the most confident about their self-control are the most likely to act impulsively.

The half empty shelf triggers the brain’s loss aversion by evoking another powerful motivator – scarcity.  Nothing urges you more to buy than seeing others snatching your desired items off the shelves.  In a consumer preference experiment that also involved chocolate, Stephen Worchel and colleagues offered subjects chocolate chip cookies in a jar and asked them to taste the cookies and rate their quality. One jar had ten cookies in it, and the other jar had just two. Subjects preferred the cookies from the jar of only two cookies, even though they were the same cookies.  As a follow-up experiment demonstrated, the scarce cookies became even tastier when the participants watched the researcher replace a jar of ten cookies with a jar of two cookies after they were told that some of the cookies had to be given away to other participants.  Seeing the cookies disappear as a result of built-up demand made them more desirable and delicious.  Clearly, the brain does not want to miss out on good things that bear the stamp of approval.

Then, there is always an option of blaming your impulse purchases on priming.  Most of the time, you are not even aware of its presence.  Priming occurs when something in the environment activates your subconscious mind and you are more likely to act in accordance with that environment without deliberate intent.  Perhaps, the chocolate shop was next to a coffee shop and my subconscious mind was reminded of a visit to a chocolate café a year before where I tasted a delicious hot chocolate drink.  I did not see the connection, but my brain may have.  It just didn’t bother to bring it to my attention.

The ultimate trick of the brain is that even if you know all the tricks, they still work and may trigger impulse buying.  Perhaps, you let them work because too much thinking depletes willpower.  An occasional chocolate indulgence may not be that bad after all.  But there are other temptations out there that can have serious long-term consequences, such as sub-prime mortgages, credit card debt.  Understanding the weaknesses of the brain when it comes to impulsive decision-making is important.  Self-awareness is your best tool against “hot papayas” hijacking your brain.

“How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer
“Influence: Science and Practice” by Robert B. Cialdini

By | 2010-07-21T19:05:34+00:00 May 28th, 2010|Brain, Communication|3 Comments

Why do we avoid conflicts and difficult conversations?

David Weinberger wrote, “Business is a conversation because the defining work of business is conversation – literally.”  Conversations are as natural to us as air or water.  We engage in them every day without giving it much thought.  But when the air becomes polluted or the water is scarce, we, all of a sudden, recognize how much of the quality of our life depends on these items we often take for granted.

The same is true for conversations.  When communication becomes difficult, the relationships are strained. When the stakes are high, it can take a harsh toll on our energy, attitude and spirit.  What important conversations are you avoiding?  What internal and external conflicts brew in awkward silence until they become too bitter and toxic to swallow?

Important conversations help us influence others and facilitate change.  To have them, we must be comfortable around opposing ideas, different perspectives, tensions, conflicts, and contradictions.  But tell that to your brain, and you won’t like the answer.  Many of us are conflict-avoiders.  What is it about the conflict that scares the brain?

There are good evolutionary reasons to be cautious around conflicts.  The bad consequences of conflicts include the loss of lives, destruction, damaged relationships, uncertainty, forced changes, isolation, loss of face, tarnished reputation.  Since the function of our brain is to keep us away from harm and comfortable where we are, it is not surprising that our brain freaks out at the mere suggestion of a conflict.

While our rational mind accepts the fact that productive disagreements are necessary and desirable, that they contain the seeds of creativity and transformation, our emotional brain sends out stress signals and floods the body with cortisol, triggering the fight-or-flight response.  This situation is due, in part, to the fact that our brain is sensitive to hierarchy and status and is pained by social rejection.

To the brain, improving social standing is like winning a lottery. Studies show that both money and social values are processed in the same brain region, the striatum.  In other words, our good reputation is a reward to the brain.  In contrast, when people realize they might compare unfavorably to someone else, it triggers the release of cortisol and other stress-related hormones and activates the brain areas that process emotional pain, the amygdala and posterior cingulate.

How we act in a conflict often depends on the outcome of the power battle between our rational mind and the emotional brain.  Perceiving a threat, the amygdala spreads emotions such as fear by sending signals into the hypothalamus, which controls the sympathetic nervous system. The brain then has a chance to assess the threat level and decide on a course of action.  The anterior cingulate cortex which, among other things, decides where we should focus our attention, appears to have the power to reduce the activity of our emotional control center, the amygdala. When that happens, our rational mind takes charge.  But if the threat is perceived to be too big, our emotional brain takes over and dampens the work of the rational mind. That’s when we either become aggressive or defensive, we attack or withdraw.

This window of opportunity when we can reassess the situation is important and is at the core of emotional regulation.  How can we be less emotional during the disagreements so we don’t run away from important issues or play the blame game?

We have a choice to make.  We can let our brains ride our egos or we can consciously focus our attention on the issues at hand and the opportunities and challenges they present.  Easier said than done, I know, but it gets better with practice, and you can start rehearsing in advance.

Take time to prepare for your difficult conversations.  The problem with disagreements is that they happen when we are least prepared to deal with them.  In addition, we can’t predict or control what other people say or do, we can only hope to do our best.

Your own best is what you can focus on during this preparation stage.  You can approach it in a playful way by pretending to be a playwright for a time being.  You will create scripts of your conversation with the other party.  Our brains like playfulness.  The desire to play may be wired in our mammalian brain as many animals exhibit playful behavior and learn the intricacies of social interactions through play.  Just like puppies learn not to bite too hard during play, you can rehearse and adjust your own strategy for your difficult conversation.

Conflict and drama captivate our brains on TV screens and in real life.  We are mesmerized by Judge Judy and other courtroom drama.  While we run from our own issues, we are eager to offer advice to someone else whose relationships are on the rocks.  As long as we can remain detached, we tolerate and even welcome controversies.

Conflicts also capture our attention when we endlessly ruminate over conversations that didn’t go well.  We bring back the awkward feelings we experienced during those interactions and solidify those emotional memories.

Creating imaginary dialogues prior to talking to someone for real can help you harness these secret drama queen tendencies for the force of good.

First, you have to take time to think things over and clarify your own position on the issue.  You can figure out what is truly important to you and what you can live without.  You can reflect on how your conversation may impact your relationships with the people involved.  In other words, you can write about anything that concerns you and bring up any topic with the other side without working up your emotional brain into frenzy.

Second, you can look at the situation from various perspectives.  Because you are creating a dialogue with the other parties, you are forced to step into their shoes for a while.  You can create several scenarios and make your characters as cooperative or combative as you’d like them to be.  You can inquire about their motives and check your own assumptions.  You can anticipate their objections and prepare your response.  In a real conversation, we often don’t have time to think things through.  Fueled by our emotions, we say things we may regret in the future.  As a playwright, you can take all the time you need to think about your situation.

Perhaps, you and the other party can take turns being a villain in the story.  In real-life confrontations, we tend to ascribe villain qualities to others and exaggerate our own virtues.  The imaginary scripts can offer a reality check.

Last but not least, remember that your actual conversation may not go according to plan.  Staying present and flexible in the conversation is a different topic.  But being prepared gives your rational brain a leg up.

I’m leaving you with these questions to ponder:

What should you be talking about?
How can you best prepare for these conversations?

By | 2010-05-21T18:06:18+00:00 May 21st, 2010|Brain, Communication|1 Comment

Influence starts with a human connection

“Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.”
~ Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Important relationships, service, and influence all start with a human connection.   John Ryan, president of the Center for Creative Leadership, talks about the importance of making human connections for leaders in the article “When Leading With Your Head Isn’t Enough.” He discusses the four steps to help leaders build trust and authentic relationships with their people.  We can all use these four principles to nurture our relationships with clients, colleagues, business partners, and other important people in our lives.  Here’s how:

1.  Listen (to groups and individuals)

Dedicate time each week to simply listen to people and be fully present, focused, and engaged.  Listen to better understand their concerns, needs, and dreams.  Create a safe space for them to speak honestly about important issues.  Mirror back what you hear to check your understanding.  Make whoever you talk to your top priority at that moment.

When we interact with others, the mirror neurons in the brain help us understand other people’s intentions, feelings, and emotions. They enable us to empathize with others.  In his book “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy,” Dev Patnaik discusses the role of empathy in successful companies and encourages companies to learn about their customers’ needs by interacting with them and understanding them.

Our empathy translates into the other person’s experience of being heard and acknowledged, which is a big deal in our harried world.  It builds trust and shows that you care.  It also helps to provide a more personalized service because you know what’s truly important to the client.  So, take extra time to listen.

2.  Be visible

It may be tempting to read, do research, answer emails, or do some other important projects at your desk, but people want to see you because it shows that you are interested and care about them and their work.  At least once a week, join your colleagues or invite a client for lunch, attend a seminar or an event together.

If you work long-distance, you can use social media to share some appropriate personal moments with people.  For example, you can share what you are reading, any conferences or events you may want to attend, or articles that may be helpful to others.  We all want to know who we deal with.

I attended a conference some time ago where I met a woman who reminded me of an old friend and colleague.  I felt an immediate connection.  It was as if my positive associations transferred to this new acquaintance.  Have you had similar experiences?  Our brain is quick to categorize everybody we meet into “us” and “others.”  Being visible gives you more chances to build rapport and discover any similarities between you and your clients, colleagues, or business partners.  This, in turn, will make you familiar and safe to the brains of these people.

3.  Show gratitude

Acknowledge people’s contributions in a specific way that shows that you understand the value of their actions and intentions.  Don’t underestimate the power of a hand-written thank-you note or an occasional surprise gift.

Gratitude is brain-captivating for both the giver and the recipient.  Positive psychology studies reveal that the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%.  For example, one recommended exercise is to write a “Gratitude Letter” to a person who has exerted a positive influence on your life but whom you have not properly thanked in the past, and then to meet that individual and read the letter face to face.  Whenever you express gratitude, let yourself experience all the positive emotions and memories brought about by the act of giving thanks.

4. Invest

Invest in others’ success.  Understand people’s aspirations and help them grow and develop professionally.  Invest in mentorship, client education, and important trainings for your team members, and their brains will love you.

Our brain is sensitive to how we appear to others.  We spend much time worrying about what others think of us.  Research shows that when people realize they might compare unfavorably to someone else, it triggers the release of cortisol and other stress-related hormones. In contrast, when people master a new skill or receive praise their perception of status gets a boost.  Supporting people’s growth in respectful and collaborative ways makes them feel good about their accomplishments and creates a sense of safety and trust when they interact with you.

What do you do to nurture important human connections?

By | 2010-05-18T18:52:47+00:00 May 18th, 2010|Books, Communication|1 Comment

Why Bizarre Fashion Ads Grab Attention

It’s been four years since I received Vogue in the mail.  The birth of my daughter, several moves Dolce & Gabbanaand other priorities took time away from this element of self-indulgence.  Nevertheless, I still remember how flipping through those glossy pages made me feel.  Like Carrie Bradshaw proclaimed in “Sex and the City,” spending a leisurely morning with Vogue and a cup of coffee was an experience.  It transported me into the enchanted fantasy world of high fashion, luxury and fun.  Even my Ballard Designs’ antique-white “sawhorse” desk I am sitting at as I am typing this post was inspired by a photo of the 5th Avenue office of some glam psychotherapist.  I remember she had beautiful pink peonies on her desk.  Incidentally, I have pink carnations on mine, presented to me on Mother’s Day.

I also took a professional, linguistic interest in the ads.  During my graduate school years, I explored the language of advertising and motivation, specifically in cosmetics advertising.  So while most people skipped ads, I actually studied them.  It turns out that fashion ads are especially effective at grabbing attention, according to the research by Barbara J. Phillips at the University of Saskatchewan and Edward F. McQuarrie at Santa Clara University.

About a quarter of ads in fashion magazines feature bizarre and grotesque images.  Examples include “a Jimmy Choo ad depicting a woman fishing a purse out of a pool that contains a floating corpse of man, and a Dolce & Gabbana ad that features one beautiful woman in period costume skewering another in the neck.”

Eighteen women participants in the study felt the pull of these ads as they were trying to figure out what was going on in the pictures.  They approached the ads as stories or paintings, evaluating their creativity, colors, and compositions.

It appears that the grotesque ads engaged the participants by fueling their brains’ predictive mechanisms.  Our brains are storytellers.  Their function is to make sense of the outside world so that we could feel more comfortable in it.  Bizarre images puzzled the brains and piqued the women’s curiosity.  The macabre nature of the images triggered enough alert in the brains to evoke a stronger emotional response.  Our brain has evolved to be more sensitive to negative information to protect us from danger.  The grimness has to be subtle, however, because negativity can also ruin the perception of the brand or create negative associations with the product.

“The merely pretty was too easily passed over; grotesque juxtapositions were required to stop and hold the fashion consumer flipping through Vogue,” the researchers said.

Perhaps, we remember better what we struggle to explain, whether in a Jimmy Choo store or in front of a modern painting in an art gallery.  Now, I just need a better reminder to keep my money in my wallet.  Ideas, anyone?

By | 2010-05-15T02:15:18+00:00 May 14th, 2010|Attention, Communication|0 Comments

Your four-legged friend shares your deep feelings

I am a dog owner, and it is not a stretch for me to accept that my dog has feelings (that’s him in the picture).  He seems so happy to see me when I come home, his tail tracing a big smile in the air.  He is playful after a good walk.  And he tosses his bowl around the kitchen floor impatiently when he is searching for food. For all of you, pet owners out there, I want to share a piece of evidence today suggesting that our four-legged friends indeed have feelings.

On a recent train ride to Grand Central, I listened to an episode of the Brain Science podcast in which Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Dr. Jaak Panksepp, the author of “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.” Dr. Panksepp studies how various brain systems regulate emotional feelings and social bonds.

I am yet to read the book, but Dr. Panksepp appears to have a unique position on studying emotions in the brain.  His experiments challenge some current neuroscience theories that view emotions as the brain’s interpretations of our bodily feelings.  Dr. Panksepp’s research indicates that both human and animal emotions begin in the subcortical circuits of the mammalian brain, which is the ancient part of the brain.  In contrast, all our human planning, reasoning, abstract thought and other complex executive functions happen in the cerebral cortex, which forms the largest part of the human brain and is situated above most other brain structures.

Through brain stimulation, the researchers have been able to isolate seven emotional systems in animals so far:  the seeking or searching for resources, rage, lust, fear, care (for the little ones), panic (the separation distress call when a little one gets lost from the parent), and play.  Scientists may discover more in the future.

Originating in the deep areas of the brain, “deep feelings” may be more than just an expression after all.  And if you feel emotional, your pet gets it.

By | 2010-05-12T17:21:26+00:00 May 12th, 2010|Books, Brain|0 Comments