4 Psychological Concepts That Will Change the Way You Create Content

May 27, 2014


min read

This post is for content creators of any kind who might be, just like me, facing the irritating daily uncertainty of whether the latest piece will pull the reader's trigger or not.

The idea of the post was to try to determine what goes on in the minds of our readers, what are they thinking about when reading an article or a piece of content and how their reactions are influenced by the information received.

So, I did a little research, read a few dozens articles on engagement and psychology and pulled several ideas that I liked most.

Here it goes.

1. The psychology of usefulness

In my search I came across the blog of Gord Hotchkiss, whose writings I liked a lot. If you are into this type of reading, I definitely recommend you to check out his blog. I've also invited him for a couple of guest posts on our blog, so you will be soon reading his awesome stuff here too. Super excited about this!

Anyway, back to the topic.

On his blog he did a series of posts in which he talks, among other cool stuff, about the psychology of usefulness. What he did was to dig up the cognitive and emotional processes that determine us to stay loyal to an online publication.

The hypothesis was this:

"My original premise was that we have to find usefulness in an online destination before we’ll give it our loyalty. And we have to be loyal to a destination long enough for marketers to be able to identify a stable audience that they can know something about. [...] Lance Loveday countered by saying that entertainment could also be a factor, along with utility, that leads to loyalty. "

So, at the foundation of our ultimate goal as online publishers, which is to achieve the loyalty of our readers, lay both utility and entertainment.

At the foundation of our ultimate goal as online publishers, lay both utility and entertainment

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Gord proceeded then to break down the mechanisms in our brains that assess both utility and entertainment.

When approaching entertaining activities (which are autotelic by nature) our brains fire our reward center and also bring a corresponding hit of dopamine, building thus repetitive patterns. We look forward to them because of the anticipation of the reward.

Usefulness on the other hand, falls into a totally different category. When dealing with non-entertaining actions (exotelic), tasks we have no desire for but complete them just because we need to, our brain applies a different algorithm.

In non-entertaining situations, our brain's primary goal is to find the most effective solution for the task, using usefulness as key criteria.

Going even further with the analysis, we discover that there is a shortcut in our brains we take when determining what is useful and what is disposable. As neurologist Antonio Damasio showed in Descartes' Error, we have a mechanism by which emotions guide us in decision-making. Rationality requires emotional input.

We have a mechanism by which emotions guide us in decision-making

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Whenever dealing with a non-entertaining task, our brain rapidly goes through a set of successive steps to determine the best approach for completing the task. Here is a diagram describing the process:

The Pshychology of Usefulness

"Not surprisingly, the more our brain has to be involved in judging usefulness, the less loyal we are."

But even so, we still have a chance of winning our readers over by inducing positive emotions to them. Positive emotions communicate to the reader that the expected utility is higher than the perceived risk, therefore useful, while negative emotions would indicate the contrary.

There is scientific reason for why our brains take this shortcut path to assess utility:

"The reason why we may not be that rational in the application of these strategies in online encounters is that they play out below the threshold of consciousness. We are not constantly and consciously adjusting our marginal value algorithm or quantifiably assessing the value of an information patch. No, our brains use a quicker and more heuristic method to mediate our output of effort – emotions. Frustration and anxiety tell us it’s time to move onto the next site or application. Feelings of reward and satisfaction indicate we should stay right where we are."

Ideally though, for you, as an online publisher, is to bypass this process of having your utility weighted every time. But that would mean for you to earn your reader’s loyalty and become a habit to them.

If you can become a habit, you are rewarded with a fairly high degree of loyalty

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Considering the logical path the brain needs to take for the "habit" label to be set (see again the diagram above), there are three conditions to be met for a task (or online publication) to become one:

  • Repetition - has been done often enough

  • Stability - the terms have been fairly constant

  • Acceptable outcomes - the returns have been constant and satisfying

2. The framing bias:  Framing and choice shifts

This concept suggests that the way something is presented (the "frame") influences the reactions and the choices people make.

For example, the framing effect has been confirmed in a variety of contexts:

  • A ‘95% effective' condom appears more effective than one with ‘5% failure rate.'

  • People prefer to take a 5% raise when inflation is 12% than take a 7% cut when inflation is zero.

  • Considering two packages of ground beef, most people would pick the one labeled, "80% lean" over the one labeled, "20% fat."

Through multiple experiments it has been proven that people react differently to a particular choice, depending whether it is presented to them as a loss or as a gain. People tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented.

The framing bias contradicts the standard economic model of rational choice in decision-making which states that people always strive to make the most rational choices possible.

What it proves is that in fact, our minds react to the context in which something is embedded, not just to the thing itself.

Our decisions are based more on our attitude toward the problem than the facts

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Take another example: the drug addiction issue. This can be seen as a "law and order problem" (view embraced by the US) or as a "public health problem" (as seen in Netherlands). Although the facts are identical, the attitude toward the problem as well as the behaviour that follows, are poles apart.

So, it turns out that reality is not absolute, it is contextual. There are always at least two sides of a story. There are no cold facts.

Our decisions are based more on our attitude toward the problem than the facts, and our attitude is determined by the "frame" in which the facts are presented.

From a marketer's perspective, framing is yet another method to influence the individual while at the stage of judging usefulness. Through framing you are able to inoculate your reader with a positive rather than negative emotion and thus determine his attitude towards you, your content and business.

And it's not just through words that you can trigger emotions and influence your audience's perception of who you are, but also through the design and colours you use, your structure and data visualization strategy.

3. Our brain's affinity for stories

With numerous articles on the power of storytelling in advertising standing as proof of that well known saying - "stories sell", no doubt remains about the influence of a good story on the human brain.

Stories engage our imagination and through that, empathy and creativity. Stories reduce resistance and play the role of a common language between the reader and the storyteller. Stories make us feel uplifted, motivated and connected to those around us. Mostly, stories make us feel.

However, there are a couple of things worth keeping in mind about the reasons why our brains react the way they do when stories are told and which are the particular ingredients that trigger those reactions.

First of all, stories provide the context, the frame our brain needs to interpret and understand the facts. It is only through stories that information, actions and emotions have persuasive impact and personal relevance.

Other than that, researchers found through multiple lab experiments, that in the human brain, imagined experiences are processed just the same as real experiences. Meaning that stories are able to create truly genuine emotions and behavioral responses for humans, just as if they'd be taking part in the events.

In the human brain, imagined experiences are processed just the same as real experiences

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For example, in extensive studies performed on this subject, it has been tested how the brain reacts to different sets of words while being monitored with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and it has been found that:

  • just by interpreting written words, the human brain also engaged the language-processing regions

  • words describing scents like “perfume” and “coffee,” ignited the subjects' primary olfactory cortex

  • metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex

  • sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” lit up the motor cortex.

So, that is why reading a great story feels like such a vivid experience.

More than that, through the ability of stories to involve various portions of our brain simultaneously, storytelling becomes a much more effective method of engaging the reader, as compared to presenting cold facts or data drawn out of context,  for which brain activity has been reported to be limited.

4. Several other interesting cognitive biases

Yet again, cognitive biases are another proof that our judgement is merely subjective. Essentially, cognitive biases are errors our brains make for trying to process information faster, using shortcuts (heuristics). We rush to conclusions based on appearances and fail to correctly interpret the situation. It is a trap we often fall into simply due to the way our brain works.

Some of these biases, with no vital impact on our lives, are essential though for constructing and effectively packaging content online. If you can manage to understand and control the biases your content is triggering, you are one step ahead in the process of influencing and persuading your audience through content.

The "Processing Fluency" bias

Processing fluency is a notion that refers to the ease with which information is processed. It seems that our brain implicitly associates a high processing fluency with a positive experience.

So, we tend to believe that things which are simpler to understand are more credible, while we’re inclined to reject the things we do not understand.

Fluency creates a sense of false familiarity and thus enhances trust

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A common example of this type of misperception we’re experiencing when dealing with familiar scenarios is the Moses illusion. To see for yourself, try answering this question:

How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?

Another example of the processing fluency bias is how people interpret content based on the type of font it is written in. Experiments have shown that when reading text in a common and easy to read font, the fluency bias plays its trick on us, making us mistakenly grow confident in our ability to digest the information presented to us.

The "Rhyme-as-Reason" effect

According to the Rhyme-as-Reason cognitive bias, we’re seeing the phrases or aphorisms written in rhyme as more truthful that those who are not rhyming.

A popular example is the phrase - “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals." which was seen by the volunteers participating in an experiment as more true and trustworthy than the alternate phrase presented to them - "What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks."

Phrases written in rhyme are seen as more truthful

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Although you will certainly not be able to write your content in rhyme all the time, you can still take advantage of this bias, by spicing up your narrative with aphorisms and adages that reinforce your ideas, and build your reader’s confidence.

The Anchoring bias (First Impression bias)

The Anchoring cognitive bias is our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the "anchor") when making quantitative decisions. Or, otherwise put, first impression matters. Not in a blinding-completely-our-judgement way, but more in a subtle way.

You might be inclined to think that the anchor will be used in our judgment in an objective manner, but you’d be wrong. According to the results of a study conducted by Strack and Mussweiler (1999) the information we’re initially presented with influences the way we’re further evaluating similar things.

It's not an accident that a salesman always starts negotiating with a high price and then works down

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Although often considered when designing pricing schemes, the anchoring effect also has a major impact on our everyday lives.

Here’s a funny example of the anchoring effect in action: A husband performing ten times the amount of work his dad ever did, would feel that his work is enough for him to qualify as the “Best husband of the year”. Meanwhile, the wife feels dissatisfied about the amount of housework left for her to handle. The anchoring bias determines in this case each spouse’s perception of their efforts .

But you, as a content creator, how do you use the anchoring bias to determine the structure of your copy? Do you take advantage of it to highlight the benefits you provide for your readers?

I look forward to your thoughts on all these concepts, in the comments :)

Article by

Dana Zavaleanu

Dana leads the marketing team at AWR. Having 13+ years of experience in the industry, she's an all-round digital marketer, with a focus on search analytics and content. Say hello @dana_zavaleanu

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