This is from the New York Times:
Inside the brain-and-cognitive-sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are what, to the casual observer, look like dollhouse versions of surgical theaters. There are rooms with tiny scalpels, small drills and miniature saws. Even the operating tables are petite, as if prepared for 7-year-old surgeons. Inside those shrunken O.R.’s, neurologists cut into the skulls of anesthetized rats, implanting tiny sensors that record the smallest changes in the activity of their brains.
An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, snifﬁng in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t ﬁgure out how to ﬁnd it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.
The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped snifﬁng corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.
This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.
Take backing your car out of the driveway. When you ﬁrst learned to drive, that act required a major dose of concentration, and for good reason: it involves peering into the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned, calculating how images in the mirrors translate into actual distances, all while applying differing amounts of pressure to the gas pedal and brake.
Now, you perform that series of actions every time you pull into the street without thinking very much. Your brain has chunked large parts of it. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort. But conserving mental energy is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, like a child riding her bike down the sidewalk or a speeding car coming down the street. So we’ve devised a clever system to determine when to let a habit take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends — and it helps to explain why habits are so difficult to change once they’re formed, despite our best intentions.
To understand this a little more clearly, consider again the chocolate-seeking rats. What Graybiel and her colleagues found was that, as the ability to navigate the maze became habitual, there were two spikes in the rats’ brain activity — once at the beginning of the maze, when the rat heard the click right before the barrier slid away, and once at the end, when the rat found the chocolate. Those spikes show when the rats’ brains were fully engaged, and the dip in neural activity between the spikes showed when the habit took over. From behind the partition, the rat wasn’t sure what waited on the other side, until it heard the click, which it had come to associate with the maze. Once it heard that sound, it knew to use the “maze habit,” and its brain activity decreased. Then at the end of the routine, when the reward appeared, the brain shook itself awake again and the chocolate signaled to the rat that this particular habit was worth remembering, and the neurological pathway was carved that much deeper.
The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain ﬁgure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.
Habits aren’t destiny — they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately ﬁght a habit — unless you ﬁnd new cues and rewards — the old pattern will unfold automatically.
Fascinating stuff. I’m really interested in stuff about brain chemistry (dumbed-down for a social science major) and how it affects behavior and personality.
But the article is titled How Companies Learn Your Secrets.
That’s right. They aren’t doing all this fancy research in order to make the world a better place for humanity, they are trying to make YOU a better consumer. And by “better” I mean “easy to manipulate.”
Why shouldn’t they? There are no laws against it. Every year they get better at it. The old fashioned way was to sell you the products you need, but the more efficient way is to convince you that you need the products they sell. Products, services and candidates.
David “Spoony” Atkins:
I’m what they call a Qualitative Research Consultant, or QRC for short. Here’s my website. There’s even a whole association of us who meet regularly to discuss ideas and tactics. Together with the AAPC, the MRA, the AMA, ESOMAR, and a whole host of other organizations you’ve never heard of, we have more power and control than you know. We’re extremely good at what we do, and we do it all behind the scenes, appealing to and manipulating your subconscious brain in ways that your conscious brain has little to no control over.
Give us a little money to test some things out, and we can work magic. Our business is persuasion, and we’re very good at it. Just watch PBS Frontline’s series, The Persuaders to get just a small inkling of what you’re up against. We can make a company that earns a 38% gross profit margin manufacturing purely propriety products seem hip, cool and progressive. We can take sugar water and sell it back to you as a health drink, and even Whole Foods shoppers will believe it. We can take 30 different brands of vodka with almost exactly the same ingredients, and make you understand instantly just what kind of person drinks which brand, and how much you should expect to pay for each, without a moment’s thought. For any given category of products, I can show you a bunch of different brands, and you’ll be able to tell me a wealth of information about each one, despite the near absolute similarity of their actual products to one another. One exercise we QRC’s like to conduct involves actually turning a brand into a person in a group discussion; it’s called personification. And you wouldn’t believe how effectively and universally we can tailor a brand’s image, right down to what kind of car that “person” would drive, and what music he/she would listen to.
Each of us is unique – we all respond a little differently. The more they know about you, the better they know how to push your buttons. So where do they find out about your buttons?
You tell them. Do you use any kind of shopping or member discount card? Do you shop online? Do you use a bank or credit card to pay for your purchases? Does your cell phone track your movements? Do you Facebook or use Google services? Do you enter personal information (like their addresses and birthdays) about your friends into Facebook? Do they enter your personal information in their accounts?
Somewhere out there people are compiling information about you. They know your shopping habits, what websites you visit, who your friends are. In most cases you have given them permission to gather this info. They share it with each other, and with the government too.
You are probably being watched right now.
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