Category Archives: Psychology Research

The power of a skilled BRAND to turn us into puppets

ImageI am a staunch individualist!

I have never been one to follow trends, follow the crowd, or allow myself to be brainwashed by advertising.  At least that’s how I see myself.  This makes the following story all that more interesting …

One morning in the very recent past, I was to meet a friend for coffee early in the morning at Pete’s Coffee.  I got there a bit before my friend and was eager to get some strong coffee in me.  You see, we have a toddler and an infant at home and the lack of sleep has turned my wife and I into zombies who function only on strong coffee.

So, I approached the counter and ordered a tall latte with an extra shot of espresso … The barista looked funny at me and repeated my order back to me – “a medium latte with extra shot.”  I repeated back to him – “yes … a tall latte …” He corrected me again – “you mean MEDIUM.”

At this point my mind cleared up a bit and I realized, much to my amazement, that I was not at Starbucks but at Pete’s.  It must have felt insulting to the Pete’s barista that I was confusing their establishment with the competition.  I, on my part, was slightly embarrassed and, as a result, motivated to figure out what had just gone on.

The Psychologist in me fairly quickly figured things out.  You see, extensive research in Behavioral Science has shown that many times we move around the world on auto pilot, driven by habit.  For example, have you ever headed for place A, fell deep in thought about something, and ended up at place B, just because place B is the one you usually go to?  A recent study reported by David Rock, shows that “humans are on autopilot nearly half of the time.”

What had happened to me was that during one of my (sleep deprived) autopilot mode episodes, I was under the influence of a powerful brand – Starbucks.  I had used the Starbucks lingo at Pete’s Coffee!  Moreover, this was the lingo that I had stubbornly refused to use during my first visits to Starbucks!

To me, that is an excellent example of how effective brands get under our skin – they pull the strings while we are asleep at the wheel … Scary?

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The obesity epidemic, Evolutionary Psychology, and product success

The world economy is stagnating.  Many traditional industries like manufacturing, housing, and construction, which brought world prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries, are in miserable decline.  Yet, there is a bright spot and it is innovation and, more specifically, software product innovation in the context of the internet and cloud computing.

Software as a Service is growing fast, mobile application development is exploding.  One successful website like Pinterest, for example, spawns a multitude of copycats.  So how is one to pick from all those new and innovative products and services out there?

The two main questions before any successful innovation are:

1. Why should I, the consumer, choose to use this product and part with some of my hard-earned money in the process?  The alternative is not using it at all.

2. Why should I pick this product among all similar products out there?

These questions have been the domain of Marketing and, more recently, Behavioral Economics.  Those two fields are built around persuading consumers to use products and services and to choose one product or service over all the rest.  They highlight the value of products.  They re-frame the value of products.  They also invent the value of products.

Here I want to talk about a more foundational field, a field that has provided some basic axioms about human behavior that have been adopted by Marketing and by Behavioral Economics, among others.  This field is Evolutionary Psychology.

Very simplistically defined, Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a discipline which explains why human psyche and behavior have developed to be the way they are.  The central tenet of EP is that human behaviors and psychological traits which exist today were the ones that made us more fit to survive and pass on our genes tens of thousands of years ago, in the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness.”

How can this piece of information be helpful in everyday conversation as well in business discussions?  Next time someone claims that a behavior is innate, inborn, or “natural” ask the question: How was that behavior helping our ancestors survive 12,000 years ago?  We are naturally afraid of the dark because 12,000 years ago there were many dangerous things lurking in the dark.  Those humans that were not afraid of the dark, did not heed the dangers, strolled carelessly into the dark, met one of those nasty lurking things and perished thus not passing on the “not afraid of the dark” gene.  Those that carried the “afraid of the dark” gene were more likely to survive and pass it on to their offspring.  In contrast, people are NOT naturally afraid of guns simply because guns did not exist 12,000 years ago when our brain wiring was being formed.  That logic also explains why there are spider phobias and there are no phobias of car doors, although there is a much higher chance of accidentally smashing one’s thumb while closing the car door than being accidentally bit by a spider.

So what does this all have to do with software product success, let alone with the obesity epidemic?


We can find striking and telling examples in the food and beverage industries.  These industries do not have to convince consumers to eat sweet, fatty, and salty things.  This is because humans are drawn to those substances.  The Evolutionary Psychology explanation is that back when our needs and wants were being hard wired in our brains, sweet and fatty foods were very rare and at the same time were essential for survival (providing energy).  People who craved those foods and sought them out had a better chance of surviving and passing on the “sweet tooth” gene.  Same is true for salt – a rare substance at the time that is essential for our body’s internal balance.

Fast forward 12,000 years and we have the food and beverage industries understanding these basic human cravings and using them to make profits.  In present time, the combination of those inborn human cravings and the abundance of substances that were once rare leads to weight gain, obesity, and the hosts of health, social, and economic problems that come with those.  Now there are movements that are trying to have people STOP overusing products high in sugar, fat, and salt.  Wouldn’t that be the dream of any business person – to have consumers be addicted to their products?  Here the problem becomes one of differentiation – why should I pick your chocolate bar over the 101 other chocolate bars on the shelf before me?

The author of the Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow, understood Evolutionary Psychology very well.  In his famous pyramid:

  • The most basic physiological needs tied to survival are at the base. Those include, among others, food, sleep, sex, and homeostasis.  It becomes pretty obvious why the notorious marketing cliche “sex sells’ is so true, along with “sugar sells”, “butter sells”, and “salt sells.”  Any product that satisfies those needs will ALWAYS have powerful appeal to consumers as human beings.
  • The next level of the pyramid is about safety, which includes security of body, family, health, employment, resources, property, and so on.  Products and services associated with these needs are guaranteed to generate a lot of unending demand.
  • The next level is about belonging: friendship, family, intimacy.  Have you wondered why Facebook is so successful?
  • The next level is about esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of and by others.  At this point, it stars getting tougher to connect products and services to the needs – not impossible, just more positioning and messaging work.  It is also a taller order to invent new products and services that meet those needs.  Maybe productivity software, for example, falls in this category.
  • The highest level is about self-actualization … and who the heck knows what this means 🙂

Hopefully this post have provided some food for product innovation and marketing thought.

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Cross-functional teams, accountability, and the Jigsaw classroom

Some of my most productive and rewarding professional experiences have been in the context of working in cross-functional and agile design/development teams.  Indeed cross-functional teams are one of the essential elements of the now popular Scrum software development method.

There has been a lot of debate in the corporate boardroom as well as around the water cooler about the optimal size of working teams.  According to a Fast Company article, in the early days of Jeff Bezos “came up with the notion of the “two-pizza team”: If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large. That limits a task force to five to seven people, depending on their appetites.”

However, nobody to date (that I know of) has examined why small teams work better together and why cross-functional teams work better as well.

For those who are impatient, here are the answers.  To have high performing agile innovative teams you need three ingredients:

1. A clear task tied to a clear business goal

2. A team that includes the right mix of competencies, minimum one of each, and no people who provide just opinions without producing deliverables.

3. Individual accountability for the team results

One really great explanation for why small cross-functional teams can be high performing comes, out of all places, from Social Psychology and the science behind cooperative learning.

In the early 1970s one of the luminaries of 20th century Social Psychology, Elliot Aronson, developed the Jigsaw Classroom learning technique in response to a very serious and pressing social problem – the “turmoil and hostility” that accompanied the process of desegregation of the Texas school system.  Here is what Aronson and his students were up against.  At the time, the school system was based on individual achievement and competition for grades.  The student qualities which enabled achievement were, among other things, command of English language, self-confidence, and self-promotion.  Aronson gives the following description of a “typical fifth grade classroom …: The teacher stands in front of the class, asks a question, and waits for the children to signal that they know the answer. Most often, six to ten youngsters raise their hands, lifting themselves off their chairs and stretching their arms as high as they can in an effort to attract the teacher’s attention. Several other students sit quietly with their eyes averted, hoping the teacher does not call on them. When the teacher calls on one of the eager students, there are looks of disappointment on the faces of the other students who had tried to get the teacher’s attention. If the selected student comes up with the right answer, the teacher smiles, nods approvingly, and goes on to the next question. In the meantime, the students who didn’t know the answer breathe a sigh of relief. They have escaped being humiliated this time.

The issue was that after desegregation of the Texas schools, the classrooms were shared by the self-confident fluent English-speaking children and by the underprivileged minority children who did not have command of English language and/or whose cultures did not value high self-confidence and self-promotion.  As a result of this situation, students from different social and cultural groups self-segregated, between-group scholastic performance differed wildly and there was pronounced “turmoil and hostility.”

Elliot Aronson’s brilliant solution to the above problem was based on decades of research in Social Psychology.  Here it is in a nutshell (10 steps –

  1. “Divide students into 5- or 6-person jigsaw groups. The groups should be diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and ability.
  2. Appoint one student from each group as the leader. Initially, this person should be the most mature student in the group.
  3. Divide the day’s lesson into 5-6 segments. For example, if you want history students to learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, you might divide a short biography of her into stand-alone segments on: (1) Her childhood, (2) Her family life with Franklin and their children, (3) Her life after Franklin contracted polio, (4) Her work in the White House as First Lady, and (5) Her life and work after Franklin’s death.
  4. Assign each student to learn one segment, making sure students have direct access only to their own segment.
  5. Give students time to read over their segment at least twice and become familiar with it. There is no need for them to memorize it.
  6. Form temporary “expert groups” by having one student from each jigsaw group join other students assigned to the same segment. Give students in these expert groups time to discuss the main points of their segment and to rehearse the presentations they will make to their jigsaw group.
  7. Bring the students back into their jigsaw groups.
  8. Ask each student to present her or his segment to the group. Encourage others in the group to ask questions for clarification.
  9. Float from group to group, observing the process. If any group is having trouble (e.g., a member is dominating or disruptive), make an appropriate intervention. Eventually, it’s best for the group leader to handle this task. Leaders can be trained by whispering an instruction on how to intervene, until the leader gets the hang of it.
  10. At the end of the session, give a quiz on the material so that students quickly come to realize that these sessions are not just fun and games but really count.”

The implementation of the above method had stunning results.  Each child’s success was predicated on the success of the group and involved actively listening to each group’s member who held a key to solving the big picture.  This required children to interact meaningfully with other children who were very different from them.  In a few week’s time, schools which adopted the Jigsaw Classroom method became truly integrated – children from very different backgrounds started interacting with each other during class and playing together during recess.  The success of the program was also evident in students’ academic performance.

There are interesting parallels between this technique and the performance of highly productive and creative cross-functional development teams:

  1. Cross-functional teams are diverse by definition (have different functions represented)
  2. They have leaders
  3. The work is divided into chunks (sprints)
  4. Each team member is responsible for a specific deliverable
  5. Some time to get the deliverable done is a must
  6. “Experts groups” exist in the form of functional communities (Engineering, Research, Design, etc.)
  7. Individual accountability is necessary to ensure success

Hopefully, this short account of a very rich subject matter will shed some light on the Psychological mechanisms behind the workings of high-performing cross functional teams.

What do you think?

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