How do products tempt us? What makes them so alluring? It is easy to assume we crave delicious food or impulsively check email because we find pleasure in the activity. But pleasure is just half the story.
Temptation is more than just the promise of reward. Recent advances in neuroscience allow us to peer into the brain, providing a greater understanding of what makes us want.
In 2011, Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, gained unheard of access to sensitive information about the way undergraduates were using the Internet. His study tracked students on campus as they browsed the web. Chellappan was looking for patterns, which not only revealed what students were doing online, but provided clues about who they were.
"We believe that your pattern of Internet use says something about you," Chellappan wrote in the New York Times. "Specifically, our research suggests it can offer clues to your mental well-being." Chellappan concluded that there was, in fact, predictive power in the data. He found students with early signs of clinical depression used the Internet differently and he could identify students most likely to face mental health issues simply by looking at how they clicked.
"We identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression," wrote Chellappan. "For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage."
Chellappan developed the technology in hopes of creating an early-warning system to identify struggling students. But his study raised another question, why do people with depression check email more?
The answer may provide clues about why all of us use the products and services we do in our everyday lives. Psychologists believe people with depression feel negative emotions, like anxiety, more frequently than other people do. There is evidence that the depressed students in Chellappan's study were using the Internet more because they experience negative mental states more often. To try and feel better, they turned to the web to boost their mood.
Finding ways to make ourselves feel better is not something only depressives do. We all seek relief from feeling bad and the brain is primed to help us learn where we can find escape. Just as we might take a Tylenol to relieve a headache, we turn to products to relieve emotional pain. In fact, these two biological processes are so closely linked that taking a Tylenol has been shown to ease both physical and emotional pain. The drug is effective in treating headache and heartache.
Having a pain to cure is a necessary prerequisite to using products. Recent neuroscience reveals the brain even adds pain to things that were previously pleasurable to push us to get what our bodies want. When temptation is activated in the brain, it induces a biological process that not only turns on the pleasure response, but also the body's physiological stress response.
Consider a 2005 study which looked at the physiological response of women exposed to images of chocolate. Researchers observed that the women experienced a subconscious reaction of alarm similar to seeing a threatening animal in the wild. The women, who had identified themselves as "chocolate cravers," described feeling not only pleasure at the thought of consuming the chocolate, but also agitation, angst and a feeling of a loss of control in the face of their desire. For these women's brains, temptation was stressful.
Since the 1950s, researchers have explored how the brain's reward system compels behavior. Our understanding of the complex circuitry shows that pleasure and pain work together. Once the brain learns something good is about to happen, it induces a craving we feel as stress. The fastest relief from this discomfort is to get what we want.
Exaggeration and Fear
Companies, of course, are masters of temptation. If marketing is defined as, "the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers," then implicit in this practice is accentuating the positive aspects of what being sold. This technique is used not only in hawking goods, but is also found in nature. Animals have been tricking each other by accentuating desirable traits for millennia. The process is called "super-normal stimuli" and it is a key to enticing action by creating the stress of desire.
Another way products induce intense desire is through a certain kind of fear, particularly our innate need to have as much as the next person. The phenomenon is exhibited with a simple experiment conducted by Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University.
In the study, de Waal rewarded two capuchin monkeys with a cucumber when they completed a simple task, in this case, handing a rock to the researcher. When both monkeys were given the same reward, they completed the task as prescribed.
But when the researcher gave one monkey a grape while offering the other the standard cucumber, the results were very different. The stiffed monkey, who was perfectly content just seconds before with his cucumber, began shrieking, baring his teeth, thrashing in his cage, and pounding on the table to show his anger. Known in the vernacular as FOMO, or "fear of missing out," marketers utilize this inborn trigger to incite pain akin to what the capuchin monkey felt in de Waals cage.
Marketers tasked with increasing consumption of their company's products have a difficult job; they are often charged with manufacturing desire. To do that, they need to find the customer's problem, their pain, in order to alleviate it. Without the biological basis spurring our desire, there would be no sales. So marketers must at least accentuate, if not induce, a level of discomfort to make us crave their wares.
Like in the undergraduates in Chellappan's study exhibiting signs of depression, we all seek to escape feeling bad. The products and services that provide immediate relief are those we come to depend upon most.
Nir Eyal writes about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business at NirAndFar.com. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Hooked: How to Drive Engagement by Creating User Habits". Follow him on Twitter @nireyal.