Over millions of years of human development, our ability to predict has translated into our ability to survive. We live in an inherently unpredictable world. As a result, we have evolved a strong motivation to learn in a way that improves our predictions. Not only does this motivation lead to a clear survival advantage, but, in a social setting, learning how to better predict other people’s behavior leads to small group cooperation and to attracting the fittest members of the opposite sex. Our drive to predict leads to an overarching behavior – novelty seeking.
Brains want novelty. This was first observed by Wilhelm Wundt, one of the founding fathers of the field of psychology, in the 19thcentury. Wundt observed that the more complicated an experience is, the more a person will be stimulated by it. Up to a certain level; at which point the experience starts to get overwhelming. He described this diagrammatically as a bell-shaped curve, called the Wundt Curve, showing the state of arousal increasing as experiential complexity increases up to a point at which arousal starts to decrease as complexity continues to increase.
This explains why experiences with intermediate levels of complexity are generally the most pleasurable. Why a movie whose plot is unpredictable, but not too unpredictable. Why it’s pleasurable to listen to music that strikes a balance between predictability and novelty. Why humor that helps us see things differently is inherently engaging.
Novelty seeking is actually hard-wired into the way your brain works. Novelty seeking is stimulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine. In a way, dopamine is the driver of all experience. It works like a key for unlocking one of the most critical parts of your brain: the striatum, which contains the highest concentration of dopamine receptors. This is well described in two outstanding books: Greg Berns‘ Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment and Read Montague‘s Why Choose this Book? How We Make Decisions.
The striatum is where the interaction between you as an individual and the environment happens. It works like a switching station with many inputs from other parts of your brain but limited capacity. As a result, only a few signals can get through at any point in time. What makes it through has to do with dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical “reward” predictor that encourages your striatum to pay particular attention to novel input signals. This interaction commits your motor system to a course of action, selected from the many different possibilities. It produces your ability to decide what you want to do.
Doing something just past the edge of your predictability zone releases dopamine. As a result, novel information flows through your striatum. This, in turn, forces you to act on the information and, subsequently, reinforces the motivational system.
However, too much novel information creates an overload and a lack of attention. The point at which too much information becomes… too much information… is related to the capacity of working memory. It’s been demonstrated that people can maintain no more than 7+/- 2 chunks of information in working memory at any point in time. By the way, this is why AT&T originally determined that telephone numbers should have 7 digits.
What are the implications for designing customer experiences? For the past several years, we’ve been focusing our clients on the development of a small set of “Signature Experience Elements” that customers will perceive as a “difference in kind” and that fit with the overarching purpose of the organization. Typically we design to no more than 5-7 Signature Elements that are aligned with the purpose or story the experience is trying to tell. Sticking to this relatively small set of highly novel elements, it’s possible to create experiences that are closer to the optimum point of the Wundt Curve… (aka, wundt-erful experiences). The natural tendency for many organizations are to invest too heavily in a large number of incremental improvements that don’t stimulate the customers’ desire for novelty seeking.
For example, Whole Foods Market has a small number of signature experience elements that reinforce their “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” positioning and are perceived by customers’ as a difference in kind. These include: organic food, artful food presentation, local growers, educational signage, novelty seeking selection, and premium pricing.
Another client example is a major jewelry store chain, whose brand story is “The Perfect Gift, Guaranteed.” This company’s signature elements included: a distinctive welcome, creative and consultative gift advice, coaching the customer on how to romance the gift, and a wow process for returns. Each of these signature elements was designed to get the customers attention and contribute to them really internalizing the desired brand story.
In addition, predictable experiences lead to habituation. Changes in happiness or satisfaction are driven by relative changes from our recent past. This is why, as we adjust to any positive change in our circumstances, satisfaction or happiness fades. Social psychologist Philip Brickman describes this as the hedonic treadmill; we need to seek higher levels of reward in order to maintain the same level of satisfaction.
Some sensations habituate more quickly than others. For example, we tend to quickly get used to changes in their financial status. A positive improvement in financial fortunes leads to a short term increase in the feeling of satisfaction followed quickly by a return to indifference.
This may be one of the reasons why structured loyalty or rewards programs tend to drive rational repeat purchase behavior but not necessarily higher levels of satisfaction. People habituate to rewards quickly when the rewards are relatively predictable. However, I’ve observed that people respond more positively to rewards when the rewards are novel, unexpected, and authentic.
Personal relationships tend to habituate more slowly. The balance of predictability and novelty is an issue in long-term relationships. After a long time together, two people get too good at predicting each others responses. And they also become more certain that they “know” the other person’s underlying intentions. This can be both comforting and highly constraining. As people get to know each other, they may lose their sense of novel individuality. People tend to believe that relationship harmony depends on stability and constancy. This is an issue. While novelty in a relationship may be inherently destabilizing, it is essential to the maintenance of any long-term relationship. This is as true for business relationships and collegial relationships, as it is for married relationships.
In future posts, I’ll describe the implications of other neuromodulated processes (Harm Avoidance, Reward Dependence, and Persistence) that influence how people experience the world, as well as, provide guidance for the design of the most compelling customer experiences.