Tag Archives: dopamine

Understanding Basic Drives and Experiential Temperament

In many ways, we are the product of the behaviors that worked for a long line of our ancestors.  When faced with a life threatening situation, say happening upon a saber tooth tiger, our ancestors were the ones that ran first and asked questions later.  Their friends that naively felt driven to go take a closer look weren’t so lucky.  Based on situation after situation like this, we are the descendants of the people that were driven to:  form and cooperate with others in reciprocal relationships, intuitively understand other peoples motives in order to be able to anticipate what they’d do; learn more about the way the world works in order to develop effective predictions and plans; and acquire the resources they needed to survive and that enhanced their status within the social hierarchy.

At the deepest level, our experiences today influenced by the same set of basic survival drives that were adaptive for our ancestors in the situations they faced.  While evolution does not pull our experiential strings directly, it has determined the design of how our brains process and act on experiences.   How we react to threats, strive to connect with others, seek to understand the ways of the world, and acquire resources are consistent with the mechanisms that contributed to the survival of those that came before us.

In the book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, Paul Laurence and Nitin Nohria, two Harvard University professors, conclude that we are hardwired with four basic drives that can be used to explain a wide range of individual and collective behavior.  These four basic drives are to:  ACQUIRE (obtain essential resources as well as, intangibles that improve our social status), BOND (develop relationships with individuals and groups that provide security and pleasure), LEARN (acquire experiences and beliefs that help us make the world more predictable), and DEFEND (protect against threats to ourselves, as well as, our resources, relationships, and beliefs).

As different as we all appear to be on the surface, these four basic drives provide a common framework that apply across individuals and across cultures.   The degree to which they are satisfied directly affects our emotions and, by extension, our behavior.   As we will see, individual temperamental differences have an effect on the relative strength of these drives and how they’re expressed.

ACQUIRE:  The drive to obtain essential resources as well as, intangibles that improve our social status.  We are motivated to acquire goods that increase our sense of well-being.  We experience satisfaction when this drive is fulfilled and frustration when it is not. Our drive to ACQUIRE applies to essential resources like food, clothing, shelter, and money.  It also applies to collecting objects, symbols, and experiences that signal or improve our status relative to others.

Beyond our basic survival needs, the drive to ACQUIRE is relative rather than absolute; we tend to compare what we have to what others have.  Observers of the human condition have consistently pointed out that people are happy when they feel better off than other people they know, unhappy when they feel worse off.

In addition, the drive to ACQUIRE is often insatiable beyond any physical need.  We often want more even when there is little or no incremental benefit from having more.

BOND:  The drive to develop relationships with individuals and groups that provide security and pleasure.  There is obvious survival value to forming reciprocal relationships with others, as well as, to be part of a group that provides safety, support, and identity.  Most people experience positive emotions when they are associated with others and negative emotions when they are isolated.

The drive to BOND also leads to emergence of cooperation.  In order to stay positively connected to the group, an individual must naturally keep track of their indebtedness to others and reciprocate in a way that maintains the relationship.  It also becomes very adaptive to sacrifice on personal gain in order to contribute to the greater good of the group.  One of the other implications of the drive to BOND is the emergence of both a dominance hierarchy and attention to social justice.  (See:   Cognitive Ergonomics: How Customers’ React to Violations of Justice).

LEARN:  The drive to acquire knowledge and beliefs that help us navigate successfully in the world.   There is strong survival value in our ability to make sense of the world around us and produce theories that help us: explain what has happened, predict what will happen, and develop reasonable courses of action.   We get frustrated when things seem senseless and we feel satisfied when we can understand about how and why things happen the way they do.  While the drive to acquire is materially driven, the drive to LEARN can be considered intellectual foraging.

DEFEND:  The drive to protect against threats to ourselves, as well as, our resources, relationships, and beliefs.   This drive is rooted in the most basic fight or flight response that is common to most animals.  We all naturally defend ourselves, our possessions, our family and friends against physical harm.  By extension, we also DEFEND our ideas, beliefs, and accomplishments against psychological harm that would undermine our understanding of the world, our self-esteem, or our social status.  When we successfully fulfill our drive to DEFEND, it leads to feelings of confidence and security.  When we are faced with situations that are unpredictable and seemingly out of our control, we react with feelings of fear and resentment.

Laurence and Nohria observe that these drives are independent in that they can neither be ordered hierarchically nor substituted for each other.   This is important since it provides flexibility in our behavioral responses to the situations we face.  This is particularly important since, in many cases, these drives are competing.  We often can’t satisfy each of the four drives in every situation leading to psychological and moral dilemmas.  For example, the drive to LEARN is often in conflict with the drive to DEFEND and the drive to BOND (cooperate) is often at odds with the drive to ACQUIRE.

While these four drives are present in every effectively functioning human being, you know from personal experience that not everyone expresses the drive to BOND or LEARN or ACQUIRE or DEFEND in the same ways.  For example, people vary in the both the magnitude and the direction associated with their drive to LEARN.

Recognizing differences in the strength and expression of each of these drives is a very important part of understanding how different people have experiences… and in knowing what can be done to enable people to have more engaging experiences.  We describe these differences in terms of Experiential Temperament.  The first layer of the Experience Personae Model thus starts with a description of the how individuals differ in the way they express the four drives.

“In one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely “spiritual,” purely “intellectual,” or purely “aesthetic;” it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of the occurrence.”  Aldous Huxley

An individuals’ experience takes place in a biochemical environment in the brain that influences the experiences they will find compelling, engaging, and comfortable.   Different people react to experiences differently based on variations in the neuromodulation processes that influence their activity level and emotional state.

Note:  A neuromodulation process involves neurotransmitters (the chemicals that communicate across synapses in the brain) that are not reabsorbed by the neuron or broken down.  These neuromodulators end up influencing the chemical makeup of an individual’s cerebrospinal fluid (the chemical environment of the brain) and, as a result, influencing (or modulating) the overall activity level of the brain.

An individual’s unique expression of the drives we discussed above has a lot to do with variations in neuromodulation from one individual to another.   In essence, neuromodulators act like the volume and tone controls that influence magnitude and nature of our reactions to experiences.

In our work, we consider four Experiential Temperaments that influence the fundamental ways people engage with different types of experiences:  Novelty Seeking, Harm Avoidance, Social Orientation, and Persistence.  This perspective builds on work originally done by Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine.

Novelty Seeking is the level to which a person is comfortable with,drawn to, and exhilarated by new experiences. While everyone wants some excitement occasionally, people that express high levels of Novelty Seeking seem to live for new experiences and new ways of looking at things. High Novelty Seeking people tend to be curious, exploratory, easily bored, impulsive, quick tempered, extravagant, enthusiastic, and disorderly. On the other hand, low Novelty Seeking people tend to be more indifferent to unfamiliar experiences. They also tend to be more reflective, frugal, orderly, and regimented.

Novelty Seeking describes an individuals’ expression of the common underlying drive to LEARN.  Novelty Seeking behavior contributes to an individual’s practical and theoretical understanding of the way the world works.

In the brain, Novelty Seeking behavior is motivated and regulated by dopamine.  High Novelty Seeking people appear to have low base levels of dopamine and, as a result, experience an increased sensitivity to dopamine releases.  This gives Novelty Seekers an enhanced euphoric rush from novel stimulation that is either physical or intellectual.

Harm Avoidance is the level to which customers strive to escape from unfamiliar, uncertain, potentially dangerous, or unpleasant experiences. People that are high in Harm Avoidance tend to be cautious, apprehensive, and pessimistic in experiences that don’t worry others. They also tend to be insecure in social situations and often need reassurance and encouragement with new experiences. They tend to be critical of themselves if things don’t go smoothly. On the other hand, people that are low in Harm Avoidance are generally confident despite the unknown aspects of an experience, even those experiences that would worry other people. Overall, low Harm Avoidance individuals tend to be relaxed, courageous, carefree, and optimistic.

Harm Avoidance is an important way that different individuals express the drive to DEFEND.  While everyone has the drive to protect themselves, high Harm Avoidant individuals take this to an extreme by avoiding behavior that would lead to punishment, danger, or embarrassment.

Harm Avoidance appears to be regulated by serotonin.  Harm Avoidant individuals are more prone to the frequent release of serotonin when presented with uncertain or potentially threatening situations.  This frequent release of serotonin leads to a decrease in serotonin sensitivity and a resulting increase in cortisol which is associated with the feeling of stress.

Social Orientation is the level to which people seek to bond with and gain approval from others. Individuals with high Social Orientation are warm, dedicated, and dependent. They tend to seek communication and social contact and are sensitive to social cues which facilitate their understanding of and reciprocity with others. People that are low on Social Orientation tend to be self-absorbed, practical, cold, and more socially insensitive. They often don’t mind being alone and, in general, don’t feel a strong need to gain approval from others

Social Orientation is an expression of the underlying drive to BOND.  High Social Orientation individuals have an amplified need to BOND and tend to be effective in forming and maintaining strong reciprocal relationships.

Social Orientation appears to be related to levels of oxytocin (strong bonding with mates and family) and vasopressin, the only known hormones released by the posterior pituitary gland that act at a distance.  Studies have reported that higher levels of oxytocin enhance an individual’s ability to read others’ emotions based on eye cues.  In addition, a 2005 study in reported in Nature magazine found that people sprayed with oxytocin were more trusting in cooperation situations.  Subjects whose oxytocin levels were mildly increased could infer significantly better what a target person was thinking about, based only on eye cues.  The effect was more pronounced for emotions harder to read through eye cues.

Persistence is the level to which a person feels the drive towards behavioral inhibition (put it off) versus behavioral activation (just do it!). High Persistence individuals are eager to initiative experiences, tend to see roadblocks as personal challenges, and intensify their efforts in response to anticipated rewards. Low Persistence individuals require the deliberate removal of barriers to action and more powerful encouragement to engage in experiences.

Persistence can be considered an amplifier or modulator of the drive to ACQUIRE resources, experiences, relationships, etc…   Persistence appears to be connected with the complex interaction of neurotransmitters including dopamine (motivation based on reward-prediction), and serotonin.

So what does this all mean?  The ability to understand and rigorously describe the Experiential Temperament of a person has a profound impact on designing products, services, interactions, etc… that fit with and influence the way people think.   Designing high Novelty Seeking experiences for low Novelty Seeking customers is not ideal.  Not taking into account the high Harm Avoidant temperament of some customers can lead to experiences that make people feel uncomfortable.

For example, we are currently helping a leading healthcare organization design an integrated patient-physician experience that is sensitive to the fact that people have fundamentally different mental models for their health and the consumption of health-related services.  Some customers will be high novelty seeking “naturalists;” some customers will be low persistence “avoiders;” others will be more high harm avoidant “active consumers,” etc…   The experience that works for each of the personae involves different ways of communicating, prescribing courses of treatment, reinforcing behaviors like wellness programs, etc…

Another client is a leading retail chain expressed a desire to “Disneyize” their experience.  What they hadn’t taken into account in developing that vision is that the current customer experience could be described as:  low novelty seeking; moderately high harm avoidant; and high social orientation.  Some of the ideas this company had for improving the experience were brilliant.  However, many of those “improvements” would have led to an unintended shift in the temperament of the overall experience; one that would have created tension for existing customers.

The most effective experiences either match the temperament of the target ideal individual or avoid stressing people by providing a “temperament neutral experience.”

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Novelty Seeking and the Design of Differentiated Experiences

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 BernsSatisfaction:  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.