Rules that make the Inception

“It is the framework which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame.”  – Marshall McLuhan

“Every human mind you’ve ever looked at … is a product not just of natural selection but of cultural redesign of enormous proportions.”  – Daniel Dennett

Expectations met

I watched Inception over the weekend with eager anticipation, my expectations high after much praise and hype for the film.  Fortunately the praise was fully justified, and I strongly recommend anyone to see the film.  However, occasionally my expectations of films have led to disappointment  Whatever I see and hear prior to watching, reading or listening to any new film, book or piece of music always affect my feelings, and (un)consciously shape my reaction.

As well as being visually stunning and as full of action as a James Bond movie, Inception raises some interesting questions discussed in previous posts.  What is the role of our unconscious in shaping our perception of reality?   Does the mind work on multiple layers of reality?  Can we plant ideas in someone’s mind?

Could it really happen?

Some of the science of Inception is explored in a post by Zeo,who argues that planting an idea in someone’s mind (when asleep) is half fact and half fiction.  The reality is that this happens to us all the time when we’re awake.  Context (including expectations) has a huge impact on how we behave, how questions are framed changes our answer, the anchoring of ideas influences us and our mood effects the choices we make.

What did you expect?

Dan Ariely describes an interesting experiment where a beer with added vinegar is preferred to the original beer until subjects are told that the vinegar has been added.  Other experiments show that a wine costing $100 tastes so much better than the same wine costing $15, and that descriptions of products influence the way they are experienced by us.  Branding is an important shaper (I considered using the word manipulate!) of our experiences.  The differences between blind and branded evaluation of products are caused by our brain’s expectations altering our perception of reality (and our preference for the drinks).

Priming research

In market research, the way in which a question is framed ‘primes’ the answer.  If we ask, “is lathering important for your washing powder?” we are likely to get different answers than if we ask, “is lathering not important for your washing powder?”.  The wording of a question primes our response.  More than that, the act of asking the question primes our response.  Many of us may not even consider lather when we are evaluating washing powder, until we are asked about it (which means it must be important, right?).

Taversky and Kahneman and more recently Dan Ariely have conducted many experiments which show strong framing effects.   Some of these effects are caused by the different ways in which we evaluate positive and negative framing of information.  Humans are hardwired to perceive the same gain and loss in different ways.  Losses have far more emotional impact than gains of the same size.  That’s why customer satisfaction depends much more on avoiding bad experiences than on creating customer delight!

We can’t drop the anchor

When making decisions, we tend to anchor our judgements on specific information and values, especially those which are most recent.   If we are asked to remember the last 4 digits of our social security number, this number will influence our perception of other information (ie if it is higher then we will tend to estimate other numbers as higher).  For instance, if I ask one group of people, “is the population of the Singapore higher or lower than 8 million?” and another group. “is the population of Singapore higher or lower than 4 mllion?” and then ask both groups to estimate the population of Singapore, the first group will give much higher answers than the second.

That example seems obvious, but there are many instances, particularly when dealing with money, where such effects may be less so.  We have all experienced that buying decisions are influenced by providing options which frame pricing: think about how a good barterer manipulates your frame of reference to get a price closer to the one that they desire.

Where’s the halo?

Going back to market research, halo effects are well known, where the rating of one attribute is influenced by how someone rates another attribute.  That’s one of the reasons that overall ratings and other important questions are typically asked at the start of an interview before they can be influenced by less important aspects.

Edward Thorndike was the first psychologist to measure halo effects, when he found very strong cross-correlations between positive and negative traits of soldiers rated by officers.  Halo effect also leads to bad recruitment decisions, when interviewers focus on one positive aspect of an interviewee and ignore other negative aspects.

Does it feel good?

Many psychological tests rely on the impact of our feelings on our mental processing.   In the Implicit Association Test, our underlying points of view (ie prejudices) influence the speed with which we react to words and meanings.  Associating something with a positive or negative emotion will influence our judgement – pictures which are seen after smiling faces (shown subliminally) are rated higher than those seen after frowning faces.  I drink beers which fit with my image of myself, even I know that other beers actually taste better (just as Coca-Cola drinkers are unswayed by their preference for Pepsi when tasted blind).

When in Rome

Different contexts completely change our perceptions of something.  To go back to beer (which I like), the beer I keep at home is different to the beer I drink with friends while watching the weekend rugby, which is different again to the beer I would drink on a date with my girlfriend.  In fact, if I was taking my girlfriend for a romantic meal, I would probably choose wine (unless she liked beer too)!

Again, these may seem trivial examples, but our social world is not trivial at all.   Everything we do depends on social context – on how we perceive ourselves in relation to others, and on how we perceive that they perceive us, and so on in a never ending feedback loop (like the different stories within the story of Inception).  Most powerfully, the Lucifer Effect (as Philip Zimbardo describes it) has the ability to make us do things which we would never do in normal circumstances.

A recent article by J. Walker Smith and David Bersoff  in Admap discusses  the challenge of context.  They describe an experiment where choices of new music were influenced far more by others’ opinion than by individual taste.  Decisions were completely dependent on social context.  They state that “when individual decisions are subject to social influence, markets do not simply aggregate pre-existing individual preferences”.

We don’t act alone

Innovation and market research must consider these influences in understanding the human condition.  Context is critical to evaluating any new idea.  Consumers do not make choices in a vacuum.  They consider alternatives and they consider what others are doing.  These contextual influences are critical to understanding consumer motivations and developing new products which they will buy.

Finally, if I ask you to imagine an elephant, what colour is it?


Inception by Christopher Nolan (2010)

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (2008)

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1981). The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453-458.

The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo (2008)

J. Walker Smith & David Bersoff (2010).  Context counts above all else.  Admap, July/August 2010.

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