HOW DOES THE BRAIN DECIDE - Impossible to Ignore - Carmen Simon

Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions - Carmen Simon (2016)


The Neurobiology and Neuroeconomics of Choice

Despite the best of intentions, many actions go unfulfilled. Think of your friends, family, or coworkers. In the past week, how many of them said they would do something and did not do it? There is often a gap between what people say they will do and what they actually do, and that gap has negative influences on relationships and business.

In our communication efforts, we create content and share it at Point A, and we hope people remember it and act on it later at Point B. From this angle, it is practical to study the concept of prospective memory—enabling others to remember to act on future intentions—because it keeps us viable. When our audiences do what they say they will do, we stay in business. When they say they will meet with us again and they do, we have the opportunity to move forward. When they say they want to hire us and they do, we have the opportunity to grow. Memory has evolved to help us keep track of the future. This means that for communicators, it is useful to consider techniques that make us part of our audience’s future, especially at critical decision points.

How do we complete the cycle of prospective memory? At Point B, people may notice cues related to something we mentioned at Point A, search their memories for appropriate actions, and decide to act on an intention. Or not. Use these guidelines to make it easier for your audiences’ brains to decide in your favor:

1. Design cues that are hard to miss, and link them to something rewarding.

2. Create anticipation, which releases dopamine and sparks action.

3. Make important messages easy to repeat and recall later.

4. Ensure that important content comes to mind easily by making it distinct from other content.

5. Use effective storytelling with a proper combination of perceptive, cognitive, and affective components.

6. Offer an optimal amount of information.

Despite following these guidelines, it is possible our audiences need even more convincing to act. This chapter will equip us with additional persuasive power.

Much has been published on the concept of neuroeconomics and the neurobiology of decision-making. The difference between the two fields is that neuroeconomics offers models that aim to predict or explain our observable choices. Neurobiology aims to explain the mechanisms in our nervous system that mediate behavior and generate choices. We can use insights from both fields. This chapter presents research-based guidelines to influence decision-making that have not been widely discussed beyond academic circles.


At the beginning of the book, we discussed three angles for understanding how the brain makes decisions. We make choices in a reflexive kind of way: we instinctively and subconsciously react to tastes, sounds, sex, novelty, altruism, or control over our environment and decide what to do next quickly and subconsciously. Reflexes require few resources. As I was writing this, an ad from Pinterest popped up on my computer saying, “Access these photos so you never miss anything on the latest fashion.” A message such as “never miss anything” is effective because it appeals to our instinct to control. It takes more energy to ignore that message than it does to indulge it.

We also make choices based on habits, which we develop when we explore our external environments and inner states. Habits are conscious at first, become automatic in time, and tend to stick when they are rewarding and not costly in cognitive energy. We also decide according to goals. Depending on what we consider rewarding (public image, financial wealth, or health), we are willing to make deliberate decisions. Unlike reflexes and habits, goals require willpower, which implies more cognitive resources.

As our lives unfold in a series of decisions, ranging from fully automatic to fully strategic, we may experience some tension balancing them. An instinctual voice in your head may say, “I am craving something sweet.” The automatic voice adds, “A KitKat bar would be really good.” And the strategic voice asks, “Can I afford the calories?”

Reflecting on your own content, ask this: What gives your own audiences a rush? What do they crave? What lights their fire naturally? Can you divide your content approaches so as to appeal to something automatic and strategic in balanced proportions? For example, in a current antismoking campaign, we see a young girl, Amanda Green, writing a “contract” in which she agrees to relinquish part of her freedom to a cigarette. The voiceover bluntly states, “There is a contract in every cigarette; when you light up, you sign up.” The commercial appeals to all three decision drivers: a reflex, our automatic desire to be in control; an existing habit, smoking; and a goal, quitting. The ad ends with “Know the real cost,” which appeals to a strategic approach for quitting.


When analyzing decision-making, it is practical to understand what automatic decisions really mean. Psychologists agree that in order for a mental process to be automatic, it must be related to one or more of these four: awareness, intentionality, efficiency, and controllability. A process is automatic if we are not aware of it, in the sense that we may not notice a stimulus, such as an air-conditioning unit running in the background at a comfortable temperature. Sometimes we are not aware of how we interpret a stimulus (such as when we engage in stereotyping) or believe that something is the cause of an event when it isn’t (such as believing that a new type of music is corrupting kids). A process is also automatic if we don’t intentionally start it (e.g., feeling hungry) and if it is efficient, meaning it does not require cognitive resources (e.g., you don’t have to think to realize you’re hungry). A mental process is also automatic if it is uncontrollable, meaning we cannot stop it; it will run until completion (e.g., salivating to digest food).

Consider creating some of your content with the concept of automatic processes in mind, because when you appeal to instincts and existing habits in particular, which are automatic, decisions are easier. You may not meet all four of the criteria described for automatic processes, but even one or two dimensions are helpful. We can learn from marketers at Oreo, who generated a lot of buzz for the cookie in 2012 when the company turned 100 years old. Marketers created a 100-day Daily Twist, which included pictures of the Oreo cookie linked to something that happened in the news on a specific day during the 100 days. For instance, one cookie had an orange filling with tire tracks to celebrate the Mars Rover landing. Another showed an Oreo doing the Gangnam-style dance. A cookie with rainbow-color filling celebrated gay pride. The campaign invited action because it hooked into elements people already knew and did not require extra processing power. One might say it was a cognitively efficient campaign. The campaign led to 5 million likes and a 110% increase in consumer engagement.

I remember working with Mike Ray, a vice president at McDonald’s. He needed to deliver a presentation with the intent to improve the revenue of a region by generating more sales through effective operations. What would it take for his audience to listen and decide to act on what Ray said? Cash flow. With that clarity, the message we created was based on automatic and strategic thinking. The concept of cash flow comes to mind automatically, so we titled the presentation “You Profit Most When You Serve Best,” and we linked profit (automatic thought) with operations (strategic thought). In another segment, he urged his audience to “create a customer who creates customers,” which combines automatic thinking (creating customers) and strategic thinking (those customers will later bring their friends). Toward the end of the presentation, Ray asked, “If your last customer interaction were posted on Facebook, would you feel proud of your performance?” This also appealed to something automatic (Facebook posts) and strategic (the more satisfied customers are, the bigger the cash flow).

When we are communicating new information to people, we are asking their brains to incorporate the new information while maintaining old information. This is not always easy to do. The problem is called the stability-plasticity dilemma. Researchers are now looking more seriously at the question: Does learning new things incrementally decrease the memories of old things? If people are only learning something once, the answer is a strong yes. This is why an important first step in deciding what we would like others to remember and act on is this: hook into what they already know and have practiced for a long time so the memory has longevity.


The way to test the difference between habits and goal-oriented choices is to notice whether an organism changes behavior in light of new information. To show this, studies have been performed on both humans and animals. For instance, hungry rats are trained to press a lever to receive a specific type of food. After a while, the food is “devalued,” in the sense that either the rats can have access to as much as they want or the food is injected with drugs to make it unappetizing. Then the rats are offered the opportunity to press the lever again for food. Do they act based on past satisfaction, or do they act based on consequences?

A key factor that differentiates habits from goal-oriented behavior is the amount of exposure or training the organism receives. Rats who complete training in lever pressing to receive food for five half-hour sessions prior to devaluation stop pressing the lever when food is devalued. Rats who complete 20 sessions of lever pressing continue to act out of habit. This is why highly practiced actions such as driving to work can become automatic even when they are detrimental, such as ignoring construction signs and still taking the usual route.

Recently, scientists replicated the devaluation experiment with humans to see what it would take to get people to act based on habits or based on goals. Thirty-two healthy participants who were not dieting were trained to associate different actions (button presses) with obtaining either Fritos or M&Ms. One group received six times more training than the other, after which the food was devalued (i.e., participants could eat as many Fritos or M&Ms as they wanted). Later when they were asked to press buttons again to receive rewards, participants who had received more training continued to act based on habits, even though the reward had been devalued.

Thinking about your own content, ask this: How long has your audience been performing a task that you would like them to change? If they have not been doing it for long, present goal-oriented information (e.g., “reduce Facebook time to be more productive at work”). If they’ve been doing it for a long time, tie the change you want to see to an existing habit (e.g., “every time a Facebook notification pops up, write a sentence for work before opening it”).

If your content is aimed at convincing people to change an existing habit, it’s important to remember that habits are formed by doing, not by not doing. Frame your messages in a positive way. Imagine if the famous slogan “Just do it” was “Don’t procrastinate.”


To ensure biological fitness, the brain has evolved to pay attention to internal or external cues, quickly determine their predictive value, compute the optimal choice to obtain rewards, and act. With this in mind, we can list the steps that are part of any decision:

1. Identify sensory stimuli: What is it?

2. Select an action that will maximize a reward: What is it worth?

3. Act on the intention.

4. Evaluate the results: Did you predict the outcome well?

Notice that the first step in making choices is paying attention to stimuli. This means we have to draw people’s attention to what we consider important in order for them to act on an intention. For example, I was browsing through a magazine and was compelled to read the story about Dimitry Morozov’s tattoo. An artist and self-taught engineer from Moscow, Morozov has tattooed on his left forearm an 8- × 3-inch barcode. When he scans it with the right gadget, he gets … music. Morozov created the barcode in Photoshop and molded a scanner with two black-line sensors, a stepper motor, and a Nintendo Wii remote. As the motor guides the sensors along his tattoo, the length of each bar dictates the duration of the sound. If he moves his arm, the Wii’s accelerometer detects the shift and changes the tone. The story had enough familiar and new stimuli that made my decision to look and engage with it easier compared to other articles in the magazine.

Once we have people’s attention, they select an action to maximize a reward, and this reward depends on the value they attach to it. MRI studies confirm that the brain integrates sensory and reward information to make choices, and it weighs costs against benefits into a single representation of net value. Neuroeconomists Joseph Kable and Paul Glimcher call this abstract measure of value a “common currency of choice.”

We learn values through experience and reinforcement. The brain encodes a “teaching” signal each time we learn the subjective value of our actions. Each time we go through the same action and experience an outcome, we update the value estimate by using the old value and a reward prediction error, which represents the difference between the experienced outcome and expected outcome.

At the time of choice, we retrieve stored values, taking into consideration the magnitude of expected reward and the likelihood the reward will happen. A phrase that neuroeconomists use frequently is “predicted utility,” which means the expected value of a predicted outcome, typically learned and remembered from the past. If you enjoy going to the website and generally get good information from it, you expect that if you go there today, you will be rewarded with good information again.

When faced with choices, we tend to remember the total pleasure or displeasure associated with an outcome. The stimulus properties of the outcome are part of our experienced utility and are state dependent. For example, we remember food differently based on whether we are hungry or satiated. So when we have specific goals for the future, we combine the knowledge of the outcome values from the past and calculate decision utility.

We generally expect future rewards to be as good as the ones we remember from the past. What if we need to make decisions when we have not experienced something in the past? We can still compute future value by estimating its similarity with something we do remember, using knowledge acquired from observing others or through inferences or instructions from others.

It is not sufficient to simply encode values and store them. We still need to act on a choice. Once the brain notices something has high value, it makes a choice from a set of alternatives and passes it to the motor system for implementation.

After we make choices, we evaluate the outcomes. This process can depend on higher cognitive processes, and it is independent from the original stimulus. For instance, if someone uses the word “expensive” or “healthy” to describe food or drinks, you will evaluate your experience differently—the same way you would if you are made to believe that you are smelling cheddar cheese or stinky feet. Or whether you believe that a picture you’re looking at is a museum piece or the product of a computer program. This means it is possible to influence the memory of value even after you have exposed your audiences to a specific communication experience. Words such as “worthwhile,” “helpful,” or “relevant” to describe their interaction with you can help solidify the value code needed for the next interaction.


Given that rewards drive decisions, when we create content, one of the biggest challenges we have is to figure out what our audiences consider rewarding. Clarifying rewards is challenging because what people value differs. An ad from HSBC bank demonstrates this well. The ad shows pictures of three people’s bald heads, viewed from the back, and they are labeled “Style,” “Soldier,” and “Survivor.” The tag line reminds us that “Only by understanding what people value can we better meet their needs.”

What do people value?

This question is important because too many companies talk past their customers, without paying attention to what they value. In a 2014 survey of 1,408 companies by McKinsey, executives were convinced that customers would most appreciate a brand that “promotes and practices sustainability in its products or services,” “has global reach,” “is a driver for innovation,” or “promotes diversity and equal opportunity.” When customers were asked what they really cared about, the factors considered important by companies were not statistically significant. Instead, what customers really wanted were brands that “care about honest and open dialogue with its customers,” “act responsibly across its supply chain,” “have a high level of specialist expertise,” and “fit in well with my values and beliefs.” You can imagine how you would get bored if what you cared about was expertise and instead listened to a pitch about product sustainability.

A positive example of putting effort into what people value is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The real accomplishment of this book is not that it has been translated into every major language but that it has been translated at all. The story is filled with so many puns and cultural references that translators had to be very creative in offering readers something they considered rewarding and valuable. For example, here is the parody that Lewis Carroll offers for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in the original version:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

How I wonder what you’re at!

Up above the world you fly

Like a tea-tray in the sky.

In an effort to make the translation relevant and meaningful to German readers, the translator converted the parody to one deriding the German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum.” Here is the gist of that translation:

Oh parrot, oh parrot!

How green are your feathers!

You’re not only green in times of peace,

But also when it snows plates and pots.

As Smithsonian writer Andrea Appleton puts it, we sometimes have to “sacrifice a literal interpretation” in order to offer what is linguistically and culturally relevant. Emer O’Sullivan, an expert in children’s literature, remarks that “all translations are adaptations,” and being able to tell how much of the original story was kept “is a matter of degree.” And here we have arrived full circle from the initial conversation at the beginning of the book, advocating content creation from the lens of proportions rather than absolutes. Be prepared to sacrifice some accuracy, not to diminish the truth but to adjust content to a specific population to provide something audiences find rewarding.

There are several technologies that help us remove guesswork from what people value. I asked Kevin Lindsay, product marketing director at Adobe, about optimal ways to help customers make decisions, based on what they value, especially when shopping online. Lindsay mentioned conversion rate optimization (CRO), which is concerned with understanding the decisions that shoppers have to make at different points during their buying journey. He recommends making incremental improvements at each step and testing constantly. He points out, “If, as a result of testing, you discover that more shoppers add items with at least 10 user reviews, you may start directing all shoppers to the most reviewed products. If buy-one-get-one-free entices more people to explore your store than 15%-off-site-wide, pay attention. Testing gives us a statistically reliable way to validate what people value.”

Does knowing what customers value work in practice? Lindsay mentioned working with a retailer to help it implement CRO. At that time, the retailer had a unique visitor count of around 13 million, and the conversion rate hovered at about 2.8%. Lindsay noted, “As a result of applying rigorous CRO practices, in just three months we saw conversions increase to 3.1%. If you don’t think that sounds like much, reconsider: the result was an annualized revenue gain of more than $33 million!”

The values we assign to different objects, people, and experiences can range from functional and concrete to something more abstract. For example, we buy things because we value their tangible attributes, such as a dishwasher, a type of detergent, or even insurance. But we also buy things for their emotional value: think of the last time you used your GoPro or enjoyed food, drinks, or a film with friends.

Much has been studied about the impact of emotion on attention, memory, and decision-making—the three main pillars of this book. When we are faced with emotional events, the amygdala modulates the visual cortex to make sure we direct attention to these events. While the hippocampus is necessary in memory storage, the amygdala modulates memory in the face of a highly emotional event and ensures the event is retained. Emotions act as markers for important information, which is why at a decision point, we are likely to recall an emotional event versus a neutral one.

Studies show how emotions such as happiness, sadness, stress, or anxiety impact decisions. Take stress, for instance. Under stressful circumstances, we tend to be more risk averse in the gain domain and more risk seeking in the loss domain. A sad mood also pushes us into taking more risks for greater rewards. Anxiety biases us the other direction, toward low risks and low rewards. Some of us are generally more anxious or cheerful than others, which is why our choices are different.

You can change value by changing emotion.

We may also choose things or people or experiences for their epistemological value: this includes products or experiences that give us the opportunity for knowledge development and intellectual stimulation, such as books and seminars. We value things for their aesthetics, such as clothes and decorations. We also seek hedonistic values because they evoke sensory pleasure, which is why we enjoy good hotels and fun nightclubs. Sometimes we choose because of situational value, such as selecting champagne versus wine because of a special occasion. And if we’re lucky enough, we may be exposed to things of holistic value: choosing a vacation in Paris with a new lover is likely to appeal to a range of values from emotional to epistemological, aesthetic to hedonistic.

Which of these values do your customers appreciate, and are those values coming across clearly in your communication? If so, then there is a greater likelihood of action.


The brain automatically assigns values to elements in our surroundings, from the very first presentation of a stimulus, even in a choice-free context. Neuroimaging evidence suggests there is an automatic valuation system that encodes values for preferences under all circumstances. This system is personal, generic, and automatic.

In an MRI study, participants were shown pictures of faces, houses, and paintings and asked to rate their pleasantness and guess their age. The brain value system was activated even when the value was not necessary for the task at hand. Even if subjects were simply asked to guess the age of the house or the face or the painting, activity in the brain value system was higher for the pictures that were later identified as preferred. We constantly judge. This could be because the brain value system evolved before money was invented and values come first, potentially providing a basis for when we may have to make choices later. Such anchors influence subsequent decisions and sometimes unrelated decisions, too.

We assign values even when we don’t have to choose.

We don’t even need to pay attention for a long time to assign value. In one MRI study, participants in one condition (high attention) were shown a set of cars and asked to rate their attractiveness; in the other condition (low attention), participants were asked to fixate on a target, while some car pictures were displayed in the background. After scanning, participants were asked to rate their intention to purchase one of the cars. Results showed that the brain areas that predicted preferences were activated even in the low-attention group. Unattended stimuli can still influence choice. Participants did not know that later they would be asked about their intention, so the study was set up to show that it is possible to have unconscious environmental triggers and automatic processes in decision-making. Even in the absence of explicit deliberation, the brain regions associated with expected reward value were activated. It is no wonder cultural stimuli, such as cars and logos of cars that indicate wealth and status, have been shown to activate the reward network in the brain. We can still make complex economic decisions without fully deliberating and even without paying much attention.

Using eye-tracking devices, we know we can make value-based decisions without having access to our full cognitive resources, in about a third of a second. For example, if we are hungry and we prefer Snickers to Doritos, and someone shows us pictures of the two options very quickly, we will look toward our preferred option in 404 milliseconds. Perceptual decision-making is even faster. We can pick out which natural scene has an animal in it in about 140 to 160 milliseconds, and we can tell if a facial expression or body posture is fearful or neutral in 350 milliseconds.

What does this information mean to our content? Even when we are not asking others to make a selection in our favor, we must still offer quality content. Our audiences’ brains are constantly encoding value for what we show them. There is no break from greatness if you want to become impossible to ignore.

Research informs us that once people assign values to choices, it is possible they forget those values particularly for products with longer sales cycles, products that are more complex, and products that do not imply too much consumer involvement. Consider your content with this finding in mind. Do you operate in any of these categories: complexity, long sales cycles, and sparse consumer engagement? If yes, consider constant activation of what people value, via more frequent communication and social media. With these messages, it is important not to insist on features, but rather to remind people of how much they value that product or service.


In addition to studying rewards and values as they relate to decisions, neuroscientists are noticing other variables that have an impact on our choices: effort to get the reward (physical, financial, or mental), time delay until we get the reward, perception of risk in getting the reward, and social impact in relation to that reward. Some of these variables have been addressed previously in the book. In the next few sections, let’s look at additional research studies that help us gain practical insights from understanding how a combination of these variables influences decision-making.

When analyzing decisions made on automatic or strategic processes, scientists are noticing that decisions tend to be automatic when we are depleted of mental energy or when we perceive a situation as stable. We rely on more strategic decisions when we perceive risk. We can choose toothpaste without thinking but not a stock investment or a partnership with a new vendor. Consider your own perception of risk toward money, job, health, safety, ethical behavior, a vacation in a foreign country, or even just interactions with other people. You may be willing to take bigger risks with your vacation than with your career.

When we ask anything of our listeners, especially if they don’t know us, they may be sensitive to risk, which typically arises from two sources: ambiguity and uncertainty. We can address ambiguity by offering clear content. Uncertainty is harder to handle but not impossible. We are aware that uncertainty is unavoidable in our daily lives, and yet we are capable of making decisions even in uncertain situations.

For example, to reduce uncertainty, we would have to identify all possible outcomes in a situation, list all possible actions, determine the consequences of these actions, attach a value to each consequence, and select the action that maximizes the outcome. American statistician Leonard Savage gives this example of uncertainty as it relates to the decision made by a person cooking an omelet. Picture someone who “has already broken five good eggs into a bowl, but is uncertain whether the sixth egg is good or rotten.” This person needs to decide whether “to break the sixth egg into the bowl containing the first five eggs, to break it into a separate saucer, or to throw it away.” This situation is easy to handle because even though there is uncertainty, there are a finite number of outcomes, and the person knows the three possible actions, along with their consequences, and the value for each outcome.

Unfortunately, real life is not always so straightforward. There is scientific consensus on three types of uncertainty: (1) state space uncertainty, which means we are not aware of all the consequences of our actions, such as when a company reorganization is focused on cost but overlooks employee morale; (2) option uncertainty, which means we cannot predict the consequences of our actions in detail, such as taking an umbrella because it is raining, but not knowing if it will help because the rain may be too heavy and the umbrella too small; and (3) value uncertainty, which means we don’t always know the value we will place on the consequences of our actions—such as when we switch jobs, we may not know the impact of the new boss’s personality on our productivity or how much importance we may have placed on the availability of a subsidized company cafeteria.

There is abundant research on handling uncertainty, ranging from fast and frugal heuristics to more formal tools. Heuristics are “quick-and-dirty” means for people to make decisions in uncertain situations, such as the scarcity heuristic, in which we decide that if something is scarce, it must be desirable and therefore we make more of an effort to get it. Formal tools include prospect theory. According to this theory, we would rather get $1,000 now if the amount is certain than $1,500 later if there is a 20% chance we may get nothing. If you won $1,000 and lost $800, you would focus more on the large loss than on the $200 gain. And if you receive a 10% raise and your coworkers do, too, you will not feel any sense of gain. But if you get a 10% raise and no one else does, you will feel better off.

What can we apply from prospect theory when we create persuasive content? We can frame messages to emphasize gains or losses. Research in the health industry, for example, looks at gain-framed versus loss-framed messages and concludes that for prevention medicine where the risk is low, gain-framed messages are more likely to lead to behavior change. For instance, “Join us to find out how an increase in your walking regimen helps to prevent heart disease” works well because there is little risk in walking. This may also work because it promotes self-efficacy and positive emotions. Gain-framed messages also appear to have a bigger impact on how they are processed and therefore remembered later.

Another modern tool for handling uncertainty is the fuzzy logic approach, in which we can still analyze risks despite insufficient knowledge or imprecise data. This is because fuzzy logic models allow an object to be categorized in different sets with different levels of truth.

If your audiences perceive a high amount of uncertainty in their interactions with you, consider heuristics to help them make quick decisions. For example, the availability heuristic helps someone make a judgment based on examples that come to mind. Where your content is concerned, invoke people’s existing experiences or allude to the experiences of others who are like them. Research confirms that we tend to view something with greater certainty if we have lived through it ourselves or if we’ve observed it through others, especially if they share similar demographics with us and if it comes to mind easily.

I interviewed Nicolas Rivollet, director of business development at Husky. He once gave a speech about motivating others and mentioned his philosophy of never telling people “I want you to do this or that.” Rivollet said that when we make people “want what you want” not “do what you want,” then you don’t need to manage them anymore. He then shared how this approach helped him when he managed 5, 50, and 150 people. He considered his speech effective because he spoke from experience (he was not sharing something he had read in a leadership book) and he is very approachable (others can identify with him easily).

In addition to the availability heuristic, the familiarity heuristic also lowers the perception of risk. For example, people are more likely to take bigger risks when investing in stocks in their own company or in their own country because of familiarity. When you expose an audience to completely new things (your content, you, or both), their brains have to organize that information in ways that make sense to them. This process will seem longer because it requires more effort. On the other hand, if they are familiar with you or your content, this familiarity and cognitive ease reduces the perceived passage of time. When we ask people to act on something in our favor, we must ask: Are they familiar enough with us? Often, communicators are too ambitious and ask for a decision before familiarity is assured and risk is addressed.

Audiences also respond to the authority heuristic when they believe the content they see comes from an authority figure. Ensure your content is well researched, and include third-party confirmation of your credibility.

David Hill, senior director at Hewlett Packard, has had to lead large organizations to meet large sales goals, manage a great deal of risk while implementing new e-commerce platforms, and negotiate through large corporate actions such as a spin-off or a split. I had the opportunity to ask him about his approach to convincing others to act on future intentions in uncertain situations. “By and large, people act in their own self-interest,” he states. “Even if that interest is improving the life of a child through education or the outcome of a patient through improved healthcare, it is still deeply personal. If you want to influence others, you have to address people on an individual level.” He advises starting with the fundamentals that tone down the perception of risk. Answering questions such as “Will I get laid off?” “Will I reach my goal?” and “How will my job change?” helps with risk management. “Fear clouds judgment and the ability to make rational decisions,” Hill observes, and he reminds us that in mitigating risk, “you must show you care for their well-being.”

When you manage the degree of uncertainty, the importance of possible outcomes, and the delay before the outcome is realized, you are in a position to turn something considered negative (e.g., risk) into something positive: anticipation and action.


The way your audiences view time impacts their decision-making. How do we know this? We know temporal judgment takes place in the same brain regions as decision-making. People who seek immediate gratification tend to have larger neural responses when judging short delays than when judging long delays, while those who are patient in terms of gratification show the opposite. In fact, scientists can predict simply by looking at brain activity whether someone will place value on something that will happen in the future (and is willing to wait for it) or simply discount it and look elsewhere.

Temporal discounting means that we tend to prefer smaller-now versus larger-later rewards. This could be because the future seems more abstract and uncertain, while closer events are more vivid and concrete. So if you are offering content and promises that will materialize at some point in the future, make them vivid and concrete to increase the affective impact. To test this hypothesis, researchers asked participants while in an MRI scanner, “Would you prefer $20 now or $40 in one month?” They also gave participants a concrete context in which they could spend either choice they selected (e.g., a pub). In some conditions, participants were asked to describe what a delayed reward could buy them, while in others, they were asked to imagine how the money could be spent in the future. Participants were also asked to rate the vividness of the emotional intensity associated with what they described or imagined. The results showed that imagining specific ways in which to spend the money led to more vivid imagination and higher emotional intensity. These dimensions impacted their choice of rewards. Participants who scored higher for vividness and emotional intensity opted for the longer-term payoffs.

The ability to imagine future events shapes their affective value, which influences current decisions.

Expectations also shape patient or impatient behavior. Let’s say you expect a meeting to last one hour. You know that this type of meeting hardly ever goes over, and if it were to be slightly longer, this predicted delay does not feel too bad. On the other hand, let’s say you call the customer service department of your cable company, and you’re put on hold. Sometimes in this situation, you’re on hold forever, and sometimes you’re not. It is generally a random process. The more hold time has elapsed, the more the predicted delay increases and you start to lose patience. As communicators, we must be cautious about how much we delay gratification, particularly in circumstances in which our audiences don’t have prior experiences or prior knowledge of interacting with us.

Many are familiar with the classic marshmallow test in which researchers at Stanford worked with over 600 kids to study delayed gratification. Children were told they could have one marshmallow at the time of the study or two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. There has been a recent twist on this test. Researchers wanted to see whether waiting for a larger reward was simply a sign of self-control or whether the environment played a role as well. Celeste Kidd, the lead author of the new study, stated, “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”

In her experiment, she told kids they would receive supplies to complete an art project. In one of the groups, the promise for better supplies was not kept, and kids were made to feel that the environment in which they were working was not “stable.” Then the same kids were invited to complete the marshmallow test. Only 1 out of the 14 kids who had been in the “unstable environment” group waited for 15 minutes to receive the second marshmallow. Kidd was inspired to create the study after volunteering at a homeless shelter, where she observed how kids were fighting for resources. “When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away,” she said. “I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.’”

Reflecting on your content and the decisions you’re asking others to make, ask this: How stable do they perceive the environment to be? In gauging the time delay before they receive a reward for making a decision, are you able to help them perceive a stable environment? For example, if a new software platform will be implemented, showing how many other systems (financial, operational) will stay in place until one major change is completed helps ease the tension of uncertainty.


Even when others are not physically present, we are often influenced by social factors in the decisions we make. This means decision-making is influenced by norms and the expectations of others. For example, in a study with randomized samples, researchers found that when patrons at a restaurant were shown the five most popular dishes, the demand for those same dishes increased by 13 to 20%. In another study, participants looked at a list of 48 songs arranged randomly or arranged by the number of downloads. The list of previous downloads had a bigger influence on the songs they downloaded.

We often choose on the basis of what others have chosen or what others would want us to choose. If you’re looking for a new book to read, the New York Times bestseller list may guide your choice. If you’re expecting guests and Miller is a popular beer, then that’s the beer you reach for at the store without thinking too much. This type of heuristic (the bandwagon effect) pushes us to choose what others would choose in order to avoid embarrassment and stand out in the wrong way.

Of course, there is a threshold for social decisions. When something becomes too popular and everyone jumps on that option, it degrades its currency. Something is so liked that at some point it’s hated. The more mainstream something becomes, the more criticized it becomes, too. How do we handle this situation? Researchers at University Park, Pennsylvania, found that popularity is shaped like a wave. At first, members of a subculture like a product; then the product goes mainstream, and the popularity subsides. They did a study to investigate if coolness was related to design and originality. More than 1,000 participants answered various questions on existing products. The researchers discovered that the utility of a product was not so much a part of “coolness.” Products such as a USB drive or a GPS were ranked as highly useful but not necessarily cool. Products such as Wii and Xbox Kinect were cool but not entirely useful. MacBook Air, Instagram, and Pandora were seen as useful, but utility was not a determining factor when judging how cool they were.

Scientists concluded that if we are after cool, we must be after something that is novel and attractive and has subculture-building capabilities, all of which involve a constant need to innovate around something that many people like. This is how these insights play out in real life. Leah van Zelm, vice president of digital strategy at Merkle, discussed her company’s use of proprietary research and advanced analytics to find out in what areas hotel chains could innovate in order to stay competitive. The research revealed five key decision chains that consumers use when they choose a hotel brand: good amenities (ability to relax), good amenities (easy choice), consistent positive experience, having status, and accruing rewards. She noted that the top three brands—Hilton, Marriott, and SPG—are very close in scores in the five categories, so they must seek opportunities to innovate in each in order to differentiate. For example, Marriott’s strength is in its rewards program, so according to this research, it should build on this category. Hilton received the highest scores in the “consistent positive experience” category, so it is advised to create differentiation from the other chains by emphasizing this message in its positioning. The lesson for all of us is to offer something novel that is built on what people already like.

In social decision-making, we must consider the thinking of others. Psychologists have labeled this phenomenon “theory of mind,” which means thinking of how others think. When we try to understand others’ way of thinking, it is typical that we go back into our autobiographical memory and draw from past experiences. Scientists are finding correlations between the strength of our own memory and the ability to understand others’ thinking.

A company we can learn from in terms of adjusting messaging to how other people think and what they consider rewarding is Domino’s Pizza. Recently, the company has had great success in India because it tapped into several social dimensions that impact decisions: it hooked into existing cultural keystones (sharing food and eating with your hands); it did not impose fully Western menus but rather included local options; and it recognized that people like to make an impression by being seen appreciating “Western anything.”

For example, in northern India, Domino’s offered the Taco Indiana, a combination of kebabs, parathas, and pizza. In a Domino’s ad, a woman tells a man that he is like a Taco Indiana: “Western-looking on the outside, but Indian on the inside.” In southern India, where pizza is not so popular, instead of forcing something new, Domino’s provided ingredients that locals appreciate. That’s how the spicy, raw-banana pizza was born. Writer Saritha Rai called Domino’s Subwich, a burger with a pizza filling, a “Western slice that tastes just Indian enough.”

Are you able to consider others’ thinking and create your message from where they are sitting? Can you phrase your message in such a way that if people acted on it, they would look good in front of others? Are you offering a slice of content that is “[socially desirable concept] enough and [socially desirable concept] enough”? The repetition is intended to prompt us to include seemingly contradictory values. For instance, we may like to project an image of authority but also one of humility, both of which are socially desirable.


Research reminds us there is a difference between individual and social decisions, and this difference has associated benefits.

When we make decisions, we tend to picture distant events in a high-level, abstract, generalized, and decontextualized way. When we make decisions about close events, we tend to picture them in a more concrete and contextual kind of way. The advantage of this difference is that abstract thoughts are known to activate creative problem solving and generate new ideas.

For instance, imagine the following scenario: “A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long as it needed to be to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?” Research has demonstrated that people are more creative solving this problem if they are asked to imagine this situation a year from now, compared with tomorrow. They are also more creative when subjects are asked to imagine someone else in the prison tower instead of themselves.

In another study, when participants were asked to draw an alien for a story they would write versus a story that someone else would write, the latter alien was drawn more creatively. Creativity in this study was measured by the amount of unusual features in each drawing (e.g., not earthlike or more than two eyes). We tend to perceive our current selves in a concrete, contextual way, but we tend to perceive our future selves and the behavior of others in an abstract way. In other words, the decisions we make for our future selves mimic the decisions we make on behalf of others. And since these images are abstract, we have the opportunity to be more creative.

It is important to consider creativity in relation to decision-making because we want to inspire others not just to make decisions but to make creative decisions that lead to innovation. For example, consider the company Aobiome, a biotech startup that breeds bacteria and puts them in cosmetic products. The company created AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist, a spray that “looks, smells, and tastes like water, but is bacteria-loaded.” Someone on the Aobiome team decided to make bacteria seem appealing. The product has been successful since 2012, capturing interest from young urban professionals, known to seek nontraditional ways to stay healthy. How many of you would like to have this type of person on your team? To arrive at this kind of creative decision-making, we have to invite others to imagine decisions they would make in the future or decisions they would make on behalf of other people.

Creative decisions are also a function of being prosocially motivated. Research has found that people report enjoyment when associating decisions with outcomes that help others, and they are willing to exert more effort because making decisions for others brings meaning and fulfillment. When we are intrinsically motivated, we are focused on the present, and when we are prosocially motivated, we are focused on the future—and this results in greater creativity.

Not all decisions are inspired by prosocial motivations. In the classic psychology experiment called the ultimatum game, subjects tend to forgo a material payoff to decrease the other person’s payoff when they believe a deal is unfair (e.g., people refuse $1 if they know someone else gets $9). More recently, neuroscience research on this game has found the situation is even worse when participants’ serotonin levels are low. High serotonin leads to social cooperation and affiliation, while low serotonin leads to aggression.

This means our content must communicate very clearly the concept of fairness and trust: two factors that can impact serotonin level. If the serotonin level is high, then prosocial motivations are stronger, which can result in more creative decisions.


When we analyze variables such as rewards, values, effort, time delay, risk, and social impact, we can also ask whether people decide based on desirability or feasibility. And do these factors differ when we make decisions for others versus ourselves? When we decide for others, we tend to focus more on desirability, defined as the value of an end state. When we decide for ourselves, we focus more on feasibility, which is the means of achieving that end state. Going on vacation somewhere beautiful is desirable. Going on vacation somewhere cheap is feasible. It is of course optimal to select something that is highly desirable and highly feasible, but that’s not always possible. This is why we look to strike a balance when either one is low: we desire something badly, but it’s not feasible; or we don’t really desire something that much, but it is feasible to get it.

When do we give more weight to desirability versus feasibility? To answer that question, we must understand the difference in their mental representations. Desirability is abstract and reflects a high-level mental construct. Feasibility is concrete, reflecting a low-level mental construct. To differentiate between the two, we must also consider psychological distance, in that we tend to activate abstract concepts for psychologically distant actions and concrete concepts for psychologically close actions. When we make decisions about something in the distant future, we choose based on desirability. And when we make choices for something near, we choose based on feasibility. For example, in a study where subjects hypothetically had to buy a software program “tomorrow” or “a year from now,” their desirability for the quality of the program strengthened when they chose the delayed option.

Do all these change when the decision target changes? Looking at how we decide for ourselves versus how we decide for others can be interpreted through the lens of psychological distance. In one study, participants were asked to choose a job for themselves, for a best friend, or for an acquaintance. They had the opportunity to select from two jobs. Job A offered better pay but lower self-fulfillment, and job B the opposite. In this case, salary was viewed as feasibility and self-fulfillment as desirability. More people chose job A for themselves and job B for friends or acquaintances. These results were replicated when choosing a restaurant, course for enrollment, or vacation spot for oneself versus others.

People tend to focus mainly on prominent and desirable attributes when deciding for others, whereas they tend to focus on a wider range of attributes, including less important ones, when deciding for themselves. We also tend to tolerate greater risk when selecting for others than for ourselves. Some researchers equate utility with desirability (because it describes the value of an end state), and probability with feasibility (because it describes the ease of attaining that end state). So if we consider risk a combination of subjective utility and probability, then when we choose for others, we tend to focus more on utility.

What does this all mean for your content? Reflecting on your own messages, ask: When do people welcome advice to act on something? Your audiences typically come to you and listen to a message in order to gain more information that they can share with others or in order to improve their own decision-making. In that regard, a balance between desirability and feasibility leads to more persuasive content. This is because feasibility will help with their own decisions, and desirability will help them in their transactions with others.


We’ve seen the reflection of various variables impacting decision-making in research studies: rewards, values, effort, time delay, risk, and social impact. Let’s see how these variables are reflected in real business examples. The following is a case study we can learn from because the executives and sales teams involved were able to achieve something outstanding: stay on people’s minds long enough to reach a favorable decision. When we witness success in business, defined as “getting others to act in your favor,” we want to know: How did they do it?

Using the fuzzy logic theory, we can determine the “degree of truth” with which these variables apply to a given decision-making process, especially in situations where there is uncertainty but we still want to rely on science. Experts in any field can assign a score between 0 and 1 for each variable (the closer to 1, the higher the impact of the variable) and cumulatively observe its impact on decisions. When the scores are closer to 0, decisions are easy.

To simplify the exercise, let’s consider these four variables: effort, time delay, risk, and social obscurity. Think of doing laundry: little effort (let’s say .2), little time delay (.2, we see results quickly), no risk (0), and no social obscurity (0, people appreciate us when we wear clean clothes and smell good). In this example, {.2, .2, 0, 0} leads to action.

If one variable is high but three are low, it’s not too bad. If two are high and two are low, it is harder to make a decision, but not impossible. If three variables are high and only one is low, the scales begin to tip. If all four are high, forget it. If we had to go to Colombia each time we craved chocolate, work in the cocoa fields while hearing gunshots, harvest cocoa only once a year, and no one would appreciate our efforts, we would never eat chocolate. A set of {1, 1, 1, 1} in this scenario does not lead to action.

Let’s see how these four variables that impact decision-making played out for a software company. For most technology companies, the end of a quarter is not just a date on the calendar on which numbers are summed up and reported. Some executives are nervous by default at this time because forecasts usually come in at the last minute. That was the case for TIBCO, a technology company headquartered in Palo Alto, California, with a presence in America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. With less than a day to go before quarter end, the decision maker of a top prospect said “Not now” to TIBCO. This was a large opportunity TIBCO had been trying to close for two months.

Erich Gerber, TIBCO’s vice president of global sales, remembers: “We were all ready to end the quarter, and it would have been fantastic to start relaxing and celebrate. However, the customer did not see any reason why the deal needed to be closed now versus later.” Yet Erich and his sales team managed to persuade the customer to act now. The customer engaged six resources in legal, finance, and procurement to work at least 10 hours each to successfully meet the end-of-quarter deadline. Just in time.

How did Erich and his team do it? Reflecting on the effort, Erich observes, “It’s like flying a helicopter; we had to keep our hands on the joystick at all times.” Let’s analyze the situation using the variables. First, it is important to clarify the overall reward for both parties because action without reward is unlikely.

Reward for sales. In sales, the expected reward may be money, but this is not always so. In TIBCO’s case, the reps who went the extra mile would not benefit from their bonus the next day. Their reward was different: the opportunity to look good in front of the organization. Prominence is often a stronger motivational driver than money.

Reward for the customer. On the surface, it may appear that the main reward was to get the best price possible. However, as Erich mentions, “At some point in our interactions, another reward emerges: the opportunity to accomplish a team effort on good terms. This is what we often observe.”

Clarifying the reward is helpful because in many conversations during a sales cycle, we can use key words and phrases that emphasize the reward and lead to action. For example, phrases that highlight prominence may include “making an impression,” “time to shine,” and even “wait till everyone hears this” said in a positive tone. Words that emphasize team effort include “collaboration,” “cooperation,” “partnership,” and “relationship.” If we know someone is motivated by teamwork, a message such as “We appreciate the close relationship we’ve formed in these past few days” will be more rewarding than “You will be receiving a discount.”

Let’s assign each variable a score between 0 and 1, for both sales and the customer.

Decision-making on the sales side:

1. Effort. Let’s assign this a .6. A sales team at quarter end expects the extra effort, and the extra effort did not extend for many days, just a few.

2. Time delay. The time delay before all the individuals would see the rewards of their work was short. Everyone knew the quarter would be over soon. After a short time delay, others in the organization would appreciate the effort. Let’s assign this a .2.

3. Risk. The perception of risk was high. If we consider the reward “prominence in front of the organization,” its opposite would be risky. If the deal did not go through, many would know about it. Let’s give this a .9.

4. Social obscurity. This is definitely a 0 because everyone in the organization would know quickly about the implications of outstanding effort.

Decision-making on the customer side:

1. Effort. The effort on the customer’s part was huge because it was not a one-person transaction. A larger team had to be involved. Let’s assign this a .9.

2. Time delay. Considering the reward to be “accomplishing team effort on good terms,” the effects of this reward would be noticed immediately. Let’s give this a .2.

3. Risk. The perception of risk was moderate because the customer was working with a company it could trust. Let’s assign this a .4.

4. Social obscurity. Customers like to act on decisions that make them look good in front of their own organizations. A big decision like this for buying applications that impact many parts of the company comes with big social impact. Let’s give this a .2.

Looking at these scores helps us realize how people make decisions on both sides. Some variables were really high but others were really low for both sales and customer. A short time delay before rewards, coupled with huge social impact and low perception of risk on the client side, makes it easier to get things done. If we know the reward and anticipate the scores for each variable ahead of time, we can calibrate our interactions better. This is important because what we perceive as risky may not be that risky for others, or what we perceive as having high social impact may not be so for others. One of the best ways to determine the scores is to simply ask others: “What organizational impact will this deal have?” “What level of risk would you associate with this process?” “How much effort are people willing to put in?” And most important, “What do you consider rewarding?”

The brain is searching constantly for the next and biggest reward. In the process, it balances exploitation and exploration. Through exploitation, it goes back to habits that proved rewarding in the past. Through exploration, it seeks new sources for rewards. Are you going to be part of the next reward your audience seeks? When you develop content that hooks into rewards from the past but also provides new sources of rewards, you become impossible to ignore.


✵ If your audience has been performing a task for a long time, link your content to an existing habit. If there are no habits related to your products or ideas, present goal-oriented information. When you do it repeatedly, you help an audience form new habits.

✵ Habits are formed by doing, not by not doing. Frame your messages in a positive way.

✵ Decisions typically include four steps:

1. Identify sensory stimuli: What are they?

2. Select an action that will maximize a reward: What is it worth?

3. Act on the intention.

4. Evaluate the results: Did you predict the outcome well?

✵ The values our audiences assign to different objects, people, and experiences can range from functional and concrete to something more abstract. People buy things because of emotional, epistemological, aesthetic, hedonistic, or situational value. Clarify these values for your audiences.

✵ Even unattended stimuli influence choice. There is no break from greatness for the communicator who aspires to be influential, because everything you share has the potential to influence decisions.

✵ Variables that have an impact on our choices include effort to get the reward (physical, financial, or mental), time delay until we get the reward, perception of risk in getting the reward, and social impact in relation to that reward.

✵ If your audiences perceive a high amount of uncertainty in their interactions with you, consider heuristics, such as availability, familiarity, or authority, to help them make quick decisions.

✵ Fast decision-making is also based on the perception of a stable environment and social factors.

✵ A balance between desirability and feasibility leads to more persuasive content. This is because feasibility will help people with their own decisions, and desirability will help them in their transactions with others.

✵ Develop content that hooks into rewards from the past but also provides sources for new rewards.