Consumers are Pigeons Pushing a Lever for Food, and Other Psychology Secrets Revealed

Despite my best efforts my friend will never watch the football game with me unless it involves money. Julian couldn’t care less about the NFL. But allow him to throw $10 down on a ProLine bet and my friend is the most engaged viewer in the room.

At GROW Conference in Vancouver on Wednesday, Stanford instructor and “behaviour engineer” Nir Eyal told the crowd that simple psychological principles can easily define consumer behavior, and help your business. Julian’s behavior can be replicated with any consumer, and as soon as startups can realize this they’ll be off to the races.

Eyal broke consumer behavior into four main areas, those which red-hot startups like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest have seemed to master. Essentially, companies should create a habit among users, where not doing something creates psychological discomfort. They can do this by implementing “the hook.” Create an experience designed to connect a solution to the user’s problem with enough frequency to form a habit.

The unfortunate reality about many products that startups offer these days is linked this very talk: it’s offering consumers products that solve “problems” which don’t actually exist. More likely, it’s offering products that will implement and solve an “itch” that was previously non-existent. The fact that as smartphone users we end up spending ridiculous amounts of time glued to frivolous apps makes it sound morally wrong to encourage such growth.

But Eyal knows that this is the direction technology has travelled over the past decade. He evidently wants to help companies gain success through taking advantage of business models that create “habits” among users. Whether that’s good or bad is up to the reader to decide.

The fundamental process he explained revolved around four steps: trigger, action, variable reward and investment (think: my friend Julian).

“The trigger” is the first step to connecting a solution to a user’s problem. Triggers could be external stimuli or internal emotive states that prompt us to act, like checking our email, Facebook, ESPN or other time-wasting exercise. Some internal triggers include dissatisfaction, indecisiveness, tension or fatigue, in other words negative states. Not surprisingly, Eyal reminded us, people with depression check email more. Emotions provide frequent internal triggers.

Then comes “the action,” or the simplest behavior the user can do before getting rewarded. An easy depiction of this is Fogg’s Behaviour Model, or b=m.a.t (behavour equals motivation, an ability and a trigger). Motivators for behavior include pleasure, hope and acceptance, which is why beer companies plaster ads with groups of friends having fun at the game, or why millions of people in 2008 proudly President Obama’s face on their chests with the word “HOPE” under it. To increase behaviour, startups must ensure a clear trigger is present (like a negative emotion), increase ability by making it easier (like a simple login page for social networks like Twitter) and align it with the right motivator (like the desire to be part of a community).

Next comes the variable reward, and in explaining this Eyal referenced several famous studies that I’ve long forgotten since graduating university with a minor in neuroscience. He spoke about James Olds and Peter Milner’s seminal 1954 study involving rats, and how electrical stimulation to the lateral hypothalamus activated a pleasure sensation. The rats constantly pressed the lever that enabled the stimulation.

Later research indicated that it was actually the stress of desire that motivated these rats. How does this resonate with how users think? As humans we seek to understand cause and effect, so much so that variability messes with our heads. Variability increases engagement and is habit forming. B.F. Skinner showed how variability increased response as well, through the “Skinner Box.” Here pigeons pressed a lever more often when the guarantee of a food pellet was absent.

Eyal said three overlapping rewards motivate user behavior in response to variable reward: the tribe, the hunt and the self. We search for social rewards like acceptance, recognition and even sex, all of which fall under the tribe. The hunt relates to our search for resources, like food, money and information. Finally the self relates to our search for personal sensation, like mastery, consistency and completion.

It all sounds relatively simple, but Eyal warns that businesses must still give the user what they want. Like Zynga’s less successful successors like CityVille and The Ville, as rewards become predictable, they become less interesting. Products need to keep a user guessing.

The last portion of the cycle was about creating an atmosphere where the user has to do a bit of work, or “the investment.”

“Paying” with something of value, like money or time, increases engagement. Just like Julian’s sudden love of America’s pastime once currency was involved, user investment can store value and create preference. Ideally following this, user investment leads to ease of use. At a larger level, Eyal explained that investments shape our tastes, preferences and identities.

Following the conclusion of Eyal’s lecture I left wondering whether there was any difference between B.F. Skinner’s pigeons and the average user (myself included).