The 19th century polymath Dr Thomas Young, who was expert in medicine, mathematics, geometry, vision, light, mechanics, languages, music and Egyptology, has been described as the ‘last man to know everything.’
Today, few can claim such a breadth and depth of knowledge. Indeed, outside our specialist fields, most of us know rather little about almost everything. This does not, of course, prevent us holding robust opinions on virtually any topic. Such views are typically based neither exclusively on from knowledge, which we generally lack, nor on emotions. Rather they arise from our ‘feelings’ of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’. Take for example the following current issues:
Genetically modified food.
Leaving the EU.
On all these you are likely to ‘feel’ they are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
On the Fringe
‘Feelings’ arise on the boundary between our conscious and unconscious mind, in what the 19th century American psychologist William James called the ‘‘fringe’. To gain an insight read the following just once:
“A newspaper is better than a magazine. The seashore is better than the street. At first it is easier to run than to walk. You may need to try several times. It takes some skill but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If it breaks loose, however, you will not get a second chance.”
On reading this for the first time, most people report a vague and disagreeable ‘feeling of wrongness’.
While all the words make sense and every sentence is grammatically correct, the overall effect is of confusion and incomprehension.
Now re-read the paragraph keeping in mind the word ‘kite’.
Suddenly, despite their being no change in the sensory content, it all makes sense. You will enjoy a Eureka moment as feelings of ‘wrongness’ change in an instant to feelings of ‘rightness’.
Where Feelings Arise
Over the past two years I have been researching the fringe between conscious and non-conscious thought. I term this fringe, and I first described it at a Neuromarketing Science & Business Association conference in Amsterdam in August 2015, the periliminal region.
The research currently being undertaking by Mindlab International is into scientifically analyzing periliminal ‘feelings’ in order for advertisers, marketers and retailers to be better able to identify and control them.
Networks in the Brain
Because every memory we have is linked to every other memory, retrieving one brings to mind many others. The word ‘canary,’ for example, is closely linked to such attributes as ‘is yellow’; ‘has wings’; ‘sings’ and ‘can fly’. When people are tested in the laboratory, these responses are given almost instantly. Less closely associated memories, for example ‘is an animal’ or ‘is warm blooded’ usually take slightly longer to come to mind.
Known, in the case of words, as our ‘semantic network’, this aspect of cognition has been extensively studied down the years. Less often appreciated is the fact that every type of sensory input creates networks and that all the networks are interconnected. This means, for example, that a particular aroma will trigger visual, emotional and possibly muscle memories.
There are occasions when these links can lead us into error. If you’d like to demonstrate this – it makes a faintly amusing party trick – ask someone to answer the following questions as quickly as possible:
What is a common abbreviation for Coca-Cola?
Which four-letter word describes an amusing story told by a comedian?
What sound does a frog make on a lily pad?
What’s the white of an egg called?
If they answer fast enough the chances are their responses will be:
Coke – joke – croak – yolk!
Perhaps that’s how you responded to the questions.
What has happened here was that, searching for a pattern among the seemingly disconnected questions, your brain hit on the idea of looking for rhymes. This caused “yolk” to seem the obviously correct response, whereas a moment’s thought would have shown this was wrong. The answer should, of course, have been “albumin”.
Although, within a specific demographic, there will be many commonly shared association, every person also makes sense of the world in a different way. Memory networks are personal to each individual. This means that even seemingly trivial aspects of an advertisement, marketing strategy or retail display can cause a flood of positive or negative associations, both conscious and non-conscious, that directly affect the consumers’ ‘feelings’ about that message. These are formed extremely rapidly and, once established, prove hard to change.
‘Feelings of Rightness’ – The Key to Success
For a product, brand, proposal or, indeed a person, to be successful they must generate ‘feelings of rightness’.
The success of Republican Presidential contender Donald Trump provides a case in point. Not all those who support him agree with many of his statements, indeed some disagree strongly.
At the same time, he is able to generate a ‘feeling of rightness’ strong enough for them to set their objections aside.
‘Feeling’ will nearly always trump reason!
When a campaign, a product or a negotiation fails to hit the mark, this is typically due to its effects on neither the consumer’s conscious nor their unconscious mind, but to a ‘feeling of wrongness’. Equally, success is the result of generating a ‘feeling of rightness’.
The ability to predict which ‘feeling’ is most likely to arise will enable companies and individuals to avoid ‘feelings of wrongness’ so reducing the chances of failure and increasing the likelihood of success.
It is with developing technology capable of predicting these ‘feelings’ that our research is concerned.