Why my physiotherapist should walk the plank!

elbow-plank-with-donkey-kicA year ago this week, I was in a golf buggy accident.  Ironic really as it had nothing to do with golf, I was simply being shown around a tea plantation when the accident occurred, but that’s life I guess.

Could’ve been worse and I’m fine now, more or less, but the main injury was a broken arm and it took almost the full year to heal – something the doctors just love attributing to the fact that I’m getting older, I smoke, or both.   One of the indignities of a broken bone, of course, is that hospitals afterwards feel compelled to send you for physiotherapy.  Yuk!

For someone like me who avoids exercise at all costs (other than regular walks to the smoking area, obviously), physiotherapy is a particular ordeal as you’re not used to stripping off in front of strangers and being bent around into strange positions, so the whole thing becomes something of a nightmare and you end up with the strange feeling that this is designed to do nothing more than subject you to ritual humiliation!  Doesn’t help that sometimes, just like other professionals, physiotherapists seem to speak their own language and assume you know more about exercise than you actually do.  And of course, we go along with it rather than admit we don’t know what they’re talking about for fear of looking stupid.

The exercise depicted in the illustration is apparently called the plank.  It’s an exercise designed to strengthen abdominals, the back and shoulders, and good at helping develop a six-pack apparently (whatever that is!).  I know this not because I’m turning into some kind of fitness fanatic, my mid-life crisis has long since passed, but because when the physio asked me what I thought of the plank, he was somewhat puzzled by my reply when I said I rated it as one of Eric Syke’s finest pieces of work. Embarrassing!

Anyway, like all embarrassing things we want to forget about, we inevitably keep encountering reminders of them over and over again!  Tonight, while looking for an article on something entirely unconnected to exercise, golf-buggies or broken limbs, I came across a new paper by Priebe and Spink that uses the plank in an experiment designed to explore the psychological power of expectations.

In the study, the experimenters took around 70 regular gym-goers and asked them to perform the plank to the point of exhaustion.  After a suitable rest, they then asked them to perform the plank a second time.  Under normal circumstances, individuals perform better on the first attempt and, indeed, in this study the control group averaged a performance drop of around 18% in the time they were able to hold the position.

Here’s the intriguing thing, though… a second experimental group were falsely told that 80% of people in their age group normally hold the position for 20% longer on the second attempt.  The outcome?  Well, the group given false information achieved a 5% increase in the average time they were able to hold the plank position!  So, simply being told that most people do better second time around led them to buck-the-norm and conform to their false expectations.  Mind over matter?  Not really… this is a great example of social norms messaging at work.  Although some of us like to think we are rebels, we aren’t in practice.  We want to be different, but not too different, so we tend to conform to social norms (or what we believe the norms to be, in this case).

Ever stayed in a hotel and seen the little sticker asking us to “help the environment” by only washing towels if absolutely necessary?  Some people go along with that request, most don’t.  I personally go one step further and make sure every towel is washed every day, whether I’ve used it or not, just to annoy the hotel by not helping it reduce its operating costs!  Messages stating how many people have helped the environment by reusing their towels work far better, while messages stating the percentage of people staying at that specific room reusing towels will work best of all.  The power of the social norm at its best.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, if you’re involved in coaching in any type of sport, Priebe and Spink’s work suggests a “little white lie” about average performance levels can go a long way in helping boost individual performance. Similarly, the work on hotel towels suggests that messages crafted around social norms can be very effective in changing behaviour in a social marketing context, whether we want to encourage people to take more exercise, quit smoking or eat their greens.

I’m probably a lost cause on all these healthy counts, alas, and my embarrassment over the Eric Sykes movie simply means I’ve never been back to physiotherapy since!  So, I guess I will just build up my upper arm strength in other ways (probably my lifting the TV remote) and watch the only video on the plank I ever want to see…..

“Trust me, I’m the Doctor”

DrWhoAlthough by no means a new area of research, the subject of parasocial relationships has suddenly become quite topical again in recent months.  For the uninitiated, a parasocial relationship is one we share with a fictional character, rather than a real person.  The sudden resurgence of interest probably tells us a great deal about how we live our lives today and our retreat into the digital world as real-life becomes ever more grim!


A particular trend has been the growth of personality tests that liken us not to some stereotype determined by traits and states but, rather, according to how we compare to someone who doesn’t really exist anyway.  Fans of the St Trinians movies, for instance, may be classified according to whether they are “geeks”, “chavs”, “emos”, “posh totty” and the like.  The underlying logic is that these fictional types not only classify us as individuals, they also provide considerable insight into the role models we draw on to help us decide what to do in particular situations and to generally help us lead our lives.  It’s an interesting idea, but does it actually hold true?

A recent paper in the journal Self and Identity seeks to answer this question and provides at least a degree of supporting evidence.  In a series of experiments, students presented with a series of situations (e.g. taking part in a competition) were asked not only what they would do, but who they would look to in deciding how to respond.  While close friends and family still represent the main role models in our lives, it seems that fictional characters we like (and often even those we don’t like at all!) still represent better sources of behavioural inspiration than casual acquaintances and work colleagues.  Interesting!

So, if I was seeking a fictional role model, who would I choose?  Well, the clue is in the accompanying picture but, just in case you are still in doubt, here’s a trailer for the greatest TV programme ever which just happens to be returning to BBC1 this coming Saturday evening!

Want people to ‘share’ more on Facebook? Scare them, turn them on, or take them jogging

frank-arousedIt’s a basic fact of social media marketing…the more your content is shared, the more likely it is people will buy.  We’ve known for some time that content that connects with a viewer in some way is more likely to encourage them to hit the ‘share’ button, as does amusing or novel content.   A recent paper by Jonah Berger in Psychological Science  gives us a deeper insight into how this all works, however.  Here’s the thing, it seems to be all about how aroused we are at the time we originally view the content.

In a series of experiments, Berger found that participants in an aroused state are more likely to share content on Facebook and other social media channels than members of a control group who are less aroused.  For instance, those shown a stimulating video hit the ‘share’ button far more often than those who’d viewed a more neutral  or calming video.  Similar results were obtained for participants who’d just finished physical exercise in comparison to  couch potatoes who’d just been relaxing with their feet up.  So, what’s going on here?

Cortical arousal is beneficial (like stress) up to a point.  If we weren’t aroused when crossing the road, for instance, we’d get hit by a truck pretty quickly!  Arousal keeps us alert and, in small doses, is a crucial survival mechanism.  As the literature on stress and illness tells us very clearly, however, sustained arousal can be damaging and emotions soon become harmful.  Raised levels of cortisol and adrenaline secretion, for instance, can seriously impair the immune system if left unchecked.

In the case of Berger’s sharing experiments, this is a classic demonstration of the psychological need to disperse arousal and allow the brain to “settle down” again.  Prolonged arousal in uncomfortable, so we engage in a behaviour designed to relieve the discomfort.  Berger’s experiments suggest that ‘sharing’ in part serves this function because, subconsciously, we feel we are transmitting some of our current arousal to other people in the process.  This explains why emotion-inducing content (e.g. funny advertisements) are shared at a much higher rate, something we’ve known for a very long time, but also – crucially – why seemingly neutral content can be too.  If we are aroused by something else (e.g. a good workout), we still ‘share’ even if the content in itself is dull-as-dishwater!

Ok, what’s the rub for marketers here?  Well, content that induces states of high cortical arousal promotes sharing, so carry on making those funny, sexy or scary ads, but remember too that people aroused by something totally unconnected will also be more likely to share your content.  My advice, if you want to improve your sharing rates on Facebook, find a way to target users just after they’ve seen the latest horror movie or, better still, while they’re out jogging – in Berger’s experiments, the latter worked best of all because joggers share content at three times the rate humble couch potatoes like me do!


The colour of money

brainIn a previous post, I touched on the issue of colour and branding.  The context was Coca Cola and the move toward a green can, designed to suggest a new variant was better for us even though it had more sugar than the diet version.

The psychology of colour is, of course, a topic that has been studied for decades and it’s of particular interest to marketers as it forms an essential part of a brand’s identity.  Get it right and this can generate “big bucks”, especially if it permeates popular culture – never forget, Santa Claus is only in red because a very long time ago Coca Cola dressed him that way for a campaign and it stuck in our psyche!

Particular colours are associated with particular things, of course, even though the association is not always what it seems.  Here in the West, for instance, we typically talk about a “white wedding”, but there are many countries around the world where this is just not so; in China, for instance, the bride traditionally wears red.  Similarly, sticking with red, bulls stereotypically charge the red cloak, something cartoons often derive great humour from when, actually, bulls are colourblind and it’s simply the movement of the cloak that is the source of the bull’s annoyance.

Where do these associations come from?  In many cases, its a process of conditioning over time.  From a young age here in England, i’ve seen brides in white so I come to associate white with weddings.  I think red for Christmas because of dear old Santa.  Marketers know about this and often talk about red conveying “excitement” in a brand whilst blue suggests “competence”.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course, and many other factors come into play.  A lot of it is about our own personal experiences of a brand and a colour.  It’s also about context, too.  In e-commerce, a lot of nonsense is talked about red buttons generating more “clicks” than other colours when really it’s just that the button stands out that prompts us to action.  If a web page is predominantly red, for example, a stark white button would work much better because it stands out; psychologists call this the isolation effect.  Same principle applies when a long-associated brand colour dramatically changes (our green can of Coke again).

Bottom line?  No colour is endowed with magic properties.  Colours work in branding in many different ways and, really, it’s down to how well a chosen colour fits with brand image/personality that determines its effectiveness.  There’s a fascinating piece on this by Greg Clotti over on the Huffington Post that’s well worth a read if you’re selecting a colour scheme.  In the meantime, just remember – don’t wave your jacket in front of a bull, the fact that it’s a green anorak and not a red one wont protect you from its wrath!!!

Low fat fries have had their chips

chipsDieting is a funny business, as behavioural economists have long known.  About 70% of consumers booking a table in a restaurant, for instance, say they will be choosing a meal from the “healthy options” menu, but only about 5% actually do when they arrive.  Scrap the healthy options, though, and they book a table elsewhere!

Fast food outlets get a lot of stick and, certainly, they are a massive part of the problem.  All of the main brands do try to do their bit, however, but it just doesn’t seem to work.  Take Burger King as an example.  The miami-based chain has had to withdraw its “low fat” fries as a result of disappointing sales, even though they were heavily demanded by consumers in the firm’s original market research.

So, what can we do about all this?  Well, i’d be much wealthier if I knew the answer to that one!  We need to keep in mind that consumers like the idea of eating a healthy diet and losing weight, but not if it means actually dieting for real or planning their menus carefully.  So, more subtle techniques (e.g. smaller portions/plates) are much more effective than well-crafted health messages and low-fat menu options.  Seems the only way to help consumers is to sometimes fool them…for their own good, naturally!

They must be cheating… they’re talking to each other!


Who among us can’t say we haven’t looked around a crowded bar and tried to work out which couples should (or shouldn’t!) be there with each other?  Go on admit it, we all do it!  Well, next time you are trying to figure out if two people are married  or not, just check if there is a cellphone on the table…

Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I find myself increasingly less tolerant when I am trying to have a conversation with someone and they suddenly pick up their cellphone, reply to a text and then turn back to me to resume the conversation with a quick “Sorry, you were saying…?”  How rude!  A colleague pointed out the other day, however, that this is simply the normal way of interacting in modern life,  We “multi-task” in everything, including conversations.

A paper in Environment and Behavior set me thinking a little more about this.  Apparently, there is a lot of research in the psychology literature on the impact cellphones are having on aspects of everyday life, including talking to each other. The mere presence of a smartphone on the table in a bar or restaurant, for instance, leads to shorter conversations, more trivial topics being discussed, less attention being paid to the other person, longer periods of silence, and so on.  Emotional side-effects are most pronounced, with a quite noticeable drop in empathy occurring compared to situations where no phone is in sight.

Intriguingly, all of these effects are greater the closer two people are, with the biggest differences being seen among couples.  The closer a couple are, the less attention and affection they will show each other if one of them has an iPhone on the table, even if they aren’t actually using it!

And the moral of the story?  Well, next time you look round that bar, the couples constantly breaking off to text someone, or who are sat in silence with a game of Candycrush, they are the ones who are married!  The couples who really shouldn’t be there together will be closer to each other, actually talking to each other more, and they wont have a cellphone anywhere in sight!

Why do little things feel heavier?

Weight_Lifting_Hamster One of the most interesting and persistent illusions in psychology is the so-called “size-weight illusion”, first described by Augustin Charpentier way back in the late nineteenth century. We’ve probably all experienced this at one time or another…

If we have two objects that way exactly the same, but are different physical sizes, the object that is smaller always feels heavier than the larger one even though it’s not. Psychologists have been trying to explain the illusion for years, without complete success.

One popular explanation if that we expect the larger object to be heavier, so we use more strength when picking it up and it therefore seems lighter than the smaller object simply because we are trying harder.  I’ve never quite bought that explanation… Seems to me it only holds true once.  If we’ve already picked up both objects and figured out they are the same weight, we shouldn’t be caught out the second time we pick them up – but we are, the smaller one still feels heavier.

New research by Gavin Buckingham in Experimental Brain Research takes us at least a step closer to understanding what might be going on here,  It seems the expected weight differences might be a result of learned expectations about weight encoded within the brain.  In an innovative series of experiments, Buckingham found it was possible to completely reverse the SWI effect by having participants repeatedly lift supposedly identical weights that had been rigged such that the larger object really was lighter.  After a period of time living in this back-to-front world, the participants began to always experience smaller objects as being lighter than larger ones, even though they were the same weight.

What’s going on here?  Well, I think Buckingham’s work supports the “effort put in” explanation.  After repeatedly experiencing the smaller objects as being heavier, the brain has learned this general rule and applying it; in other words, it has come to expect smaller things to be heavier, so extra effort is put in to lifting them and, as a result, they begin to feel lighter.