Friday, October 17, 2014

Technology Takes Toll on Consumer Psyche

By Marc Dresner, IIR

Last week at my nephew’s Little League game I saw two pedestrians nearly collide in the adjacent park.

Neither of them was watching where they were going because they were engrossed in their mobiles. (One of them was pushing a stroller. Not relevant. I just found it amusing.)

The incident reminded me of an anecdote consumer psychologist and author Kit Yarrow shared at a speech I attended awhile back: She compared browsing the Farmer’s Market to riding the bumper cars at an amusement park.

Comical, irritating, a bit sad, perhaps, nonetheless our fixation with our devices seems harmless enough.

Kit Yarrow
But Yarrow, a Golden Gate University professor and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How We Shop and Buy,” thinks otherwise.

Yarrow says the increasing mediation of rapidly advancing technology in our lives is having a deep and profound psychological impact on people.

It’s not about what we’re doing with technology, she notes, but what technology is doing to us.

People today think differently

“People today think differently,” Yarrow said.

Specifically, our attention spans are shorter, we’re less focused but we’re more adept multitaskers, and we require an increasingly higher level of novelty and stimulation.

Our brains, Yarrow said, are also being programmed to perceive better visually and to prefer “visual snippets.”

This explains why photo links receive 85% more clicks than text and why Pinterest “pins” are 100 times more viral than tweets, she noted.

What’s more, Yarrow says our increasing penchant for visuals lends itself to heuristics we use to make decisions.

Accordingly, images, symbols, and even colors have unprecedented communication potency. For example, waitresses wearing red receive 16-24% higher tips from men.

Technology has also made us more autonomous, but left us feeling more isolated.

We’re more “connected” than ever, we don’t “connect”

Yarrow points out that although we’re more “connected” than ever, we don’t “connect” with people they way we did in the past.

We may have more “friends” thanks to social media, but the nature and quality of our relationships and interactions with people, by and large, have suffered as a result of technological mediation.

For example, more and more of our communication occurs digitally and not face-to-face today. The former, a pretty recent development, is displacing the preferred mode of human communication for thousands of years!

We don’t even use our phones to talk as much anymore; we use them to text one another.

Consider the implications when as much as 93% of face-to-face communication may be non-verbal (body language and vocal intonation).

What is being lost and how is it affecting us?

“We are responding to shifts with our limbic brain that we don’t understand.”

“We are responding to shifts with our limbic brain that we don’t understand,” Yarrow said.

Something as seemingly insignificant as a dearth of eye contact engenders feelings of rejection and invisibility, which Yarrow says has among other things contributed to a rise in disrespectful, rude and rancorous behavior.

So, the fact that our heads are always glued to our devices isn’t just causing us to occasionally bump into one another; it’s actually affecting how we are socialized.

“We’ve had the same basic human needs since caveman days—the need to belong to a community for safety, security and procreation, the need to love and be loved, the need to have a purpose in life, etc.,” Yarrow explained.

“But as the world has changed, the ways we go about getting those needs satisfied has also changed. Our brains are malleable. Our psychology adjusts,” she said.

“Our brains are malleable. Our psychology adjusts.”

Due to a variety of factors—uncertainty, the pace of change, lack of a sense of “tribal security,” etc.—Yarrow says our collective anxiety as a society is up.

“We’re in a near state of fight-or-flight. We act like a bear is chasing us,” she said.

And trust has been declining precipitously with each generation. Yarrow noted Gen Y is particularly wary and guarded.

The net of these intertwined shifts, according to Yarrow:

- We have powerful new cravings for human connection.

- We acquire perceptions, process information and make decisions in new ways.

- Trust disappointments color everything.

There are, of course, marketing implications here, but I've got research on the brain.

I cannot help but wonder how what we’ll see and hear at The Market Research Event next week —techniques, innovations, insights—will exploit and/or address these trends.

Looking forward to seeing you in Boca Raton!

Marc Dresner is IIR USA’s sr. editor and special communication project lead. He is the former executive editor of Research Business Report, a confidential newsletter for the marketing research and consumer insights industry. He may be reached at Follow him @mdrezz.

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