What’s new in the brain?

Future Predictions for 2016 | Brodeur Partners
Steve McGrath, May 2016

If I had to summarize our theory of relevance in three words, it would be: see the egg.


Given another three words, I’d pick: logic is overrated. Although logic is necessary to persuade, it’s hardly sufficient to make your brand irresistible.

Since logic has its limits, we like to look at some of the forces that transcend it, such as the subconscious workings of the human brain. Here are three interesting examples of these mysterious mechanisms I’ve seen recently.

  1. We wildly overestimate our friend count. Nearly half the people you consider friends don’t feel the same way about you. At least that’s the implication of a new study of 84 college students who rated one another on a five-point friendship scale. Zero meant (“I do not know this person”), five meant (“One of my best friends”). In only 53 percent of the cases where one student rated another in the friend range (3-5) did the rated student put the first student in the same range. The others didn’t reciprocate.


The lesson for communicators?

First, don’t ever believe you have any good will to waste. You may well believe your brand is more magnetic than it is. Think twice before you challenge your audience with too much cleverness, snarkiness or pedantry.

Second, we now have more empirical evidence that consumers yearn for validation. Think: how can you bring people together? Score another point for Facebook, which officially certifies our loose connections and needy online counterparts as friends. Admit it, friending feels good.

  1. Eighty percent of us have an “optimism bias,” which cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot deftly unpacks in this fascinating TED Talk. We overestimate our longevity, our kids’ talents, our people skills, attractiveness, driving ability, career prospects and many other things. We underestimate our chances for getting cancer, crashing our car or divorcing.

While we’re overly optimistic about our own fortunes, she says, we tend to be more realistic about the guy sitting next to us. My chances of getting cancer are 10 percent. Yours are 30 percent.

Optimism bias, though not logical, is actually a good thing. We’re happier and healthier because of it. In fact, she says, “People with mild depression don’t have a bias when they look into the future. They’re actually more realistic than healthy individuals.” On the other hand, optimism can invite us to take too many risks, plan poorly, and wind up with financial issues.

The lesson for communicators? Your audience is primed for good news. Paint the picture of how great life would be if your customers and prospects invested in your vision. They want to believe.

  1. Our attention spans have shrunk. On average, we’re told, our average attention spans were 12 seconds in 2000. Now they’re 8.25 seconds, eclipsed even by the attention span of a goldfish, which comes in at 9 seconds.

“Overall, digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments,” wrote Microsoft Canada in a study (PDF) digging into the subject. “But all is not lost. Connected consumers are becoming better at doing more with less via shorter bursts of high attention and more efficient encoding to memory.”

While the findings have been questioned, the general principle rings true. It’s never been harder to focus.

What to do?

Some researchers recommend not fighting this “leaky mind.” Your distraction may suddenly become your inspiration.

One writer, however, chooses to tame his goldfish brain with two activities that defy compression into 8.25 seconds: reading fat history books and gardening.

My suggestion? Whenever you communicate, be brief, be clear, and be relevant.

And when in doubt, return to the egg.