Does Your Gut Instinct come from Your Brain?

Why do we make the decisions that we make? What impact is the digital age having on the decision-making process? What role do rituals play in a constantly changing world? And where does the reward system come into all of this? We spoke to a leading neuropsychologist.

Gut or brain header

Mr Scheier, from the point of view of the neuropsychologist, why do we buy what we buy?

There are two independent factors at work here: on the one hand, the reward that we expect to get and on the other the pain we expect to feel because of the price we have to pay for it. Take discounts, for instance: they don’t increase the reward, but they do ease the anticipated pain. Some markets target pain relief, but as soon as a company starts getting involved in price wars, its customer loyalty starts to wane. This is why it is vital for companies to leverage the reward dimension rather than the pain relief factor - although the latter is often a knee-jerk reaction.


So rewards always satisfy a need?

It’s impossible to stimulate a need that doesn’t exist. Either the motivation is there, and it can be addressed, or it isn’t, in which case it’s well-nigh impossible to motivate people. For a long time we were under the impression that we were mere slaves that could be easily manipulated by the advertising industry. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. The reward that a company offers has to tie in with a need that is already there. If a shower gel that is also a body lotion works in the marketplace, that makes it an innovative product, but one of the reasons it works is that people already have a particular need for it, even if it is only a latent one. And that need can be expressed as "I want to be able to have a shower and put on body lotion in one go."


We are all aware that things around us are constantly changing – is this true in the digital age as well?

People change less than they think they do. It is often said of millennials that they are different and are undergoing constant changes. From a neuropsychological viewpoint that isn’t the case, as a host of studies have shown. Our brain changes over a period of tens of thousands of years, not in the course of a generation. While it’s true that new media - especially smartphones - draw people’s attention away from more traditional media outlets, people’s attention span is still the same as it was 100 years ago.

We're not slaves of the industry. In fact, the exact opposite is the case.

Dr. Christian Scheier

That’s surprising. Does that mean that we find the digital age just too overwhelming?

What matters in our brain is homeostasis or internal balance. The greater the role played by technology in our daily lives, the more we feel the need for the human touch and to retreat into our private lives. We often conceive of progress as a one-way street as if it only works on one level. But that’s not how our brain functions. So it’s no surprise to me when colouring books suddenly become best-sellers or more and more people start taking an interest in cooking or crocheting. These are the classic signs of compensation. In my view what you can see is an oscillation between two motivational poles: one moment it’s all about exciting, innovative, digital developments, then things move in the opposite direction, towards authenticity, retreat, or the long-lasting tattoo as opposed to the short-lived tweet.


So what changes then?

What changes is the how, not the why. Twitter’s CEO once said that a successful digital platform builds on what people have always done and merely finds a new way to do it. This is about rewards, too. Twitter offers you the chance to find out new things, while Facebook provides social interaction. These are things that have always motivated us. We used to make phone calls, but now we send people a WhatsApp message. Our expectations - of status, prestige, inspiration, safety, relief, relaxation, structure or power - have remained the same. They haven’t changed and they’re not likely to do so in the foreseeable future. What we do is regulate these motivations with every new tool that technology provides us with.


How do experts make decisions?

You should never make complex decisions on the spur of the moment. You should gather as much information as you can and then sleep on it. The more I feed my intuition, the better the decision will be. Intuition is nothing more than concentrated, condensed, implicit knowledge.

The expert Christian Scheier 2

Dr. Christian Scheier, neuro psychologist
© decode

Dr Christian Scheier is the founder and joint Managing Director of Hamburg-based brand code management agency decode. He is one of the few neuropsychologists worldwide to combine research and practical skills in marketing consultancy. Swiss-born Scheier is co-author of the following publications: "How Advertising Works: Research Findings from Neuromarketing", "What Makes Brands Successful. Neuropsychology in Brand Management" and "Codes. The Secret Language of Products".

Header picture: © Jessica Peterson/Getty Images

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