It’s all in the detail

Have you ever noticed how the Circle line on a tube map looks like it changes colour part way around?

tube_map

When it’s next to the pink Hammersmith & City line it looks orange, but next to the green District line it looks yellow. So what colour is it?

It usually appears yellow, although we don’t always see it as yellow; our perception of colour changes depending on the context. The colour of the adjacent line changes the way we see the yellow line. Weird. But true.

I was lucky enough to be at a workshop a couple of years ago run by neuroscientist and fantastic speaker Beau Lotto where he talked about how our perception is different from reality, and how context, including colour, lighting and the position of objects, affects how we see and respond to the world. I knew context was important in understanding how we behave and think, but I’d been thinking in terms of social factors, emotions or even the weather. Not about how something as basic as light can affect how we see the world.

Beau demonstrated quite a few visual illusions  including the cube one (featured here, amongst others) where the same coloured square appears to be a different colour depending on the lighting conditions. It’s strange to think that what we think we see, or what our brains interpret as ‘real’, is sometimes a trick of the mind or function of how our brans are wired, rather than ‘truth’.

Another example of something really simple affecting how we see patterns, which I use in the consumer psychology course I run for the MRS, is to write a selection of letters of the alphabet – about 15 or so – on a flip chart and ask someone to spend about a minute making as many words from them as they can. Give someone else the same letters, but written in a different order, and the words they’ll each come up with tend to be different.

People make different patterns in the letters based on the order they’re presented in. Adjacent and nearby letters are put together to form new words, so when the order changes, so do the words created. This is also why writing ideas or concepts on cards and jumbling them up can work well as a creative technique – you make new connections between cards which you might not otherwise put together. Context, right down to the order something’s presented to us in, really is key to understanding how we interpret and interact with the world around us.

It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to understand or predict how people behave. Not only do we walk around on autopilot most of the time, and not only are we more influenced by our emotions than we tend to give credit for, but it turns out that even something as seemingly innocuous as light affects how we see the world. And most of the time, we’re probably not even aware of it. Here’s to trying to figure people out anyway.

Want to study behavioural economics online – for free? Dan Ariely’s course has just re-started

A fair amount of traffic coming to my blog is through searches for ‘studying behavioural economics online’. So if that’s why you’re visiting, have a look at Dan Ariely’s free online course through Coursera which started again earlier this week. I did the original course last year and can recommend it as a great introduction to what is a really interesting (and increasingly high-profile, especially in business) school of thought on how we make decisions and how context influences us, in ways which we might not realise, but which are often quite predictable. And it’s free (an area he discusses in the course – why is anything ‘free’ so appealing?) – what more could you ask for?

On a related note, I’ll be co-running the MRS’s consumer psychology course next Friday too; my colleague runs the morning session where we look at the roots of psychology and cover some of the key schools of thought, while I run the afternoon session where the focus is modern thinking including behavioural economics and how market research is responding. It’s a nice introduction into this area so if you’re interested in finding out more about it, come and join us!