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Rashi Goel

The Way Our Brain is Wired Creates Unconscious Biases

The way our brain is wired creates unconscious biases
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Individual Agency

Our civilization is made up of audacious achievements. We have conquered flying, landed on the Moon, and are thinking of inhabiting Mars. We have even developed a menu of vaccinations for a global pandemic in less than one year!

These achievements are the aggregation of thoughts, actions and interactions of hundreds and millions of individuals.

One of my favorite professors in Stanford was Professor Kathryn Shaw. She changed how I think about the power of individual agency. 

As an economics professor, she studied macro economic indicators. But macros only give broad strokes on a nation’s health. It is difficult to pin point exactly which factor influences GDP growth.  

Her flash of insight was that the lowest common denominator of GDP is individual productivity and that each one of us is an economic unit. What we do, think, and feel adds up to larger outcomes of economic growth, government, culture, good vibes, and climate change.

So she switched her field of study to organization talent and started researching talent improvement and ROI.

If one individual is the lowest common denominator and governs health of an economy and even the environment, what governs the individual?

His or her brain.

If we can understand how our brain works, and why we think the way we do, we can aggregate it up to mental models that govern the world. And what’s more, we can channelize individual agency better.

In this newsletter, we:

  1. Unpack Freud’s Iceberg model of the human brain.
  2. Discover 3 biases that are born because of the way our brain works.
  3. Explore 1 bias in this edition along with brand examples. And the other 2 biases in subsequent editions.

Conscious, Unconscious and Subconscious

The human brain is best described by the Iceberg mental model, which was developed by Freud. 

Similar to an iceberg, only a small part is visible to us, and the majority is below the surface. There are three parts of our brain. Conscious, Preconscious or Subconscious and the Unconscious.

Source: Google Images. A representation of Freud’s model of the brain

Conscious Brain: Thoughts we are aware of. Everything that we know we are thinking and doing right now, is part of the conscious brain.
You are utilizing your conscious brain in reading this sentence right now, just like I used mine to write it. To give you an analogy, the email in your computer that you are reading right now, is the conscious brain of the computer.

Preconscious / Subconscious Brain: Content in this part of the brain is out of conscious sight, but not out of reach.
These are thoughts, memories and knowledge that we can access at will. Analogously, everything stored in the hard disk of your computer, is its subconscious brain. You can’t see it, but you can access any file you want right now by clicking on it.

Unconscious Brain: This is the deepest part of your brain. We cannot access this part of our brain at will.
It files away all our experiences, feelings and beliefs into patterns that drive how we think and respond. The unconscious brain is like the inner coding of your computer – it operates your computer, you can’t see how, but it’s there.

The interplay between these three parts of our brain influences how we think and act and births 3 biases. 

  1. Simplicity
  2. Novelty
  3. Automation

I will cover Simplicity in this newsletter and deep dive into novelty and automation in the next two editions. 

Our brain is addicted to simplicity

According to Timothy Wilson’s excellent book, Strangers to Ourselves, the unconscious part of our brain processes about 11 million pieces of information per second, while the conscious brain only processes 40 pieces per second.

This is because if our conscious brain were to process every piece of stimulus, it would get overloaded and self combust. 

Therefore, our unconscious brain does all the heavy lifting. It processes signals from the environment at lightening fast speed, and instructs our conscious brain to ‘act’ and respond.

In fact, our brain is the most energy consuming organ we have. It is only 3 percent of our body weight, but consumes up to 20 percent of its caloric energy intake.

That’s why, the brain optimizes for simplicity i.e.. optimizes energy. 

Simple, not simplistic

“…A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything) …”

A line from T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding. 

It means simplicity isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t cheap … but it’s priceless.

Simplicity, in speech (“days are long, but the years are short…”), a tag line (“Because you’re worth it”), a product (Internet search), a logo (“Apple Logo”), or food (instant noodles) takes restraint to produce, but is preferred over complexity. 

Simplicity is easy on the receiver, but takes backbreaking work from the creator. As Edward de Bono says,

Simplicity before understanding is simplistic; Simplicity after understanding is simple.

Edward de Bono


One has to get entangled in too many facts, mull over multiple decision routes, and wade through confusion before an elegant, simple solution emerges.

Complexity in fact, comes from lack of homework and insecurity. We try to cram every piece of information into a brochure, power point slide, or advertising because we have not done the hard work of understanding just the right sweet spot for the receiver. Nothing more, nothing less should be the mantra.

Look at the Yahoo home page for instance.

And this is the Google home page we all know so well.

Google was valued at $1trillion when I last checked. Yahoo was $4.8billion.

Brands that simplify, perform better

Design consultancy firm Siegel + Gale runs a global simplicity survey. Their research proves that brands that simplify consumer experiences are more successful.

Their 2018 survey shows: 

  • A stock portfolio of the Top 10 global simplest brands outperformed the major indexes by 679%.
  • 55% consumers were willing to pay a premium for simpler experiences
  • 64% consumers were more likely to recommend a brand that offers simpler experiences

Check out their website and results of the simplest brands here.

Simplifying marketing for consumers’ brains is incredibly hard work. Marketers design simplicity into their brands by:

  1. Simplifying for the senses
  2. Simplifying choices, and
  3. Simplifying friction

Simplifying for the senses – Apple

Simpler the message, cleaner the image, faster our unconscious brain understands and responds.

Now we know why Apple advertising and products they work so well. They are so simple.

Their advertising, logo and products are like a cool soothing drink from an oasis in a gritty over heated world of brands screaming ‘buy me!’. 

The brain takes a pause. Understands everything in half a blink… and remembers Apple forever.

This article from Smithsonian Magazine is a fascinating read. It describes in detail, what influenced Steve Jobs’ design sensibility – from Zen Buddhism to the lesser known Eichler’s homes and the more well known Calligraphy classes he took in Reed College. It also talks about how much work it takes to reach the level of simplicity that Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs created. 

Simplifying for the senses -Clinique

Clinique is as simple as Apple.

These are my favorite ads out of all skincare advertising. I feel almost clean, freshly bathed and fresh just by looking at some of these images. Each image tells the story of the product benefit in such an effective way.

Somehow all simple, minimal brands seem more premium and luxurious don’t they? It’s as if they have figured out life and achieved self actualization. And we are willing to pay a lot more to be a part of that self actualized life.

Simplifying Choices

An HBR study found that brands that rank higher on Decision Simplicity Index sell moreThe article says,

“Our study found that the best tool for measuring consumer-engagement efforts is the “decision simplicity index,” a gauge of how easy it is for consumers to gather and understand (or navigate) information about a brand, how much they can trust the information they find, and how readily they can weigh their options. The easier a brand makes the purchase-decision journey, the higher its decision-simplicity score. Brands that scored in the top quarter in our study were 86% more likely than those in the bottom quarter to be purchased by the consumers considering them. They were 9% more likely to be repurchased and 115% more likely to be recommended to others.”  

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that too many choices make consumers  more dissatisfied. It also leads to ‘choice paralysis’.

He talks about a study published in 2000. People were 10X more like to buy a jar of Jam when the number of varieties on offer were 6. But were paralyzed into inaction when the variety offered was increased to 24. 

So when it comes to choices, less is more.

Aldi

The retailer Aldi topped Seigel and Gale’s simplicity index for 4 years running and in 2018, was no.2.

It simplifies the shopper experience by demonstrating a high level of empathy for the shopper. Range on offer is limited. Messaging is clear, and the visuals are neat and uncluttered.

Simplifying Friction – One-click checkout

Amazon has patented the one-click checkout. It makes the checkout process frictionless and is worth billions as per this article.

If we needed more proof that the one-click checkout revolutionizes the buyer experience, here it is. in 2000, the Gods of simplicity, Apple, licensed the technology from Amazon and incorporated it into  iTunes, iPhoto and the Apple App Store. 

Simplifying Friction -Subscription Shave

Dollar shave club disrupted the razor industry by simplifying both the product and the purchase experience. 

The products are simple. Razors get the job done, without over engineering the patents and number of blades. Compare the Dollar Shave club razor to Gillette below.

But more importantly, they take away the cognitive load from having to buy shave supplies through a very affordable subscription model. 

Uncomplicate

Jack Welch was a proponent of simplicity from leaders. He said,

“Real leaders don’t need clutter. People must have the self-confidence to be clear, precise, to be sure that every person in their organization—highest to lowest—understands what the business is trying to achieve. But it’s not easy. You can’t believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple. They worry that if they’re simple, people will think they’re simpleminded. In reality, of course, it’s just the reverse. Clear, tough-minded people are the most simple.”

Simplification applied to our personal mastery boils down to one word – NO. 

Marie Kondo talks about keeping only those things at home that ‘spark joy’. How about we start by Marie Kondo’ing our day? Then move onto our life?

Having the self knowledge, courage, and clarity to say no to tasks, people, opportunities and interactions that complicate and clutter is a life long quest. Simplification is hard work. But the quest is well worth it.

Inertia

A large part of a marketer’s job is to shake consumers out of inertia and buy more. A lot of this has to do with how the brain works.

Check out my essay to read about how inertia is a product of how the brain works and 16 techniques to shake consumer inertia.

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