Category Archives: Psychology

Desire and advertising

A few weeks ago I went along to ‘Your Brain and the Future’, an Ideas at the House event at the Sydney Opera House. Four leading thinkers in neuroscience, philosophy and psychology spoke about how we can shape our future by expanding our imaginations and being creative. This summary is in relation to what Professor Peter Railton discussed on the topic of Desire.

Desire. A glorious word, with beautiful connotations. It rolls off the tongue poetically, exuding sensuousness, craving and longing.

“Desire is about what is absent, but could be present.” – Professor Peter Railton

Us humans, we’re such complex creatures, yet so basic in certain ways. Through evolution we’ve grown and innovated through finding the motivation and means to change things. Professor Railton said that motivation is found in two forms: one is appetite, the second is desire, and that desire is about imagination and affect. We have a wonderful ability to consider possible situations, be aware that we are not in them, imagine what they would be like, and then pursue them.

Professor Railton told us about time he’d spent in Paris some years ago. He said that travelling on the metro all day could have been dark and dreary, but the Parisian metro has “windows” – large advertisements that tower up the walls of the stations. What were these ads about? Desire. Beautiful women, beautiful men, close-ups of creamy coffee, smooth chocolate, shiny watches and the luxurious interiors of alluring vehicles.

Metro advertising

Image credit: The Anti Blog

Advertisements are “photographic representations of what desire is like” and we connect to them when we can imagine ourselves enjoying the product or being close to the perfect and breathtaking subjects in the images.

When our brains receive information that something good is about to come, there’s a spike in dopamine. We make calculations that we’re not even consciously aware of. When given information, our brains are capable of making “finely calibrated predictions of value.” And it feels good.

What’s a lesson to remember about desire? It’s that desire itself has associated learning. If an object or experience doesn’t compare well with the representation, the ability to desire it again in future is endangered. Whether it’s an awful meal at a restaurant, or a watch that breaks after two days, failing to live up to expectations is challenging to overcome.

Talking about desire in an advertising context alone is hollow and negligent, so here’s advice that transcends to all facets of humanly life:

Create things and experiences that are awesome, encourage imagination and evoke desire that’s worth desiring. 


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Ban bossy? Or how about: ‘don’t be a dick’

You may have seen the #banbossy campaign that’s doing the rounds.

The premise, from the Ban Bossy website is, “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.”

My very first thought was, “Wooh! Yes! Equality for all!” But then I thought about it further after seeing a tweet this morning that read: ‘Maybe girls should EMBRACE the word bossy, not ban it.’ – via @rightwinggirl08

While I don’t advocate anyone to embrace being what the traditional definition of ‘bossy’ is, there are many perspectives that point to why we shouldn’t be trying to ban the word:

1) Promoting the banning of a word seems a little authoritarian in itself.

2) Bossy men aren’t always regarded as ‘great leaders’. They’re also called ‘dickheads’, ‘arrogant pricks’ and ‘cocky’ and they have to deal with the side-effects of these names, too.

3) An attempt to close the gap that is the great divide between girls and boys isn’t aided with a campaign targeted purely at females, for a topic that is not specific to only one gender.

4) This divide HAS been closing, albeit slowly, but there is much to be said for the men and women who have supported gender equality.

5) There are far, far greater insults than being called “bossy”. Being ignored is one of them.

6) Humans are emotional and competitive. Negative words will always be used, it’s how we handle them that’s key.

7) The tagline ‘I’m not “bossy”, I’m the boss.’ is inherently flawed. It creates a false association between leadership and being bossy. The best leaders are the ones who lead by example, not those who domineer and give orders.

8) ‘Leadership’ is not the only path to success. Being successful means different things to different people.

9) Our younger selves do many things that we look back on with regret, or rather, with a mature perspective, and being “bossy” is sometimes one of them. But it’s a natural way for young humans to assert themselves and their worth within their families, friendship circles and societies. It can be hurtful to be caught out on our behaviour, but it can also be strengthening.

My take on all of this?

Be human, be genuine, be real.
Show your children how to be compassionate and collaborative to fellow humans.
Be ambitious, be bold, be curious.
Do what you enjoy and you see value in.
Be a leader, if you want to be.
Or not!
Be what you want and respect others for what they want to be.

Just don’t be a dick.

Further reading:
Sheryl Sandberg wrong on ‘bossy’ ban by Peggy Drexler
Don’t ‘ban bossy’, Sheryl Sandberg. Tell us what to do next. by Alexandra Petri
The seven most ridiculous things about the new Ban Bossy campaign by Mollie Hemingway

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Don’t kill empathy with assumptions

Last week I made an assumption.

I was walking through the city at lunch and, feeling frustrated at the foot traffic, humidity and smokers around, I caught myself thinking the worst of a situation.

Three young men were walking ahead of me. Given their backpacks and attire, they appeared to be tourists. Nothing out of the ordinary in Sydney, but one detail got my attention. All three of them were wearing headphones.

Immediately, I jumped to conclusions.
‘Wow, they must be having a great time if they can’t even talk to each other.’
‘How incredibly impersonal to not be engaging with your fellow travellers!’
‘Look at what technology is doing to human interaction these days. Pppfft!’

And then I stopped myself. I realised that these negative thoughts were doing nothing for myself or anybody else. And just as I thought that, another possible option popped into my head.

‘What if they are all simultaneously listening to a walking tour of our beautiful city?’ 

Headphone guys
With this, a whole world of positive thoughts opened up. I imagined the guys downloading a Sydney walking tour app together at breakfast, leaving the hostel to get to the starting point, and hitting ‘play’ at the same time. I imagined them learning about all the great sights in Sydney, and chatting about their day over a beer that evening. I imagined them emailing their families tomorrow and telling them about their awesome day. I didn’t have a clue if any of this was true, but merely imagining it eased the frown in my brow and replaced it with a curious smile instead.

As the saying goes, “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

I have no clue if the guys were best friends since childhood, or if they met that morning. I don’t know with certainty if they were tourists, or foreign exchange students. And I definitely don’t know if they were listening to a walking tour, or to Beyoncé’s new album! I’ll never know the true story about the three guys with headphones, but it doesn’t matter.

When assumptions are made, they can destroy empathy and in turn, stagger enthusiasm and ideas. When we prompt ourselves to consider other options we can open our minds, improve our attitude and encourage creativity.

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Motivation: The Good, the Bad, and the BEST

Knowing what drives us and others makes us better communicators, better marketers, better friends, lovers, parents, teachers. Understanding motivation makes us better at life.

There are a few categories to motivators. I like to call them:

  • Good Shit
  • Bad Shit
  • The Best Shit

People have historically used Good Shit, such as rewards and recognition, to motivate others. “You’ll win this”/”You’ll gain that”. Great, it’s always nice to feel valued and win cool stuff.

People have also used Bad Shit, such as punishment and fear, to motivate others. “You’ll fail”/”You’ll be fired”/”You’ll look like a dick/”You’ll get a massive fine”/”I will kill you”. Not so great, but has its place and is a significant player in social control.

The motivators in The Best Shit, however, are factors that make us really want to do things. Excitement, purpose, the desire to be great and the thirst for more. The need to make a difference, to learn, to share amazing things and to be happy.


Think of the things you enjoy the least, and you’ll notice that the motivating factors fall under Good Shit or Bad Shit. On the other hand, the stuff you love doing the most will be stuff that excites you and makes you feel a sense of purpose. The Best Shit.

For example, what motivates many people to do exercise? Good Shit like the benefits of being stronger and leaner, but also some Bad Shit like the fear of gaining weight. Those people might stick to their exercise plan for a while, but ones who are motivated by The Best Shit will have the extra drive. The desire to be great and the excitement and happiness that feeling physically good brings are far more powerful and long-lasting motivators.

If you’re doing stuff that you’re not feeling very motivated to do, question it! Sometimes we do things out of habit and forget that motivators change over time. Keep evolving, do things that you’re passionate about, especially the things that take up the bulk of your life.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs

To instil passion and drive in other people, don’t scare them. Don’t dangle a few average carrots. Don’t give a few days of long-service leave after 10 years. Give people excitement! Give them a sense of purpose! Be a player in their desire to be great and join them on their quest for more.


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Why you need to start asking ‘why?’ again

Kids have it sussed. Asking ‘why?’ of any situation is enlightening. It opens the mind, allows for new ways of doing things, encourages creativity and subdues the common adult fault of passive acceptance.

Very little in life occurs by chance. Almost everything that we encounter is due to a choice – yours or someone else’s.

Ask yourself why

Ask yourself, “Why?”

Understanding ‘why’ leads to many awesome insights. It helps us understand why others take the actions they take. It helps us understand why we ourselves do certain things. It teaches us about the fundamental drivers that influence different areas of our lives. It teaches us about history, science, emotion and business. It helps us to not take things for granted and gives us the opportunity to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Why is your friend gloating about their pay rise? Not because he’s being snarky, but because he’s been feeling low and wants to feel better about himself. Why is your client being so demanding? Because she’s been given a hard word about her performance. Why is the driver behind you being so aggressive? Because they’re going through a separation and are at the height of anxiety. 

Kids ask ‘why?’ because often they don’t yet have the life experience to piece cause and effect together. Later, as time starts passing us by faster and faster, we cease questioning. We take a step back, make assumptions and indifferently tolerate, or not tolerate, what’s happening around us.

Asking ‘why?’ takes us back to the basics, providing a deeper understanding of people and life. Asking ‘why?’ grounds us.

We should never stop questioning. If you find that you’ve stopped asking ‘why?’, it’s time to start once more.

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The sweet spot between routine and spontaneity

Athletes thrive on routine. Their success depends on it. Humans in general benefit from order in a world where there is so much unpredictability, but we’re also impulsive creatures. Where lies the balance?

Mixing things up contributes to creativity, mastery, action, innovation and discovery. Routine gives us the means to practice something enough to become really good at it. Add unforced passion to the mix, and we can pretty much master that thing. That’s when we’re unstoppable.

Relationships flourish when we can surprise each other. When our partner whisks us away somewhere new for the weekend. When a night out with friends turns into story to tell for years.

We do better at our work when we’re given the opportunity to grow by doing something that’s outside our comfort zone. New sights and environments give us perspectives that ignite different parts of our minds. Being disciplined allows us to form habits, but having the flexibility to try new things fills our lives with excitement and adventure.

The right balance is different for all of us. Familiar is comforting, new is thrilling. Wake up and go to sleep around the same time each day but turn left instead of right until you find your ideal version.

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What you can learn about yourself from your possessions

Many years ago I read a book by a guy called Sam Gosling. The title of the book is ‘Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You‘ and I found it quite revolutionary. It claims that our stuff – our possessions, music, books, etc – often tell others more about ourselves, our true selves, than what we or our friends do. After I read the book I discreetly analysed my colleagues’ workstations and made sense of it all. The book claimed that the most personalised workstations belonged to the most loyal employees. It also claimed that there’s a big difference between what we display in our offices or homes for ourselves vs what we display for other people. When I visited friends I’d look at their book collections and posters. The book had taught me that items in social spots in a home (such as the dining room or lounge), contained possessions that supported how the person wanted to be portrayed, and more personal areas such as bedrooms contained more cues to their inner selves. (Of course, I didn’t go venturing into friends’ bedrooms for research purposes!)

As a psychology enthusiast, I found all of this absolutely fascinating.

Some of our things have a proportion of information that is there to emphasise a particular aspect our persona, our passions or our skills to others, and a proportion to substantiate aspects of ourselves to ourselves. If we take a different approach when looking at our things, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

Take a look at your things to see what you can learn about yourself from your possessions:

1) What you’re passionate about
Your music collection, book collection and what types of ingredients you have in the kitchen all tell a story about you. You’ll find cues about what eras you’re most fond of, what subject matters inspire you the most and what cuisines you like best.
Example: My book collection. I confess I have somewhat of an addiction to buying books and I’m trying to control this, but not before I can stock my shelves with just a few more classics! What does all this tell me? I am passionate about words and stories.

2) How you want others to perceive you
Social and cultural items very often represent a side of us that we want others to see more of. Look at your workspace in particular, and make a note of which items are there because they have to be, which items are there for you and which items are there for others. In the home, check out what you display in a prominent area such as the entrance hall, the dining or lounge areas. Yes, often they’ll be in those areas because you want to see them, but certain items will be there because you want others to notice them.
Example: Both at work and at home I have photos or art from my travels. Naturally, I find them nice to look at but I also like the fact that I’m perceived as well-travelled, and I like that the items are often conversation starters, too.

3) What your strengths and areas of knowledge are
You’ll be able to look around your home and find items that you could talk for hours about. You could pick up certain items and chew a guest’s ear off with the information you hold. Maybe it’s a musical instrument, an old record or an item of furniture.
Example: My camera. I could talk for a very long time about what you can do with it.

4) What you want to be awesome at in the future
Check out what things you own that hold cues to your ambitions. You might see the beginnings of hobbies that you never had enough time for. Your documentary collection might be telling you that you’re not happy just watching them, but that you want to make them. You might have spices in the kitchen that you’re not sure how to use, but you know you want to create something amazing with.
Example: Again, going back to books, but a specific genre: books about creativity and psychology. I have many of them and this tells me that it’s an area I want to learn more about and one day, be an expert at.

5) What you’ve achieved in the past
Stumbling upon things from the past help us remember how much we’ve changed and what we’ve done for our lives. Coming across items that we’re not prepared to give up shed light on another side of us. Why do certain items make us nostalgic? What made them special once, and why do we hold onto that?
Example: Over the weekend I did a clothing Spring clean and came across an old pair of pants that I wouldn’t even want to give away because of the state they’re in, but I can’t bring myself to toss them, either. Why? I took them travelling with me in 2010 and they were with me for 7 months. I can remember wearing them in various cities across South and North America, and it comforts me having them still around. They remind me of an amazing time of my life.

6) Your essence
Hidden away in your drawers, in boxes in the wardrobe, in bags under the bed – in places, essentially, where they’re not going to be found or seen by other people – you might find parts of your true self. They may be antique pieces of jewellery that have been passed down from another generation. They may be journals with words you wrote many years ago.
Example: In one of my drawers I have a bracelet I bought in Paris on my first ever trip there in 2004. I loved but I was young, on a tight budget and it was expensive. It captivated me so much, however, that I made the decision to buy it. It’s so precious to me that I’ve hardly worn it but every time that I do pull it out to have a look, I’m reminded simultaneously of three things that are important to me: independence, beauty in design and lifelong adventure.

What do your things tell you about you?

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