Re-Training the Elephant

Imagine that you are an explorer atop a mighty elephant trying to steer it into the wild grass of unexplored territory. You tug on the elephant’s ears and frantically yell directions at it, but the elephant simply continues down its familiar path, stopping for small bites and myriad distractions along the way. The elephant doesn’t take well to being steered.


Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider deftly encapsulates what psychological theorists have posited for decades and what burgeoning neuroscience confirms: your unconscious mind is your most powerful decision-driving mechanism, and it is more influenced than steered.  This means your conscious mind is far more often informed of your decisions than in charge of them.


Your unconscious problem-solving process is built through your lifetime of experiences cemented into your gut by emotional markers. It is a remarkable evolutionary feature that is much older than the conscious mind itself, and it is meant to drive smart choices. If you were in a car accident on a dark street after leaving the movies, your unconscious encodes markers of aversion, fear, and hypervigilance tied to the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience: dark streets, the scent of popcorn, and blue trucks like the one that hit you. If you fell in love at college in the fall, your unconscious encodes markers of attraction, connection, and fulfillment to fallen leaves, the smell of the library, and the taste of cider. It starts in utero, continues until the day you die, and you are never aware of it while it’s happening. You spend your entire life unconsciously training the elephant.


For those of us in the business of innovation (read: helping others improve their lives), we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity: how do we leverage the heft of the mighty elephant to serve the needs of others? The trick, as it turns out, is not to steer the elephant but to consciously train it.


This is where cognitive empathy comes in. Empathy is an innate mechanism for solving the problems of others by encoding their emotions as our own experience. Once we have been inscribed with their experience, our natural problem-solving process kicks in to solve the problem as if it were our own. Empathy is natural (and virtually unpreventable) for those most salient to us: our family, our friends, our icons and heroes. When someone we are close with needs help, we automatically snap into action and get working on finding novel solutions to their problems. For those we aren’t as naturally connected with, such as our customers, our patients, our colleagues, etc., we must engage a cognitive process of building empathy in order to get their experiences encoded into our own guts. By doing so, we are using the rider of conscious cognition to train the elephant of the unconscious.


By acknowledging that our experience is distinct from that person’s, deciding to bridge that distance by allowing their experience to affect us, recognizing their feelings and emotions in ourselves, and owning our response while allowing it to encode in us, we are building that repertoire of intuition according to their needs. We are no longer making jerking pulls and tugs to try to sway the massive unconscious against its training. We are re-training the unconscious to take us somewhere new, and this becomes the core mechanism of our ongoing innovation on their behalf.

By: Justin Masterson, Master Consultant


Why Storytelling Works

Today’s the day that you give your big presentation. You and your team have done some great research. The research revealed something unexpected and you’re excited about the possibilities. You’ve spent hours working on your powerpoint presentation. You have 40 slides filled with bullet points, graphs and charts that demonstrate the findings from your hard work. You have the data and you want your organization to do something great with it.


But they don’t seem to care. You get some mild applause at the conclusion of your talk and the insights you uncovered are headed to innovation purgatory, just waiting for someone to use them. So where is the passionate response you were expecting? Why don’t they get it? Well, you probably lost them at slide number two. Be honest. Would you want to sit through your presentation?


Next time, consider sharing the story of your consumer rather than just their data. Stories have power. They inspire us, haunt us, engage us and help us to understand and empathize with people. Stories speak to our humanity and compel us to act. Storytelling is a powerful form of communication that has existed since the beginning of time. So why does it work?


Stories Elicit Emotion
When listening to a presentation with a lot of facts and figures, it sends us into analytical mode. We naturally start to process the facts and question their validity rather than care about what the speaker is sharing. When listening to a story, we begin to feel something. Stories elicit an emotional response.  They are authentic human experiences that engage our imagination and help us to connect with one another. Data only begins to means something to us when it’s being used in support of a real person’s story.


“A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.” Harrison Monarth


Our Brains Are Wired For Stories
When we are given facts and figures, only the language processing part of our brain is engaged. Scientists call this the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area. Basically we process the words, give them meaning and that’s all. Game over.


On the other hand, when we hear a story, our whole brain goes to work creating images and emotional responses. When we hear about the experiences of others, we naturally want to relate it to our own life. Scientists have been observing brain scans as their subjects hear stories. They have found that when we hear a story it engages any other part of our brain that we would use when experiencing the events taking place in the story. For example, if the story is about chocolate cake or the smell of sea air, it will light up our sensory cortex and if it’s about swimming in the ocean it will light up our motor cortex. If we are hearing about a person’s joy or pain, it will activate our insular cortex which plays a big role in our emotions. Emotional stimulation is the foundation for empathy and our ability to connect and build relationships. Because so many parts of the brain are engaged, an experience is created when we hear stories and this experience elicits a response.


“Stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative. We can step out of our own shoes, see differently, and increase our empathy for others. Through imagination, we tap into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.” Dr. Pamela Rutledge


Storytelling is what makes Seek different. We connect you with the people you serve to learn more than just the facts about them. We want you to know them on a personal level because their stories are the foundation for your new innovation. Meet Bob. As he ages, little things like a cold become more frightening to him and what helps him most is having someone to love him. And there’s Mary who lost self confidence when she entered puberty.  Bob’s story speaks for the 1 in 2 Americans over the age of 65 who have unexpected emergency room visits. Mary represents the 70% of women worldwide who suffer from menstruation symptoms. No one had much to say about the 1 in 2 Americans or 70% of women worldwide, but when connected with the stories of Bob and Mary, those facts inspired new innovation.


We have a creative team of writers and designers who bring your research findings to life through a variety of mediums to richly inform and motivate your organization. We can help you get your insights out of purgatory and into the marketplace.



Inspired Thinking

There are people with great minds and then there are those with great minds who use their wisdom to strengthen, encourage and inspire their fellow humans. We’re drawn to the brilliant mind of Dr. Brené Brown. She’s a great storyteller with thought-provoking insight into human behavior.


Check out two of our favorite videos.



What We’re Reading

At Seek, we’re passionate about understanding humans and what makes us tick. Our Justin Masterson is always reading up on the latest in neuroscience and human behavior. Here’s a peek at five books he recommends if you want to take a progressive plunge into the fascinating world of behavioral economics.


1. How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer
A highly accessible primer on how our emotional and rational minds play together in decision-making.  Fast-paced, intriguing, and chock full of rich storytelling, it is an ideal entrance-point into the role of the unconscious in driving behavior. Learn More>>


2. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
A breakthrough book from a preemptive thought leader that brought behavioral economics into the popular frame.  If
How We Decide catches your interest in behavioral science, this book will absolutely cement it.  Ariely is a brave, candid and unabashedly committed to the science of understanding why we do what we do.  Learn More >>


3. Thinking, Fast & Slow – Daniel Kahneman
The definitive text on the unique roles of the “fast” unconscious and “slow” conscious mind from a Nobel laureate. Kahenman and his long-time partner, Amos Tversky, virtually defined the field of behavioral economics, and this book serves as the culmination of their storied careers…if you have heard terms from behavioral economics floating around, they were probably coined here. Learn More>>


4. Incognito – David Eagleman
A thrilling look at the impact of the hidden brain on both the individual and society.  Eagleman is a daring neuroscientist who ties insight and invention together brilliantly, and who moves deftly between microcosmic examples of the individual influence of the subconscious, and implications for societal reform as a whole.  Learn More >>


5. Subliminal – Leonard Mlodinow
A depth look into the subconscious mind from, of all places, a quantum physicist.  Mlodinow takes us into the deepest recesses of the subconscious mind and draws remarkable connections between the neurological and physical structures in our heads/bodies and the choices we make that change our lives.  Learn More >>

Justin Masterson is Seek’s Account Strategy Director and resident neuroscience geek.

What’s Really Driving Our Decisions?

In the last five years, the marketing and innovation worlds have been buzzing about the behavioral sciences, and with good reason. The advent of brain-scanning technologies like the fMRI and PET have offered a new look at what our brains are really doing while we make choices, and the findings are stunning. For those of us who solve for human problems it is the Wild West, and our new explorers are the neuroscientists, psychologists and behavioral theorists who are linking arms to stake brand new claims in human understanding.


As a matter of summary I thought I’d share the one theme that resonates with me through study after study and headline after headline: your “gut” is doing most of your thinking for you.


The “Thought” Myth
The pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain believed to be most responsible for conscious awareness and executive function (your “thoughts”) is a relatively new evolutionary invention and at its oldest, about 500,000 years old… a mere speck in an evolutionary continuum spanning 4.5 billion years. Like most early tech launches it is riddled with glitches. Your conscious structure is a masterwork of computational power that can establish rules, apply abstract concepts to concrete phenomena, suppress animal urges, and override emotional function. Not a bad hand of tricks for such a young system, but it is wildly inefficient and highly susceptible to unconscious influence by the far more established limbic and autonomic systems. Its greatest flaw is its blindspot; your conscious mind is historically terrible at recognizing its own weaknesses.


Those of us who create new things for a living do well to strengthen our thoughts, but we also need to exercise our “gut” to empower our unconscious minds for creation, as this is where our core creative intuition lies. To do so, we must feast on a constant stream of experiences that “build our gut” by linking us physically, emotionally and mentally with those we are creating for. Why? Because it turns out that our gut is actually doing most of the thinking and creating.


Conscious Mind As CEO
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist with an unquenchable drive for innovation, offers us a helpful analogy: the conscious mind as the CEO of a large company. She is very smart, capable, and experienced; she is infinitely qualified to make strategic choices for the company. But there is no way she knows all that is going on in that company every day. She can’t, because no one person can possibly retain and process that much information. She can’t know what everybody is working on or tell you how much the company spent on restroom paper towels last year. When big strategic decisions are needed or when hit with brand new problems, she is at the wheel in action, but her attention is a very limited resource, and after setting priorities and getting the strategies and tactics rolling, she lets the system run and turns her focus to the next most important thing. She leaves most of the day-to-day choices to the much more plentiful resources of her broad organization.


Your brain works the same way. Your conscious attention (“thought” power) is a limited-capacity resource and requires a tremendous amount of energy to operate.  In order to conserve that energy for what matters, your brain wisely outsources non-essential or predictable operations to your unconscious mind, pushing operations further back into the much more efficient limbic (emotional), autonomic (peripheral) and enteric (gut) systems. These unconscious systems have a 4-billion year evolutionary head start on the conscious mind and act in concert to make most of your choices. In fact, neuroscientists studying decision-making estimate that around 95% of your decisions are made unconsciously or pre-consciously.  What you think of as your “gut” intuition is actually an entire complex system of neuronal networks built by both evolution and every experience you have ever had in your life. This system links with your central and peripheral nervous systems to drive decision-making. It is your most evolved problem-solving structure shaped by hundreds of millennia of evolution and sharpened by millions of personal data points to help you make well-informed choices.


Your Big Blind Spot
The trouble comes when you believe that your conscious mind is making most of your choices. Chances are good that you believe this because, by definition, it is all that you are consciously aware of.  The reality is that the vast majority of your “choices” have been pre-determined by your unconscious mind, then retroactively rationalized by your executive function without telling you that’s what happened. Those early drafts of the marketing materials that you green-lighted without hesitation?  Your conscious told you that you it was based on absolute trust in your agency and reasoned deliberation of the content. Your unconscious had long since decided that it was a go because it remembered the key elements and emotional impacts of your previous failed campaigns, and knew a winning idea before you did. That date you turned down last week?  You couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but something told you he was “creepy”. Meanwhile, your unconscious recalled a vivid emotional memory of a disastrous college date with a man of similar facial structure. That bag of chips you turned down at lunch?  Your conscious mind cheered you for minding your diet, but your unconscious mind had already rejected the chips with revulsion as it recalled throwing up the same brand as a kid.


Building Gut Through Empathic Experience
Those of us who solve the problems of others through creation and innovation thus do well to hone our gut instinct by creating rich connections with the people we are creating for: our end-users, our customers, our patients, our stakeholders, our loved ones. These connections will help build a deep reservoir of personal experiences to drive our strategic instinct. To do so, we must do the dirty work of empathy:  we must feel what they feel, struggle with what they struggle with, and encode their experiences into our own until they become almost inextricably enmeshed, and we can have confidence in our gut instinct. To serve our customers well, we must step out from behind our desks and drafting tables and get wholly immersed in their experience, not as a bi-annual exercise or a kick-off to ideation, but as a matter of regular creative discipline. We must hone our gut-level instincts to care about what they care about and reject what they reject, long before our conscious mind becomes aware of it. After all, that instinct is making most of our choices anyway; we should make sure they are good ones.

Justin Masterson is Seek’s Account Strategy Director and resident neuroscience geek.


Why We Fear Failure

One of the biggest obstacles to innovation is fear of failure.  There are plenty of people with great ideas but there are fewer who are actually brave enough to try something new and risk failing. In fact, those on the forefront of advancing innovation are not only willing to fail, they use failure to their advantage. Imagine what it would be like if we could all move bravely forward with our ideas.  What is the world missing out on because most people are afraid to fail?  Looking for some insight on why we fear failure, we went to Dr. Jonathan Hyland. He has a PhD in depth psychology and is a program designer here at Seek.


Why are people afraid to fail?
The state or condition of failure is the result of culture setting parameters or boundaries for one’s self. Meaning, that we only know ourselves and what we are capable of by what we see in others. This is determined by how we grew up, what we are told by our families, teachers, role models, friends, and social media.  We slowly set boundaries for ourselves without even knowing it. I can do this. I can’t do that. He or she can do this. I can’t do those things. I am not allowed to do those things. I wouldn’t dare do those things. I really want to do those things. At a certain point these beliefs and boundaries set like concrete. So when we are asked to do something that we “know” we can’t do, it’s not that we are afraid of failing but rather there is a hidden fear that we are at the edge of ourselves. If I fail at this then I really might step over the boundary that defines me. I might step into the void.


This fear of stepping past the boundary of yourself is not conscious but shows up as alarm and danger. It can be similar to a scene from a film. Like when a US submarine is in chaos as sailors scramble to man their battle stations after discovering a Russian sub beneath them. We scramble to our own battle stations because we do not want to fail. We cannot go to the edge of ourselves because we might blow up. And it’s not that we would actually blow up, but it feels like that when you are suddenly asked to do something that puts you at the edge of how you understand yourself. Who am I if I am not this person that I have always been? What will happen to me if I am not this person? Nothing will. In fact you will only become richer, deeper, more profound and more you.


Does something happen in our brain when we think we’ve failed?
If being at the edge of ourselves is unconsciously translated as danger then most certainly something does happen to our brain. It’s the old reptilian, limbic flight or fight response. We go into high alert, the adrenaline pumps and panic sets in. There is heightened awareness and intoxicating fear but there is no visible threat. The threat is an invisible and internal one, so you begin to question.   Why do I feel so terrible? What have I done? Shame and guilt kick in, because we cannot figure out what is threatening us.  Yes I failed the test, but why does it feel like I am dying and and that something terrible is going to happen? It’s because we unconsciously feel we are past the boundary of ourselves, we are off the map and the only conscious way to deal with this is through danger, so the brain kicks in with its appropriate response.


How do we benefit from experiencing failure?
Since we were young, we have responded to what others said we could and couldn’t do. Imagine if when we “fail” we consciously understand that we are at the edge of how we understand ourselves. We are at the boundary of ourselves that has been made by other people and not by us. What if our response to “failure” is WOW! I am at the imagined boundary of myself and I am still here. I am intact and still alive.  I get to redefine my boundaries, I get to learn about myself and I get to push through to undiscovered territory and deepen myself.  If we allow ourselves to go there, the fears and the adrenaline that pump at those limits of ourselves can be channeled and converted into the energy of excitement and discovery. Instead of being indicators of danger, survival and shame, they become indicators of wonder, opening and expansion.


What can we do to become better at failure?
The first thing you can do is to breathe.  In those moments of imagined threat and danger, bring big volumes of oxygen into your body and let the blood oxygenate. As you calm down, re-imagine your circumstances. There may be some unmet expectations but the expectations are usually unreasonable to begin with. Start to reframe the typical signals of danger and alarm you are feeling to signals of adventure and discovery. You are at the edge of yourself, but this is a moveable edge that you and only you get to push back.  Imagine it as the edge of the grand canyon with all its majesty, grandeur and immensity but this time as you put your foot out over the edge you’re on new ground. Stable ground. And then….. keep going.

Dr. Jonathan Hyland, PhD specializes in depth psychology and is a program designer here at Seek.

A Human Brand

Today’s marketing directors, strategic planners, and insight managers find themselves in a tough position: pitting the brand’s authentic voice against everyday strategic business decisions. These needn’t be opposing forces. In fact, they should be strongly supporting each other. Here’s a look at what’s behind that tension, and how to go about solving for it.


On Being A Human Brand

A great brand is a human brand. It is a collection of stories, experiences, and symbols that breathe and grow inside the people who interact with it. Being human is easy for us, so why is it difficult to build and maintain a great brand? In short, it’s because of a secret wish.

On Fulfilling The Secret Wish

A human brand recognizes the deeper transaction. Think about it. When we pay money for a product or service, there is always a secret wish reflected in that exchange. A need to see our personal story unfold before our very eyes. The brands we buy help us make sense of – and personally relate to – life’s quirks, joys, and hardships. Consider your own purchases lately. Beneath its apparent functionality, isn’t that purchase about reaching for control, or searching for answers? Pining for love, craving glory, or grieving loss? These are universally fundamental human stories. We invite brands into our lives to help realize and fulfill these secret, or unconscious wishes.

On A Man in a Hat

Consider this sequence:
1. A Toyota FJ Cruiser is parked in front of an upscale grocery store.
2. A 63-year old man wearing a tan shirt, safari hat and khaki pants gets out of this car.
3. He removes the cigar from his mouth and slowly – carefully – sets it atop his front left tire before heading into the store.

Can you sense his secret wish? Had he spoken it, you might’ve heard, “I’ve had a successful career. I have some money. I know some things. I’m going to let the world know that I’m in no rush. I’m not going to lay down, I’m still discovering this world.” Conscious or not, he gravitates to brands that fulfill his secret wish and aid his personal journey. This secret wish is an archetypal expression, and many brands have tried incorporating this into their own development. That’s good. But the approach is wrong.

On The Limitations of a Single Archetype

So, if great brands are human brands, why would a brand choose one archetype across all contexts? The industry answer, of course, is consistency, but try to imagine a human with this kind of “consistency.” You’d think he was crazy. We are able to recognize that static inauthenticity almost immediately. Humans are social creatures, attracted to people and environments we know will help us grow.

On Becoming More Human

A human brand is aware that the relationship the consumer has with the brand evolves across all touch points: at shelf; in use; online; repurchasing; etc. It is a dynamic relationship that requires a strategic portfolio of archetypes.Most archetype brand models put too much focus on characterizing a single archetype through the brand. If a brand is insensitive to the fluid experience of the consumer, it loses relevance. It loses its humanity.

Much like how we understand people,there is depth to a complete Archetype Portfolio for a brand. We initially meet someone, and have an impression of who they are. We interact with them, again deepening our impression and discovering something new. And we remember them in a certain way, a third dimension to the archetypes. Now, with a more dimensional picture, a brand can strategically show up in different but consistent ways to create sustained advocacy over time.

Back to the Man in the Hat

If a brand only acknowledges that man’s Adventurer archetype, it misses the full story playing out in his life. It overlooks his deeper desire to tell the world what he knows. The Luminary Archetype. Discounting his slow and deliberate demeanor, it misses his desire to draw others into his world. The Magnetist Archetype.


Imagine having an ocean of inspiration and guidance from which your brand can draw for years. Now, add the dynamics of a complete Archetype Portfolio. Strategically applying your portfolio across all consumer touch points (ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, etc) can move the consumer from empty transactions to sustained advocacy for your brand.

If you’d like to learn more about the program we’ve developed to build long-term consumer advocacy, please feel free to reach out to us. We’re ready to help brands innovate with meaning and purpose.

By: Ben Doepke, Senior Program Designer
Contributors: Greg Hewitt, Innovation Director & Jonathan Hyland, Program Designer