II. THE SCIENCE: ANATOMY OF THE ENEMY
We’re no brain boffins. No rocket scientists either, but we know a thing or three about communication, so allow me to distill our discoveries.
Our key findings were as follows:
IT’S ALL IN OUR MINDS.
If you’re the type that pulls things apart just to see how they work — let’s take scalpel to skull and show you the innards. Come, satisfy your curious kink by poking around in an average head, without a splash of claret!
Inside our brains, two minds: implicit and explicit. Both work together, but don’t really understand each other. Like a sweet old couple, a horse and rider, or, in the delightfully everyman lingo of old mate on Reddit: “lizard and big daddy”. However we picture them, these two minds are the reason we can drive a usual route to work, without concentrating on every turn, and every light. The implicit mind takes care of the routine tasks — the things that can be done automatically — freeing the explicit mind to think intentional thoughts. These are the big thoughts, or daydreams even — explicit mind freewheeling until unexpected occurs. Roadworks, a reckless driver, a sudden downpour: any of these things snap explicit mind back to attention, to take control of the task at hand.
The curious relationship between these two minds is key to understanding habituation.
WE’RE ALL ANIMALS.
Yes, it’s a painful truth: no matter the couture we hide our hairy hides in, the poetry we read, or the number of degrees dangled from our walls — we’re all just beasts. And, every beast that roams this world shares some basic similarities:
▪ a will to survive; and
▪ the ability to learn, in order to survive.
This way of learning, is habituation.
Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. — Wikipedia
It’s the behavioural version of sensory adaptation, a type of non-associative learning that doesn’t require conscious motivation or awareness. Over time, we learn not to respond to something that happens repeatedly without change, reward, or punishment. This allows us to tune out the non-essentials, to focus fully on the things that matter — the things that really demand our attention.
Behind all those big and serious words, a very simple example: Picture a young deer out in the woods. A sudden noise — a pine cone falling perhaps — and the deer is startled! Ahh… but over time and many pine cones later, provided there’s no consequence — no pain from pine cones dropped on its pelt — the same noise no longer startles the deer.
This animal fantasy, not so different at all to what a person might experience on moving close to an airport. The sound of metal groaning overhead, so invasive at first, soon fades to a barely acknowledged hum.
IT’S ALL ABOUT EXPOSURE
The speed Habituation occurs at, depends on four main factors:
01. Frequency: The more often we’re exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs. Habituation can also generalise to similar stimuli, which simply means that similar things can further hasten habituation.
02. Interval (inter-stimulus interval): The less time between being exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs. If there’s long enough between exposure, our original response (before habituation) will reappear at full-strength. This is known as spontaneous recovery.
03. Duration (stimulus duration): The longer we’re exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs.
04. Strength: The stronger something is, the faster habituation occurs. But, here’s the catch; exposure to very strong stimuli actually tends to result in slower habituation. In some cases, such as very loud noises, habituation may never occur.
In short: the same thing, repeated over and over, with little time between, paves a sure path to habituation. However, this is a road built on unstable foundations: a change to any one of the four factors can break habituation, and revert to a reccurrence of our original response.
And so we arrive, inevitably, at communication. If all this is already setting synapses crackling uneasy, this last finding will really crisp your cortex…
CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS GOT IT ALL WRONG.
I’m fairly confident in assuming that the most critical injury every inflicted by corporate comms was probably a paper cut, and the only fatality — death by Powerpoint. Boredom: silent killer of engagement and the human spirit, but not the human body. This places typical corporate communications low in our hierarchy of needs and worthiness of our attention. Big daddy just left the building; the lizard’s in charge.
Worse, consider the foundations typical workplace messaging is built on: frequency, repetition, strength, and constant exposure. The Mighty Pillars of Corporate Communications — built unwittingly on the ideal framework for habituation.
Yes, turns out that the ways we’ve been taught to communicate in a corporate space, passed down by comms and marketing departments, are exactly the opposite things we should be doing to rally a hearty response in our troops.
The secret of success is consistency of purpose. — Benjamin Disraeli