Monday, April 9

Questioning Perception: Psychology And Communication

Every now and again, someone asks me why I decided to include psychology among the topics I cover on a communication blog. Part of it had to do with missing a field I was interested in several years ago (I'm about 6 credits shy of having degree in psychology). But that's only part of the reason.

All communication relies on psychology. In fact, some might argue that communication is just a middle man. Really, what communicators do is "think up" messages that they want other people to "think" too.

Sure, the two-part equation oversimplifies a complex sociological exchange, but it's easier to visualize. In reality, the psychology of several people usually shapes the message and then the communicator (writer, designer, etc.) passes it through their filters (articulate, artistic, etc.) to deliver to other people who form opinions and ideas based on that communication and based on the communication of others.

Think, communicate, think. And success relies on perception.

One of the many blogs I read to keep up on psychology includes Psyblog, which explores scientific research into how the mind works. It has many outstanding posts, columns, and stories worth reading. But one of them reminded me how important it is to understand how different people think in different environments.

All too often on social networks, communicators are instructed to create the community. Ironically, this is sometimes the opposite of what copywriters are taught in advertising (e.g., if you want to sell farm equipment, watching farm movies near Madison Avenue might not cut it). One recent post on Psyblog cuts to the heart of it. You have to understand people before you communicate to them.

• In a small town environment, 72 percent of people will offer to help a lost child. Only 46 percent will help in the city, with some of the non-helpers prone to behave aggressively toward them.

• In general, people are prone to create order out of chaos. As an example, they cite an old Milgram study that found only 10 percent of people who cut in line will be ejected. Most people won't do anything.

• The mind looks for familiarity, with 90 percent of people being able to identify a familiar person. The odds of recognition increase exponentially if those people stand out in some way, e.g., a mohawk will do. People, by the way, are more likely to talk to "familiar strangers" in unfamiliar settings.

• People are more willing to pass along messages that they feel are important or correspond to their own personal preferences. For example, in one experiment, abandoned letters were more likely to be mailed if they were addressed to "Medical Research Associates" as opposed to the "Communist/Nazi Party."

• People are natural joiners. In one study highlighted in the post, they point to another classic Milgram study. People join other people looking at a building where nothing is happening: 4 percent of the time if there is one person; 40 percent of the time if there are more than 15 people.

• Busy people in cities, they point out, are more likely to have superficial interactions, rush business transactions, and practice common social niceties, which Milgram equated to urban overload.

All of these examples represent some of the societal filters that impact or distract people from receiving a message. And the lesson here, while not as directly correlated as I could make it, holds some considerations that communicators might think about while they are coming up with what they want to communicate. Ergo, shocking disruption might not be as effective as being familiar in an odd place, doubly so if a few more familiar strangers happen to be standing around.

Of course, there are plenty of other considerations to make too. And those considerations vary as much as the number of micro-societies we make. Who you speak to can be as important as what you say.
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