Archive for “April, 2015”

Walkie talkie tin cans

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: learning through communication; compassionate meditation; the fear of going to the movies alone; habits of emotionally intelligent people; justifying cheating.

Talk to me. While humans learn from statistical associations between events and objects, sharing information by communication is just as important for learning. From International School of Advanced Studies via PsyPost.

Refocus. This study suggests that meditation focused on compassionate thoughts for oneself and others can help focus a wandering mind. From Clifton B. Parker via Futurity.

All by myself. Judgment from others is one reason why most people fear doing things alone, but research suggests they often enjoy themselves as much as someone who has company. From Natalie Shoemaker via BigThink.

Office EQ. Learn from the habits that help emotionally intelligent people achieve success in their personal and business relationships. From Eric Schiffer via Business Insider.

Gray areas. People are apt to violate ethical principals to serve their self-interest but only when cheating is easy to justify and not too obvious. From Association for Psychological Science via PsyPost.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/Sebastien Wiertz, CC BY 2.0

Lego kitty with movie camera

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: stepping outside of yourself to handle negative emotions; “cool” capitalism; the dangers of emotional intelligence; stimulating sadness with a burst of air; avoiding contagious feelings.


Watching yourself in a movie. A new study shows that youth who practice mental self-distancing can deal with negative emotions more effectively. From Evan Lerner via Futurity.

That’s so cool. A new book explores how our drive for “cool” influences the way we spend money and the things we choose to buy. From Bourree Lam via Business Insider.

Self-serving people skills. Can reading people’s emotions be a bad thing? Andrew Giambrone explores the dark side of emotional intelligence. Via The Atlantic.

Emotional outburst. New technology aims to stimulate emotional reactions with bursts of air on specific parts of the hand. Natalie Shoemaker via Big Think.

Contagious feelings. Good and bad moods are contagious. Check out one researcher’s tips on limiting your susceptibility to emotional contagion. From Melissa Dahl via Science of Us.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/julochka, CC BY-NC 2.0

Two dogs fight for a Frisbee in a tug of war

Fear & Empathy: An Emotional Tug of War

By Robert Pérez

On many social issues, fear and empathy often yank against each other in an emotional tug of war in the minds of our target audiences. Fear has evolutionary advantages over empathy that makes it seem like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is pitted against Steve Urkel.

Understanding what’s going on in the brains of our target audiences – and influencing that tug of war – is key to developing successful messaging strategies on controversial social issues.

Origins of Fear and Empathy

Fear is our brain’s way of keeping us (and our species) alive. This emotion is regulated in a part of our brain called the amygdala. It is responsible for innate reactions that we have about the world around us – especially things that might harm us.

An overactive amygdala can shut down or limit access to empathy. It does this in order to respond to fear and our evolutionary focus on survival.

Empathy is the ability to understand and to imagine another person’s experience – the capacity to walk in another person’s shoes – including those who are different from us.

The good news is that according to Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution98% of humans are hardwired for empathy.

However, when the amygdala is activated, it’s very difficult for humans to empathize because of the negative emotional “noise” created by the amygdala.

Calming the Amygdala

Amygdala activation and its impact on empathy has implications for the messaging strategies we develop on controversial social issues.

Case in point: The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area and the National Employment Law Project wanted to convince employers to hire people with arrest and conviction records. They asked Wonder and our partner, MDC Consulting, for help in developing a public education campaign.

When we conducted qualitative research with employers about the idea of being open to hiring people with arrest or conviction records, we could see the emotional tug of war play out in the ways they talked about the issue.

On the one hand, they believed in giving folks a second chance.

On the other hand, they expressed concerns about the safety of their employees and customers. Their aymgdala was helping them to imagine – even exaggerate – all the things that might go wrong by hiring a person with a record.

Our strategy to help calm the amygdala was to surround our target audience with familiarity. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says, “Familiarity calms the amygdala.” Put another way, unfamiliar ideas – like the idea of hiring someone with an arrest or conviction record – trigger an alarm in your brain. Familiarity, according to Berns, helps to quiet that alarm.

The Power of Shared Values

One source of familiarity that works well: shared values. We developed a storytelling strategy that emphasized the values that our target audiences told us they held dear including giving folks a second chance and the value of a job and hard work.

One story featured Michael Rachal, the pit master at Smoke Berkeley, a successful BBQ restaurant, and Tina Ferguson-Riffe, chef and owner of the restaurant. Before starting at Smoke Berkeley, Michael served time for a firearm conviction.

In telling their story, both Chef Tina and Michael echoed the values of hard work and second chances.

“When I hire someone, it’s looking into their eyes, trying to see who they are before I even hire them and that they want to work hard,” said Chef Tina. “We all need to work. We all need to make a living.”

Sharing what the job meant to him, Michael said, “Working here at Smoke Berkeley just turned my life around.”

The Right Messenger Maximizes the Message

Trusted messengers are another source of familiarity. It’s the reason that our videos prominently featured employers like Chef Tina as well as Mike Hannigan, co-founder and president of Give Something Back, a successful office supply company.

Based on our audience research, we understood that our target audience – employers – related more to other employers. It helped that our trusted messenger in this video was the co-founder of one of the most successful office supply companies in California. His business wasn’t harmed by hiring people with records. Instead, it was thriving.

When testing our messages and stories among our target audience, one employer had this observation about hearing from other employers who have hired people with records: “It’s like jumping off a cliff into a lake. It can be scary to be the first person to jump, but once someone goes before you – and you see them land safely, it’s not as scary to make the leap.”

This insight perfectly summarizes the emotional tug of war – as well as the ways to give empathy a fighting chance.


To learn more about this campaign, please visit


Image: flickr/TimmyGunz CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

#GeekReads: 4 Quick Reads + 1 Watch that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: the exhilarating experience of the sublime; how human attention changes with social context; corporations with a conscience; toddler bystanders; instincts vs. second guesses.



Simply sublime. A BBC Radio 4 video explains Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, and why we find overwhelming experiences both terrifying and delightful. Via Aeon.

Look into my eyes. A new study challenges the popular belief that people predominantly focus their attention on other people’s faces. From Bournemouth University via PsyPost.

Noble edge. Corporate social goodwill can elevate a company’s profits by improving consumers’ perception of its products. Via Coglode.

Help wanted. The bystander effect has been well-documented with adults, but what happens when you test diffusion of responsibility amongst toddlers? From Jesse Singal via The Science of Us.

Trust your gut? We’re conservative in questioning our instincts because “losing feels worse than winning feels good.” From Robert Montenegro via Big Think.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/JD Hancock, CC BY 2.0

Dolls in window

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: friend group diversity; the consequences of stereotypes; knowledge versus accessibility; smiling is contagious; when shaming goes too far.


All kinds of friends. Believing in the value of diversity may increase people’s likelihood of seeking out diverse friends. From Wellesley College via PsyPost.

Don’t put me in a box. Research suggests that the experience of being stereotyped can trigger social deviancy such as crime, substance abuse, and distrust towards institutions and authorities. From Clifton B. Parker via Futurity.

I knew that. We often confuse the wealth of knowledge at our fingertips with the knowledge in our own brains. From Melissa Dahl via The Science of Us.

A smile a day. As Louis Armstrong once sang, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” From Christian Jarrett via The Science of Us.

Patient progress. Instead of shaming traditionalists, we should opt for more respectful and persuasive strategies in the fight for social progress. From Conor Friedsdorf via The Atlantic.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/_Libby_, CC BY 2.0

Darth Vader reflects on his emotions in the mirror

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: emotional feedback loops; modifying fearful memories to treat PTSD; bonding over anxiety; motivation in the face of uncertainty; measuring the way we make others feel.


Emotional mirror maze. Although negative emotions such as fear and anxiety are natural and functional, it is humans’ reflective sense that makes these emotions more complicated. From Gregg Henriques via Psychology Today.

Memory modification. Research on the gradual modification of fearful memories could have an impact on the treatment of PTSD. From Samuel Gershman via Business Insider.

Stress buddies. Friendships are often built on shared interests, but does a shared sense of social anxiety also bring people together? From Melissa Dahl via The Science of Us.

The great unknown. New research has found that uncertainty creates a more exciting experience than certainty and motivates people to increase time and effort in pursuing rewards. Via Coglode.

Contagious enthusiasm. The way you make others feel could be a stable and consistent part of your disposition, in the same way as other personality traits. From Melissa Dahl via The Science of Us.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/Pascal, CC BY 2.0

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