The Evolution of Self-Esteem

A few weeks ago while sitting in a cafe, I overheard two mothers discussing different ways to build self-esteem. Turning to her friend one mother remarked, "I'm trying to limit the amount of disappointment my daughter experiences, because it may be bad for her self-esteem."  

This conversation got me thinking about our modern approach to self-esteem: avoiding disappointment and criticism, providing only positive feedback, focusing on individual affirmation and positive self-talk.

Does this really build strong self-esteem, or can it result in a fragile form of self-deception? I thought this could be a controversial but interesting topic for discussion.

The Social Evolution of Self-Esteem

In contrast to popular definitions of self-esteem, evolutionary psychology views self-esteem as an objective assessment of social standing. In his book 'Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind,' Prof. David Buss states that:

"Humans evolved in groups and needed others to survive and reproduce. This prompted the evolution of motivations to seek the company of others, form social bonds, and [gain] the favor of others in the group. Failure to be accepted by others would have resulted in isolation and premature death... Given that social acceptance would have been critical to survival, selection would have favored a mechanism that enabled an individual to track their degree of acceptance by others. This mechanism, according to sociometer theory, is self-esteem."

While popular culture suggests that self-esteem is individual, evolutionary psychology has explored the idea that self-esteem may be a 'barometer of social standing.' You could think of self-esteem like the warning gauge on your fuel tank, when your social standing gets low, your self-esteem should start to warn you.

According to sociometer theory, for an individual to build their self-esteem they must learn the behaviors that promote social acceptance. For example, when an individual undertakes actions that are socially valued (i.e. volunteering), they increase their standing in society (i.e. gain status), which can lead to higher levels of self-esteem.

The Challenges of Building Self-Esteem

In everyday life, sociometer theory provides some significant challenges and implications for building self-esteem.


It's essential for people to learn which actions and behaviors contribute to higher levels of social acceptance. By learning the social skills necessary to make close friends (like reciprocity), or the behaviors that contribute to workplace success (like discipline) individuals can improve their self-esteem through social bonding.


It's essential for people to learn when they are capable of beating an opponent, and when they should consider making an alliance or playing a subordinate role. By learning how to accurately judge their skill sets, intelligence and power, individuals can avoid unnecessary social conflict and play a more meaningful role in social groups.


It's essential for people to learn which aspects of their personality are appealing to others, and which aspects should be managed or modified (i.e. learning to control neurotic behavior). Building self-esteem that is out of touch with social reality, can disrupt social bonds and may actually lead to disappointment and depression

Learning to Build Social-Esteem

If the sociometer theory is correct, it's possible that the concept of self-esteem championed by our modern culture may be counter-productive. In fact according to Prof. David Funder, building self-esteem "requires something more complex than simply trying to make everybody feel better about themselves."

Based on findings from evolutionary psychology, one of the most effective ways to build an individual's self-esteem may be teaching them how to build stronger social bonds. So instead of trying to build self-esteem, perhaps we should try to build social-esteem? Would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

AIPMM - Digital Teens Webinar

This Friday October 26th at 9am PST, I'm excited to present a webinar titled, 'Digital Teens: The Drivers of Digital Behavior.' The Webinar will be hosted by Cindy Soloman from the AIPMM, and will provide an overview of our latest research on Digital Teens. The study, completed in June 2012, used qualitative and quantitative research to explore the online behavior of over 1905 Digital Teens.

For those of you who aren't aware, the Association of International Product Marketing and Management (AIPMM) is the world’s largest product marketing and management association, promoting “worldwide excellence in product management education, training, certification and professional networking.” The host of AIPMM webinars is Cindy Solomon, founder of the Global Product Management Talk, host of StartUPTalk Radio and organizer of Startup Product Talks San Francisco.

If you'd like more information on the webinar, please click on the link below:

Digital Teens - The Drivers of Digital Behavior

Over the past month, our team have been conducting a study into the online motivations of digital teens. The study involved morphological interviews and online surveys with 1905 digital teens, and provided some interesting insights into the online behavior of teenagers.

"The internet has multiple personalities. You can do multiple things on the internet… For some teens, the internet is their best friend, because they can have fun with it, they can connect with it. They can do whatever they want with it. It allows them to be whoever they want.” - Digital Teen (2012)

Highly Connected

To begin with, our study found that digital teens are highly connected. When exploring the personal ownership of internet enabled devices, we found that 79% of digital teens own a personal computer, 51% have their own smartphone, and 24% own a personal tablet

Selectively Engaged

However, despite their level of online connection, digital teens can be surprisingly selective with their friendships and attention. Our study found that the average digital teen had only 4 close friends, and considered 14 people to be in their social network. Furthermore, 97% of digital teens said they were happy with these friendships.

In terms of online attention, our study found four destinations that digital teens tended to visit on a daily basis: 72% of digital teens use search engines daily, 65% use Facebook daily, 57% watch online videos daily, and 30% play online games daily. In contrast, despite the media hype, 85% of digital teens have never used Pinterest, and 63% have never used Twitter.

The Drivers of Digital Behavior

Highly connected but selectively engaged, digital teens can be a challenging audience. So what are the drivers of digital teen behavior, and how can they be harnessed by brands? Find out by viewing the following Slideshare presentation:


Why Everyone Knows a Healthy [Insert Unhealthy Behavior]

When talking about the topic of health, young people's opinions can be surprising irrational. What constitutes healthy behavior, will often have more to do with subjective experience and bias than objective evidence. So how can cognitive bias influence the topic of human health?

The Availability Heuristic

According to researchers, the Availability Heuristic is a cognitive bias in the interpretation of information whereby 'people use the ease with which examples can be brought to mind as a cue for estimating their probability.'
The Availability Heuristic can be observed in many every day health opinions, in particular those opinions based on personal associations instead of probable evidence. For example, when discussing smoking, a young person may use one strong family memory as probable evidence to justify an unhealthy choice (see tweet above).

Why Everyone Seems to Know a Healthy [Insert Unhealthy Behavior]

By applying the Availability Heuristic to the health opinions of young people, you can begin to understand how unhealthy behavior can become irrationally associated with positive health outcomes despite more probable evidence to the contrary (see tweet below).
1. Young people are less likely to have known those who have died from unhealthy behavior. As a result, memories associating unhealthy behavior with negative outcomes may be less easily available and judged as less probable.

2. Young people are more likely to have known those who have survived unhealthy behavior. As a result, memories associating unhealthy behavior with positive outcomes may be more easily available and judged as more probable.

Hence the reason why everyone seems to know a healthy [insert unhealthy behavior].

The Future of Digital is Mobile

Occasionally, whilst foraging for knowledge berries on the internet, you stumble upon a patch of tasty information. This was the case on Sunday when I read an article by John Naughton titled, "Real cost of the smartphone revolution: The smartphone market is expanding at an astonishing rate, but is it damaging creativity and innovation on the web?"

The article referenced a May 2012 conference presentation written by the industry analyst Mary Meeker from venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Drawing from a range on secondary sources, the presentation puts forward a compelling view of current and future digital activity.

While there are numerous insights and trends from Meeker in the deck, I've pulled out two highlights that I found of particular interest.  

Insight One: The Future of Digital is Mobile

At present mobile traffic represents 10% of global internet traffic, but according to Meeker while "internet growth remains robust, rapid mobile adoption is still in [its] early stages" and will likely impact global desktop internet usage (see recent data from India below).
Insight Two: Companies Need to Think Mobile

The opportunity for mobile innovation to 're-imagine,' or disrupt, stable categories like finance, energy and retail is immense. Industries and companies that fail to proactively develop strategies for dealing with the shift to mobile are likely to lose market share.    
For those that are interested in the full presentation, a copy can be found below:  
KPCB Internet Trends 2012

Why Do People Photograph Their Food?


Have you ever been at a restaurant and noticed someone taking a photograph of their food? I have. In fact, having observed many instances of food photography I decided to discuss the topic with some friends and colleagues.

A great deal of work already exists on the complexity and underlying motivations of meals. In general the findings from studies on food and meal behavior have shown that, "although seemingly simple, [eating is] in fact very complex behavior in which many physiological and psychological factors interact."

So building on some of that existing research, here are a few fun theories about 'why people photograph their food.' If you have any additional ideas on the topic, I'd love to hear them.

Theory One: Social Ritual

Sharing and enjoying a meal is a part of social ritual.  Historically, meals have often been used as a medium for passing on important cultural and religious rituals.

Perhaps people photograph their food together as part of a new social sharing ritual?

Theory Two: Collaborative Process

Preparing and enjoying a meal is a part of collaborative process. The process of contributing to a meal can be an important part of bringing together nutrition and emotion.

Perhaps people photograph their food to feel like they have contributed to the process?

Theory Three: Personal Pleasure Arousal

Anticipating and enjoying a meal enhances personal pleasure. The process of delaying gratification has been shown to increase the enjoyment associated with consumption of pleasurable products or services.    

Perhaps people photograph their food as a form of pleasure arousal and gratification delay?

Theory Four:  Experience Objectification

Eating and enjoying a meal is an ephemeral experience. Although the memories and emotions associated with eating can last a lifetime, the food itself does not.

Perhaps people photograph their food in an attempt to make the meal experience last?

Design the New Business

A few weeks ago I watched an interesting video titled, 'Design the New Business.' The documentary explored antecedents and outcomes of design thinking in business, from the perspective of industry and academic experts. 

According to the TU Delft students who created the video: "Old ways of thinking are being replaced by open minds and creativity. Design is playing a central role in helping solve problems and drive the future. We invite you to see how design is shaping the new business." 

This documentary is worth watching is you have some time - see link below:

How to Harness Nostalgia in Marketing

"I'm thinking about when I was a child and there were no cares and no worries... You didn't worry about the calories in a cookie, you'd just go for it.” - Respondent (2012)

There's something special about hearing people re-connect with their childhood. Like unearthing a treasure chest of emotion, the first years of life can represent a source of comfort and nostalgia.

While the realities of adulthood can bury childhood memories under layers of parental, work and social responsibility - uncovering and harnessing nostalgia can represent a major opportunity for marketing.

The Benefits of Nostalgia

According to research, eliciting a feeling of nostalgia in human beings can, "serve a homeostatic function, allowing the mind to return to previously enjoyed states, including states of bodily comfort." From a practical perspective, this means that nostalgic thoughts are able to make you feel comforted and physically warm.

For any brand that wants to be associated with comfort and warmth, whether they're a restaurant like Johnny Rockets, a food product like Kraft Mac & Cheese, or a technology manufacturer like John's Phone, uncovering and harnessing nostalgia can be important.

The Sources of Nostalgia

There are two types of memories that are often associated with nostalgia: social interactions and momentous life events. Researchers have found that these "areas seem to be most frequently.. associated with the recall of [nostalgic] experiences," and may provide a fertile starting point for branding.

Social interaction memories are often focused on interactions with close friends and family. In research, exploring memories and metaphors from childhood can help to uncover these types of associations, for example:

"It's milk and cookies, warm feelings, and the glass bottles that used to come to the door… My mom would always say, don’t worry if you drop the milk, it’s okay. My favorite memory was her telling me not to worry about the spilled milk.” - Respondent (2012)

Momentous life event memories are often focused on periods of birth, death and transition. In research, exploring the memories of major life changes and evolution can help to uncover these types of associations, for example:

"I had a blog when my grandfather was sick and dying. I wrote it for the extended family, so everybody had a place to check in and get updated on what was happening with him… A friend of mine suggested this type of blog, because their child had died. They couldn’t field the phone calls and the emails... it was too emotional.” - Respondent (2011)

Harnessing Nostalgia in Marketing

So how can you harness nostalgia in your marketing? Here are a couple of examples.

When research manages to uncover existing nostalgic associations with a brand, building a marketing strategy around those memories can be an option. One example of a brand that used this technique was McDonald's in their 'feed your inner child' campaign:

   

Alternatively, linking a new brand with an existing nostalgic memory may also provide a marketing opportunity if the aim is to reduce feelings of risk. This can be effective when marketing innovative products that need to make people feel comfortable, for example:
          

Creating Physical Experiences for Digital Brands

Back in February we were lucky enough to participate in the Transmission Summit - a global creative content and technology conference held in British Columbia. During the conference, one of the sessions I found most interesting involved Nora Young (CBC technology journalist) interviewing Angel Gambino (Wired Top 100) on her experiences building physical and digital spaces. 
During the interview Gambino stated that, "the physical retail space is now the marketing window for the online purchase experience." 

That got me thinking about the future of digital branding. While digital brands have become an essential part of life, we remain physical creatures in a physical world. To bridge this divide, could the next big trend in digital branding involve physical experience?

Digital Brands creating Physical Experiences

According to a recent article published in Forbes, the online giants Amazon, eBay, Google and PayPal are all in the process of creating concept stores that would help them extend their reach into the physical world.

While all these brands have built strength through digital delivery, there's a growing belief that "establishing a physical presence may well be the last frontier... engaging all the senses in ways that sophisticated algorithms can’t."

The recent opening of Angry Birds Land is another example of a digital brand attempting to create a physical experience. Whether this marks a serious diversification from online gaming is yet to be determined, but it has been suggested in the media "that Rovio is planning a series of Angry Birds parks around the globe."

Physical Brands creating Digital Experiences

Alternatively, an emerging trend amongst traditional retailers involves creating hybrid digital experiences. According to the BBC, the retail giant Tesco has been experimenting with virtual subway stores as a way of overcoming the need for retail space (see below).    



Bridging the Digital-Physical Divide

Bridging the digital-physical divide is an interesting opportunity for those in branding. A lot of money has been invested in improving physical experiences with digital innovation; like the way UrbanSpoon improves dining, or Expensify improves expenses. 

Could improving digital experiences with physical innovation be the next frontier? 

Foraging for Social Facts: How humans forage for information like animals forage for food

Last week I spent some time chatting with marketing students at a university networking event. Watching the students slowly consume advice from marketing professionals was a lot like watching cattle graze in a pasture; when one student found a tasty source of information, others would follow and cluster around the source.

This observation reminded me of some great research on how human beings forage for facts. Consuming information online may seem 'socially revolutionary,' but the underlying human motivations are far more 'evolutionary.' In fact, according to research, we forage for digital information in much the same way that animals forage for food.

How People Forage for Social Facts

In 1999, the psychologist Peter Pirolli published a study that looked at the human motivations behind information consumption. The study titled 'Information Foraging,' established a theory that "modern-day information foraging mechanisms may [parallel] food foraging mechanisms that evolved in our ancestors." In summary, the research provided three key findings on how we consume information:

Human beings hunt for information patches. Just like animals seek out an ideal patch of food, humans seek out ideal patches of information. For example, we use Facebook, LinkedIn or Google, because they help us to aggregate information into a valuable patch.

Human beings follow information scents. Just like animals use scent to find ideal patches of food, humans use social clues to find ideal patches of information. For example, we use Tweets, Likes or Links, because they help to signal the potential value of information.

Human beings are on an information diet. Just like animals are driven to find the maximum amount of food with the minimal output of energy, humans are motivated to find information whilst conserving time. For example, we prefer concise information sources that provide quick facts and data.

Planting your Information Patch

So how can you use this research to help ensure that people cluster and consume your content? Well in the same way my recent networking experience created an information patch for students, you need to plant  an information patch for consumers. To help you get started, here are three things worth considering:

1. Plant your information in a patch. Good information grows together, so you need to plant your information in online groups and communities that share your content interest.

2. Create information scent. Valuable content has a social scent, by highlighting brand affiliations, social credentials and content links, you can build information credibility.

3. Provide information on a diet. Informavores are fast-fact-eaters, so provide content summaries, data points and information implications to keep them grazing.

Defining Community Trust at TEDx

Back in November 2011, I had the opportunity to present on the topic of community trust at TEDxSFU. Community is an abstract concept, and as an audience member I found it interesting to observe the way in which different speakers attempted to define it. 

The Definition of Community 

During the event, some speakers expressed a more traditional perspective on community; while others described community from a more progressive perspective. Some focused on the importance of control and structure in community; while others emphasized individuality and freedom. Below are a few quotes to help illustrate how different some of the community perspectives were: 

"Governments at all levels are now legislating consultation and need more accurate tools to validate their decision making... We've had some online consultation thus far, but it's met with varying degrees of success... because consultation has been largely anonymous and does not stand up to scrutiny." - Speaker 1 (Structure Oriented) 

"Social media is revolutionary in velocity and scale. It's being used as a tool for revolutions and the effect it's going to have on Government is going to be massive... Like we've seen in Egypt, in London and in Occupy, geeks are resourceful and they'll find ways to get information out." - Speaker 2 (Individuality Oriented) 

In my opinion, community isn't defined by any one of these perspectives - community is defined by all of them. Like any human concept, community is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Only by embracing these contradictions can you begin to understand what truly creates a community. 

The Topic of Community Trust 

For those of you that are interested, below is a video from my presentation at TEDxSFU. Like all research we conduct, it attempts to unify and explain contradictions in human motivation. In this case, it looks at the topic of community trust among leaders and public institutions.