Fiction, Feedback Loops, and Mirror Neurons  

From Annie Paul in The New York Times:

[Fiction] is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Much work has been done in the past 20 years on mirror neurons and how they inform our social behavior in almost every conceivable way. It is even possible that certain substances trick mirror neurons into becoming more sensitive and therefore make them more addictive. Operant conditioning is another area, possibly linked to mirror neurons, where behavior is learned.

As somebody who works on developing social products, I often think about feedback loops and how they engage people. What makes an app addictive? What makes people want to come back? What makes people behave in pro-social ways? I am very skeptical that the answer has much to do with superior visual design and only somewhat to do with the novelty of the product (although these things do help). Instead, I think that designing feedback loops correctly between the product and the person, and especially the loops between two people using your application, is key to good product design. What is happening when you have good feedback loops is you are programming somebody with operant conditioning to keep coming back. Likewise, when people engage with others by imitating each other and having positive interactions (also greatly influenced by a product’s design), they are utilizing their mirror neurons and forming the basis for what is acceptable behavior. After awhile, you will find a person doesn’t even need a stimulus anymore, they are coming back not even knowing why.

Don’t be mistaken though: you can’t add great feedback loops to shit and expect people to love it. There still has to be some intrinsic value to what you are producing.

 
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