Dogs have many attributes we’d like to see in our customers – they are completely loyal, usually enthusiastic, and are always happy to see us. That might be too much to hope for from our human customers, but a recent study showed something interesting about how dog brains work that we should keep in mind even when dealing with humans.

The study looked at how persistent dogs were in solving a puzzle under two conditions: sitting in a cage for ten minutes, or being told to “sit and stay” for the same amount of time. The latter requires intense concentration, and uses up the canine brain’s sugar supply. The dogs that had to sit and stay spent only half as long trying to extract a treat from a toy. (For this experiment, the toy had been modified to make actually getting the treat impossible.)

In essence, forcing the dogs to concentrate rendered them more likely to give up quickly on the next task because their brain’s supply of sugar was depleted. The researchers demonstrated that it was indeed “brain fuel” related – a second experiment gave the mentally exhausted dogs a boost of glucose, which caused them to try just as hard as the caged dogs. (See Self-Control Without a “Self”? Common Self-Control Processes in Humans and Dogs by Holly Miller et al.)

So what does this have to do with humans? It turns out that people exhibit the same behavior. A study by Florida State’s Roy Baumeister used radishes and cookies to show that subjects who reduced their brain glucose levels by exerting self control in the first phase of the experiment demonstrated much less control in the second phase. (See Psychology Today – Self-regulation failure (Part 2): Willpower is like a muscle by Timothy A. Pychyl.)

I see a couple of neuromarketing takeaways from this body of research. One rather negative thought is that a marketer whose product is a guilty pleasure might increase sales by making customers delay consumption. Fortunately, donut shops aren’t usually able to plop a bear claw or apple fritter in front of you and tell you not to eat it for ten minutes. If they could, they might be able to sell you a whole box!

The more important takeaway is that our brain’s resources are finite. If you are forcing your customers to concentrate on a long and complicated sales pitch, they may lose their focus before you get to the most important part. So:

  1. Don’t exhaust your customers’ brains if you want their continued attention.
  2. If you detect flagging attention, a sugar boost like a glass of juice can restore their blood glucose levels and re-energize their brains.

Don’t Make Me Think

One of the all-time best books about web design is Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. While the author’s point is that a website that is confusing or that makes a user have to figure out how to proceed is bad design and bad business, it’s also true that forcing visitors to think will eventually tire out their brains.

Dieters Beware

This same phenomenon explains why diets are fiendishly difficult to follow. The more you deny yourself treats that are high in sugar and other fast carbs, the more your brain’s sugar supply is depleted. This, in turn reduces your self control, making you more likely to slip and gobble a candy bar or cookie. (The solution, according to researcher Holly Miller, is to eat healthy foods that release glucose slowly.) And, if you do slip, you now have the perfect excuse: “My brain made me do it!”
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