Click, Run. When Automatic Thinking Hijacks your Brain and Makes you Vulnerable to Coercion

What was I just thinking about? And why do I now own a selfie stick and other random phone peripherals?!

Put your hand on an unexpectedly hot stove top and it’ll immediately fly off before you’ve had time to process the fact.

Watch a scary movie and your whole body will flinch at the shocking parts.

Smell your favourite food when hungry and you’ll start salivating.

You’ve seen cats v cucumbers, right?

Click, Run.

These are all examples of our grey matter using a Click, Run program. They are ancient operators, firing activity in parts of the brain that have been around since we were reptiles. You don’t fully process what happens because you can’t: this stuff happens outside of your pre-frontal cortex.

All animals have basic programming like this that was designed to keep them safe from harm. Do you really need to ponder your choices when faced with a life-threatening possibility? Just run, dummy!

Automatic decision-making that bypasses your slow, yet logical forebrain could save your life in the wild. It is, however, less useful when you find yourself panic-buying tat on the internet without fully realising why.

By removing all possible friction along the purchase path that could prime your thinking brain while activating your Click, Run program wherever possible, Amazon has mastered the art of coercion.

Oh my! Is that a selfie stick that’s on sale for only the next 14 minutes and 31 seconds? Let me at it!

The countdown clock beats an urgent path through my emotional brain, the blood pumps so loud in my ear that all I can perceive is:

- visual of a pretty woman smiling in a nice yellow top

- lots of shiny, metallic objects that make me warm inside

- danger! a bright red timer counting down in seconds!

Click, Run.

That whole process takes less than half a second and before I’ve managed to engage my brain, payment has been taken and the selfie stick is already on its way to dispatch.

Robert Cialdini talks about this effect in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and refers to Click, Run as the first principle of persuasion. Apparently, there are eight further principles, yet I am unsure that any of these would work in the absence of the first. Equally, I doubt that any of them would be possible if the searing logic of our forebrains were fully focused on the decision-making process.

Logical, step-by-step thinking is ponderous. Daniel Kahneman describes it as “System 2” in Thinking, Fast & Slow.

System 1 is quicker, more powerful and can be thought of as the entirety of our subconscious processing. It is the sum total of all the biochemical cascades that start from default programmes, running deep inside the cerebral cortex.

I don’t know enough about neuroscience to be a qualified voice on any of this, I’m just fascinated by the way our brains work. I’m also a champion for System 1 thinking. It isn’t basic and primordial, it’s deep and profound. This is where we dream, create new ideas from layers of old information and store long-term ideas, encoded emotionally, so we know how important they are.

So while the Click, Run default program is super annoying when it results in impulse purchases, it belongs to a vast pool of knowledge and understanding that we belittle at our peril. And I think it’s important we view it with respect.

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Amy Streator Wilson

Interested in everything and everyone… yet hiking, travel, mountains, space, sustainability and the power of compromise really float my boat