How Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioral Science Inform Our Choices and Behavior.

Matt Interviews Tim Ash ahead of the release of his book, “Unleash Your Primal Brain.”

Tim Ash is one of the industry’s leading experts on conversion optimization. He has used his education and background in Cognitive Science and Computer Engineering to distinguish his approach.

Matt & Tim discuss how evolutionary psychology explains many of the behaviors that users exhibit, and how marketers can adapt many of these principles into their campaigns.  Seemingly subtle cues can greatly influence people’s choices and behavior.

Show Notes

Other Places to Find Tim:

Website: Tim Ash

Book: Unleash Your Primal Brain


[00:00:00] Tim Ash: Yeah. So, the, the, the hardest balance, I think for entrepreneurs and businesspeople is you have to have a certain willingness to say, “Screw you. I’m doing it anyway.” If everybody told you the thousand reasons your new business isn’t gonna work, you know, they’re probably right. One of those is going to fail, but you have to say, “Screw you. I’m gonna do it anyway.”

And the power of being an entrepreneur is in going in and learning and you might end up in a very different place than you’re aiming for. But what you learned along the way is ultimately what makes you successful. There is no overnight success. There’s, there’s just, “Okay. I, I tried things and they didn’t work, and I tried things and look, this one worked. Okay. And then that was a more general principle I can rely on for the rest of my life. So, I’ll look for those things from now on that point in that direction.”

[00:00:57] Bumper Intro-Outro: Welcome to Endless Coffee Cup, a regular discussion of marketing news, culture, and media for our complex digital lifestyle. Join Matt Bailey as he engages in conversation to find insights beyond the latest headlines and deeper understanding for those involved in marketing. Grab a cup of coffee, have a seat, and thanks for joining.

[00:01:25] Matt Bailey: Well, hello again, listener, and welcome to another edition of the Endless Coffee Cup podcast. And for those of you that have been with us, we are doing something a little different. This is the inaugural video recording of the podcast, and so, yeah, it’ll probably end up on YouTube.

So, for those of you that would rather watch all the action that takes place in the studio during a podcast, uh, it’s gonna be available for you to see, and those of you that are used to the regular audio only podcast and that’s your speed, nothing changes for you. We’re still doing that. However, we are in the process of, of upgrading just about everything. So, hopefully all the audio quality and everything is increasing.

But today I’ve got a great guest with me, Tim Ash. And if you’ve been in digital marketing for any length of time at all, you’ve probably run into some of Tim’s content. Uh, Tim’s been around for over 20 years. Tim, you know, I, I joke about like, I’m, I’m bringing back everyone that was in the search engine strategy shows back in the early 2000s.

[00:02:33] Tim Ash: Yep. Guilty as charged.

[00:02:35] Matt Bailey: But Tim, give me, uh, give me a snapshot. What’s your background and, uh, what you focused in over the past years?

[00:02:42] Tim Ash: Yeah, well, professionally I, I came out to University of California San Diego, did undergraduate and grad school here. 7 years into my PhD I quit and started my first digital marketing agency. Uh, and I guess, so you could say, yeah, I’m one of the, uh, dinosaurs or I prefer, uh, OGs, you know, original gangsters.

[00:03:01] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:03:01] Tim Ash: Um…

[00:03:01] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:03:02] Tim Ash: And, um, but my agency, SiteTuners, which I ran for 19 years focused, focuses on conversion rate optimization, in other words, making websites more efficient. And we worked with the Googles and Nestle’s, Expedias of the world on down and created over 1.2 billion in value, uh, for them that we can document. Along the way, I wrote a couple best-selling books on landing page optimization and started, uh, the first, uh, international conference series on conversion rate optimization.

It was called, ’cause you know, Conversion Conference and now has been renamed Digital Growth Unleashed, and it still happens post COVID in the U.S, UK, and Germany every year. Uh, and I’ve handed off my agency. Now I’m focusing on my public speaking, uh, keynoting all around the world, um, and of course, virtually as well as doing some, uh, consulting in the area of digital marketing.

[00:03:56] Matt Bailey: Great, great. And, you know, that’s so funny that, you know, so many of us came out of that original group with search engine optimization, and it’s been fascinating to see how people have splintered off into some real, uh, intense focus areas of marketing, of some digital, some have even gone beyond digital.

But I, it’s interesting because I love your focus on conversion rate optimization. And, you know, even during COVID, I’ve been doing a lot of training in analytics, and it is amazing to me how many businesses, it, it’s like they’d rather have the dashboard than focus on conversion rate optimization. It’s like, why is that an area that just seems to lag behind in other areas?

[00:04:44] Tim Ash: Yeah. You know, you know, it’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think there are two main causes that conversion rate optimization is often underfunded and ignored and underappreciated. The first is, um, I think it was the former CEO of Porsche said, “What gets measured gets done.” Right?

And what gets measured is the traffic coming in. That’s the easiest, that’s the bonehead simple thing to measure, whether it’s stupid hits or actual lifetime value, if you’re sophisticated. But like you say, we’re basically saying traffic comes in, hits our site, this is how much money we make off of it. ROI, return on ad spend, all those nice metrics on the dashboard, right?

Um, the problem is that the discipline of conversion rate optimization is, a, a bit harder to measure. There’s some parts of it that can be measured, like testing, uh, different content. Green button, orange button, stupid tactical stuff like that. And there’s a lot of, um, split testing tool companies that just push that as the religion. “Measure everything. Everything has to be tested,” you know, and, um, it’s about test velocity, how much you test, uh, that sort of thing. And unfortunately, most optimization activities can’t be measured, a focus group can’t be measured, an insight you get about your pricing model or how to change your offering can’t be measured.

You know, a lot of the things that you’re doing when you’re optimizing might be improving your email sequences that you’re using for follow up or, uh, training your customer service people to minimize returns. And so, they’re a little more diffuse and spread throughout the organization and, um, and that’s the other problem with it. Can’t be measured and it requires a lot of different departments in the company to do it properly.

[00:06:27] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. I, I’ve always been fascinated by that because it is one of the areas, though, that has the highest impact, uh, financially. And, you know, even as something, as something as simple as developing, like, a simple testing plan, I am amazed at how many times I’m training analytics, but yet, I find out that there’s not even a testing plan in place, but yet, there’s a constant emphasis on weekly or monthly reporting of campaigns and, and I keep trying to drill in and ask them, “What do you measure? What do you, what’s your outcome? What do you expect?” And it, it’s really largely undefined. It’s just a, an emphasis on reporting and a big picture, but not the little steps to get there.

[00:07:12] Tim Ash: Yeah. Well, well, it’s actually a problem in both directions. I mean, you do need checklists and stuff to do the tactical things and you should be, have efficiency measurements about that. But then my biggest problem with conversion rate optimization’s actually that people do too much tactical. I mean, I’ve had people, I, literally tell me, “We will never redesign our website. We’re gonna continually optimize it by testing it.” And my answer is, “You can’t turn a World War I era Biplane into a high-performance jet while flying it. I’m sorry. No can do.”

You know? So, if you have to reset the goal post, you have to redesign your whole website, you have to change your business model, you have to add personalization technology on top of your website. And those are, anything you do prior to that is, there’s gonna be such a big discontinuity that none of it will even be relevant anymore. So, whatever you’re tactically measuring, you know, here you go. Play with those dials, but it’s meaningless. So, my problem is that the big stuff gets put off because people are just staying in their swim lane and fiddling with the tactical conversion rate optimization.

[00:08:20] Matt Bailey: Right. I, I see that a lot, as well, uh, focusing on the little tactical things. But yet, like, there’s a whole body of knowledge that shows us that this is what works, and if you don’t implement it rather than just taking this incremental approach, you’re missing out on, on that body of knowledge that’s available and implement it.

[00:08:41] Tim Ash: Yeah, I mean, to me, there’s kind of three buckets. There’s the tested bucket, there’s the, uh, big strategic projects bucket, and then there’s a third one, which is, pardon me, just fricking do it. I mean there’s, if you’re gonna make the font in your website footer bigger than 7 points so people can actually read it, that’s a usability improvement. You don’t have to test everything. Testing is, is often a crutch. It’s for settling bar bets. It’s to say who’s right, you know, and just, you know, all this, “Everything has to be data driven.” That’s fricking bullshit.

[00:09:15] Matt Bailey: Great. Well, one thing that fascinates me about people that have been in this industry is how their background affects their view of marketing today. You know, for me, I come from a journalism background, so I, I love focusing on the words and how that develops and persuades. You come from a neuromarketing background, which is completely fascinating, and it makes sense that you’re in conversion rate optimization, that you focused on that with this neuromarketing background. I mean, explain a little how that came about and how that informed your, your career.

[00:09:50] Tim Ash: Yeah, yeah, that’s a, that’s a great question. When I came out to UC San Diego, um, I had a double major because I was gonna be here for five years anyway to finish the computer engineering major. So, by electing the right electives, I got a cognitive science degree as well, dual major. And then I stayed on for graduate school in what would now be called neural networks, uh, machine learning, AI, whatever you want to call it.

[00:10:00] Basically, we’re working on self-learning systems that learn by example. And I was working on the algorithm side. What we didn’t have back in the day are the large data sets to train on. And obviously with the advent of the internet, we’re drowning in data so that’s no longer a problem and the whole field’s taken off.

But for me, it was early days, um, in the 80’s and 90’s when I was working on that stuff. Uh, so I guess you could say I have always been interested in the brain and cognition, in, um, persuasion and UC San Diego is a, is a top international university that was very interdisciplinary. So, I had a, a linguist on my PhD committee, an economist, uh, a couple guys from computer science, one from electrical engineering and everybody worked together.

And so, I’ve always been kind of the silo buster and I’m like, I’m not gonna stay in my swim lane. I’m just gonna try to bring it all together and see what’s useful. So, I applied that study of persuasion and cognitive science to marketing, and that’s where we got all of our successes, I would say, uh, now come full circle and I, I just want to talk about that as more durable, uh, valuable stuff for marketers to focus on.

In other words, it’s not about the technology. I mean, I don’t care if it’s 140-character Twitter this, or hologram suppositories tomorrow. I don’t know what the technology’s gonna be, but it’s better to study what you’re trying to influence, which is the human brain. And that’s something that we all share.

So, if you want to have a durable career in marketing, study evolutionary psychology. And that’s what my latest book’s about. So, I guess you have kind of come full circle, cognition to applying it to marketing and back to persuasion and how the brain works in general.

[00:11:58] Matt Bailey: I, I found the same thing. So, like I tell people I came from journalism, but my first few jobs were sales and I had to take sales training, and that informed how I approach digital marketing. Well, come out, now I’m learning neuromarketing, and neuromarketing, I’m looking at that going, “Well, that’s sales.” Everything I learn about neuromarketing has, I’m like, maybe they did this sales techniques, they didn’t understand the brain, but they knew what drove people.

[00:12:24] Tim Ash: Yeah, they knew it worked, they didn’t know the why behind it. And, and right now it’s kind of a golden age, I guess you could say, with brain science, everything from behavioral economics to medical imaging, they’re all informing how the brain really works and our evolutionary biases behind that.

And so, I think that’s such a rich place to mind, really, for anybody who’s in sales, leadership, marketing, you name it. It’s also great for personal development. It’s also great for relationships, culture, language, understanding gender differences. We, our brains didn’t just pop into existence. They, we have to kind of retrace the whole evolutionary arc if we under, understand where we picked up various pieces along the way.

[00:13:03] Matt Bailey: Well, I read your book, “The Primal Brain.” That was a, a great way of introducing it. And a couple of things I want to ask you about because, okay, couple things. You didn’t set out to make this a marketing manual. This is just an exploration of the brain.

[00:13:19] Tim Ash: Yeah, I guess, so, a lot of people, you know, I, I have my really well-defined thought leadership and conversion rate optimization, and that’s within digital marketing, and that’s within marketing more broadly, and that’s within business more broadly, and this book is really decoupled from all of that. It’s basically an owner’s manual for how our brain really works.

I guess my model would be, I’m a little older here, so I’m going to date myself, back in the, in the day there was this guy named Carl Sagan and he had this great series called “Cosmos” and books by the same name. I guess you can call him the Neil deGrasse Tyson 1.0, the original guy. And, and so he’d be the one that was like, “Billions and billions of stars,” you know, and he could make astrophysics fun for people to understand.

Well, I figure if you could do that for astrophysics, that’s what I’m trying to do for the brain. So, this book is about no jargon. It’s just like, how does this stuff work? No footnotes, no, not, uh, citing the same old tired studies that everybody trots out, but rather the red thread through it all is the evolutionary psychology. Our brains evolved, and you know, let’s, let’s retrace that arc.

[00:14:26] Matt Bailey: One concept that you brought out is learning and forgetting. And I was fascinated by that because I do a lot of teaching and training and you’re always trying to find what are those elements that’ll help people remember? And remembering, that’s, I love what you brought out in the book is if you want to remember something or learn something, it’s a dynamic process. It’s not sitting and listening to lectures. I mean, you actually have to create something.

[00:14:52] Tim Ash: No, not at all. In fact, um, one of the things I try to do in the book is a lot of myth busting. Like, the left brain, right brain bullshit. That, that’s all it is, is bullshit. Um, but were another ideas that, you know, just because we watch Black Mirror, there’s no life rewind or we have all of our memories in a replay of our life. I’m sorry. There’s just not.

[00:15:11] Matt Bailey: I found that fascinating, uh, that there is so much sci-fi on the download of the brain.

[00:15:17] Tim Ash: Yeah. Yeah. Like, you can put our whole consciousness in a machine. Yeah. No, not happening any time soon, as far as I can tell. But, so the thing about memory and learning that’s really interesting is there’s kind of three stages. There’s the we experience it, but we ignore it. I mean, your brain’s taking in tons of information, right? Every second. Um, the pressure of your butt in that chair right now, uh, the scratchiness of the clothes on your body, the sound waves hitting you from when I speak through your headphones, all of this stuff, the relationship of all your physical joints in space. That’s why we don’t hit ourselves in the forehead with a fork when we’re eating a salad, right? We, we know where all of our limbs are relative to each other.

And most of that stuff has no survival value. So, 99.999% of it is flush. This massive flood of information is basically ignored as not actionable. It never even enters your conscious awareness. And then there’s the stuff that does. And then, you know, it enters your conscious awareness only if it’s really important. So, multisensory stuff, strong emotions attached to it. Like first time you rode a roller coaster. You remember that?

[00:16:29] Matt Bailey: Yep. Oh yeah.

[00:16:30] Tim Ash: Most people do.

[00:16:31] Matt Bailey: The stomach. Yeah.

[00:16:33] Tim Ash: Yeah. Your, your stomach’s trying to evacuate your lunch, strong G-forces, hair blowing all over the place. People screaming beside you, right? All of that’s going on. You’re gonna remember that, but if it’s just like, I, I got in the car and I drove to work, eh, I’ve done that a thousand times. There’s, it’s online autopilot, literally and figuratively when I’m in my car. So, unless it’s something really strong and unique, it needs to be remembered, we’re not gonna even try to remember it.

And then there’s the third part, which is a lot of stuff gets flushed and forgotten on the back end to make room for new memories and sleep is super critical to help you remember things and, and lock ’em in and for creativity and social, um, functioning, all of that. So, kind of like what gets ignored, what gets, uh, consciously paid attention to, and what gets remembered and dies off over time. That’s a very kind of distorted long-term process of overlaying things on each other. And there’s, the purpose of memory isn’t to be accurate it’s to help you survive. That’s the thing most people miss.

[00:17:39] Matt Bailey: Well, I thought it was very effective when you called the brain, “A Forgetting Machine.” That, I thought that was a great way of putting this together.

[00:17:48] Tim Ash: Yeah. I, Oliver Sacks, I think he, he wrote a, he was a, a doctor neuroscientist and he worked with a lot of people that had odd mental problems. You probably heard of his movie Awakenings. Robert de Niro starred in that. He also has some great books, like the man who mistook his wife for a hat and a lot of things that are described in weird mental disorders. But there’s, there’s actually, uh, a documented case of a guy who couldn’t forget anything.

[00:18:11] Matt Bailey: Hmm.

[00:18:12] Tim Ash: And you know what happened to him?

[00:18:14] Matt Bailey: Too much in the head, I mean, he went insane.

[00:18:16] Tim Ash: He went insane. Yeah.

[00:18:17] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:18:17] Tim Ash: He, he couldn’t function.

[00:18:18] Matt Bailey: Wow.

[00:18:19] Tim Ash: Yeah. So, um, it’s a problem. So, our brains are designed to just like flush or ignore most things.

[00:18:27] Matt Bailey: Well, and that concept really, I think, was brought forth, and, and what I guess impressed upon me was the emphasis on efficiency and conservation of the, of power in the brain. That your brain is really just trying to limit the amount of stimulus and limit, uh, you know, conserve energy for when it’s needed.

[00:18:50] Tim Ash: Yeah.

[00:18:50] Matt Bailey: That was really fascinating.

[00:18:51] Tim Ash: Yeah. You know, we have like, we’re, we’re, we’re big heads, you know, we are like the most disproportionate sized brains of any species on the planet. In fact, even compared to smart animals like our great ape cousins, uh, we use about three times the energy to run our brain relative to our body sizes as other great apes.

[00:19:13] Matt Bailey: Hmm.

[00:19:14] Tim Ash: About a quarter of our resting energy. In fact, we’ve had these long-term adaptations throughout time to just allow the brain system to get more energy. One is more efficient digestion. We have like the wimpiest digestive system of, of any mammal. The second is smaller and weaker muscles. I mean, a little chimp can tear you to shreds. It’s about a third more powerful pound for pound than you are. And, and we’re just kinda wimpy. And all of that is to borrow energy to give to our brain.

[00:19:46] Matt Bailey: Hmm.

[00:19:46] Tim Ash: But the brain, like you say, tries to basically be on standby and not even activate it unless parts of it are needed to conserve energy.

[00:20:00] Matt Bailey: Yeah. I remember, uh, couple years ago there was a show called Brain Games. My, my kids loved watching that and that was a constant theme, is that your brain really just as a quick pass and fills in gaps rather than breaking everything down to minute detail. That was so fascinating that it fits in that conservation mode.

[00:20:16] Tim Ash: Yeah. I mean, so you can think of the brain as there’s the more primitive, more ancient, I won’t even say primitive because they’re very powerful, ancient parts of the brain that work on autopilot, and then there’s the conscious mind where you can inspect your own thoughts, that, we’re using language right now. That’s only part of the conscious brain. Um, social reasoning, two plus two equals four, all of that stuff is conscious brain.

The primal brain is something it never gets tired. The conscious brain gets really, really tired, fast. We make worse decisions later in the day, we make worse decisions if we haven’t eaten for a while. There’s a famous, uh, study that was done, analysis that was done of Israeli judges. And basically, if you came up for a parole hearing and you got it in the morning or after lunch, you’re much more likely to get parole as the, the day went by across all these judges, across all these cases. You’re much less likely to get parole because they were hungry. And just that lack of sugar in the brain was making them make different decisions.

[00:21:14] Matt Bailey: Wow.

[00:21:14] Tim Ash: So, so there’s a lot that we do to conserve energy and that’s actually a very powerful marketing motivator. I can talk about that if you like.

[00:21:22] Matt Bailey: Yeah. I want to get to marketing, but there’s a couple things before we get to marketing, just on a, a kind of a personal side that, uh, especially now going through COVID, one of the things you brought out was isolation and what that does to us. And, and I think we’re seeing a lot of effects of that and people right now, just the increasing rates of, of depression, of suicide attempts, of things like that. And, and it’s brought on by COVID and these lockdowns, that it’s forcing us to be isolated.

[00:21:51] Tim Ash: Yeah. Well, we were talking about that, yeah, a little bit, uh, before we started taping about our own teenage kids and some of the, uh, let’s say less than optimal…

[00:22:00] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:22:01] Tim Ash: …uh, behaviors they’re exhibiting right now, given the lockdown. Uh, but yeah, you’re absolutely right. We’re incredibly social. I have a whole section of my book I call “Hyper-social.” Um, it’s not like other creatures can’t cooperate in massive groups like ants can build colonies, penguins can, you know, all roost together by the millions, but if you look at very different individuals doing very intricate things in the billions, we’re the only ones.

And we, we’re highly social creatures. We need that. And if we don’t have it, our mental health suffers. There’s a really, um, there’s a famous longitudinal study of, uh, guys that started Harvard like 70, 80 years ago, and they also, they track them and a cohort of their kind of Southy Boston, poor cousins, you know, the, that, where it came from a different social class.

And they’ve tracked these people and they’ve tried to figure out what makes a good life in terms of, you know, financial outcomes, wellbeing, happiness, they’ve interviewed ’em, done medical tests, interviewed their spouses and partners, and what they found is that social engagement was a huge factor. That not having the right social engagement was the medical equivalent of being a two pack a day smoker in terms of medical outcomes.

[00:23:21] Matt Bailey: That’s incredible. Wow.

[00:23:22] Tim Ash: Yeah. So, it’s that important.

[00:23:24] Matt Bailey: That’s incredible.

[00:23:25] Tim Ash: And, and, and the worst thing we can do, I think we’re going to look at this time among many other things and think that Supermax prisons and keeping people in isolation 23 hours a day is, is totally inhumane. I mean, it’s…

[00:23:36] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:23:36] Tim Ash: …it’s just like, you know, bloodletting was in the Middle Ages or something. It’s like, are you freaking kidding me?

[00:23:42] Matt Bailey: Yeah, I, especially, yeah, we, we live in a society. You’ve got to learn proper behaviors, and I think that goes to, you know, it goes to also how people were raised and socially acceptable behaviors, socially unacceptable behaviors, and how was that reinforced? And if you can’t teach that, well then you have no rehabilitation. You, there’s got to be a social aspect to that. I, yeah. I completely agree with you. That’s, uh, you, you know, is that the proper way? And it’s based on, you know, thinking that’s, uh, well, we could go into that.

[00:24:15] Tim Ash: Yeah. While keeping people in isolation, we’ll make them go insane. And then…

[00:24:19] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:24:19] Tim Ash: …then you have a self-reinforcing thing. “Oh, look how they’re acting out. Therefore, we need to keep ’em in isolation.” Uh, it’s a really cruel and inhumane.

[00:24:27] Matt Bailey: It is, it is. I’ll tell you what, we’ll take a quick break here. Dear listener, go ahead, refill your coffee and, uh, we’ll see you in a few seconds here.

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[00:26:09] Matt Bailey: Alright. We’re back with Tim Ash talking about our primal brain and in, in this half, Tim, I’d like to talk about what you know and have learned about our primal brain and how we can really bring that into understanding what we do in marketing. One of the areas I’m fascinated with is loss aversion, and you go into great detail about that, and it’s something also in neuromarketing and in marketing that a lot of times we promise benefits. We promise, “If you do this, you’ll get this.” Why is promising gain less effective when, than focusing on the loss?

[00:26:50] Tim Ash: Well, uh, uh, I, can I get back to you on that one? I, there was something I want to put before that. Okay, and I want to come back to this notion we talked about in the first half of the brain wanting to conserve energy. So, by default, the thing that we marketers have to overcome is not like some competitor, like, “I work for, you know, Coke, so my competitor is Pepsi.”

Well, no, it’s not, it’s me not getting off my butt and picking up a glass. That’s, so what you’re fighting against is the inertia of doing nothing and our wanting to conserve energy. And so, one thing that we can do as marketers is really take a look at how to take advantage of that. What can we make that’s automatic? What happens if the person literally does nothing? If they don’t check the box? Because you want to set up your, your business model so that the, the default is the thing you actually want them to do. The do nothing default.

There’s a, there’s um, you know, like with organ donation in California I have to opt in on my license and I get a little disc on it. It says I’m an organ donor. Well, in some Scandinavian countries they make you opt out. In other words, you’re by default an organ donor, which we can agree is a social good, um, unless you opt out. And there, they have like a 90% take rate, whereas in California we only have about a 10%, 15% one.

Uh, so, you know, they just made the thing they wanted to happen the default. And, and so, I think it’s really important that first we look at our business model and what happens when you do nothing? And that path should be the one you want people to take. And then you get the most takers.

[00:28:24] Matt Bailey: I love that observation. That is a great, you know, it does, it relies on that, that, that state of the brain to conserve energy. What’s the least possible thing I have to do? And that is a great start.

[00:28:35] Tim Ash: Yeah. Because I mean, it’s like, it’s a sunk cost, whatever I’ve done in the past, but if I have to actively think or, you know, move or take any kind of action, even if it’s as simple as clicking a, a checkbox, that’s no longer doing nothing. That’s a conscious effort.

Um, so, but, but you’re absolutely right. So, to, to you, the first thing we have to do, if we’re not conserving energy to overcome that is to move people off their comfortable spot and, you know, to motivate them to act. And you have two ways to do that. It can be upside, you know, “You won the lottery,” or it could be downside, you know, “Something bad’s going to happen.”

And, uh, and it turns out from an evolutionary perspective to the bird in the hand is really worth two in the bush, the, the loss of, uh, the, the, the thing you have is felt twice as acutely as a potential gain. Uh, um, so that, that saying is very much spot on depending on the situations. Negative motivations, two to three times more powerful than positive.

[00:29:35] Matt Bailey: That is fascinating. That is so fascinating. I mean, it answers the reason why when my subscription is up, it’s not, “Subscribe and get, you know, continue getting great information.” It’s, “This is your last issue. You won’t get it anymore.” And, and it’s fascinating to see what that does to you. And, and I also present this when I’m training in data and data presentation that as an analyst or as a marketer, if you’re presenting to stakeholders and you see opportunity that, “If we do this, we could see, you know, one and a half times the revenue or two times the revenue.” But if you present that in terms of, “If we don’t take action, here’s how much revenue we’re going to lose.” All of a sudden, you’ve reframed the whole issue, and now there’s attention.

[00:30:00] Tim Ash: Yeah. In fact, you want to not only focus on the negative, but rub salt into the wound. “Our failure to act is costing us two zillion dollars a year in lost revenue.” Okay? You, you, you make it over the longest timeframe possible and you say, “It really hurts, so we really need to do something about it.” Uh, I mean, it’s, it’s kind of obvious from an evolutionary perspective, we’re designed to scan for survival threats, anything that’s a loss of resources to us, or, you know, potential danger, you know? So, like, what’s your favorite, uh, flavor of ice cream, for example?

[00:30:56] Matt Bailey: Oh, it is salted caramel pretzel, Tim.

[00:30:59] Tim Ash: Alright. Oh, good stuff. Mine’s pistachio by the way. Okay, so, so Matt, here’s some salted caramel pretzel ice cream. Just go ahead and reach for that, um, that bowl, but on the way in, I’m going to whack you on the hand with a hammer. What do you think?

[00:31:12] Matt Bailey: Uh, I might try. It depends on how…

[00:31:15] Tim Ash: Really? You must be a real ice cream fan.

[00:31:16] Matt Bailey: It depends on how fast I think you are.

[00:31:19] Tim Ash: Oh, okay. Alright. Well, I used to be a sabre fencing champion in college, so my reflexes are pretty fast, if that helps.

[00:31:26] Matt Bailey: Yeah. Well, yeah.

[00:31:26] Tim Ash: So, you going to go for it?

[00:31:28] Matt Bailey: It depends on how much pain I’m willing to take to get that ice cream.

[00:31:31] Tim Ash: Right. And my point is 99% of normal people, not you, Matt, uh, are will, are not willing to take that, that trade off. To get the hammer whack in exchange for the ice cream. So, we know what works. And unfortunately, like, have you ever heard this conversation with a client in your agency days? It’s like, “Well, we’re the nice brand. We don’t say anything bad or negative. That’s off-brand for us.” Right? So, they’re fighting with both hands tied behind their back. They’re not even willing to say, um, “Life without our product or service sucks.”

[00:32:01] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:32:01] Tim Ash: I mean, much less bad mouth competitors, right?

[00:32:03] Matt Bailey: Mm-hmm.

[00:32:04] Tim Ash: But you should be doing that. Um, for example, if you’re selling some kind of tooth whitening solution, you don’t say, “You’ll have white teeth. They’ll be brilliant white.” Which a lot of them do in their commercials. What you should say is like, “Oh my god, I had yellow, grayish, yellow teeth. I was embarrassed to open my mouth in business meanings. I couldn’t get a date. I was socially isolated and that’s why I turned into a video game addict.” Okay.

No, I mean, you want to, like, it’s like all of the implications of having gray, yellow teeth. That, you want to go with that negative motivation, then people are willing to open their wallet and do something about it.

[00:32:44] Matt Bailey: I think this is why infomercials, even though we make so much fun of them for being the clumsiest methods of marketing, they’re effective because they ridiculously paint that negative. Uh, and it, and it gets in your brain, no matter how ridiculous it is, it focuses on negative, and now here’s the difference.

[00:33:06] Tim Ash: Yeah. You know, it’s, it’s funny because we, uh, we’re designing this landing page, um, for Dropbox, um, and it, it was for Business Dropbox, or the one you pay for. So, you get the free one, but you can upgrade to Business. And they were saying, you know, “Be more productive with Dropbox for business.” And we designed a page for them that had the, like the before and after, “Without Dropbox, it’s like, oh, it was drowning in emails back and forth. Not able to tell what the latest version is, you know, can’t attach files that are, you know, bigger than a certain size, you know, can’t, uh,” and all of this, all these problems.

And then with Dropbox pro, all those problems go away. But if you don’t create that voltage, that potential difference, if you don’t create the contrast between the bad and the good, just selling the good is not nearly as powerful.

[00:33:55] Matt Bailey: No, not at all. And you bring up an interesting point to this is that when we sell the, the bad and the good, what we’re doing is developing a storytelling technique of an obstacle that a main character or a hero has to overcome. And we have to know what we’re overcoming in order to know what the benefit is.

[00:34:16] Tim Ash: That’s right. That’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a, one of the oldest storytelling forms as you know, the, the hero’s journey or the hero’s quest and life was good, then something bad happened and I had to go on a quest to fix it. I picked up allies along the way, I struggled, I slayed the dragon and then there was a regreening of the earth and life was good again. And that’s, that’s, uh, uh, the most ancient story form of all. And it, you know, from an evolutionary standpoint, we learn from stories as secondhand experience. They bypass all of our logical defenses. So again, if you want to persuade someone, tell them a story and have them learn the values of what you’re doing through the story.

[00:34:57] Matt Bailey: Yeah. And you explore storytelling in your, in your “Primal Brain” book about the power and I love what you said. It just, it bypasses logic. It, it, how, what does that do? Why does that affect us so deeply?

[00:35:09] Tim Ash: We’re, we’re, we placed one big evolutionary bet on spreading culture. And stories have two different purposes. One we share with, with, uh, more ancient animals and one that’s uniquely human. The ancient purpose of storytelling is simulation. So, for example, there’s a movie, I think it was an award-winning movie. Uh, Sophie’s Choice with Meryl Streep. It’s about the Holocaust and she’s got to decide in a concentration camp which of her kids is going to die. Now, like, I hope that’s a story that none of us have to ever experience…

[00:35:41] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:35:41] Tim Ash: …right, making that choice. But having experienced it, we have like that secondhand practice with it. It’s the same reason that when we dream in REM sleep, our voluntary muscles are cut off so we can like run away from the bear without running in the actual walls while we’re sleeping. But the purpose of dreaming is also simulation, practicing for things at a low stakes environment so we don’t have, uh, we’re ready for them in real life.

So, that’s one form of storytelling, right? Simulation. Um, the other thing that makes us uniquely human is it’s for spreading cultural values. It’s for reinforcing the values of our tribe so we’re more cohesive in our group. Um, and so, stories really depend on who’s hearing them in the context. Let me give you a quick example.

Imagine I told you this objective story, everything I’m telling you is objective, right? The bull fighter was being charged by the bull. He definitely stepped aside by a few inches and plunged his sword from above between the shoulder blades of the bull striking its heart and killing it instantly. Okay, now that’s an objective story. Now, let’s say you’re in Spain and you love bull fighting and you’re thinking this about the honor of the Matador, and man against raw nature, and being an impeccable warrior in tradition, and all honor, all of these things.

If you’re from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, you’re thinking, “This is basically sanctioned animal torture and murder being subsidized by an audience. And it’s disgusting, it needs to be ended immediately.” Same story but depending on the values of the audience and the cultural tribe receiving it, it is going to be experienced completely differently.

[00:37:23] Matt Bailey: Hmm. Wow. That is fascinating. That, I, I had to, uh, earlier I had to laugh because you talk about dreams and what they’re reinforcing, and I, is there something to having that dream reoccurring that I missed a class at college and, and I’m, I don’t even know where the room is and I’m, I can, I’m in the building. I can smell the building. You know, I, it’s so familiar and I’m like, “I didn’t know there was a third floor.” What is it about that dream because…?

[00:37:53] Tim Ash: Oh, okay, so, so what it is, so again, that’s like simulation of negative events. Your, your, your nighttime world is this cavalcade freak show, scary, bizarre stuff. You don’t often have good dreams. You have negative ones and again, it’s a form of practice.

[00:38:09] Matt Bailey: Hmm.

[00:38:09] Tim Ash: Uh, it’s like, we put a lot of responsibility on, on the short time that we do sleep, which is a lot less than other apes. A lot of work’s getting done, and a lot of that is again, simulation and preparing for dangerous stuff. So, when we’re kids, we, we dream about big animals, like the bear and the wolf or the lion. Okay?

[00:38:28] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:38:29] Tim Ash: Physical threats. When we are adults and we’re more tuned into the social environment, we’re thinking more of like social problems. Uh, it’s kind of like being naked in front of an audience if you’re a public speaker, that kind of stuff, or like you say, being late to your final in college. So, those are social threats and, um, but they’re still negative events that you’re essentially, your brain decides to give you some practice with.

[00:38:54] Matt Bailey: That is so interesting. That is amazing, ’cause yeah, even, uh, you know, going to speaking events and keynotes, uh, I always think about the, uh, the spinal tap, getting lost backstage, uh, and wandering around and maybe I won’t find it or tripping when you get on stage, just some of those things.

[00:39:13] Tim Ash: Or, or, and we’ve all had those experiences where, the, I’ve literally had the power go out. The, the alarm in the building go, in the conference center go off. We had the, I had a screen fall on top of my laptop.

[00:39:25] Matt Bailey: Ugh.

[00:39:26] Tim Ash: Um, you know, all kinds of AV issues, right? We, we’ve actually had those nightmares, and this is in, in real life. So, this is your brain’s way of saying, “Okay, what would you do in that situation?”

[00:39:35] Matt Bailey: Yep, I know. Yeah.

[00:39:36] Tim Ash: In, in a low stakes environment with nothing really at risk.

[00:39:40] Matt Bailey: I know what you, I had a fire alarm go off in middle of a keynote. So yeah, that was, yeah. All the strobe lights. It was funny ’cause nobody knew what to do. But yeah, it is so fascinating how our brain, uh, works like that. And yet, it is so relevant in so many, it, it’s relevant in education, it’s relevant in marketing, it’s relevant, uh, even in AI, as we’re developing that.

[00:40:00] Uh, how have you been able to see the development of AI, understanding our brains, how can you explain AI in a, you know, explain it like I’m five, to marketers who are, or even to consumers who are maybe afraid of what AI is going to do? That, that’s some of the hesitation that I see about that.

[00:40:26] Tim Ash: Well, well, A, AI, isn’t the singularity. It’s not like sentient machines that talk to us and decide to unplug us one day or like…

[00:40:34] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:40:34] Tim Ash: …Terminator judgment day stuff. AI, right now, the state of the state is it’s a bunch of specialized systems that learn by example. So, they’re fed lots and lots of data and examples. Um, and that’s how people learn. That’s how all animals learn. So, I’m holding up a glass right now, say, what’s the concept of glassness? If I showed you that’s, one that’s half as high, still a glass. If I showed you one made out of porcelain, still a glass. If I showed you one with a hole on the bottom, not a glass. So, you know, by seeing lots of examples, you form this concept of glassness, let’s call it. Okay?

Um, and so, AI systems can learn to predict credit score risk, or they can learn on an assembly line with a camera to tell what are high quality apples and they get sorted into a different bag just by looking at the visuals. So, they’re, they’re fairly limited, but they can make mortgage decisions. And so, when they enter into the part that affects human beings, um, the problem is running this stuff open loop without human supervision. Because you can’t open up the black box and see these subtle inferences that the machine picked up from seeing millions of examples. You can’t explain it with rules, but you have to keep an eye on the output and what it’s actually doing.

So, if I fed it mortgage loan data, and it was included, um, redlined zip codes where you discriminate against minorities, all that mortgage scoring system’s going to do is perpetuate that discrimination. So, there’s huge ethical issues to me around AI, and I have a couple of friends that are really into that privacy ethics stuff. Uh, Kate O’Neill and Stéphane Hamel, I don’t know if you know them. Um, so, they’re working at kind of like the, what, the social good and the intersection of how to apply technology ethically. I think that’s really an important field.

So, we as marketers, I believe, each have an individual responsibility to say, you know, like they do in the military, you can’t follow unlawful orders. If you see something that’s ethically gray area, it’s up to us to quench, question it. And that might mean, like, what data set are we training this AI on, for example. Uh, those are critical questions.

[00:42:49] Matt Bailey: From a neuromarketing standpoint, are there methods that it is being used unethically that even as marketers, we should be on the watch or be prepared to challenge an unethical use of, of neuromarketing or how we apply this?

[00:43:07] Tim Ash: Well again, so neuromarketing is a fancy term to me for evolutionary psychology but applied to marketing. Okay? So, it’s not like there’s anything special about it. Economics used to be based on the notion that people will always do what’s in their own rational self-interest and we’ve discovered that’s not the case. And so, this behavioral economics field is about nudging people and influencing their behavior by framing choices in a certain way.

But essentially all it does is it takes advantage of these shortcuts that our brain takes from an evolutionary psychology standpoint. So, let’s call it what it is. It’s evolutionary psychology, uh, applied to marketing. So, from that standpoint, um, there, there’s a gradation of things that can happen.

So, for example, if you sell five different plans in your software company, is it unethical to show only the three most profitable ones, and then have a couple of small text links to the less profitable ones? I don’t think so. It’s up to you how you present the plans, right? Um, is it unethical to charge for those different plans based on the zip code of the person coming through or you knowing that they’re, you know, married or divorced? Now you’re getting into gray areas, you know, so I guess it, again, it depends on what your inputs to your models are, um, and whether there are, I guess, ethical implications to it.

[00:44:32] Matt Bailey: Well, and, and I’d like to kind of bridge this over in, so you talk a couple chapters in your book about addiction, uh, addiction both to chemicals, but also, you know, what we’ve been seeing lately, especially with the lockdown is social media. And, you know, you talk about that, that dopamine rush that now we’re replacing actual social interaction with digital mediated interaction and getting those interactions that, “Hey, I got a lot of likes,” that, you know, dopamine flush there. Uh, explain, if you could, explain some of how, you know, our brain is being fed with social media.

[00:45:13] Tim Ash: And, and, and being manipulated. There’s a great, um…

[00:45:15] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:45:16] Tim Ash: …documentary. I think it’s on Netflix called, uh, “The Social Dilemma.”

[00:45:19] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:45:19] Tim Ash: I don’t know if you’ve heard or seen that. Yeah, it talks about kind of how social media works and I mean to us in the field, it’s kind of obvious, but, um, essentially, so, there’s several “happy chemicals.” They give you positive payoffs and they have to do with, uh, physical wellbeing, with motivation, with things like social dominance, things like that.

When we’re in those situations, we feel good. They’re mostly short term. This is really important. There is no such thing as permanent happiness. It’s not like, “Oh, well, once I get the mansion and the helicopter, I’m going to be happy.” No, you won’t.

[00:45:51] Matt Bailey: No.

[00:45:51] Tim Ash: In fact, your brain will adjust to whatever your new normal is and then you won’t be any happier. People who win the lottery are not any happier than people that don’t…

[00:46:00] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:46:01] Tim Ash: …um, as it turns out. So, um, but these brain chemicals are actually shared with much earlier life forms. So, we talk about dopamine as if it’s those little three dots on your Facebook Messenger waiting for someone’s response, right? But no, we share dopamine with fruit flies.

[00:46:17] Matt Bailey: Interesting.

[00:46:17] Tim Ash: With ancient insects going back hundreds of million years. So, this is general purpose stuff. So, again, it’s important to understand why they’re there. In the case of dopamine, it’s to meter out energy. Remember we were talking about the brain being an energy conservation system?

[00:46:32] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:46:32] Tim Ash: But it’s not just the brain. What if the brain commands your body to run after a little animal to try to catch it and eat it? That’s even more energy expenditure and you don’t catch that little mouse, you don’t get to eat, and you might starve. So, metering out the right amount of motivation and deciding whether something’s worth taking another step for is dopamine’s function. It’s basically like, “Here’s your model of the world, is this enough to go after some kind of reward?” It gives you a little spurt of happiness or motivation, but the other function of it that most people don’t think about is to actually adjust the mental model.

So, let’s say you did something, you got a really weird outcome, and you didn’t expect it. There’s literally kind of an, “Oh shit,” circuit that goes off in your head, and it rewires just from that one really strong experience, your model of the world so it’s more accurate next time. That’s also something dopamine does.

And so, if you’re, in the immortal words of Pink Floyd have become “comfortably numb,” if you’re in your comfort zone, if you’re not getting unexpected outcomes in your life, if you’re not screwing up and failing, you’re literally not learning.

[00:47:43] Matt Bailey: Interesting.

[00:47:43] Tim Ash: Because the dopamine only learns from error correction, from making mistakes and saying, “I gotta update my mental model.” So, one of the things I would suggest on a personal level is kind of like, uh, lean into things, do uncomfortable things, um, screw up. Everything we learn at the beginning is going to be a failure. But if you just stop there, that’s, that’s a problem. Whereas, you know, Thomas Edison, before discovering the light bulb famously said, “Well, I didn’t, you know, you know, fail 10,000 times, I found 10,000 things that it, hadn’t worked.”

[00:48:17] Matt Bailey: That speaks so much to, you know, businesses that are afraid of risk. That if, if you’re afraid of risk, you’re not taking those chances, you’re not trying these things, you’re going to go stagnant and you’re going to just wither away.

[00:48:32] Tim Ash: Yeah. And that’s a corporate culture issue, uh, you’re absolutely right. So, like, one of the things that, uh, we talked about when we were setting up, uh, testing programs and marketing for companies is publicize the results, not just the wins. All of them. Keep a, an encyclopedia of all of the tests you ever ran, including the ones that were just like flat out failures, ’cause that’s an opportunity to spread that through the organization and give everyone the benefit of that learning to adjust their mental models.

[00:48:59] Matt Bailey: Well, and it’s one of those things I took with me from another job that when I had my agency, it was kind of a mantra that we had. It was, “I expect you to make mistakes. However, I expect you not to make the same mistakes.” You’re going to learn from them, you’re going to do that. And, and that enables people to take those risks. And, and I think a lot of times we see this in corporate culture, people are afraid of risk because, “If I fail, I’ll lose my job,” and then you’re, you’re just tumbling down Maslow’s hierarchy all the way. Uh, uh, “I’ve got nothing.”

[00:49:30] Tim Ash: Yeah.

[00:49:30] Matt Bailey: And when they don’t have the freedom to take risks, you don’t have innovation. You don’t have, uh, and, and also that, that’s got to be, “I’m taking a risk because there is a reward. There is something I can gain from that. Even if I fail,” like you said, with Edison, “I’m learning that’s, maybe it’s not viable or maybe I did it the wrong way,” or, you know, there’s just, you’ve got to constantly feed that information in.

[00:50:00] Tim Ash: Yeah. So, the, the, the hardest balance, I think, for entrepreneurs and business people is to have, I think, you, you know this as an entrepreneur yourself, you have to have a certain willingness to say, “Screw you. I’m doing it anyway.” Right?

[00:50:10] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:50:10] Tim Ash: Uh, because if, if everybody told you the thousand reasons your new business isn’t going to work, you know, they’re probably right. One of those is going to fail, but you have to say, “Screw you, I’m going to do it anyway.” And the power of being an entrepreneur is in going in and learning and you might end up in a very different place than you were aiming for, but what you learned along the way is ultimately what makes you successful.

There is no overnight success. There’s, there’s just, “Okay. I, I tried things and they didn’t work, and I try things and look, this one worked. Okay. And then that was a more general principle I can rely on for the rest of my life. And, uh, so I’ll look for those things from now on that point in that direction.” So, I, I think, uh, like I said, failure is, is an option. Failure is a requirement, I would say.

[00:50:55] Matt Bailey: Oh, absolutely. I, I mean, this goes back to our initial, you know, beginning of the conversation, when we talk about learning. I mean, failure is, it, it, it’s got all the, the things that you listed as primary elements of, of learning emotion, novelty, and multisensory. A lot of failure hits those check boxes of it’s highly emotional. “Ow, that didn’t work. And yeah, this is new. I don’t know what to do about this, and now I’m in a situation where I got to figure some things out.” Uh, that’s what, yeah. You learn from that. You react to it. You change your behavior. You change elements. Uh, it comes full circle around and, “Now I’ve learned.”

[00:51:32] Tim Ash: Exactly.

[00:51:33] Matt Bailey: Tim, this has been such a fascinating conversation. I really appreciate you making the time to come on here.

[00:51:39] Tim Ash: Oh, it’s, it’s absolutely my pleasure.

[00:51:41] Matt Bailey: And, and Tim, where can people find you if they want to, uh, buy your book, uh, find you online and, and ask more questions or, or inquire about a booking? Where can they find you?

[00:51:51] Tim Ash: Uh, well, if you’re interested in my digital marketing stuff, like I said, you know, here’s my, the second edition of my “Landing Page Optimization” book, uh, that did pretty well. It’s kind of the Bible in CRO, I would say. The new book is this one, “Unleash your Primal Brain,” like the, and that one’s available at

I have eBooks, audiobooks narrated by me, and, um, I’ll pre-release print paperbacks, the worldwide Amazon paperback releases April 6th. You can pre-order it now. So,, and then if you’re interested in my keynote speaking, training, uh, internet digital strategy consulting, website reviews, that’s all on So, and

[00:52:35] Matt Bailey: Great and listener, I’ll have those links in the show notes afterwards when we get this published and online. Tim, hey, thanks again. This has been a fascinating conversation and I look forward to learning more from you about how our brain works and, uh, also how we apply that to marketing.

[00:52:52] Tim Ash: Uh, it’s been my honor, my friend.

[00:52:54] Matt Bailey: Alright. Thanks a lot, Tim. I appreciate it. Hey, listener, it’s been another episode. I appreciate you listening, and as always, please let us know what you think about the show. Give us a review, or even just send me an email directly right through the site, whatever your favorite subscription is, feel free to drop us a line, let us know what you’d like to hear more about and how we can help you in the world of marketing. Thanks again, listener, and thanks for joining us on the Endless Coffee Cup.

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