In perhaps a first for Substack, and certainly a first for this Newsletter, it is being published from 35,000 ft above Salta, Argentina. I am on BA250 from Santiago to London.
Any exploration sometimes requires backtracking and reviewing progress. An intellectual journey is no different. I was reminded of this when reading the latest issue of the Journal of Marketing. It contained an article on the ergonomics of shopping trolleys. This forced me to review my understanding of Perception.
Reality is Just a Guess
Our senses do not exist in isolation from our brains and memory, they are an integrated whole. (See Newsletter #025). We tend to think of our senses as neutral measurement instruments. Our eyes are thought of as some form of camera that sends pictures to the brain. Our ears are microphones. We think the senses deliver undistorted reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our perception is not reality. We inhabit a personal virtual world created by our brains to maximize our chance of survival. For example, we blink on average fifteen times a minute. We never experience a moments interruption to our vision.
To survive in our evolutionary past, we needed to recognize danger. Our brain learned to create the reality we needed. All the senses operate together in real time. The brain is searching for a pattern it recognizes. It iterates through all the senses and memory looking for a fit. Perception is a constructive process. The brain is constructing a mental image that best suits us now. As it starts to get “a fit”, the brain redirects the senses to areas of the “scene” that need to be better defined. It then uses problem solving and inference to find a fit. If that fails, it guesses. Our reality is not real and is just a guess (Newsletter #031).
In the process of putting together the fit, perception uses existing memories. Each comes with an association. We associate a yellow drink with lemon or lime. We see a rose and can already conjure the smell. We can’t stop building the associations into our reality. Many of the findings in these Newsletters come from this process. We can change the crunchiness of Pringles by changing the sound of the crunch (Newsletter #007). We can influence risk taking by providing a sour drink (Newsletter #008).
Ageing Helps Perception
Ageing actually helps perception. With age we have a much greater collection of memories and scripts on which to draw. We have “seen it all before”. This improves the chances of our perception finding a fit in our associative memory. Age brings more experience at categorizing and abstracting. Both of these are essential parts of the pattern recognition process.
It was in 1936 that Sylvan Goldman invented the first shopping trolley. It consisted of a rolling carrier that could hold two baskets. He invented it to promote sales in his Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma. Interestingly it must have looked like the trolleys now in Third Age supermarkets in Japan. These are designed to make the unloading of baskets on to the check-out easier. Initially Goldman’s trolley was not popular as women said it reminded them of a pram.
Ten years later the trolley we would recognize today was created. Orla Watson was a free lance inventor. Instead of removeable baskets he used a single fixed basket. His trolley had a horizontal pushing bar and the folding back panel that enabled it to stack in a nested way. That design has become ubiquitous. The final refinement came in 1954 with the introduction of the folding children’s seat.
Over the years there have been many ergonomic studies to improve usability. The basic design has however remained the same. The Journal of Marketing study tested a completely different handle design. They replaced the horizontal pushing bar with two handles comparable to a wheel barrow. These were on either side of the trolley. They were about 10 centimetres lower than the traditional handle. The objective was to activate the biceps rather than the triceps.
A field study in a real supermarket demonstrated surprising results. The new design induced shoppers to spend more than the normal design. Not only did they spend more money they bought more items. Not only more items but more unique items. The trolley seemed to induce “impulse purchases”. Only the buying of "stockpile" products did not change.
Not Just the Senses but the Body
It seems that my idea of perception was incomplete. Our perception is not just influenced by our traditional senses. It can also be affected the muscles that we use. There is, in fact, a large literature in psychology on the impact of using the biceps or the triceps. In one study respondents were asked to evaluate Chinese characters. They could not speak Chinese so the ideographs were meaningless. Half the characters were assessed whilst pressing down on the table with the palms of the hands. The other half with the hands pressing upwards on the underside of the table. Pressing down activates the triceps, pressing up the biceps. With the biceps engaged identical characters were evaluated more positively.
Researchers suggested that this is due again to the associations within our memory. The biceps are used to draw things towards us. We use the biceps to bring food to our mouths. We use the biceps to draw those that we love to ourselves. The triceps are associated with “pushing things away”. The “wheel barrow handles” were shown to activate the biceps.
I had missed a key piece of the puzzle. In building up our virtual reality worlds we use all inputs including our bodies. We cannot help but to associate different actions with our past experiences. It is not only about integrating our sense of touch. It is about the whole of our bodies.
Adapting the World for Third ( and Fourth) Agers.
Shopping trolleys are an interesting indicator of the ageing world. Shops know they need to change them. The depth of the trolleys are being reduced. This allows older people to more easily reach their shopping. Retailers are experimenting with trolleys that have more support for older shoppers. Rolling wheels are redesigned to make trolleys more stable. Self- scanning guns are built in to trolleys. Scanning is giving more power to shoppers of all ages to control their expenditure. In some German stores magnifying glasses have been attached to the handle. The arrival of the Third and Fourth Age shoppers is driving the evolution of something as prosaic as the shopping trolley.