Getting to the Heart (and Brain) of the Matter

Jonathan Briggs introducing Professor Calvert at the beginning of the talk
Jonathan Briggs introducing Professor Calvert at the beginning of the talk

I attended a fascinating neuromarketing talk at Hyper Island by Professor Gemma Calvert, Director for Research & Development at the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight at the Nanyang Technological University.

Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience to marketing to uncover consumers’ subconscious needs, preferences and biases.

Three things that I found most enlightening that triggered some thoughts relating to my work in Learning & Development:

  1. People don’t do what they say they do
  2. Speed of an emotional response trumps the speed of a rational one
  3. A congruent multi-sensory experience has significantly more impact than one-faceted experience

People don’t do what they say they do.

Some standard marketing research tools may not be effective because of three things we know about people:

  1. They don’t always tell the truth
  2. They don’t think how they feel
  3. They don’t do what they say

In the case of 1. it can happen, particularly in Asia, when we don’t want to embarrass or offend the other party, or admit to a flaw or an undesirable behavior, or it is an uncomfortable or taboo topic that we want to avoid discussing.

Many also don’t think of how they feel. Consumers who are asked about how they feel about – or why they prefer – a product may make up an answer to rationalize an emotionally-led decision. In an agency environment, where everything moves extremely fast, a lot of colleagues move on instinct, especially in people / HR matters. Part of my job requires a lot of understanding of how people work, and I often ask leaders to tell me about what they look for in new hires, why they approach situations in a particular way etc. And I have discovered that quite a few find it hard to articulate their feelings and rationale for their behavior, even though they are extremely successful in their business, because they’ve never consciously thought of it.

Finally, many don’t do what they say, because they make up an answer to rationalize an instinct- or emotion-led decision.

In the area of Talent, this brings to mind the various surveys we do to detect the ‘pulse’ of the workforce: training surveys, engagement surveys, you name it. Employees may be overthinking their responses, or responding because they think that’s they way they should respond. So how accurate is the data we collect, and subsequently how effective and impactful is our talent planning as a result?

During the talk, Professor Calvert also spoke about Implicit Reaction Time tests, which are tests conducted at a speed that bypasses the conscious brain. These can be mobile or web based and are scalable. What if we applied this to our staff engagement surveys to uncover what they really think about the company? I wonder if results would be significantly different.

Speed of an emotional response trumps the speed of a rational one

There are two brain systems that control our behavior. One is Unconscious Emotion, which is very fast, involuntary and associative. The other is Conscious Thinking, which is slow, considered, and rule following.

In managing people, particularly in difficult and conflict situations, facts are important. However, managers often neglect to address the emotion behind it. So they may have addressed the situation, but may not have solved the problem. The team member continues to be unhappy even if the solution is the right one. Knowing that emotion drives our decisions, and that we rationalize them, addressing the emotion might be as equally important as discussing the facts and next steps.

A congruent multi-sensory experience has significantly more impact than one-faceted experience

The brain is built to integrate information coming in from different senses. Receiving sensory information that are complimentary to each other can be significantly more powerful than receiving it only from one source.

An example: Pringles taste 15% fresher and crisper when high frequency sounds were boosted in real time. So the crispness of the packaging enhances perception of crispness and freshness of potato chips.

Extrapolating this to the workplace, perhaps we need to start paying attention to the employee experience. In many companies, systems are not integrated, or are not viewed holistically, so employees do not gain a consistent message or experience in the company. If a company prizes collaboration, is collaborative working integrated into the infrastructure, rewards, and even the way training workshops are run? If a company prizes innovation, how is it encouraged and rewarded? How is innovation reflected in the corporate policies and the business operations, and not just innovation only for its consumers products or services? If a company wants to increase its digital revenues, how should its IT infrastructure change to support it?

How would making these changes impact performance in the workplace?


Nada no Kenka Matsuri (Fighting Festival)

We were playing a game during our Hyper Island Crew 4 Orientation Party called the Bullsh*t Bingo where we had to tell two truths and 1 lie about ourselves and the rest had to guess which statement was the lie.

One of my statements was: “I have been in a religious festival where it involves half naked men.” (True).

Put that way, it sounds ludicrous, but it was an amazing experience that I had in Oct 2014 at the Nada no Kenka Matsuri in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, said to be one of the largest fighting festivals in Japan.

The main event of this Shinto Festival features portable shrines (mikoshi), carried on the shoulders of dozens of men wearing loincloths, jolted against one another in a contest to topple each other. The winner is believed to be blessed by the gods with good harvest in the coming year.

Seven villages in Himeiji participate every year, and each village has a gorgeously decorated float (yatai) associated with a specific color. Due to my travel schedule, I only had the opportunity to watch the festival on the first day where they bring the yatai to the Matsubara Hachiman Shrine to be blessed. But this in itself was awe-inspiring.

Bamboo pole replicas, each color representing a village in Himeiji, sold by shops near the festival grounds. Can you spot the seven different ones?


Participating men dressed in traditional attire. Is he a yakuza?

Participating men dressed in traditional attire.

Waiting for the ceremony to start. Look at the gorgeous yatai.

Waiting for the ceremony to start. Look at the gorgeous yatai.


The height of the yatai is higher than the entrance, so the top is removed, the yatai pushed through the entrance, and then reassembled. This is also said to be a sign of respect, equivalent to the yatai  removing its ‘hat’ as it enters the grounds of the shrine.


Once the top is assembled, four drummers climb into the yatai. Their job is to keep drumming no matter what happens, even if the yatai topples on its side! The blessing starts with the yatai being carried to the front of the shrine. A priest throws salt in a purifying ceremony.

As part of the ceremony, they bounce the yatai on the ground. Watch the drummers bounce up and down in the yatai and still continue drumming!

In addition to the ceremony, there are performances staged within the grounds of the shrine. This is beautiful lion dance that entrances all who watch.


Participants wear protective arm bands.


As the ceremony goes on outside, the portable shrines that will be used in the fight rest inside.

This is the most harrowing moment. As the yatai jostle each other, the direction that it moves in can be unpredictable. In this video, I was in a panic because the yatai changed direction so quickly and moved so fast that there was a human crush. It looks pretty close in this video, but it doesn’t capture how close it was in person. After this, I vamoosed to a safer spot. You hear chanting in the background,  “ohhhhh…. yassa” which is how they pronounce yatai locally.


Can you see the three-way competition!


Beautiful sky as the sun sets on the festival.


Final look at the shrine before we leave to return to cosmopolitan Osaka.



So, I recently embarked on my journey to get a Masters of Arts in Digital Media Management at Hyper Island Singapore.

I am forcing myself to jump into the deepest end of the pool. It’s sink or swim, hopefully the latter.

The program started this past week with HIWW, or the Hyper Island Way Week. This is like an university orientation week, but at a more purposeful level. Fun in a different way, as the faculty introduced us to the curriculum, agreed ways of working, leadership approaches and group dynamics – all in an experiential way.

While giving us (me) a steep dive into digital technology and media, this course is so much more than that. Digital is no longer a medium; it is a way of life. This programme will explore themes and issues emerging as a consequence of the increasing use of technology, which will impact how we do and run businesses.

This site is preparatory homework to give us a hands-on experience, in line with HI’s famous “learn by doing” experiential philosophy, which I too subscribe to.

And so, I thought that I should leverage this homework to explore one of the red threads through my career, and one of the reasons why I took this course: to help bridge gaps between groups, people and mindsets.