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The Neuroscience of Mobile App Engagement

My old pal Dylan Tweney @Dylan20 at VentureBeat wrote this fun article about Why Instagram is Worth 1 Billion and Your Startup Isnt.


The crux of the article is that Instagram fits my neuroscience model for user engagement. This is based on the observation that the Limbic System is primarily focused on three “threads” that run continuously in the background:

  • 1) Can I Eat This?
  • 2) Will this Eat Me? and
  • 3) Can I reproduce with this?

These threads come on line at different stages of human development.

Can I eat this comes first… a newborn baby doesnt even have much of this, except for maybe the ability to nurse. But soon this thread kicks into gear and babies crawl around like mad stuffing things into their mouths.

Will it eat me (The threat processing thread) comes online next, but it’s highly dependent on a maternal threat coprocessor and the user interface is the mom’s face. If mom looks scared, watch out, otherwise everything is ok. Babies dont have enough hardware to recognize and process threats. If you watch TV this is recapitulated in the “reaction shot” where a car blows up and the camera does a close shot of Farrah Fawcett’s face looking all shocked. (1970s Charlie’s Angels reference)

The reproductive thread doesnt spin up until puberty.

It turns out that there’s also a subthread in high-investment mammals which is the “it’s cute so I should protect it” thread, which is primarily about defending the young. This thread seems to show up weirdly early, which perhaps is related to siblings protecting each other.

Social impulses are built on top of this limbic system “platform”, in the sense that the “village” of your social network (in the Robin Dunbar sense) is what provides you with nutrition, protection and even a supply of reproductive partners.

How does this relate to the world of Mobile Apps? Exactly as Dylan perceives in this article… the highest engagement apps appeal to the lizard brain. The limbic system sits very close to the hindbrain and spine and is the big driver of action.

The other day someone tweeted “Why does California spend N Billion dollars on prisons and so much less on Schools?” What they might not realize is that the neocortex (responsible for things like thinking) is about the thickness of six playing cards stacked on top of each other, and that the word cortex means “bark” which kind of shows you how thin it is.

This kind of deep engagement shows up in applications like Pinterest. For example my Pinterest board is filled with good things to eat. I independently discovered the “cuteness” thread because I was searching for a broccoli recipe and a bunny rabbit named “broccoli” showed up. Since then pictures of cute animals have been replicating on my pinboard like umm… rabbits I guess.

In any event, this is my neuroscientific analysis of user engagement in mobile applications. Thanks for reading.

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