The Psychology of Personalization: Why We Crave Customized Experiences
It was truly a dark time.
OK, so my Medieval history might be a little off. But my underlying point here is that people prefer — and often crave — personalized experiences. And by “personalized experience,” I mean an interaction or engagement with a piece of software, a piece of content, or a person (duh) that leaves you feeling like your interests and preferences were actually being taken into account.
Personalization is like someone giving you a fitted baseball cap with your favorite team’s logo on the front and your initials stitched in on the side.
In contrast, non-personalization is like someone giving you a one-size-fits-all baseball cap with some team you hate’s logo on the front. No initials. No consideration for your preferences whatsoever. It’s like the person who gave it to you bought a 48-pack of baseball caps on Amazon and you were just one of the many “lucky” recipients.
Fortunately, modern (non-Dark Age) technology allows us to take advantage of personalization like never before. For example, as marketers, we’re now able personalize our home pages, landing pages, forms, calls-to-action (CTAs), and emails so the content and messaging we display is always tailored to the person engaging with it.
Why Do We Prefer Personalized Experiences?
According to a study from the University of Texas, we can attribute our preference for personalized experiences to two key factors: desire for control and information overload. Let’s tackle “desire for control” first.
So, we know that a personalized experience — by its very nature — is in some way different from the status quo. You’re not just getting what everyone else is getting with personalization. Instead, you’re getting something tailored to you. And because of that, it makes you feel more in control.
Truth be told, you aren’t actually making a choice when, for example, you view personalized content on a site page. But when you know you’re getting something that’s tailored to your interests, you still perceive having some level of control over what you’re engaging with.
Even if this sense of control is an illusion, it’s still powerful, and can have a positive effect on your psyche. According to Psychology Today, people who feel an internal sense of control — i.e. they believe that they are in control of their life outcomes, as opposed believing external forces are responsible — tend to be healthier physiologically and more successful.
Now, let’s turn to the second factor mentioned in the University of Texas study: information overload.
According to the study, another reason we prefer personalized experiences is because they help reduce information overload. Or, more precisely, personalization can help reduce our perception of information overload.
For example, when you know that the content being displayed on a website is tailored to you, it provides a more manageable framework for engagement. With personalization, you aren’t presented with thousands of resources to sort through and consume. Instead, you are — ideally — presented with exactly the information you were looking for. Hence, you never feel “overloaded” with information.
Relevance to the Rescue
Of course, the notion that personalization can satisfy our collective desire for control, as well as our desire to reduce information overload, only applies when we know that personalization is actually happening.
Think about it: If there are no overt signals of personalization (like seeing your first name in the greeting of an email), how can you even tell that something has been personalized?
In those cases — when someone isn’t aware that they’re engaging with personalized content — feelings of control and reduced information overload don’t come into play. And yet, research (including this study) confirms that people prefer personalization, even if they aren’t aware they’re experiencing it.
So why, psychology speaking, do we still like personalized content better in these cases? Simple: It’s more relevant. And, as human beings, we are naturally more inclined to engage with information that we find relevant and interesting.
Not satisfied with that answer? Me neither. Let’s dive a little deeper.
You see, it all has to do with your brain’s reticular activating system, or RAS (which, FYI, is number 7 on my list of “Top 10 Favorite Activating Systems”). Moving on …
Your RAS is the gateway that information passes through in order to reach your brain, and it filters that information so you know what you should pay attention to. Ever hear of “selective attention” or “selective hearing”? This ability to focus on one bit of information, while simultaneously ignoring other information, is controlled by your RAS.
As Dr. Rachna Jain once noted in a Social Media Examiner article about psychological influence, “Most commonly, the RAS is associated with the concept of selective attention, which means that we naturally orient to information or ideas that we are invested in.”
One of the most common examples of your RAS in action is known as the “cocktail party effect.” Here’s how it works:
If you’re at a party with dozens of people chatting around you, you’ll likely find that you can easily ignore or tune out of those conversations. They’re just background noise. But, as soon as someone says something that is of particular interest to you, you will magically tune into that specific conversation. The important information will, thanks to your RAS, rise above the noise.
Want to know one of — if not the — biggest “cocktail party effect” triggers around? We’ll explore that next.
The Sweetest Sound
“Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
– Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
Carnegie’s point here was that remembering a person’s name — and using it whenever appropriate — is key to winning that person over to your way of thinking. He was so keen on this notion, in fact, that he came up with his own system for remembering names effectively.
Clearly, Carnegie understood that something special occurs when people hear their own name. And, as I alluded to in the previous section, the “cocktail party effect” also backs up this idea: Your name, as it turns out, is one of the easiest sounds for your RAS to hone in on.
While you can easily ignore that stranger in the background complaining about their job or talking about their kitchen renovations, as soon as they mention your name, your ears will inevitably perk up.
So, what exactly is going on here? My scientific answer is as follows:
Something. Something is definitely going on. And yes, there is scientific research that backs up my bold claim.
According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Brain Research, when people hear their own first name (vs. hearing other first names), there is a unique reaction in the brain.
More specifically, hearing your own name — as opposed to other names — triggers greater brain activation, particularly in the middle frontal cortex (which is associated with social behavior), the middle and superior temporal cortex (which are associated with long-term memory and auditory processing, respectively), as well as the cuneus (which is associated with visual processing).
Based on this research, it’s clear that hearing your own name definitely causes something special to happen in your brain. But how can you use this information practically for improving your marketing?
Possibilities are endless.