I’ll be the first to admit that my brain rarely associates moments of urgency with anything pleasant.
My first speeding ticket was a blur of flashing lights and a looming philosophy exam I was late for. I’ve spent too many mornings rushing through my morning routine in fear of missing something, too many shopping trips stressed about items that were going out of stock. All in all, urgency for me often has meant anxiety, adrenaline and a desire to meet some sort of end goal.
It wasn’t long before I started wondering why urgent matters made me feel this way. As a brand journalist covering marketing psychology, I was especially interested in how this all translated to my role as a consumer. What really happens in the brain when humans move urgently? What are we moving toward?
To help me get to the bottom of my questions I spoke with Dr. Eric Frazer, a top psychologist with over 20 years in psychological assessment, about where urgency stems from and what marketers should learn about it.
The faster we respond, the more likely we are to reach our goal quickly
For consumers who experience an adrenaline rush during moments of urgency, the emotions felt are typically described in a way similar to my personal example above — anxiety or fear surrounding a sudden need to act quickly. Frazer, however, says psychology has a different perspective on the subject.
“When we talk about anxiety, it's a common ubiquitous experience for people. There’s a sort of variety of symptoms that we’d call on from a clinical standpoint, but what we’re really talking about is physiological arousal,” Frazer said. “Your nervous system is activated; you’re more aware, you’re more alert. You’re addicted to it.”
In other words, the instinctual response we feel when we’re gearing up to take immediate action isn’t fueled by fear, but a desire to move rapidly in hopes of reaching a pleasurable outcome. Why? Because our past experiences have shown us that the faster we respond, the more likely we are to reach our goal quickly.
Frazer says previous encounters with urgency that resulted in us feeling rewarded for our quick effort make us more willing to repeat similar actions in the future.
“The reward is you’re getting something that you believe is personally beneficial to you. It’s a sale for you; it’s an ad for you; it’s an experience for you,” said Frazer. “And because you’ve had this experience before and you’ve gotten your reward (your new jewelry, shoes, vacation) that is the reinforcement for your sense of urgency. Your brain digests that experience and says, ‘the next time that happens it’d be a good idea to get rewarded again.’ ”
This sort of behavioral science is often discussed in connection with psychologist B.F. Skinner, who professed that learned behavior is a result of environmental occurrences. One classic example of this theory is Skinner’s rat experiment, where a hungry rodent was placed inside a box and fed only when it pressed the lever that released the food. Initially, the rat explored the box hoping to find nourishment. Its feelings of urgency were met with satisfaction once it learned about the lever — so much in fact that the rat eventually went straight to the lever once it was placed inside the box.
“With the rat model, it was very simple; it was food pellets that came out and the action of pressing a lever, but with humans we’ve got a full portfolio of sensory experiences triggering our sense of urgency,” said Frazer.
Those “sensory experiences” include touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell. Many of which are present during our shopping experiences. They can be triggered when we’re shopping online, as we see urgent notifications, touch the keypad and hear the sounds coming from our devices. Or they can be triggered while we're in a store hearing about the latest flash sale.
“Sensory input tells our brain, ‘hey, get ready something good is going to happen,’ and then we press the ‘lever’ (our phone, our computer, etc.) and then you get your positive reward (a sale, a discount, a special offer),” said Frazer. “And the more personalized it gets with customer profiling and demographics, [the more] I know what you’re interested in so I can make sure that little ‘pellet’ that gets sent to you is exactly within that avenue, and that’s going to trigger additional sensory experiences priming you up to want more of it.”
What this means is that our appreciation for pleasant feelings is so powerful we’ll willingly allow it to influence our actions, even if that means dealing with a time crunch and feeling a certain amount of pressure.
“That good feeling is tied into the reward system in the brain which creates those feelings of pleasure, well-being and positivity, so as your brain is pumping out those neurotransmitters you’re starting to have those internal experiences that’s driving your behavior,” said Frazer. “Attached to the emotional component of that is also the cognitive component where the brain unconsciously says, ‘I need this, I want this,’ which increases the probability of the consumer moving forward with the product or service.”
Consumers want to feel good, and they want to do so urgently. Brands that deliver valuable products, services and incentives can create feelings of urgency that promote positive reinforcement.