I’m extremely curious about the subconscious drives that compel people to do the things they do, in their work, in their choices, and their buying decisions, aren’t you? Sometimes, you feel driven to do things, and you don’t really know why.
Engaging the hearts and minds of readers through written content isn’t easy. The Content Marketing Institute recently surveyed content marketers who report that’s their #1 challenge:
How to write content that is “engaging,“ that gets readers to pay attention, the compels them to take action.
I think to be successful with content, one has to appeal to fundamental human drives and motivations, the ones that our primitive ancestors passed down to us over the last 100,000 years.
Recently, I came across a fascinating book I read 10 years ago, based on evolutionary biology, sociology, and psychology: Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices by Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Noria.
These two incredibly smart professors propose a theory of four fundamental motivations at the heart of all human behavior.
- The drive to acquire objects and experiences that improve our status relative to others.
- The drive to bond with others in long-term relationships of mutually caring commitment.
- The drive to learn and make sense of the world and of ourselves.
- The drive to defend ourselves, our loved ones, our beliefs and resources from harm.
This theory says that humans and social groups will enjoy an advantage to the extent that they are able to fulfill all four of these basic human drives.
It suggests these drives have a strong emotional component, and would probably show up in the limbic system of the brain if monitored under brain scans. What that means is that they are embedded in the subconscious mind, out of our awareness.
After reading this book and a few others on human motivation, I can see how these four drives apply to writing emotionally engaging content that compels readers to take action:
Content written to appeal to each of these four drives will engage the emotional brains of readers.
Let me tell you a story that shows how this works. Information passes to the brain through the sense organs.
Let’s say Fred is reading the news online, and his eye catches a picture of an ad: a business man driving to work in a red sports car.
The visual signal is processed through the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain where motivational drives operate. Here these signals are loaded with emotional markers or tags, depending on which of the four drives they trigger.
In most cases, any signal could be tagged with more than one emotion as when the drive to acquire the sports car competes with the bonded obligation to save money and be safe for one’s family (drive to bond, drive to defend).
The emotionally loaded signals are next processed in the prefrontal cortex, the home of working memory and cognitive capacities that help individuals choose courses of action that would satisfy the drives. This process is then mediated by relevant inputs from long-term memory, where representations of cultural expectations and role identity exist (bread-winner, family-man, conservative vs risk-taker).
Once a tentative action is chosen, (for example, to postpone buying a sports car, or to click through on the ad just to look at prices), once the person chooses with free will, a signal feeds back through the emotional centers to pick up the emotional energy provided by the drives.
These energized signals are then relayed to motor centers that control the muscles and other bodily parts. These actions are what we recognize as human behaviors (click away, read more, walk away). Thus, the chosen behavior in turn will generate environmental responses with survival consequences (such as the spouse’s loving appreciation).
It should be noted that all this takes place in seconds. Such processing of stimuli and information is repeated over and over in the course of our lives. Everything we do is guided by the emotional tags we attach to the urges to satisfy each of the four drives.
These four drives determine the choices we make. In some people, one drive will be more developed than others, creating an imbalance.
The independence of these drives is what forces people to think and to choose, because not all drives can be met at all times. These four drives are what make people distinctly human─ complex beings with complex motives and complex choices.
Each drive also has a “dark side,” as when the drive to acquire becomes excessively competitive and diminishes respect for others, or when the drive to defend one’s current thinking diminishes the drive to learn new perspectives.
I think these four basic drives will help you write better content that fully engages readers. Let me know what you think.