How Apple's design manipulates us into liking Apple products

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on December 27, 2013

From The News Desk

If there is one company I spend more time with over the course of a year than any other it would have to be Apple.

I google plenty of terms over the course of a day but without Apple, I wouldn't be able to log on to search in the first place. I order a lot of stuff from Amazon, but would't be able to click on my shopping cart if it weren't for my Apple laptop. I can't get online over a Time Warner cable modem without a computer. Without it, no Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest, either.

It's amazing how much of my day is spent on my Macbook Air, and when I'm away from my desk I'm on my iPhone. Not on my laptop or iPhone, I could be on my iPad.

That's because Apple has become my interface to much of the world. And to think I've been manipulated into liking (i.e. becoming dependent on) Apple products. Actually, we all are.

For instance, look at an iPhone. Note the curved edges. A neuromarketer would tell you that the brain loves curves but detests sharp edges, which sets off an avoidance response in our subconscious. In the way our ancestors stood clear of sticks or jagged stones fashioned into weapons, we avoid sharp objects, viewing them as potential threats. One company, NeuroFocus, performed several studies for retailers and food manufacturers and found that test subjects preferred in-store displays with rounded edges over those with sharper edges. In one instance, when these new rounded displays were rolled out to replace traditional store shelving, sales rose 15 percent.

Curves are only one reason for the iPhone's success. We also like how it feels, how sleek and well balanced it is. Signals generated by our palms and fingers, along with lips and genitals, take up the most surface area within our brain’s sensory zone. The way a product feels in our hands can be a major selling point. It’s why we prefer glass bottles to cans. The touch screen, too, is a mental magnet. Note the icons, which are game like. Poke one with a finger and it blows up to fill the screen in such a way as to give the see a sense of anticipation.

Those icons also have curved edges. Why we like these curves so much no one knows for sure. Perhaps our brains correlate curves with nourishment—that is to say, mommy. (Calling Dr. Freud.) In men, it could be sexual. One study asked men to view before-and-after pictures of naked women who underwent cosmetic surgery to shrink their waists and add to their derrieres. The men’s brains responded as if they had been rewarded with drugs and alcohol. But this response to curves may be even more primal than sex, or beer. Another study suggested that men seek women with curves because women’s hips and thighs contain higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids, which nurture babies’ brains and lead to healthier offspring.

It all boils down to marketing mechanics, which exist to induce us to buy more or forge a closer connection to a product. They are not necessarily good or evil. They just are. And we find them deeply compelling.

As Gary Marcus, a research psychologist at New York University and director of the NYU Infant Language Center, wrote in Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, "Our pleasure center consists not of some set of mechanisms perfectly tuned to promote the survival of the species, but a grab bag of crude mechanisms that are easily (and pleasurably) outwitted." He cites "pleasure technologies" (a term coined by Steven Pinker) such as movies, music and video games as forms of entertainment that effectively trigger our reward systems, "culturally selected," he argues, "to tap into loopholes in our preexisting pleasure-seeking machinery."

In other words our brains can be hacked, something that directors of romantic comedies and marketers take full advantage of. And we are hacked almost constantly over the course of a day. For example, the music you hear in stores when you are shopping.

Several studies show that background music in a store or restaurant can affect what and how much you buy, and how quickly you move through. One study had researchers from the University of Leicester, England, construct flag-draped displays of French and German wines and play French and German music. Customers purchased 40 bottles of French wine and only eight German bottles on days when French music played versus only 12 bottles of French and 22 bottles of German wine when German music blared over the supermarket’s speakers. Another, dating back to 1982, found that slow music resulted in a 38.2 percent increase in sales compared to faster tempo songs, because customers moved more slowly through the store.

Muzak, a company synonymous with sickly sweet elevator music, reported that customers in a supermarket walked up to 30 percent slower and spent 12 percent more than when there was no music. Other studies chimed in with findings that found that music causes restaurant patrons to stay longer and order more food while fast music lessens the length of time it takes to drink a can of soda.

All around us are similar commercial influences. If you look closely, you'll be amazed at how we are being constantly manipulated by our surroundings: The playful label of that expensive facial cleanser, the choice of materials for that new phone, the inscrutable smile of a fashion model in a photo -- all are subtle catalysts intended to trigger responses in our brain.

Before every purchase decision we sift through a bevy of potential influences.

Ultimately it's why I'm typing this post on a MacBook Air.