Harry Houdini and the Gorilla in the Room. (Why I should use “those annoying pop-ups”.)

Pop-ups and Human Psychology

Everyone is an expert on psychology, or so they think. Are they deluding themselves, since they make a mess of ordinary interaction? I see myself as a slow learner in the field. You probably know more about it than me. However, I have studied and performed conjuring tricks, sparking an early interest in perception and psychology.

Marketers cite a lot of split studies to demonstrate that pop-ups work.  Richard Lazazzera on a Shopify.com blog, for example, has links to demonstrations that people really do click on them, willing to subscribe and join email lists.

Strangely, even people who insist that they absolutely hate websites that use pop-ups and leave them immediately never to return again, can also be found clicking on them and subscribing! Since the evidence is there, what is the psychology to explain why they work much better than sidebar sign-up forms?

You may well have come across the experiment that suggests that when we are focused on something taking place on a screen we miss entirely other elements in the video.  In an experiment at Harvard University, called The Invisible Gorilla, subjects were shown a video of  teams passing basketballs back and forth and were asked to count the number of passes made by the players dressed in white. In the middle of the action a gorilla walks into the room, thumps on his chest and walks out again. When asked if they had noticed anything unusual in the video, almost half the respondents had not noticed the gorilla.

Thus, it is  said, because we are focused on the web page or blog post we just don’t notice the sidebar. If someone is going to miss the gorilla in the room, what chance has the sidebar got?

It is the nature of our perception that we can give concentrated attention to narrowly defined things in our visual field. (I have seen this called ‘intentionality’ in some technical papers.) The pop-up interferes with that concentration and introduces a new object to deal with. That’s what makes them so pesky and is part of the explanation of why pop-ups work: we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room.

How Harry Houdini performed the simplest conjuring trick in the world using minimal props

Houdini made himself disappear and reappear on stage using only this: a largish folding screen (say just large enough to wrap around and hide a man riding an elephant); Harry’s glittering outfit;  about five or six drab, brown, workmen’s overall coats; said workmen and… an elephant.

Harry rides onto the stage on the elephant, glittering and circling. The workmen in their drab overalls carry in the screen, pass it behind the elephant and the mounted rider and form it into a square, hiding the animal and magician from view. There is the briefest of pauses with a drum-roll, the men unfold the screen and walk off with it, revealing the elephant alone on the stage. Perhaps the elephant does a trick, sitting up on its back legs, if it is a performing elephant. The men carry the screen back on stage, hiding the enormous beast, and wait for the next drum-roll. The screen is removed as quickly as possible, the men depart. Here is Harry Houdini, waving his arms around, once more riding on the elephant.

The trick is so obvious that may seem unbelievable that it could ever work, but work it did. Houdini explained it as, “If fve workmen walk on with the screen, no one notices that six walk off when there is a large elephant on the stage.”

It’s usual to call this element of conjuring, ‘misdirection’, which it must be, but also it involves the feature of intentionality: the members of the audience are trying to see how the trick is done. That is why they watch the elephant and the screen as closely as they can, to catch the great illusionist in the act. They are not interested in the workmen.

Sidebars are the familiar structure of the website. Pop-ups are the rowdy children, demanding your instant attention, asking that you fill in the sign-up form so that you can get back to watching the magician.

The End of my Career as a Conjurer

My most successful performance was in front of about 100  wildly enthusiastic children and their teachers. I was in a show during a school trip staying in St Margaret’s Bay in Kent.  I was ten years old. After that it was all downhill.

My very last trick was shown to double that number as part of a talk I gave in Bristol. My intention was to illustrate a point in my talk. To make the point, I explained carefully beforehand just how the trick would work: I would take their attention away in entirely the wrong direction, by pointing up and into the corner of the stage.

As far as I could tell at the time, the performance was well received, but afterwards, for nearly two years later people would say to me, “I know you! You did that great trick. How did you do it? We all tried to figure it out afterwards, but we just couldn’t get it. Can’t remember at all what the talk was about, though.”

That was the common reaction to a very simple trick where I had already explained exactly how it would be done. The worst bit is that neither can  I  remember what my  talk was about.

The lesson I take from this experience is that pop-ups may have the effect of taking your readers away from the content of your webpage or blog post.

Possibly, they will never return.

 Robert Blanchett


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