Friday, April 22, 2011

Universal Effectiveness of Repetition Universal Effectiveness of Repetition

The importance of repetition on learning and memory in the field of psychology cannot be overstated. Well over a century of research has been done, and new results continue to be developed.

One recent example comes from researchers from Harvard and Northwestern University. Using field work in the corporate jungle, and intense ethnographic data-gathering methods, they provide important ecological evidence for the importance and universal effectiveness of repetition in the human world.

This study examined the impact of repeated messages to employees regarding target outcomes by managers with direct authority and by managers with indirect authority. The findings are below.

"The research showed that 21 percent of project managers with no direct power over team members used redundant communication, compared to 12 percent of managers with direct authority. And 54 percent of managers without direct power combined an instant communication (via IM or a phone call) with a delayed communication (e-mail), compared to 21 percent of managers with power."*

The researchers were surprised by these conclusions:

"The researchers also determined that clarity in messaging, while not a bad thing, was not the goal for redundant communication. Even if a powerful manager is clear and direct with an employee, it's still the redundancy that counts. "I didn't think we'd find this. I was stunned," Neeley says."

Like many phenomena in human communication, an analysis of the situation from a signal-to-noise relationship provides ample reason for the findings. Basically, the more noise there is compared to the signal strength, the greater the effectiveness of repetition of the signal.

The framework of corporate hierarchy can be discussed as variation in the strength of the signal to the noise in the system. Managers with direct authority have a stronger signal and use repetition less frequently than managers without authority. These managers, as the authors note, "assume nothing" about whether their orders have been received and attended to, because they are aware that their weak signal strength (organizational authority) operates in a very noisy environment of emails, IMs, phone calls, paperwork, face-to-face meetings, etc.

The indirect managers have also provided evidence that the effectiveness of repetition can be increased by using multiple channels of communication to repeat the message, a face-to-face, with an email following soon, a phone call about it after the email, IMs and more as deadlines approach.

Aside from psychologists, advertisers learned this long ago, and forms the basic split between direct advertising and indirect advertising. There remains much confusion and controversy regarding repetition and signal strength in internet advertising, however.

Internet advertisers are essentially trying to transition from indirect to direct advertising, as direct advertising produces better results under many conditions. This leads them to attempt to increase their signal strength by targeting various individuals who have left information trails regarding a particular brand, or by sending multiple emails to their customers who have opted-in (or failed to op-out) for such communications.

This has been controversial and confusing for reasons discussed in the study on corporate behavior: internet advertisers are trying to switch from indirect advertising to direct advertising by combining data on the customers. This data-gathering is noticed by the consumer as an attempt to gain direct authority over them, usually by combining the limited forms of data that a consumer has consented to with regard to multiple companies into one profile.

Information is power, and consumers know it. Lawyers know it. China knows it. Older types of advertisers know it, and can carefully work with differing kinds of information and consent to craft messages for certain channels. Internet advertisers are assuming power over the consumer with debateable levels of consent by taking information provided through certain channels and using them for one specific channel. They are increasing the signal strength by adding together many weak signals, while their customers may have intended to provide multiple weak signals.

A different phenomenon may occur with direct advertising to email addresses. Consumers know that this is a stronger form of information that they are supplying, and they are trusting the company to know how to handle it. In this situation, companies can frequently become annoying by excessive repetition (I mean you, Borders).

This repetition may be effective, as is the increased redundancy of communications used by indirect managers. But as the study notes, many employees may form negative attitudes to the workplace or the indirect manager, despite the effectiveness of the repeated messaging.

Thus another long-standing psychological principle is demonstrated: people consciously underestimate the importance of repetition's effect upon their behavior. Meanwhile, though, their older emotional systems react to repetition as the attempt to control their behavior that it is, and engage their threat-response systems to determine whether the attempt to control their behavior is appropriate or not.


These findings should warn internet advertisers that they are dealing with people in a sensitive way that incorporates brain mechanisms millions of years old. People, and all social animals, evolved in a social hierarchy. Turning on a computer does not make those millions of years of experience turn off. At a certain point, repeated signals from direct advertisers may be treated as exceeding their place in the hierarchy.

So direct internet advertisers should think very deeply about how they are going to combine weak signals and/or repeat strong signals as they will be interpreted with regard to the legitimacy of their power over the recipient.

If you get this wrong, people will hit the unsubscribe button (I'm talking to you, Hasbro). If you get this really wrong, you may be subject to massive investigation of your use and intentions regarding the data, as Google has, and now Apple will, experience with several European nations.

If you get this wrong around certain species of monkeys or apes, you may be killed. You are probably smart enough to not engage in these kind of behaviors around lions and elephants. The real problem is when you are bigger than the monkeys and falsely assume that bigger equals stronger.

At the other end of the species spectrum comes another example of the power repetition, in an ancient struggle of life against death.** Researchers at the University of Michigan are studying the impact of noise within the genetic systems of yeast, one of the oldest forms of life on earth, and an asexual form. The asexual yeast are generally haploid in genetic structure, while sexual reproduction is frequently assumed to be an important cause of chromosomal diploidy.

In the case of the yeast, however, a greater level of genetic noise put negative evolutionary selective pressure on the yeast. A frequent response to this selective pressure of additional noise in the signal was to develop diploid chromosomes, i.e., doubling the signal. This finding complicates the study of genomic reproduction by demonstrating that diploid chromosomes can form in the absence of sexual reproduction.


Repetition, sponsoring genomes for 3.5 billion years, yet still a surprise to humans. At least their neocortices.
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*http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6629.html?wknews=04182011 
"It's Not Nagging: Why Persistent, Redundant Communication Works"

Kim Girard
**http://www.pnas.org/content/108/16/E67.abstract?etoc 
"Impact of gene expression noise on organismal fitness and the efficacy of natural selection"
Zhi Wang and Jianzhi Zhang

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