The concept of sushi was introduced into the United States during the late 1960s, a period of whirlwind change in tastes — entertainment, music, fashion and food. At first, the idea of sushi did not bite. Keep in mind that the average family at the time was sitting down to a dinner of cuts of meats with sides of mashed potatoes swimming in gravy. The thought of eating raw fish was bewildering, even dangerous, in the minds of most restaurant goers. And then a chef by the name of Ichiro Mashita, who ran Tokyo Kaikan, a small sushi bar in downtown Los Angeles, had a clever idea. He asked, ‘What would happen if the strange ingredients were combined with familiar ingredients such as cucumber, crabmeat and avocado? Mashita also realized that Americans preferred seeing the rice on the outside and seaweed paper in the interior. In other word, the roll would feel more familiar if it was made ‘inside-out’.
Demand exploded. The Californian Roll was a gateway for many people to discover Japanese cuisine. Americans now consume $2.25-billion-worth of sushi annually. As Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, writes, ‘The lesson of the California Roll is simple – people don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently.’
The California Roll principle is based on the underlying rule of combining something new with something familiar to make it ‘strangely familiar’. It’s a phenomenon that psychologists like Robert B. Zejonc have labelled the ‘mere-exposure effect’ or the ‘Law of Familiarity’. Humans, understandably, have a tendency to be more comfortable around people and things they are familiar with. There is more than one way to build on this.
Apple does it though a design feature Steve Jobs called ‘skeuomorphism’. It’s a catch-all term for when design cues are taken from common objects or elements in the physical world. The iPhone calendar resembles a physical calendar. The notes app looks like a yellow legal pad. The rubbish bin on the first Mac was exactly like a metal bin. The podcast app when first launched looked like an ancient reel-to-teel tape and iBook looked like a real bookshelf with wood veneers. The familiar elements are not necessary but tap into our memory banks.
In January 2014, researchers from Harvard Business School released a controversial working paper on a study they had conducted. The study revealed that non-black Airbnb hosts could charge approximately 12 per cent more, on average, than black hosts – roughly $144 per night, versus $107. In September 2016, looking across 6,000 listings, the same researchers found that requests from guests with distinctively African-American-sounding names (like Tanisha Jackson) were 16 per cent less likely to be accepted by Airbnb hosts than those with Caucasian-sounding names (like Allison Sullivan). Particularly troubling was that, in some instances, Airbnb users would rather allow their property to remain vacant than rent to a black-identified person.
In 2012 Facebook tweaked the algorithm to manipulate the emotional content appearing in newsfeeds of 689,003 randomly selected, unwitting users. Posts were identified as either positive’ (awesome!) or negative’ (bummer) based on the words used. In one group, Facebook reduced the positive content of news feeds, and in the other, it reduced the negative content. ‘We did this research because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,’ Kramer says. ‘We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.’ Did tinkering with the content change the emotional state of users? Yes, the authors discovered. The exposure led some users to change their own behaviours: the researchers found people who had positive words removed from their feeds made fewer positive posts and more negative ones, and vice versa. It could have been an online version of monkey see, monkey do, or simply a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. ‘The results show emotional contagion’, Adam Kramer and his co-authors write in the academic paper.