The Power of Imprinting: 80,300 Minutes

A few weeks ago, I finished Dan Ariely's excellent book Predictibly Irrational. A number of ideas and posts will come from this great book but one that jumped out at me was the idea of imprinting.

The wikipedia definition of imprinting is as follows:

'Imprinting is the term used in psychology and ethology to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behaviour. It was first used to describe situations in which an animal or person learns the characteristics of some stimulus, which is therefore said to be "imprinted" onto the subject.'

The way that Ariely describes this is through a very simple example - going to Starbucks for the first time.

For many people (myself included), going to Starbucks 4-6 times a week is a routine. But why is this the case?

To be honest, I don't remember the first time I went into a Starbucks and I don't remember what I ordered. But I do know that when I first when into the coffee shop, my rational thought pattern when something like this:

A. I'm thirsty for a coffee (or something)
B. This place is right on the corner
C. I know people who love it here
D. I'll try it out even though it seems over priced
E. If I don't like it, I'll stop going.

Trying out Starbucks - at that moment - wasn't a big deal to me. It was a one-off. But immediately after that experience, I now had an imprinted version of Starbucks (an expectation) that then led to a routine that has cost me thousands of dollars and lasted for year over 8 years. It was an experience that made me feel good (warm cup/good taste), comfortable (quick break before the day really starts) and prepared for success (start the day well and it will be a good one). That first experience led to a chain of events that not only changed my daily behavior (from no coffee each morning to 'must have or else')

Extend this concept to the web. The first time I created a Facebook profile I viewed it as a test. A friend of mine was raving about the site and said that I needed to try it. After resisting for a few weeks I thought, 'I'll give it a shot for an hour or two'. That was on December 15th, 2006 (the first day when I uploaded a profile picture).

It's been almost 4 years since then and I can't remember a day where I haven't checked the site - either for work or personal - on my computer or mobile. Like Starbucks, I start my day with it - run through brand pages I'm a part of and, of course, check through the News Feed to see what my 590 friends have been up to.

The average user spends about 55 minutes on the site based on recent Facebook data. Consider that number in relation to the 1,460 days I've spent since I registered my profile. Some days I'll only spend a few minutes, others (due to work) I might spend a few hours. But let's take 55 minutes as the average and multiply it across 4 years.

80,300 minutes. Looking at that staggering number another way, that's over 55 days solid on Facebook since I joined (3.8% of my time over the last four years has been dedicated to creeping photo's and updating streams on Facebook).

Whether or not it's been 'worth it' is a topic for another post but the important thing, for me, is going back to December 15th, 2006. Opening the computer, searching for Facebook and starting a profile in less than a minute.

Just like Starbucks, that first experience led to a fundamental change in my behaviour - and something that took less than a minute to start, has taken over 55 days of my time since.

The next time you think about 'just trying something' once, remember that it might not be easy to stop after that first experience has been imprinted on your mind.