Digital Behavior: Neuroscience and Online Decision Making

As marketers and designers in the digital space, we often get caught up in driving consumers to take specific actions and lose sight of why these decisions are being made. We understand how specific tactics work through testing and best practices, but rarely understand the psychology behind why.  

Brian Cugelman has been studying the psychology behind digital decision making for almost twenty years. While in town for his recent workshop Brian took the stage at the Morningstar auditorium to address Chicago’s Action Design Network on Digital Behavior Change.

The workshop and presentation gave users an in-depth perspective into the psychological principles used to drive behavior in the digital space, as well as their practical application. This material revolved around his interactive influence model.


The model breaks down nine domains of interactive influence; from initial exposure through desired outcome and finally, feedback. Each one of the following stages is thoroughly explored and broken down throughout the workshop.

  1. Source: This can be a company, brand, or otherwise that is creating content for users to interact with that can be trusted and earn a reputation.

  2. Source message and functionality: The actual message or functionality that the source provides to the audience.

  3. Source message expression & audience interpretation: The way a message or functionality is expressed by the source and then interpreted by the audience.

  4. Audience: The person, group, or organization you are trying to engage and influence.

  5. Audience feedback and behavior: The actual feedback or behavior expressed by the audience that is recorded in the media.

  6. Audience feedback expression & source interpretation: How the audience expresses and transmits their feedback to the source, who interprets it.

  7. Source feedback adaptation: The persuasive and behavior change techniques that depend on user feedback. If the source has not previously captured feedback from the audience in domains 5 & 6, then none of the persuasion techniques can be used.

  8. Media: The various media used to express a message, such as words, images, video and audio

  9. Social and physical context: The social, physical, or virtual environment in which relationship occurs.

Behind each of the domains we took a deep dive into the psychology of digital users and their decisions online. Both the workshop and presentation gave us a fascinating look into loss aversion and incentives with a re-work of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by Douglas Kendrick. This segued into the different types of neurochemicals, how they are released in the brain, and understanding impact emotion cognition and behavior.

 Applying the above, we are able to create experiences that cause the brain to release cortisol and dopamine to drive action. Cortisol is triggered by creating a threat to the audience. For example, anti-spyware companies letting me know that my computer is at risk of infection. This grabs the user’s attention, and drives them to remove the threat by taking action. On the other hand, Dopamine is triggered during any experience that promotes survival by creating anticipation of reward. This drives users to pursue this reward. For example, companies offering a free gift for signing up for a service.

 Overall, Brian Cugelman gave us great insight into the nine domains of his interactive influence model, an in-depth dive into the neuroscience behind each, and how to practically apply these concepts to digital design. He presented to the action design group on motivators and detractors within the digital space. His workshop and talk gave designers an understanding of why consumers make the decisions they do online.

If you would like to learn more about Brian and his work, visit for more information.