Nathalie Nahai: Psycology of the Internet Era

There is a man who greatly contributed to democratizing computers. He is now democratizing design and information. Why? Because his mission is empowering people. This is about "The Art of Empowerment.


Nathalie Nahai: Web Psychologist, Author

Nathalie Nahai is a web psychologist, international speaker and author of the best-selling book, Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion. The foremost expert in web psychology, she helps businesses apply scientific rigour to their website design, content marketing and products. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies, design agencies and SMEs, including Google, eBay, Unilever and Harvard Business Review, to name a few. Nathalie lectures internationally on the digital application of behavioural sciences, co-hosts the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast, and contributes to national publications, TV and radio on the subject of online behaviour. She is also the founder of Humanise The Web (a conference that explores both how the internet influences our behaviours, and how businesses can harness persuasive technologies for good), and sits on the Social Media Weekadvisory board and Ogilvy Change experts’ panel.

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Website Branding for Small Businesse
Website Branding for Small Businesse
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Webs of Influence
Webs of Influence
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-----For those who are not familiar with you, please tell us more about you. What is the role of a Web Psychologist and how did you make a bridge between psychology and the web?


My path to becoming a web psychologist was a curious one – I have always been fascinated by human behaviour, and having started out with the desire to pursue my music and art (I’ve been playing violin since the age of 3, guitar from 16, and have wielded paintbrushes since as far back as I can remember), I stumbled across psychology. Having had the fortune of being inspired by an extraordinary teacher, when the time came to choose my BSc, psychology seemed the obvious choice.


I was performing on the folk scene at the time and thought it would be a good idea to learn how to code and design websites, so I took classes and soon ended up working as a freelance designer to support my music. It was at this point that I became fascinated with the interplay between web design and online behaviour, and as these new interests took center stage, so I found myself at a crossroads: I could either dive deeply into one core area of focus with a PhD, or I could carve my own path and find a way to explore a wider breadth of disciplines with the goal of seeing how they intersected and influenced one another.


I settled upon the latter, and decided to write a book which would serve as a roadmap for people wishing to understand all the various facets of the psychology of online persuasion. Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion was published by Pearson in 2012, and became a business best-seller. That gave me the platform from which to speak on the subject at conferences across the world, and I now train, consult with and advise companies large and small on the psychology and ethics of online persuasion.


My goal is to empower people and business with the tools to understand how the web influences our behaviours, decision-making and relationships, so that we can choose how best to design environments that serve our goals.

-----When you started your career as a web psychologist, what was the most difficult thing and how did you overcome it?


When I started out, the most difficult thing was feeling as though I was going out on a limb by deciding to apply academic research to a wider audience, and choosing to go down a less conventional path rather than a purely academic one. For me there’s always been a tension between conforming to a more traditional route versus carving my own way – whether professionally, in relationships, or with my approach to life in general.


To a great extent I think it’s a function of my personality to seek out new ways of connecting the dots, and I’ve always been fascinated by how seemingly incongruent elements inform and influence one another, often beyond the scope of initial inspection. The way I’ve approached my own development is to seek out people whom I respect to advise and mentor me, both in academic and commercial worlds, so that rather than react to prescribed social norms, I have the support I need to find an approach that actually fulfils me.



-----How did you convince people to believe in the value you provide? How does the experience of learning psychology help your business?


I basically help convince people of the value I provide by showing previous success stories, and also demonstrating the scientific rigor of the recommendations I give.



-----Research is observing what happened in the past. For example, you could not observe the same social behaviour 10 years ago. How can people apply it to create the future? 


The interesting thing about observing social behaviours from a historical perspective is that it can provide insights into the deeper, unchanging patterns of human behaviour that exist, and the motivations that underpin them. As technology advances and we adapt accordingly, it’s really the expression of these stable drives that will change, as opposed to the drives themselves. This means that whatever new trends emerge, if we have an understanding of the heuristics they are designed to tap into and the kinds of behaviours they may elicit, then we have a better chance of being able to predict new patterns and make more conscious choices as to how we wish to use technology to serve our needs.

-----Why do people follow others they have never met with online?


One of the primary drivers of human behaviour is the desire to connect with others and to feel as though we belong. Face-to-face relationships can be difficult and complex, and for those of us who find it hard to relate to others in person, the web provides a less inhibited, more anonymous space in which to express ourselves in the way we wish to be perceived. It also provides an unparalleled opportunity to seek out like-minded peers with whom to share our experiences, our desires and our fears. This is especially seductive for people whose identities, views and aspirations do not conform to the norms of their society, and there is a lot of fascinating research that has been done exploring the dark net and hidden sub-cultures that exist beyond the grasp of Google and the walled gardens that have come to represent the face of the web as we know it.



-----By fulfilling what kind of requisites, would you be able to gain million followers from the viewpoint of a Web Psychologist?


The first thing I would need to know is why you want to gain a million followers to begin with. Is it because you want the reputation and reach that precedes this kind of notoriety? Or is it that you want to launch a marketing campaign in the hope that it will go viral and convert an audience of millions? Whatever your goal, the answer to this question very much informs the approach you would take.


If you are looking to build your credibility and reputation and thereby earn a global following, then I would recommend that you start by identifying your values, establishing what will be your unique contribution, and then engaging with the people who are most likely to share your passion and support you. This approach takes time, effort, and tenacity, but it also yields great benefits by virtue of the fact that you’re building your business around a core group of dedicated people who share your values and vision.


If you’re looking for a quick fix, then there are short-cuts you can take – from paying for fake followers and view counts, to cloaking deceptive content and hashtag hijacking, there are a multitude of ways unscrupulous companies can use blackhat social media practices to artificially inflate their following. I’ve seen this work for others in the short term, but it rarely generates long-term success and is a gamble not only in terms of the costs involved, but also in terms of your reputation. It’s not an approach I would advocate.


-----People tends to follow what others follow. Does this mean people cannot truly evaluate content, but outfits influence them?


The reality is that there are a great many variables that influence our decision-making processes, from social dynamics (such as such social proof and behavioural contagion) and our physical state (whether we’re hungry, tired, ovulating), to individual differences (such as personality traits) and cultural norms (whether we’re more collectivist or individualistic, for instance).


Research has shown that despite our desire to believe that we’re rational, when it comes to decision-making our choices almost always stem from an emotional trigger,. Not only that, but we’re also heavily reliant on countless heuristics (cognitive shortcuts) that enable us to make fast decisions in everyday life, which means that we’re also at risk of being manipulated by techniques that take advantage of these shortcuts.


However, just because we’re prone to respond in particular ways doesn’t mean we have to be at the mercy of others’ whims. If we are aware of the forces at play, we can employ conscious strategies to help us evaluate content more objectively. This could include taking the time to re-frame an offering to assess its core value, for instance by identifying and stripping out persuasion tactics (such as price anchoring or the use of scarcity) so that you can see what facts you are actually working with.