During my time as a scientific communications intern at HCD Research, I was exposed to a new subdiscipline in my desired career. The internship helped me realize that neuroscience can have a critical role in marketing. When marketing a product or service, it can be really important to do research on the target audience through tools like surveys or biometric technology. Being introduced to interesting components of a discipline, such as applied consumer neuroscience, cannot be overestimated. The research conducted in this particular area serves an important function: to improve the lives of consumers by bettering products, packaging, and communications. Learning about this specific area of research was quite useful for my future endeavors in a career in neuroscience.
I am thankful that the internship broadcast the idea that a successful venture in any field is helped through an interdisciplinary approach. Just as there are many parts to a machine, today’s field of neuroscience includes an array of specialties, all contributing to advancements in the field. I learned important skills, such as adaptability, responsibility, time management, problem-solving, and networking, and discovered just how diligent I need to be to stay updated in such an ever-progressing field.
Proper research focuses on the question at hand and benefits by being well-rounded. Considering the context of research by exploring the public’s opinions and attitudes, as well as the populaces’ fears and desires, can be really important for understanding the whole story. Neuroscience is not just neurons in the brain but ways people behave and respond to the world around them. Through blog-writing, I began to understand how necessary critical thinking skills and creativity are in application to modern problems. We first must address a topic or problem from an objective standpoint, then ponder how market research can step in to propose products or services relevant to the ever-changing customer. I explored the fight-or-flight response and the pandemic-changed society, and researched ways both of these areas are relevant in the marketing world. For both topics, market researchers need to ensure that their stimuli properly communicate the intended message, later improving the stimuli to meet consumer expectations and stay relevant to the ever-changing customer. Research into both blogs tied into the overarching idea that tools from neuroscience can greatly influence market research insights.
I participated in many discussions, the first being a Mindset episode where the importance of consumer research in the complex, novel topic of CBD was emphasized. I also attended a webinar where neuro-driven metrics and predictive norms in the media space were covered. I ended my internship with a presentation of the application of voice analysis, a biometrics program which allows users to analyze recordings or conversations to identify the emotion and intent of consumers, in marketing. My presentation reviews on how tone analyzer detects audio patterns for stress, tempo, pitch, and rhythm. I then looked into the market research application of how voice analysis may help explain consumer reactions. While researching this topic, it helped me consider not only the benefits, but also the limitations of voice analysis. Being aware of the limitations is a very important aspect of research, which was highlighted during this internship. All of these exercises helped me realize how well neuroscience and marketing complement one another—reliability and validity are undoubtedly the most important qualities in research, no matter the application, and many research strategies can be improved through collaborative studies.
The unexpected COVID-19 outbreak called for our nation to change. This change came in all forms: change in hygienic measures, change in store policies, and change in our daily habits. With the pandemic came distress, fear, and panic as we struggled to identify the virus and find ways to slow its spread. Preventative measures needed to be taken. The CDC called for mask-wearing, social distancing, and limited gatherings (CDC, 2020). These changes seemed dramatic at first, as we have dealt with many outbreaks and never taken these types of measures before. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic taught us how to adapt to the changes and innovate with the new circumstances of our lives. Plus, the encouraged use of these preventative measures in our daily lives has reprioritized avoiding disease and awareness of germs. These behaviors can have lasting benefit for us, even after the pandemic ends.
Hand Sanitizer for the Wiser
We all know to wash our hands frequently, clean and disinfect our household surfaces often, and stay away from people when we are sick. However, although intuitive, it seemed like these practices had diminished in importance until being reimplemented and popularized by the current pandemic. Even though these hygienic measures have always been commonplace, reminders and nudges from the media, stores, and government officials made it impossible to avoid these messages. New measures, which may turn into the norm, are being implemented. From wearing a mask to visit the doctor’s office to exercising extra caution when travelling, some policies have informed behavioral trends which are likely to be here to stay. Although it seemed unusual at first, these simple practices have become part of our daily routines (Clavin, 2020). Even though we had to make a conscious effort at first to adjust, actively participating in these new rituals allowed us to become quickly accustomed to grabbing a mask before heading out the door or leaving a little extra room between other customers in the grocery store line.
How do Habits Form?
Think about something that took you a really long time to learn, such as how to play your favorite song on the piano. At first, it was difficult, and much of your time and energy was devoted to mastering it. But after you became more comfortable with the instrument’s features and understood how to produce certain sounds, it became much easier —habitual.
Playing an instrument, exercising, washing your face, and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns. Every habit starts with a psychological pattern, a “habit loop,” which is defined by Duhigg (2012) in a three-part process:
First, there is a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into “autopilot” to let a behavior unfold. This can be a certain time in the day for picking up the instrument or seeing a poster of your favorite artist as you walk home after work. Basically, it is the first push into teaching your brain a new trick.
Next is the routine, which is the behavior itself. Here, we learn this behavior either through practice or just repetition and eventually incorporate it into our daily routines.
The third step is the reward, which is something that your brain enjoys. The reward helps the brain remember the “habit loop” so that the behavior can be carried out in the future (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012).
The Science Behind Habits
Neuroscientists have traced our primary habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition (Duhigg, 2012). The decision-making part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, becomes less active as a behavior becomes habitual. Eventually, the prefrontal cortex activity diminishes as the behavior is mastered. This explains why multitasking is easy while performing a habitual behavior, such as talking to a passenger while on your daily drive to work. Navigating the roads to end up at your destination may seem difficult at first, but after performing it many times, you don’t even need to think twice about what turn to make or what street to park on–you just know. The basal ganglia allow us to carry out these originally complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it by turning them into our automatic routines (Duhigg, 2012).
Habit formation exists in our relationship to products as well. The associations between a customer’s habit and the reward that comes with it may encourage buying behavior. This is how Febreeze or other cleaning supplies are marketed: convince customers that their product can deliver that reward that follows a habit (Duhigg, 2012). Cleaning companies highlight the rewards, such as eliminating odors, to entice customers to adopt the product into their habit loop. During the pandemic, the ritual of wiping items down to stay clean was reinforced constantly by messaging on TV, by the news, and even through the behaviors of others. As individual behaviors changed, companies and marketers took note and aligned their messaging to better connect with their customers. By adjusting to the newly formed habits, the products and companies who adapted stayed relevant to the ever-changing customer.
The New Normal
The pandemic has shifted the ordinary—in some ways for the better. It is evident that the world has been transformed since the onset of COVID-19. Here are a few examples of impactful behavior changes emphasized by the pandemic:
No More Handshakes
Isn’t it weird to reminisce on our old practices, pre-COVID-19? Specifically, our standard greeting: the handshake. Our hands carry so many germs that it is difficult to ever entertain the thought of shaking a friend’s hand ever again. Luckily, this behavior is one of the many impacted by the pandemic and has changed for the better. The classic handshake may no longer be considered the standard way to greet clients, coworkers, or friends, and can instead be replaced by a nod, wave, or warm smile.
Handshakes are just one form of touch that has been dismantled by the pandemic, along with high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs. As we begin to emerge from our homes and move closer together to rebuild our social lives, experts are betting that some degree of social touch will disappear permanently, even after the pandemic ends (Oaklander, 2020). Although we do not know for sure what social interactions will feel awkward or outdated as we move past COVID-19, it is safe to say the way we view human connection via touch has changed.
The Work from Home Life
Prior to the pandemic, allowing students and employees to work from the comfort of their homes seemed like an uncommon luxury, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Since the pandemic started, millions of professionals have figured out how to be productive from their homes. Technological advances made this luxury a reality, causing both educational and office life to have permanent changes. These advances enabled students or workers to log on wherever they are, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that work can indeed be completed at home. Coming out of the pandemic, companies are more likely to allow for flexible work environments, and therefore, individuals may take advantage of remote opportunities.
Telehealth…for Better Health
Working from home is not the only thing to go virtual during these interesting times. Minimizing exposure to large crowds has encouraged the use of grocery delivery services and online shopping. This pandemic has made us reflect on what “essential” means. Even some doctor’s offices have moved to a telehealth arrangement to promote social distancing. Before the pandemic, meeting with our doctor online seemed foreign. COVID-19 has proved to us that although it is nice to connect face-to-face, many meetings or appointments can be conducted successfully virtually (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Care at a distance has brought along with it a large array of benefits for both the doctor and the patient:
1)Reducing the Spread of Infections: Remote medical consultations serve to eliminate the threat of disease transmission and infection among healthcare providers and vulnerable patients (Schmid, 2016). This is key, as it is easy to spread infectious diseases, such as the flu or common cold, in a medical setting where many sick patients may gather in one room.
2) Reducing Stress: Travelling to a doctor’s appointment, along with sitting in a waiting room amongst other sick patients, may be intimidating for some. A remote consultation via a video call can ease the anxiety associated with a trip to the doctor’s office as well as remove the burden of travelling (Schmid, 2016).
3) Increasing Accessibility: Virtual appointments provide more accessibility to the elderly, disabled, or those who live far from their healthcare practitioners and no longer feel comfortable travelling. Whether the reason be due to an injury which makes it difficult to walk or a condition resulting in the inability to drive, virtual consultations allow for more people to have better access to their healthcare providers. Although this type of access is extremely valuable during a pandemic, it has lasting effects with a positive impact.
So, whether you scheduled a virtual appointment or worked from home, COVID-19 has made an impact on your life. As our behaviors continue to adapt with the changing environment, we have a choice to modify or continue certain habits. The habits developed during the pandemic are not all life-altering; some small changes make big differences. Our unhealthy habits and practices can be swapped out for healthier, safer, and less tactile ones, but it’s ultimately up to us to decide what habits stay and what go.
Benefits of Connecting Through the Screen
Video communication services, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Teladoc, now offer different types of video sessions; for example, the first two offer breakout rooms or blurred backgrounds to make it easier to work from home (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Having special features to enhance virtual meetings has enticed a lot of people to take advantage of this offer. As the number of people switching to these video communication services increases, companies and schools are also switching to these services to meet consumer needs and expectations. Fitness studios, schools, and healthcare offices have become hybrid– they still allow the in-person experience with modifications, while still having the option of going remote for anyone who wishes to accept.
Diving into the world of professional virtual sessions was a foreign practice for many industries, but it’s one that might be here to stay (Tigar, 2020). While in-person appointments will start up again, and gyms will reopen, the virtual option will always be available to assist those who are reluctant or incapable of joining in-person. Some individuals simply enjoy the leisure of virtual sessions, and companies or practitioners may benefit from this change too. For example, individuals may feel more comfortable being vulnerable during a therapy session or a focus group in a safe, familiar space like their home (Tigar, 2020). Having a virtual component as an option is a great alternative for many everyday situations we used to believe had to be in-person. Tools like video communication have a positive impact and integrate well to the new circumstances of 2020 and beyond.
Sustaining These Changes
Deviation from our normal routines due to COVID-19 has caused us to pick up new habits, whether they be beneficial (using your commute time to go on a walk), unfavorable (sleeping in until noon), or just different (wearing casual clothes to work meetings). Regardless, the habits we formed during the pandemic may outlast the virus. This includes the habits we have picked up for the safety of ourselves and others, such as mask-wearing and hand-washing, or personal goals, such as waking up early to exercise.
Our ability to adapt and form new habits will come in handy even after the pandemic has ended. We have seen signs in practically every public place that read to “stay six feet apart,” hand sanitizer dispensers on every corner, and even personal protective equipment for sale in just about every store. The pandemic has created a newfound appreciation for our health. We should all strive to continue to listen to the CDC for guidance as the situation continues to change. Behaviors which were once challenging to disrupt, like face-touching, practicing social-distancing, and cleaning surfaces frequently, have now become habitual for many and helped greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The gravity of COVID-19 is immense, and there is no way to know for certain what habits will be sustained, although it’s almost certain none of the habits will last forever (Lichfield, 2020). However, we can understand that forming new habits during the COVID-19 era was much needed and transformed us, as both companies and consumers, for the better. Companies found the value in telecommuting and employees discovered the joys of working from home. Our habitual response to the pandemic brought about significant improvements in many aspects of our lifestyles. While adapting to this changing reality was necessary, we learned that perseverance in the face of change is what allows us to thrive. Most importantly, it helped to remind us that change isn’t always a bad thing…
How to protect yourself & others. (n.d.). Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html
Tigar, L. (2020, May 22). 6 Things We Predict Will Never Go Back to “Normal” After Coronavirus. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.hermoney.com/earn/work-life-balance/6-things-we-predict-will-never-go-back-to-normal-after-coronavirus/
For high anxiety situations, the human body has a natural defense to optimize the body and ward off anticipated attack. This alarm reaction known as the fight-or-flight response occurs in response to the threat of imminent danger and refers to a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is, put simply, terrifying (Sterling & Frings, 2016). The fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either fight, to take on the threat, or flight, to run away to safety and avoid an encounter with the threat.
The term in itself represents the choices that our ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment, such as a wild animal. Going with the situation where the threat was a dangerous animal, the individual could either choose to fight or flee from this animal. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger. A chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help to mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances (Cherry, 2019). These same types of reactions still take place today, but in response to less threatening, low alarm events. The fight-or-flight response is now activated in everyday situations where threat is perceived, such as dodging an unexpected ball from the neighbor’s kickball game or watching a scary movie.
This physiological reaction also is very relevant today in the marketing world, as it is important for market researchers to communicate appropriate messages for specific stimuli. Being aware of the stress response of the consumer during the product or communication experience helps to determine the object’s viability. Market research companies may work with advertisers to produce a TV, magazine, or even bus-stop advertisement to ensure the right response is stimulated. By conducting market research to measure the stress response, companies receive feedback about the impact of their product to make sure it is meeting the mark.
Stress is Never Good…Or Is It?
Stress is a form of psychological or physiological arousal that drives behavior by influencing our decision-making. Although stress is mainly viewed in a negative light, it does have benefits. To paint it in a more positive light, stress can be seen as a burst of energy that advises us. Next time you are stressed out, think of these benefits to motivate you-literally!
Inspires Productivity: Stress brings about an increased sense of urgency, which allows you to achieve your goals by making you more alert and focused on one topic or task (Brandon, 2016). No matter how menial the situation, stress makes you more aware of it and sharpens your decision-making to take the best course of action.
Fuels More Energy: All of this extra energy can motivate you and make you work harder. If you are stressed about something, it highlights your attentiveness and dedication to the task at hand, such as a market research presentation, which shows your company that you value the outcome of your hard work (Brandon, 2016).
Gets Creative Juices Flowing: Next time you make a wrong turn on the way home from work, remember that it is stress motivating you to find an alternate route. This also applies to the business world where the surge of adrenaline sharpens your decision-making and enables you to work to find the right answer to a unique problem. Stress can actually make you productive by helping you find a quick solution.
What separates “good stress” from “bad stress” is the concern or fear of threat. The fight-or-flight response can be categorized as both good and bad stress. It exists as a way to protect us from dangerous situations by making us more alert and prepared to make a decision, which would be to fight or flight. The fight-or-flight response does not always have to be activated by a major crises or catastrophe—it can actually occur as a reaction to common, petty stressors like reacting to the car in front of you stopping short. But regardless of the degree of fear of a situation, how exactly does this response work?
What Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response?
Physiologically, fight-or-flight has a number of common effects, the majority being governed by the hypothalamus, the region of the brain tasked with activating the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s defense mechanism. When a stress response is triggered, this area of the brain activates the production of adrenaline to initiate the fight-or-flight response. After the hypothalamus is prompted by a stressor, our body undergoes three stages of stress:
Alarm/Stress Response: Here, our sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones, which then stimulates the adrenal glands.
Resistance: The threat continues, and now the body must activate at a higher operating level and optimize resources. The adrenal glands trigger the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight reaction to stress. Adrenaline increases heart rate and perspiration, activates the production of cortisol, constricts the blood vessels, and dilates the pupils to allow additional light into the eyes. This results in better vision of the surroundings, slows digestion, and suppresses the immune response. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline dilate the coronary arteries so that the heart pumps faster and certain blood vessels constrict, causing the blood pressure to rise. Rapid heart rate and breathing provide the body with the energy and oxygen needed to fuel a rapid response to danger.
Exhaustion/Fatigue: At this stage, the body has now been faced with prolonged exposure to the threat and has just about depleted its resources (Burgess, 2017). This strains the body, resulting in a tired feeling that lowers activity levels. The stages of stress result in the inevitable behavior response, which explains why runners or spectators may jump at the sound of a gun at the start of a race.
The Mechanism and Anatomy of the Stress Response
It is crucial to explore not only the generated fear response, but also what happens on the microscale to produce this response. Specifically, what happens internally to trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Let’s dive in to get a better understanding of the body’s reactions.
Capping the two kidneys are the adrenal glands; hormones of the adrenal gland help the body deal with stress. The inner layer of this gland, the medulla, releases hormones that handle sudden stress, and the outer layer of this gland, the cortex, releases hormones to help the body handle long term stress. The adrenal medulla secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, or adrenaline and noradrenaline respectively, the two hormones responsible for the fight or flight response (Schraer, 1993). They are secreted in response to sudden stresses, such as fear, anger, pain, or physical exertion. Epinephrine increases the rate of metabolism and the release of glucose by the liver and the rate and strength of the heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rate, blood clotting rate, and sweating. The major hormone of the adrenal cortex is cortisol, the hormone we automatically associate with stress. Cortisol affects the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and regulates the glucose level in the blood. This enhances the availability of substances that can be used to repair tissues in stressful situations (Schraer, 1993). Whether it be walking past a growling dog or watching the “…” for a highly anticipated text message, the fight-or-flight response can occur at any point in our lives. Yet, these reactions are all dependent on how we perceive a threat. Since threats of varying levels can occur in all different types of situations, it is important to consider the magnitude of the response and how it compares to other reactions. This is where physiological markers are useful to monitor individual responses to different types of stimuli.
How Can We Measure a Stress Response?
Measuring stress response can be very beneficial for market researchers as a way to better understand if their stimulus properly communicates the intended message. There are many techniques in use to accurately assess a stress response.
Biometrics are useful indicators of a person’s psychophysiological reactions, specifically stress and attention. Analyzing changes to heart rate and heart rate variability to pinpoint the fight-or-flight response is one type of biometric measure when exploring consumer response. A study from Rowntree (2016) exposed viewers to a horror film to analyze their responses. A total of 15 fight-or-flight responses had been triggered during tense scenes, suggested by the recorded changes in heart rate, skin moisture, movement, and audible reactions during traumatic scenes. Reviewing all of the physiological reactions within the context of the research environment helps to determine the emotional response of participants, but other measures may also add some insight into why the response occurs.
Eye tracking is a great measure to complement biometrics when assessing stress response. Since eye tracking is used as a measure of visual attention, it allows researchers to analyze the duration of fixation and see where viewers focus on a stimulus. Using this measure in combination with surveys or self-reports allows marketers to understand what grabbedviewer’s attention and how the stimulus was perceived. From there, the developers can adjust the stimulus to include visual cues to best direct the consumer only to the most important content as well as identify which information is most appropriate to keep the viewer’s attention.
Biometrics, eye tracking, and traditional surveys are great for evaluating an overall experience. Yet, if you are trying to review the onset of a stressor, it may be helpful to compare it to a stressor purposefully induced. For example, the Stroop Color test induces mental stress to evaluate the participant’s selective attention response. This test acts as a mental stressor due to its ability to activate all parts of a person’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s reflexive response to stress, such as increased heart rate and dilated pupils (Boutcher, 2006). This phenomenon, referred to as the Stroop Effect, illustrates the interference in the reaction time of a task. Participants are asked to acknowledge the text color as opposed to the word written. For example, the word “red” may have a text color in blue. When the name of a color is printed in a different color, a setback occurs as a person tries to process the word’s color. This causes stress, as indicated by the participants’ elevated heart rate and epinephrine levels (Boutcher, 2006). This type of test is helpful and important for marketers looking to understand the driving forces that create the underlying emotions that influence consumer behavior. A 2004 study (Warrenburg) utilized the Stroop test to first induce stress in participants and then used relaxing fragrances to reduce that stress, revealing that relaxing, aromatic fragrances also serve as stress-relievers in that they produce a muscle-relaxing effect.
Proceed With Caution… Understanding the Stress Response for Market Research
The fight-or-flight response can be triggered by both threatening and non-threatening events. This stress response is essential in that it primes the body to be better prepared when it must perform under pressure for any event. Something that does not pose any imminent danger, such as a dance recital, can cause a fight-or-flight reaction even if the event in itself is innocent. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat, enabling you to perform optimally.
Although uncommon, in such cases where a threat is dangerous, the fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response occurs to help you survive the danger. Similarly, the body responds to everyday threats to ensure safety. Understanding the effects of this stress response can help improve advertisements, product designs, or communications to get across their message. For example, a campaign against drunk driving can create a context where anticipation creates a stress response to make an impact on viewers. By conducting market research to get a better understanding of consumers’ responses, the messages may be better received when the advertisement is launched.
Emotions are one of the many things that drive behavior. Fear-based advertisements use the stress response as a tool to evoke a certain emotion in the target audience. Based on how information is shared or displayed, it can discourage or encourage a certain behavior using fearful images, messages, or music. Fear appeals, thus “shock” advertising, which causes viewers to feel tense (Algie & Rossiter, 2008). Fear-based advertising has been seen in smoking, drug, and even sunscreen ads. A study by Leshner, Clayton, Bolls, and Bhandari (2017) has shown that using deceptive and disgusting messages in smoking ads can cause viewers to exhibit an array of defensive responses. For example, to encourage people to apply sunscreen before a day at the beach, an advertisement may include images of sunburns, wrinkles, sun blisters, or cuts. It gives a narrative of what could happen if you do or do not use the product. This marketing strategy has proven effective, as consumers prefer stories and images over statistics (Gorbatch, 2019). Having an in-depth understanding of the target audience, through surveys, interviews, or other forms of market research, allows marketers to better develop content to successfully trigger the viewer’s fight-or-flight response within the appropriate context (Crolley, 2020).
Exploring the fight-or-flight response and how it impacts our decisions reveals what motivates us to pursue certain courses of action. Understanding the fight-or-flight response within different contexts gives market researchers the opportunity to understand why consumers respond the way they do, and in turn, improve the stimuli to meet the consumer expectation. Hopefully by reviewing one of the body’s ways to respond to stress, the fight-or-flight response acts as a testament to the amazing machine we call the human body.
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