Arctic15, and the Scientist’s Guide to Conference Hacking

Today is the day! Arctic 15’s latest edition is right around the corner – as I’m sure our readers will have noticed from our subtle call-to-conference carpet bombing of the last few days. As is tradition, the idea of conference hacking, albeit no longer a new trend in entrepreneurial fashion, tends to be thrown around a lot preceding business conventions. Today’s guide, however, will take a slightly different angle.

Many hackers’ guides to conferences come from the echelons of seasoned veterans with personal experience of what does and doesn’t work – presumably with some closed deals to give credit to the hacker’s CV. This is not to say anecdotal, yet hands-on exposure to busy convention halls should not be taken as an entrepreneurial edict of its own. However, there is the off chance that telling the story of the survivors – that is, of those who made it out with a satisfying bag of loot – could muffle the far bigger picture of those who didn’t.

This is a classic case of the survivor fallacy; and while it would surely warrant a discussion of it own we’ll contend with humouring the thought – for now.

What sort of advice, then, should conference hackers incorporate into their battle plans?

If we strip down what most people will need to get what they want out a conference to the bare minimum, we’re left with action, participation and efficiency. Action, because you are the master of your own fate, and must therefore also be the lead actor of your play – and thus, ideally, act accordingly. Participation because you’re seeking something out from a community of people, and it is therefore logical that your participation and engagement with said group is imperative. Efficiency? Well, that’s just an added bonus I’m sure is in most of our agenda anyway.

But participation and efficiency are intrinsically linked to what you do, and action will thus be the key factor in order to hack the rest – and ultimately, the conference itself.

So, action, that is, behaviour, being our key interest, it won’t surprise you how much the science of psychology has to say on the matter. As per usual, a nosedive into the vast jungles of academic research will form the backbone of today’s guide to hacking A15 with a toolbox of science.

Theory and Application: The Manual

Whether you’re going for the entertainment or seeking a life-changing investment, attending a conference such as A15 means you’ve got a set of goals in mind – and to attain those goals, you need to act upon them. My standing argument will be that those amongst you who want to optimise their chances of achieving their goals will benefit from two kinds of hacks: the hands-on applications as well as a more in-depth understanding of why those applications work.

Therefore, to make sense of the former, we’ll start off with the latter

In psychology, action (behaviour) does not take place in isolation. That is, there is always a context. Much like A15, many contexts are significant enough to warrant evaluation of the situation, and planning our behaviour accordingly – otherwise you can kiss goodbye to efficiency. By planning our behaviour well we can predict and more accurately control our position in the environment of interest. “Hack”, and conference hacks by extension, are at the level of your behavioural output a means to increase your chances of doing the things that need to be done. But to get a better grasp of how to do this (and strategically manage it), a good thing to know would be the kinds of processes that take place in your mind when you plan for a specific behaviour.

So we’ve pinpointed action planning as our ethos of interest. What says science?

A lot.

Too much in fact. With over 3 million scholarly hits when you search for the psychology of planning, you’ll find that the topic is simply too broad as it is. This is no surprise: the field spans across all disciplines of psychology – from the nitty gritty neuroscience to grand-scale surveys of social and organisational psychology. The mountain of scholarly jargon quickly becomes overwhelming if you don’t know where to look.

But, luckily for us aspiring conference hackers, I know a few places where we can get started.

A Framework of Planned Behaviour

Unsurprisingly, a reliable framework for predicting human action has long been amongst the most sought after chalices of behavioural psychology. It remains, of course, decisively unclaimed (otherwise you would know by know) yet some considerable discoveries have been made in the last decades. However, of the predictive behavioural templates out there, few are as fervently discussed and cross-validated as the theory of planned behaviour (1) or TPB for short

Gaining it’s truly disruptive traction in the early 90’s. TPB is a modernised extension of the theory of reasoned action (TRA) which championed the landscape of prediction scholars from the late 70’s throughout the 80’s. Both theories are built on the assumption that intentions, that is, plans, are at the root of our behaviours (2). However, TPB being the exact same as TRA plus some added bits, only the former of the two will be discussed.

So why is this relevant? Well, in short, there is a considerable body of literature, i.e. evidence, to support TPB (3). Think of it this way: in any experimental science, finding evidence is like finding gold – and the rush will by default attract fellow prospectors. Theories which stand through science’s attempts to disprove it (through what is known as falsification)  have a potential for a broad scope of impact and attract wide attention and schools of thought.

That being said, it isn’t just because of evidence that TBP has any relevance for our purposes (although evidence does make it worth considering). Rather, its well established components, attitudes, subjective Norms and perceived Control, make it intuitive to understand – and consequently apply in the real world.

Attitudes, in this context, refer to one’s behavioural beliefs regarding the outcome of an action. In other words, if you have the belief that a particular behaviour will lead to positive things, you’ll also have a more positive attitude towards it (making you think of the behaviour as favourable).

For example, you might, for some reason, have the belief that tying your bosses shoelaces will make them give you a promotion, so your attitude towards this risqué course of action during a meeting will be positive. So far so good.

Subjective norms are essentially formed by double checking your potential behaviour with your normative world of reference. This is a fancified way of saying that what other people would think about your behaviour – and the extent to which you cared about their opinion – influences your likelihood of engaging that action.

There’s a reason why expressions like “what would [insert name of important relative here] think about this” exist and feel very intuitive in their ability to dissuade us. This is because they draw upon our subjective norms. In behavioural situations, the idea is very much the same, except it takes place in the confines of your mind – all the time.

The more important the person is, and the more you seek to live up to the hypothetical expectations your representation of them might have, the more they will influence where your subjective norms stand. So, going back to the shoelace example, if you presumed your boss thought it was a dumb idea and would get you fired – and you cared about their opinion greatly – you might pull the plug and decide eating a bisquit is a far better thing to do. Then again maybe you hate your boss and couldn’t give a flying sh…oe about what they thought –  which would make the intention of tying their shoelaces even more likely.

The last piece of this puzzle is perceived control, which is essentially a belief system around your ability to perform an action. In other words, it’s more or less how feasible and likely an action is in terms of its “resources” –  that is, what’s holding you back and what’s not. In other words, like the term itself implies, perceived control is just how much control over the behaviour you think you have, not in the sense of impulse control, but rather direct, accessible control.

Let’s illustrate this (again, with shoelaces): you’ve decided you want to follow through with trying your boss’ shoelaces, but suddenly you realise that you’re not sure if you know how to tie anyone else’s shoes but your own – this will make the behaviour appear more out of your control, simply by not having the skills or experience to engage it. Alternatively, you might have great confidence in your stealthy shoe tying skills – making your control and consequently your intentions towards that behaviour more solidified.  

However, perceived control remains the “volatile” as well as the most intriguing piece of this puzzle, simply because the level of control you perceive to have over a behaviour, in the sense presently discussed, is more contingent on your own subjective interpretation of the context than attitudes or norms, which could be seen as being less changeable simply by having a more direct basis on previous experience.

In other words, it’s not rare for people to vastly over- or underestimate their abilities. Additionally, perceived control has two avenues of influence: your intentions, that is, your plan of action, as well as the effective behaviour itself. These instances are illustrated in the shoelace examples: if you have no experience tying other shoelaces than your own, you might not want to do it for the first time in a potentially embarrassing situation; however, if you’re apt at mirroring the act in your mind, your control of the behaviour will appear more accurate, thus partially sidestepping the notion of planning to do something by the simple belief in the knowledge that you can pull it off.

What triggers perceived control is varied but the rationale is that increased feelings of control are prone to increase the extent to which one is willing to put the effort necessary to act in a specific way. But when this perceived control is inaccurate, all kinds of possibilities open up, including mistakes.

This is an important observation to make, because intentions, or plans, by no means equate with behaviour, as has been systematically shown in the past. Like the tragicomic proverb goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

An Actual Piece of Advice

So where does this all leave us? Well, if you got this far, we could say you’ve got a basic grasp of some broad operations that your brain undertakes when planning your next move in realspace. This should ideally give you a better understanding as to why people might behave the way they do, and perhaps to a lesser extent predict such behaviour – by thinking about attitudes, their norms and perceived control. Previous research has been quite effectively linked models such as the TPB with very significant behavioural patterns such as substance misuse (from smoking to drugs and alcohol); how likely you are to use protection during sex; get a cancer screening or even use a seatbelt (4). It isn’t hard to see how it might decrypt some of the things we do wrong in a convention either.  

But how then to translate what we want to do to what we actually do. Well, the best hack I can comfortably leave you with are implementation intentions (5). And the principle by which make use of is quite simple- and when I say simple, I mean it’s really, really simple.

Pretty much just use a “if X then Y” template on what you want to achieve. Rinse and repeat.

Okay, I’ll elaborate: specifying when, where and how to act in order to achieve a certain goal will make create a strong cognitive association between your mental representation of those formalised intentions and the behaviour itself, as long as you do it in a rule-based fashion. So, essentially, by telling yourself in your mind that if you encounter X you’ll do Y, your perceptual alertness to the if part of the statement (that is, X) will bridge your tendency to perform Y with minimised interference by convoluted operations required to plan an action on the spot. You might be thinking that this is ridiculous, but unlike the theory of planned behaviour, implementation intentions is, to a large extent, evidenced not only by behavioural studies but also through physiological measures, including heart rate, cortisol expression (stress measures), eye movements as well as neural correlates obtained through electroencephalography and brain imaging, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging. Across the board, implementations intentions have shown to be effective in supporting action control.

So the superlative “hack” for appropriate action, and thus for participation – and thus for efficiency – lies in the (perhaps infuriatingly) simple idea of making your behaviour more automatically available in your brain, by mentalizing “if → then” functions. Talk about a near literal hack.

Just try it yourself, it’s simple:

  1. Write down your desired goals
  2. Identify what you think you should do to achieve those goals (keeping in mind the what, where and when)
  3. Write them down into an “if x then y” statement.
  4. Repeat the statement in your mind for a few minutes every once in a while throughout the day.
  5. Proceed with hacking A15 (or any conference of your choice).


  1. Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 179-211.
  2. Madden, T. J., Ellen, P. S., & Ajzen, I. (1992). A comparison of the theory of planned behavior and the theory of reasoned action. Personality and social psychology Bulletin, 18(1), 3-9.
  3. Armitage, C. J., & Conner, M. (2001). Efficacy of the theory of planned behaviour: A meta‐analytic review. British journal of social psychology, 40(4), 471-499.
  4. Glanz, K., Rimer, B. K., & Viswanath, K. (Eds.). (2015). Health behavior: Theory, research, and practice. John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Wieber, F., Thürmer, J. L., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2015). Promoting the translation of intentions into action by implementation intentions: behavioral effects and physiological correlates. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 395.