Us and the Other Us

As part of our ongoing research on the Incidental Effect, we’re working our way through another huge array of books, papers and lectures across all sorts of areas, from product development to behavioural economics to social psychology.

Very often and fairly obviously, the concepts and ideas overlap, repeating in different forms from source to source. In the same way, our own approach is an interpretation on existing materials and research, complemented with as much original testing as we can afford, but very little in comparison to what we process from elsewhere.

But within this research, something particularly clever and apt has stuck out amongst all the cleverness and aptness.

The Social Animal by David Brooks doesn’t necessarily have anything in it that hasn’t been said before.

One of his central arguments is also something that comes up a lot: that humans make sense of the world through narratives. But What is so effective in The Social Animal is that Brooks’ doesn’t just say make this statement, he applies it to his entire approach to the work – he integrates his often highly complex arguments into a novel.

As we follow the story of Harold and Erica, we either look at their actions through the lens of scientific asides or share in the self-improvement and research that these main characters are doing themselves.

Brooks never says outright, “I am using the format of a story because you, as a human being, will be able to process my research more effectively within a narrative framework, because that’s how your brain works.” But we know he’s doing it anyway. And we don’t care. Our experience and enjoyment of that story isn’t affected by knowing that we are kind of being tricked. And, through that enjoyment, we absolutely do process and remember all the complex research far more effectively.

Overlapping with this approach is another asset that Brooks has in common with the best social psychologists, behavioural economists and anthropologists: he knows of and discusses his own cognitive idiosyncrasies and limitations. We know that the trick he is performing on us is something that he would appreciate himself.

Which leads back to something that we always use to explain our approach. We set out to bury new, positive behaviours into desirable, useful products because we know that this desirability and usefulness is a far more effective vehicle than behaviour related messages, information and campaigns.

On the one had this might look patronisning: we, a self-appointed group of do-gooders, have to trick them, a mass of consumers with a poor ability to make decisions beyond their immediate needs and desires.

But that’s not it at all. It’s not us and them, it’s us and the other us.

We all have a reflective cognitive system that is rational, logical and capable of longer-term planning and more rounded decision-making. We also all have an automatic system that is emotional and immediate. In one sense, these represent the clever us and the stupid us, but more accurately it represents the us that has the time and capacity to assess and consider and the us that has to process vast amounts very quickly of information and make automatic decisions – both are important and they interact and support each other in complex ways.

The problem, of course, is that we live in a world where the automatic system is easily manipulated by tasty looking cakes.

So we have to design environments for decisions that harness this system and, often protect our selves and our society from it. Sometimes this is by using our strong emotional response to stories to increase understanding and recall of useful information. Sometimes it is by building good collateral effects into primarily emotional choices.

Just as Brooks clearly prefers stories to dry academic texts, we prefer nice, useful products to messages.

Essentially, one us is making stuff for the other us.

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