Julian Jaynes writes in “Consciousness Illusions” about the illusions we have about consciousness: We don’t need to be conscious to do everyday activities (speaking is one example of an activity that doesn’t require a plan or decision before the actual act occurs); consciousness is not in everything we do and it is not necessary for learning. To drive the point home, the illustrations from “Visual Illusions” proves that our mind interpolates information and can give us illusions about reality. Take the Adelson Illusion for instance. Blew my mind. I was in disbelief that those two shades of gray were the same until I covered the other squares with paper and isolated the squares. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, makes the same point in his TED talk.
If our brain is fooling us to believe that something is true when it isn’t, what decisions are we unconsciously making as a result of these illusions? Ariely presented this an ad from The Economist as an example of our unconscious decision-making:
Web subscription only: $59.00
Print subscription: $125.00
Print and web subscription: $125.00
In a survey with the three choices, 16 percent chose the first option and 84 percent of the people chose the third option (none chose the second, for obvious reasons.) But when the second option of “print subscription only” was removed, 68 percent chose the first option and 32 percent chose the “print and web” option. When the second option was included, the “print and web” subscription simply looked like a better deal.
This sort of “trick” happens everywhere. For instance, I bought a pint of blueberries off the street yesterday for $2.99. Now, I’m well aware that the fruit vendors in New York only deal with bills, and that $2.99 really means 3 bucks and I’m not gonna get that penny in change and that’s fine because it’s just a penny, right? Somehow, buying a pint of blueberries for $2.99 seems like such a better deal than buying a pint of blueberries for $3.00.
This brings us to the question of free-will: how many of our choices are actually ours and how many are the designers? As much as we like to think of journalists as completely unbiased, there’s always some point-of-view to a story and a message they’re trying to get across. The way that a journalist presents a story affects our opinion of the situation. Similarly, designers also have biases that are translated in their designs, and we make choices, however unconsciously, on these designs. I think we do have the free-will to make an unbiased choice, separate from the designer’s, and that’s by first being aware of our cognitive limitations. Then, we can be more aware and more suspicious of the things that are presented to us and make a fairer assessment of our choices.
Furthermore, as designers, we could leverage our cognitive limitations design things that get us to make better choices. In Lunch Line Redesign, an article that appeared in the New York Times last October, Brian Wansink and David R. Just suggested a new way to design a school cafeteria. Simple changes, like giving food more descriptive names (“creamy corn” rather than “corn”), has coaxed kids into making healthier food choices.
Behavioral psychology is fascinating, and it’s something that all designers should take into account. I look forward to thinking about these sorts of issues in my future projects.