“A pineapple covered in duotone paint.” by Cody Davis on Unsplash

Designing for the Elephant in the Brain

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about and everyday life. In fact … that is the subtitle.

The book is a compendium of perspectives on why human beings are not only capable of acting on hidden motives — but designed to do so. The central argument runs as follows:

Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep “us,” our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.

In short, our motives are often more selfish than we admit to others, and importantly, to ourselves. From Healthcare, to Advertising, to Education and Charity, Robin and Kevin do a good job of highlighting where the research doesn’t quite tally with the narratives we apply to our actions.

Elephant in the brain. An important but unacknowledged feature of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.


As UXers, as advocates of the user, we should be helping users get to the crux of what they want to achieve. Understanding the hidden motives of users, is central to helping our users achieve their goals.

This elephant is, metaphorically, in your brain. Photo by Ash Edmonds on Unsplash

We must take these covert agendas into account when thinking about product use, or risk radically misunderstanding it.

I’m confident that if examined in the light of the these hidden motives we could explain why many of our best-intentioned product designs failed to take off. Another addition to add to the long list of reasons why a Product may fail to catch fire.

Is all my User Research wrong?

The research highlighted in the Elephant in the Brain concludes that we are strangers to ourselves and cannot consistently be trusted to know our own thoughts. Not all, but many of our answers to ‘Why?’ questions, many of our justifications, many of our ‘becauses’ are suspect.

This immediately introduces doubt into User Interviews and Questionairres.

Thankfully, the design community shares a certain skepticism around these methods. It is standard practice to observe what users do, rather than what they say that they do. So no need for panic stations. Nevertheless — techniques like the 5 Whys do interrogate reasons and motives. They are begging to be met with rationalisations that make the user look good.

Should we wave goodbye to the 5 Whys? No— but it is perhaps further grounds for skepticism in terms of the narratives we accept from users. It is a reminder to have suspicions on those occasions when multiple rationalisations are possible and our users choose the most flattering.

More importantly, probing deeper is unlikely to uncover the truth as the user may be genuinely unaware of their own motives.

“Chess pieces on board with child in the background” by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

On Status & Signalling

A central theme in the book is that we have evolved to care deeply about social status due to its importance in evolution — for both survival and reproduction. And that we seek opportunities to signal our status to others.

Most products then offer a mix of personal value and signalling value. While many product designers understand the importance of brand value, and on the importance of self-signalling, i.e. of allowing a user to create a positive image of themselves as a result of using the product, it is less commonly heard in UX circles of the need to allow users to signal their status.

People don’t typically think or talk in terms of maximizing social status … yet we all instinctively act this way.

Of course, this makes complete sense — talking about base motives like status-seeking is considered unsavoury. It is unsavoury to speak about it and indeed to accept that we may be so driven by it.

But remembering this, we should be distrustful of designing experiences that solve a purely rational goal, that does not appeal to the selfish nature of our users. More so, if this rational goal runs contrary to a beneficial signalling opportunity.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

On Opportunities for Good

Many products provide opportunities for user altruism; from charitable donations to helping their fellow users. Other products pull on the lever of social norm-enforcement to nudge users to perform these socially beneficial actions — like saving on electricity, donating organs or sustainable consumption. In both cases, the research outlined in Elephant gives us pause to consider how these behavioural nudges can best be implemented.

In experiments carried out by Griskevicius et al. subjects were asked to consider buying green or non-green products in two different shopping scenarios. One group was asked to imagine buying online at home, while the other was asked to imagine buying off-line in public. The experiment found that when subjects are primed with a status motive, they show a stronger preference for green products when shopping in public, and a weaker preference for green products when shopping online. In other words, the motive was not only to help the environment but also to be seen as being helpful. Perhaps Joey Tribianni in Friends was right to claim that there’s no such thing as a selfless good deed.

The take-away is if we want altruistic features to live up to their potential we need to provide opportunities for our users to be socially rewarded for their behaviours.

Playing to the crowd

From a signalling point-of-view there are multiple approaches we can take to offer value to users. In short, anything whose primitive analog may be seen as being advantageous to achieving prestige amongst our peers. Introducing features that allow users to display any of the following, is likely to attract usage.

Loyalty. Products or features that function as badges of social membership of subcultures and tribes.

Being in the know. Giving users the opportunity to display occasions of being cool, of sporting the latest fashions or of being ahead of the curve.

Intelligence. Interests or affiliations that advertise that the user is intelligent and/or knowledgable. Think Rubik’s Cube as advertisement for being smart.

Ambition. In many circles, ambition gets a bad rap. Yet it is a great social signal, and predictor of later success.

Health-consciousness. Survival of the fittest, means eating those greens.

Conformity. Another one that gets a bad rep in our individualistic Western societies — yet one that we secretly value quite a bit. We look to team players and those who reliably uphold social-norms to maintain a well-functioning group that we can trust.

And it’s not just the products themselves that signal our good traits, but also the stories we tell about how or why we acquired them. Here, is where the branding experience comes into its own, as it crafts narratives with users to better signal what it is our users want to show the world about themselves, through their material possessions and habits.

Source link https://uxplanet.org/the-ux-of-hidden-motives-d096120a6a?source=rss—-819cc2aaeee0—4


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