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The Unconscious Problem Behind Our Problems

Eugen Eşanu

Designer and casual writer. Currently building

When Solving a Problem, You Usually Have Two Ways</em>

There are two ways you can create value. One way is to find what people really want and then sell it to them. Or you can find what you can make and then find a clever way to sell it people
— Rory Sutherland

Why Do We Buy Ice Cream During Summer Only?

The obvious answer to this is “Duh, cause it’s hot outside!”. But you can doubt that people eat ice cream only because it’s hot outside. This is more related to the sun, rather than temperature itself. Some of the countries which consume the most ice cream are New Zealand, Finland and Sweden. And I don’t see these countries with the best hot weather on the planet.

In Europe, Sweden, Finland and Norway have the most ice cream sales per capita. For us, hot weather is an excuse to eat ice-cream, but maybe in Finland or Sweden, a sunny day is so rare that they don’t need a reason to eat one?

When solving a problem, you usually have two ways of doing it. Either you want to seem that you are solving it and use logic, or you find the real cause of something — which often may sound irrational.

Why You Really Clean Your Teeth?

Another interesting irrational example is that people don’t clean their teeth because they want to have healthy teeth. If we take the hyper-rational person out of the way, the rest are doing it mostly because they don’t want to have bad breath. You don’t start caring about them unless you start feeling pain. You are more likely to clean your teeth when you go out with friends or for an important meeting rather than doing it routinely each morning and evening.

But if you are that hyper-rational being which wants to minimise tooth decay, then why are you not cleaning your teeth after each meal? What about that chocolate you just had 5 minutes ago? Or that snack along the way? But given a different context, going on a date, it comes as a must for some.

It is characteristic of scientific life that it is easy when you have a problem to work on. The hard part is finding your problem
— Freeman Dyson

Why Do People Go to See a Doctor?

This may seem like a silly question, but really — why do people go to see a doctor? Excluding emergency cases, you may say that when they feel ill, they need treatment. But I would say that most often it’s because they need reassurance.

Most people don’t seek treatment but reassurance that they don’t need to stress about a pain they have. If you want to solve the problem of unnecessary doctor visits, work on a system that cuts through the clutter of unconscious need for reassurance.

Some of these cases may be solved through a phone call, or send a recorded message with symptoms and then get a reply. But of course, this has broader applications. This is a great way to work on your microcopy when designing, for example, the clinic app or something that involves patients. This way, through a well-written microcopy, you can assure people that everything is alright and they don’t need to stress. This way, you reduce mental pain and increase customer satisfaction.

For example, if you have some weird symptoms, but if you find out that the disease is widespread and can be easily cured, you become less anxious. This way less eager to see a doctor and wait for a phone call. Or treat it yourself.

Changing someone’s behaviour through rational means may not be the most effective solution. Understanding the unconscious barriers and removing them or maybe creating a different perception of context may work better.

If you want to change people’s behaviour, listening to their rational explanation for their behaviour may be misleading, because it isn’t “the real why”
— Rory Sutherland

Small Solution for a Bigger Problem

Similarly, you can solve the problem of climate change. For example, you can say about how polluted the ocean is or how polar bears are dying. You start bringing awareness to this through social media, and you can be seen as a hero. Or you may be seen as less logical and suggest that the best way to save the climate is to design better recycling bins. Redesigning the bin in such a way that it motivates more people to recycle more. The latter is more effective and will have a greater impact on the environment, but first is seen as a more logical solution.

We tend to believe that there must be a big cause of a big problem, but often it’s small changes which have a big impact.

Value Perception: The Power of Price

Do you like poetry? Most people don’t. And if I would suggest you to go and listen to a two-hour lecture about poetry, most of you would say no. But what if we change the context here. There’s this theory that price often dictates how we value something, even when applied to identical products.

One group of students were asked if they would listen to their professor read poetry for 15 minutes if they were paid $2 each. 59% said yes. Another group were asked if they would pay $2 to come and hear their professor read poetry. Only 3% said yes. Both groups were then told that the performance was now a free show, and subsequently asked if they would like to attend.

Of the first group, only 8% agreed to come to a performance that they previously thought someone would pay them to attend whereas 35% of the second group of students decided to come because a lecture with a perceived $2 value was now free!

People underestimate the influence of emotions on their decision-making. They believe their behaviour is because of some other rational factors.

Hot vs Cold State

People make different types of decisions depending on whether they are feeling calm or anxious, settled or aroused. In a study conducted into patterns of decision-making amongst judges, it was found that more lenient sentences were consistently handed out at three specific times of the day: early morning, afternoon, and early evening.

These times corresponded precisely with the routine lunch breaks of judges. When the judges were satiated, they were more forgiving; when they were hungry, they were more mercenary. And without knowing who you are, I know that when you are hungry and go into a supermarket, you are more likely to grab that pack of chips or chocolate.

The Liking Bias

Would you reward someone a bit more only because is looking more attractive than others? Rational logic says no. But there is such a bias called “Liking — Getting on by looking good”. We often make decisions purely based on whether we like the person involved, regardless of the rational pros and cons of that decision. That’s why good looking people earn on average 12–14% more than their less attractive counterparts.

The Partitioning Principle

People can be nudged towards certain behaviours by merely making one journey to it easier or more difficult. A study by Cornell University showed that the amount of drink someone pours and consumes could be influenced by the size of the glass they use. Even experienced bartenders poured 20.5% more into short, wide glasses than tall, slender ones.

If you want people to drink less alcohol in bars, combining this with table service so that punters have to wait to top up can significantly reduce alcoholic intake.

We Can Only Focus on One Thing At a Time

Goal Dilution — when multiple goals are pursued, they are less effectively achieved than goals pursued individually. The more goals attached to a single task, the lower the association between this task and each goal. As a result, people prefer activities, tasks and products that serve single purposes.

Small and individual tasks are far less “stressful” than big ones. How tasks are presented and broken down affects how motivated we are to start and finish them.

For example, if a company specialises only in mattresses, we assume that their mattresses are of a higher quality than a company which makes mattresses and furniture. More features you add to a product, more their perceived quality decreases.

Two researchers found that an increase in the number of simultaneous goals that can be satisfied via a single means weakens the perceived strength between each goal. As a result, people perceive the factors as less effective for the attainment of each goal. Products or steps that are connected to multiple goals are less likely to be chosen and pursued when only one choice is given.

That’s why having too many things to focus on a web page can distract us and increase bounce rate. Or we might not finish that survey or onboarding because there are too many things asking for my attention. Give them to me step by step.

We are bombarded daily with tons of information, and all we need is someone who knows us better and can guide to better behaviour through small steps.

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