Designing Behavior

Applying Psychology to Life

Look into a true artist’s mind.

Quote of the Day

“We do not like to be reminded that, evolutionarily speaking, we are merely stomachs that grew more complicated.”

-Andrew Salter

The purpose of technology.

The purpose of technology is to decrease uncertainty.

That’s what it all boils down to.

Language allows us to less ambiguously communicate (it decreases uncertainty of communication).

Agriculture decreased uncertainty of food acquisition.

Trains/automobiles increase the probability that we’ll make it to a destination by increasing speed (and thus time required for the trek – more time = more chances for something unexpected to derail you).

Computers allow us to build more complex models of different systems, allowing us to more accurately predict their behavior.

Cell phones allow us to call people ahead of time, ensuring that they’ll be at a certain place at a certain time.



Text me, don’t talk to me.

Another friend of mine told me a story about the Apple bus from when he worked for Apple Inc. Once a driver went rogue, dropping off the majority of his passengers as intended at the main Apple campus, and then rolling on towards San Jose instead of stopping at the satellite location, but the passengers were tech people, so withdrawn from direct, abrupt, interventionary communications that they just sat there as he drove many miles past their worksite and eventually dumped them on the street in a slum south of the new power centre of the world. At that point, I think, they called headquarters: another, more obedient bus driver was dispatched. I told the story to another friend and we joked about whether they then texted headquarters to get the email addresses of the people sitting next to them: this is a culture that has created many new ways for us to contact one another and atrophied most of the old ones, notably speaking to the people around you. All these youngish people are on the Google Bus because they want to live in San Francisco, city of promenading and mingling, but they seem as likely to rub these things out as to participate in them.

- Rebecca Solnit


Quote of the Day

“All self consciousness is based on excessive consciousness of the other person. Nobody is discontented with himself unless he is disconnected with his relationships with others. The person who jumps out of a window wouldn’t have done so if he had pushed someone else out.”

-Andrew Salter

Quotes of the Day

If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accom- plish

-David Foster Wallace

Personal enjoyment has become a greater obligation than self-discipline, and brings an even greater sense of failure when it is not achieved

-Slavoj Žižek

(I found these in The Browser Book of Quotations)

Product Hack: Using Loss Aversion to Sell

Lately, I’ve been doing some work with Dan Ariely. Here’s an idea that I’ve received from our collaboration.


Desired Behavior: Buying something

Hack: Give your users money, or credit towards that “something”, and then threaten to take it away.

Why it works: We humans are incredibly loss averse. We are more emotionally moved/motivated by potential losses than potential gains.

How you can apply it to your product: If you want to increase sales of a certain product (or class of products), give users a $5/$10/$15/etc. credit towards that item. However, have that credit expire after a certain amount of time – and make sure that users know the deadline is coming up. For example, alert them 12-24 hours before the credit expires, letting them know that they’re about to lose $5 if they don’t act now.

I’d like to see WillCall  try this out.

Quote of the Day

I think that the medical profession has come to believe a myth that’s propagated by the industry, and the myth is this: That the industry somehow can both be an investor-owned business whose fiduciary responsibility is to enhance the value of the shareholder’s stock, to make as big a profit as they possibly can; that they can simultaneously be that, be in the business of selling drugs, and at the same time be unbiased, neutral, research and education institutions. And doctors have swallowed that in this part of their professional lives even though they know better than to swallow such a fiction in any other part of their life. They wouldn’t go to a Honda dealer and say: What’s the best car to buy? And yet they will ask a drug company sales person what is the best drug to buy. And so, they tell themselves this because it’s profitable.

- Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine


When you’re sick, you don’t want to move. You don’t want to get up. You just want to sleep and rest – so your body can heal itself. Tiredness is a signal that inactivity is desired so that repairs can occur.

Is depression the same thing? Is it the mind’s way of stopping thought, and manufacturing inactivity, so that the brain can heal itself?

This would fit in with the idea that mental disorders like depression are signs of metabolic problems or inflammation/infection.

Love [And Design]

We live in a time of uncertainty.

For millions, the post-college world was a place of recessional scarcity. Many of these people lived off the good grace of their parents. Others were lucky enough to get a startup job. Others decided to become self made men and women, startup founders. Not necessarily out of true passion and interest, but out of necessity.

Yes, necessity is often the mother of invention. But, love is the mother of art – and it’s art that I believe is increasingly scarce in the digital world.

Some people are born to love. They can look into your eyes and intuit exactly how you’re feeling. They know the right things to say, and when to say them. They cry in movies. They relish kisses. Some hug often.

For others, learning to love takes a lifetime. They don’t mind having their co-workers labor late into the evening while they sit at home. They don’t mind telling a white lie to get what they want. For them, the world is a small place that exists in fifteen foot spheres around their bodies.

To them the old adage holds true: It’s a small world, after all.

So, what is love?

Fundamentally, it’s the experience of feeling the emotions and sensations of others as if they were your own. In times of stress and uncertainty, it’s the easiest thing to lose. (1)

So today we have an industry (web tech) built by a population born into uncertainty. An industry built by people with overactive amygdalae. Most people would be happy with a six figure salary, but when you’re in fight-or-flight mode, catastrophes seem much more likely. True security? That’s going to take millions.

And only after that big pay-day can you truly pursue what you love – the thinking goes.

The dirty secret is that there’s no such thing as true security, and the greatest hazard of building a castle around oneself is that it can crumble, crushing the architect in the process.

As we’re seeing in the current world economic environment, inequality brought on by greed and fear just multiplies fear (which then necessitates increased greed). A benevolent king need not worry about his security.

We humans are a cooperative species, and we see no greater heights than when we all bind together. Digitally, we built the Library of Alexandria in just a few years (Wikipedia). In the wake of 9/11, for a short time, the world community bound together in a showing of support. It was both an extremely depressing, and extremely promising, time. Ironically, true tragedy (4) snapped us out of our myopic concerns about survival and self-preservation, and instead prompted us to focus on our shared humanity.

We are at our greatest when we love – and we love most when we accept the inherent uncertainty in life, and see the plights of others not as comeuppances, but as expressions of the inherent instability and unpredictability of the world we live in.

Yes – life is unstable. But a tapestry can hold more weight than a single ribbon. And by healing the pain of others, we too are healed in time.

When we’re building our products and companies, we should focus on solving true pain points. This requires a deep understanding of the people we’re building for – it requires empathy. Manipulation for profit should not be our game. Zero-sum ramification, and addictive reward schedules, is a sign of selfish insecurity. Empathic, clear product design that hopes to heal and delight is a sign of love.

Stop building products that take more from the user than they give. Think about whether or not the world needs a “better way to find cool content” or “another way to view your friends’ photos”.

Can’t find a company that’s building something of true value? Wait. Build your craft. Volunteer. Help others. Strengthen your empathy. Let your community be your fortress and your castle. Lie back in the web of humanity like a hammock, and wait until it’s your time to really contribute and build something special.

Everything we do is for others. And love is really just an understanding of how similar, and interlinked, we all are. Make sure that what you do strengthens others – zero sum is a thing of the past.

I want to end with an old eastern story:

Once a man had a dream in which his hands and feet and mouth and brain all began to rebel against his stomach.

“You good-for-nothing sluggard!” the hands said. “We work all day long, sawing and hammering and lifting and carrying. By evening we’re covered with blisters and scratches, and our joints ache, and we’re covered with dirt. And meanwhile you just sit there, hogging all the food.”

“We agree!” cried the feet. “Think how sore we get, walking back and forth all day long. And you just stuff yourself full, you greedy pig, so that you’re that much heavier to carry about.”

“That’s right!” whined the mouth. “Where do you think all that food you love comes form? I’m the one who has to chew it all up, and as soon as I’m finished you suck it all down for yourself. Do you call that fair?”

“And what about me?” called the brain. “Do you think it’s easy being up here, having to think about where your next meal is going to come from? And yet I get nothing at all for my pains.”

And one by one the parts of the body joined the complaint against the stomach, which didn’t say anything at all.

“I have an idea,” the brain finally announced. “Let’s all rebel against the lazy belly, and stop working for it.”

“Superb idea!” all the other members and organs agreed. “We’ll teach you how important we are, you pig. Then maybe you’ll do a little work of your own.”

So they all stopped working. The hands refused to do lifting and carrying. The feet refused to walk. The mouth promised not to chew or swallow a single bite. And the brain swore it wouldn’t come up with any more bright ideas. At first the stomach growled a bit, as it always did when it was hungry. But after a while it was quiet.

Then, to the dreaming man’s surprise, he found he could not walk. He could not grasp anything in his hand. He could not even open his mouth. And he suddenly began to feel rather ill.

The dream seemed to go on for several days. As each day passed, the man felt worse and worse. “This rebellion had better not last much longer,” he thought to himself, “or I’ll starve.”

Meanwhile, the hands and feet and mouth and brain just lay there, getting weaker and weaker. At first they roused themselves just enough to taunt the stomach every once in a while, but before long they didn’t even have the energy for that.

Finally the man heart a faint voice coming from the direction of his feet.

“It could be that we were wrong,” they were saying. “We suppose the stomach might have been working in his own way all along.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” murmured the brain. “It’s true that he’s been getting all the food. But it seems he’s been sending most of it right back to us.”

“We might as well admit our error,” the mouth said. “The stomach has just as much work to do as the hands and feet and brain and teeth.”

“Then let’s get back to work,” they cried together. And at that the man woke up.

To his relief, he discovered his feet could walk again. His hands could grasp, his mouth could chew, and his brain could now think clearly. He began to feel much better.

“Well, there’s a lesson for me,” he thought as he filled his stomach at breakfast. “Either we all work together, or nothing works at all.”


(1) This is why I think that economic policy is almost always more important than social policy (and why we should weight the economic ideas of candidates above all else). When times are prosperous, and a large portion of the population is able to live comfortably, stress is low – which allows us to be happy and empathize/connect with our fellow human beings. If no one in the world ever had to worry about survival again (food/shelter), I believe that we would see most prejudices melt away.