By Gordon Rugg
This article is the last in a short series about finding out what people really want. I’ve explored that topic via discussion of idealised dream buildings, to see what regularities emerge and what insights they provide into people’s dreams and desires.
In today’s article, I’ll pull together strands from those discussions, and see what patterns emerge.
Detail from: “Neuschwanstein Castle above the clouds” by Arto Teräs – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Neuschwanstein_Castle_above_the_clouds.jpg#/media/File:Neuschwanstein_Castle_above_the_clouds.jpg
Idealised buildings tend to be tall, gleaming and elegant. They’re pretty to look at.
Beneath this apparently simple observation, there’s a deeper set of regularities in what people like, and what people want.
One set involves life scripts, in the Transactional Analysis (TA) sense. These take forms such as “bigger than yours” or “look how humble I am” or “blending in with the crowd”. These scripts have big implications for sustainability, because some of them by their very nature produce systems pressures in a particular direction. An architectural example is the competition among architects and developers to produce ever taller skyscrapers, regardless of whether there is any real need for anything over half a kilometre tall. At a humbler level, there’s the familiar script of “being one up on the Joneses” producing a pressure for bigger and more expensive houses, cars, etc.
It’s important to note that life scripts don’t all produce systems pressures in the same direction. There are scripts such as “blending in with the crowd” and “keeping it simple” which produce pressures towards stability, or towards downsizing.
This is where social institutions, such as tax systems and planning regulations, can weight the payoffs from different life scripts into different directions, and channel competitive life scripts in ways that are less likely to cause collateral damage to society at large. For instance, if there was a high-prestige award for most accessible building or for most family-friendly building, there would probably be significant changes in the focus of architectural design, towards more human-centred features.
A related issue involving outward appearance is the perception of buildings as 3D sculptures versus buildings as functional artefacts.
This takes us into the mathematics of desire; the regularities underlying many of human aesthetic preferences. I’ve blogged about this previously, with particular reference to a fascinating article on the topic by Ramachandran and Hirstein. This is also the topic of an entire chapter in my book Blind Spot, where I pick up on some of the possible implications. For instance, people tend to prefer symmetry where possible, with balance as a second preference if symmetry isn’t possible.
This shows up strongly in the design of buildings, but also in other areas, such as justice (e.g. the idea that the punishment should mirror the crime) and in beliefs about history (e.g. the idea that major events should have major causes, as opposed to the “butterfly’s wing” concept that a small cause may lead to major effects).
Surface appearance versus deeper reality is another problem with far-reaching implications, if people are treating buildings as giant sculptures.
Human beings are very good at processing visual information and seeing patterns within it. However, human beings are really bad at working through things step by step. In more technical terms, people are very good at parallel processing and pattern matching, but not very good at serial processing. I’ve written about this crucial distinction previously here.
In the case of buildings and of life dreams, these characteristics mean that humans are likely to be seduced by the outward appearance of a visually beautiful building or lifestyle, and likely to fail dismally at thinking through the implications. A lot of wonderful dreams crash in a heap when they hit brutal questions such as “Who would clean it?”
This doesn’t mean that all beautiful designs and beautiful dreams are built of candyfloss on a foundation of clouds. On the contrary, a lot of designs and dreams are beautiful because they have a brilliant design, where form and function mesh seamlessly. This is where brutal questions and careful task analysis can help, by quickly separating the superficially attractive from the deep-down attractive.
Keeping it too simple
A lot of dream houses and dream lifestyles are simple, without the messy clutter that occurs everywhere in the real world.
There’s a strong argument that this type of simplicity is attractive to people because it reduces cognitive load. Human beings have to spend a lot of time working out solutions to messy, minor, problems that are too big to be ignored, but too small to give any feeling of satisfaction when you solve them. In a dream world, such as the ones portrayed in most architectural designs, life is free of such mundane trivia, so clean-limbed, strong-jawed heroes and heroines can stride purposefully towards their noble goals without having to worry about whether the next paving slab is loose, or whether the next door is pushchair-friendly.
Unfortunately, that isn’t how the real world works. Designs need to be grounded in the realities of the world, not in a set of fantasies.
This leads us into the next theme, which is about human perceptions of reality.
Construing, fantasy and reality
At one level, there’s a well-established distinction in western society between reality and fantasy. A particularly useful concept is that of suspension of disbelief, where the person knows that something is fantasy, but is choosing to treat it as real for the purpose of entertainment.
At another level, though, the distinction isn’t always so clear. Again, this brings us back to human weakness in sequential logic.
People are fairly good at seeing what might happen from a given situation. They’re far less good at assessing how likely a possible outcome is.
One useful way of describing these strengths and weaknesses is via the concept of possibility spaces. For instance, buying a lottery ticket opens up the possibility space of winning a fortune on the lottery. Winning a fortune on the lottery then opens up the possibility space of buying a mansion. Does this mean that you’re likely to win a fortune on the lottery? That’s a whole different question. At one level, winning the lottery and buying a mansion is a fantasy, because it’s not realistically likely to happen to the person buying a particular lottery ticket. At another level, though, it’s a real possibility; someone is going to win the lottery, and that person will be one of the people who bought a ticket, not one of the non-buyers.
This leads in to classic optimism bias, which is also more complex than it appears at first sight. More than one error researcher has pointed out that optimism bias is what keeps humanity going as a species. If we all made “rational” decisions not to find partners, have children, apply for jobs or try anything new, on the grounds that statistically most of those attempts would fail, then humanity would die out pretty rapidly. On the other hand, if you’re having to wrestle with a building design that causes you a lot of hassle because the designer was optimistic about how the design would work out, then you’re likely to take a dim view of this particular bias…
So, what can we conclude about people’s dreams and desires from looking at idealised dream buildings?
- Life scripts are important
- Some life scripts introduce competition and instability; others don’t
- People are disproportionately influenced by surface appearance
- There are regularities in what people like in surface appearances
- People aren’t usually good at thinking through implications
- The line between fantasy and reality isn’t clear cut
One particularly important theme that’s been in the background throughout this set of articles is a deceptively simple-looking concept: People can’t know what they don’t know.
For life goals and dreams, people can’t know the full range of what’s possible. This has huge, far-reaching implications for areas such as politics. How can you make decisions about public policy if the voting public can’t know what they don’t know, and if they’re therefore limited and biased in what they ask for and vote for?
This is pretty much the same question that’s at the heart of finding out what a client’s requirements are. Fortunately, there are well-established methods that let you tackle the problem swiftly and efficiently. I’ve written about this in various earlier articles on this blog, both from the viewpoint of requirements gathering and from the viewpoint of design. The section on elicitation in this article gives an overview, and contains links to those articles.
There’s been a fair amount of research into using similar approaches to investigate people’s dreams and goals. Some of it has been in market research, such as Gutman & Reynold’s use of laddering to unpack goals and values. Some of it has been in clinical psychology and related fields, such as work in the Personal Construct Theory tradition that used repertory grids and laddering for very similar purposes.
As far as I know, there hasn’t been much research into systematically using the more recent work from requirements acquisition to investigate people’s desires and dreams. It’s a topic that I’m getting into, via various strands of research, in spare moments when I’m not dealing with messy, minor, problems that are too big to be ignored, but too small to give any feeling of satisfaction when I solve them…
Notes and links
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
Overviews of the articles on this blog: