Designers should understand users make most decisions without rational thinking

Susan Weinschenk is a behavioral psychologist and her book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People was one of the first books I read about the psychology of design. Since then she has been my hero. In one of her online classes, Brain and Behavioral Science, she states that around the year 2000, researchers within the field learned that most of the decisions we make are unconscious. In fact, up to 90% of our decision-making is unconscious. Susan said that:

 We often like to think that we’re like Mr. Spock in Star Trek, and very rational and logical. But we’re not. And, if you want to really reach people, if you want to communicate with them, if you want to persuade them, you need to figure out how to talk to the unconscious part of their mind.

Daniel Kahneman has contributed greatly in shaping this new view on decision-making. He is a psychologist that has spent his life working on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on behavioral economics. He’s pretty good at what he does in other words, and in his famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explains that our brain has two systems: An automatic (System 1) and the effortful (System 2). Kahneman writes:

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 on the other hand, allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it

When System 2 is active we humans experience that we are in charge, we are concentrated, and we are making decisions. But System 2 consumes glucose at a fast rate so it’s not possible for us to stay in System 2 mode for too long, therefore most of our decisions are made by System 1. When System 1 makes a decision and passes it on to our awareness, to System 2, we experience that the decision made by System 1 is the intuitive one. We also experience that we have made a conscious decision even though we have not.

Let me give you an example. Jonathan Gottschall describes an experiment that a team of psychologists made in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. They placed 7 pairs of socks in a box and asked shoppers to pick the best pair. The shoppers choose a pair after examining the socks and gave a full story that explained their decision. The chosen socks had the nicest color, softest texture, etc. But, all the socks were identical. Still, the shoppers told themselves stories that made the decisions seem rational.

System 1 System 2