Thursday, June 10, 2010

Irrationality and What Should We Do with it

Time to discuss some stuff I've read from books recently. The first book is Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational. It's actually a book for behavioral economics, but can tell a lot about how we humans are wired for anyone in any field. Because it's also quite fun, not too long and well-written, I can recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in human behavior.

In the book, Ariely discusses a lot of different types of circumstances where humans repeatedly fail in rational thinking. Hence the name. A lot of the stuff is actually really familiar for most of us, because we've been down those roads. The book does a good job of pointing out the circumstances where people make bad decisions. If people became more aware of these things, maybe they could make better decisions in the future. Who knows, right? For someone in the HCI field, and game design as well, every tidbit of knowledge about human behavior is valuable. Here are some thoughts I gathered while reading:

Actually my first thoughts were whether we could actually use this kind of irrational behavior to purposefully "deceive" the users. For game design, it's also helpful to know how people form their decisions in different circumstances. This way players could be guided implicitly instead of explicitly when the designer would really like the them to pick a certain option. Most players would likely end up picking the intended option, but they would still think they are firmly on the driver's seat. Actually I think it would be an interesting for game researches to analyze how decision making situations are staged in games (although they may have also done this kind of research already).

And what about interfaces? It's kind of a harder case. Here the designer doesn't want to guide the user into doing something. The idea is for users to get what they want, which is something we really cannot predict. I don't have any particular ideas yet, but I'd like to explore the concept of purposeful deception in usability to produce outcomes that make for a better user experience. Maybe it's a dead end but you never know before you try.

Then again, should we exploit irrationality? After all, it causes people to make bad decisions that can be really damaging to themselves in the long run. Perhaps it would actually be better to make games and applications that highlight our irrationality and make us aware of how it affects us even in situations we consider "too important to fail". Some games do require players to abandon certain types of irrational behavior. A lot of board games for example encourage players to make hard decisions instead of keeping all the options open. In order to win, players need to commit to a strategy sooner or later. It promotes simple folklore wisdom; "if you run after two hares you will catch neither".

This I think is another interesting topic where games could be used for teaching people, more effectively than most learning methods. After all, games are good for experimentation, because players don't lose anything permanently (in most games anyway). Of course therein lies a problem as well: we think differently when we know there is nothing to lose. So even if we learn to avoid our irrational behavior in a virtual world, does this wisdom transfer into real life, where losses are also real? It might be a tough challenge to come up with something that produces real benefit, but something that should be considered.

We are already coming up with games and applications that encourage people to exercise and look after their health etc. Should improving our thinking be the next step? After all, it is our thinking that's the root of everything else.

(I've also re-read Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things but it's something I'll get back to later.)

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