On Conventional Thinking

Most of my design education has been self-taught, and I read as much as I can, perhaps to compensate for not having a formal design degree. But I've found design intersects with many other topics; engineering, ethics, biology, economics, social systems, etc. One of the more interesting intersections has been psychology and neuroscience. If we are designing for humans, there's a lot of value in understanding how our minds work and perceive the world around us. I read Thinking, Fast and Slow, Systems Thinking for Social Change, and How to Speak Machine (all of which I would recommend), and there's an interesting thread between them about the disparities between how our minds make sense of the world and reality.

Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes our brain running an automatic system, and a logical, reflective system. Systems Thinking for Social Change refers to a similar process of conventional thinking, as opposed to systems thinking. And in How to Speak Machine, John Maeda describes our tendency to think linearly instead of exponentially. While each of these are describing different aspects of how we think, there's also a common disconnect. These processes fail us and cause us to act in ways that often seem illogical.

I'm going to use the term "conventional thinking," to describe our default perception of the world. While it can be easy to blame these processes as faulty or problematic, but that would be an oversimplification. Our automatic systems are mostly correct and allow us to interact with the world successfully without much thought. That's why it's so jarring when they fail us. When we see something move in our peripheral vision, we expect it to be alive, though it could be a leaf blowing in wind. Similarly, it's hard for us to understand how investing in clean water for impoverished areas can also increase the population's level of education and provide space for new businesses. Or that longer prison sentences established by mandatory minimums would fail to deter crime and only exacerbate the problems that create crime.

The problem with conventional thinking isn't that it's often wrong, it's that it's easily tricked. Our reflective thought systems are more judicious but are often lazy. We have to mentally shift gears to engage them. I've been thinking about this problem and how it relates to our social context and technology. The internet is devilishly deceptive. Because we interact with it so frequently, we feel like we understand it. But it's a foreign world, and it behaves differently than our physical world. We don't really have a grasp on what we've created. For example, I think the cultural polarization we see today is a result of our automatic systems engaging with the world online. Our brains struggle to process the exponential impact of what we share and the feedback we receive. Likewise, it's challenging to determine the effects of an algorithm that promotes more of the content it thinks you'd like. And beyond this, our automatic processes are being exploited. By self-promoters and campaigns that want people to engage with their content, by companies wanting us to buy their latest product, by people spreading misinformation who wish to see our social systems crumble. This isn't a problem that is specific to a particular demographic, it's a human problem. We're being played, and our automatic system is responding exactly how it's designed.

I don't have a solution for this problem, but I think awareness is a good first step. It's very hard to engage your reflective system when you're always online. To me it feels like input overload, and everything starts to sound like static. The only thing I've found to be helpful is intentionally stepping back to reflect and do research.