Thinking about the relationship between tools, psychology, and behavior using math as a metaphor

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” — Winston Churchill

What Winston Churchill meant by this quote is that the way we behave is conditioned by the tools that we surround ourselves in. The first tools that we’ve ever crafted may be stones and sticks, but over time, our tools have expanded to include laws, medicine, literature, philosophy, etc. I can’t say for sure what he was trying to imply, but my best guess is that he was warning us against the unintended consequences that the tools we create may have on the way we think and behave.

An example of an unintended consequence is related to the Paradox of Choice, a phrase that psychologist Barry Schwartz popularized through his book with the same phrase as the title. A few centuries ago when food and basic necessities were scarce, the lack of autonomy made us miserable. As the industrial revolution sparked the birth of the modern economy, the increase in options freed us from the wheat fields and enabled us to live a more meaningful life. The economy has grown to the point where there are constantly a bombardment of choices in every big or small decision — from choosing the right pair of jeans to choosing which college to attend. Decisions are mentally draining. This tool created a society with more choice than ever more, so much that people are unhappy being buried in it.

This sparked a question in my mind:

What if you could figure out how our tools shape us?

If we could find the answer to this question, then we can leverage this knowledge to seek out potential unintended consequences that could inform the kinds of tools we introduce to ourselves. We can also use this knowledge to create tools that deliberately change our behavior for the better —i.e. eating healthier, reading more, show more kindness, etc. In the private sector, companies could stay ahead of the curve by predicting behaviors that have yet to emerge and leverage that insight to identify opportunities to enhance that behavior once it emerges. To clarify, by tools I’m referring to any combinations of business models, technologies, social movements, even advertising.

Our behavior isn’t just shaped by our tools. It is also driven by the way our brains are hardwired. While our tools have evolved since our cavemen days, we are no more than cavemen in fancy shoes as far as behavioral psychology goes. So our modern day behavior can logically be conceived as the manifestation of psychological principles in the behavior spaces (to quote Alexander Manu) that our modern day tools create.

Given the four variables — tools, behaviors, relationship between tools and behaviors, and psychology — how might we begin to understand the system in which these variables operate?

To understand any complex system, it helps to emphasize and deemphasize certain aspects of that system using metaphors. To make sense of relationships in a complex system, mathematics is a suitable metaphor as math is in essence about relationships.

If you had completed grade 10 math, this formula should seem familiar to you:

y = mx + b

This is the formula for a line: x and y represent coordinates on a 2D graph, m is the slope of the line, and b is the constant, where the line intersects the y-axis. The magic of this formula is that you can solve for what’s missing when you have three of the four variables.

We can use this formula as a metaphor to understand the system comprised tools, psychology, and behaviors.

The four variables of the math metaphor can be mapped onto the four variables of the system:

  • x = tools
  • y = behavior
  • m = Relationship between tools and behavior (slope)
  • b = psychology (constant)
Looking back through human civilization, we can plot a data point for every new behavior enabled by the introduction of a new tool. (e.g. affordable transportation introduced the behavior of deciding where to live, whereas people previously lived their entire lives where they were born)

Now, this is an oversimplification of things. I’m not suggesting that multifaceted ideas like behavior, tools and psychology can be measured by a few numbers and plotted with a straight line. I’m using the metaphor of a math formula to surface the macro relationships between the four areas.

If we plot a trendline between all the data points from our history and find the slope, we can extrapolate what new behaviors will be introduced by new tools.

With that in mind, if we plot our long history of tools and their resulting behaviors on the same set of axis, we might be able to find a correlation between the two that we can assign to the variable “m,” he slope of the line. And if psychology is a constant, we would then know what the variable b contains. With those two pieces, if we’re given x or y, we could solve for the other.

If we can figure out what behaviors a new tool will introduce, governments can create policies proactively than reactively; companies can be smarter in their innovation and investment strategy to serve the future needs of their future customers; If we know what tools will drive a desired behavior, we can be more strategic in addressing wicked problems like obesity and climate change.

To play my own devil’s advocate, this mathematical way of thinking about the system of tools and behaviors is a tool in itself. There are infinite levels of “meta” that can be incorporated into this train of thought. In programming terms, it’s like a recursion loop without a return function. It looks something like this:

y = mx + b;
x2 = y;
y2 = mx2 + b = m (mx + b) + b;
y3 = m(m(mx + b) + b) + b

What do you think? Would you math as a metaphor for systems thinking?