Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire
Why Future Design Firms Should Leverage Behavioral Insights to Shift the Mindset of “Majority Rules”
I live in a pre-war, five floor walk up apartment building in manhattan. Needless to say there are a lot of things that are outdated and in need of repair. Since I’ve moved in there a year and a half ago, there have been two false fire alarms in units on the floor above me. Both times it was just a malfunction in the alarm — no one had even burnt toast.
A couple of months ago I was trying to sleep through the continuous construction noise that has been disturbing my sleep since the first day I moved in. I can now say I know the distinct difference between the sound of a drill, a jackhammer, and the construction truck backing up, going forward, lifting, and dumping. As I tried to sleep through this unpleasant melody, I heard a different sound faintly pierce through. It was an alarm.
It was about 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning when I realized the noise was coming from inside my building and not from outside my window. In my drowsy state of mind I thought “Ugh when will they get that stupid alarm fixed already?” But then my instinct kicked in and I thought, “Shit. What if there’s a real fire?”
I grew up with two overprotective parents when it came to anything safety-related. When I went to ride my bike with friends as a kid I not only needed a helmet but I also needed knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards and double-knotted sneakers. I was able to fight my dentist father from wearing the mouth guard, but it was a close one. As I stubbornly tied that really necessary double knot on my shoelace, I was told the same expression my parents reiterated for years — “Better safe than sorry!” Apparently it stuck.
My adrenaline kicked in and I raced toward the door. It didn’t feel hot. I looked out the peephole and I couldn’t see smoke. I opened the door just a crack and I couldn’t smell smoke. I went out to the stairwell and didn’t see a single person. I ran to my window and didn’t see anyone go outside for safety either. I started to wonder if everyone in my building had just assumed it was another false alarm and they were ignoring it. The people in the unit of the unnerving alarm must be taking care of it… right?
It was hard to think clearly with the alarm ringing in my ear on only a couple of hours of sleep, so I woke up my roommate and friend that had been staying over and clued them into what was going on in the past minute that I’ve been awake. They assessed the situation and said it must be another false alarm. But something in my gut was not sitting well.
Why was no one else panicking?
It felt strange to even question or assume that someone else was taking care of the situation when I had no evidence supporting this. I looked over to my room and saw my bed in the distance just waiting for me to crawl back into, and for a moment I considered it. But then I looked at my front door and knew I needed to follow my instinct. I decided I would quickly run upstairs to knock on the door of the unit above me and double check everything was okay, but if no one answered then I would call 911 right away.
After a couple of poundings on the door, I heard footsteps coming my way. Immediately a sigh of relief came over me and I thought “Ah they’re okay and they’re taking care of the situation.” A young woman about my age opened the door in complete confusion. White smoke enveloped the entire apartment and I was stunned. The woman, wearing a bewildered look on her face, rambled that she just woke up from my banging on the door. I couldn’t believe she slept through the blaring alarm. A moment later a man appeared through the smoke explaining that they accidentally left the stove on all night, while he was simultaneously leaping throughout the apartment opening up every window. Thankfully, there was no fire.
If you don’t see other people panicking, should you?
Studies on behavioral insights prove that people are more likely to follow the behavior of the majority. For most people, seeing that other people are calm would alleviate their innate behavior to panic during times of distress. But for few people, it would exacerbate it. I happen to be in this minority. Sure you can call me paranoid, worrisome or even neurotic. But I prefer to call myself logical, rational and independent.
I recently sat in on guest lecturer Hefen Wong, expert in Behavioral Insights, in my New Design Firms course at The New School. Wong provided a Framework for Changing Behavior that highlights four methods. These include include making things easy, attractive, timely, and social. She demonstrated how each of these methods were determined by real life events and how they can be applied to better a company’s business model.
One method in particular that fascinated me was “social.” Wong explained that more times than not people will follow what the majority of people do or want. She showed two videos that represented the same situation but with different outcomes, solely based on whether a person would follow their instinct or follow the crowd. It reminded me of the incident I encountered a couple of months ago.
Although Wong depicted this method with real life events, she explained that design firms offer these behavioral insights to companies in order for them to better reach a mass audience. For example, if a company states on their website that product A is their most popular item, then other customers are more likely to purchase product A, too. To me it is the epitome of “power of persuasion.” On one hand, I completely see how this is beneficial for companies to market themselves in order to make the most profit. But is it moral? Perhaps. But isn’t it fair to say that the minority group also hold value in believing and thinking the way that they do? Why not harness these beliefs and determine a way to leverage them, rather than just exploiting on the notion of “majority rules”?
I believe the future of design firms lies in the core value of empathy. This means starting with a human-centered approach. I believe behavioral insights could be taken a step further to discover why people follow the majority. Why not solve for how people can be encouraged to follow themselves? People should be empowered to make decisions based on their own beliefs. Design firms of the future can aid companies to help consumers do so by targeting a multitude of needs, while still remaining profitable and successful. I believe studying behavioral insights holds more data than what is currently being challenged.
It’s just a matter of following this instinct.