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#21 Freud's chair, perversity, and how to solve problems
It’s Design Lobster #21 and this week we’re psychologising. Exploring how difficult it can be to successfully incentivise behaviour, and what meaning there might be in a psychoanalyst’s chair. Please, have a seat.
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Question: What are perverse incentives?
Above: Preventing a perverse incentive – Hello Kitty style.
As designers, we are often engaged with helping & encouraging a user to perform particular actions. This might be as simple as holding something the right way up, or as complex as customising a car. To nudge them in a particular direction, we might be tempted to incentivise them somehow with a benefit. But we should take care that the incentive will truly cause the effect that we intend.
Take the case of Delhi during British colonial rule. The government there was concerned about the growing population of venomous cobras and so put a bounty on the head of each snake. This worked initially to reduce their numbers, but soon enterprising citizens began to breed cobras in captivity to secure a steady income. When officials discovered what was going on, they cancelled the scheme and the farmed cobras were released, causing the wild population to boom.
Or there is the horrifying case of the Duplessis Orphans. In the mid 20th century the Canadian government paid about $1.50 more per day per patient to psychiatric institutions vs orphanages. This created a perverse incentive for the Province of Quebec to falsely classify orphans as mentally ill to increase its budget.
Perhaps my favourite comes from Thailand, police there who had committed an infraction had been required to wear a tartan armband as a badge of shame. However it instead became a sought-after collectible. As shown in the photo above, they removed the incentive by changing the armband design to hot pink Hello Kitty. Not so tough guy any more.
Perverse incentives are a cautionary tale for anybody trying to affect human behaviour. They illustrate the complexity of intervening in systems without thinking through the second and third order effects. Designers, take note!
Design takeaway: Are you sure that none of your incentives are perverse?
Nerd out on one of my favourite Wikipedia pages.
Object: Freud’s Chair
This rather sinister looking chair belonged to Sigmund Freud, of psychoanalytic fame. It was commissioned from the Viennese architect and designer Felix Augenfeld in 1930 by Freud’s daughter Mathilde. She had noticed that her father had developed the curious habit of reading with his legs hanging over each arm rest and his neck unsupported. This chair – one-of-a-kind – was designed to accommodate that position, with padded arms to support under Freud’s knees and the unusual back rest that gets wider towards the top.
I can’t comment on the long-term musculo-skeletal effects of sitting in a position like this, but I like the instinct Mathilde Freud had to design something based on observation. To accommodate the instinctive behaviour. What I find curious though is how alive the design choices have made the chair seem. The chair has a poised, anthropomorphic quality, and seems somehow to be watching you.
Design takeaway: How do you sit? What would your ideal work chair look like?
…more on the other famous Freudian contribution to furniture design – the couch.
Quote: “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
– Albert Einstein
Designers intuitively understand the importance of thinking about things in a new way or from a different perspective. Here, Albert Einstein backs us up – pointing out that a fresh type of thought equals a fresh type of solution. Smart guy.
Keep discovering. 🦞
PS This week I took part in an online seminar on technology ethics run by my friend Alice Thwaite. If you work in technology and would like to learn more about how you can bring an ethical framework to the decisions you make then I highly recommend taking part in a workshop with her company Hattusia.
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