“Reality” is the way that we experience the world, and as such, there is no one reality. There are as many realities as there are human beings, and we all construct our own whether we are conscious of it or not.
I believe there are four main things that shape reality.
Let’s start with education. Education is a reshaping of the way people think (and therefore behave). We are trained at a really young age on how to see and interact with the world. More often then not, we are trained in non-integrative thinking, which philosophizes that the boundaries of the world are set and we must accept unattractive tradeoffs when resolving conflict. We tell young children, “life isn’t fair” and “that’s just the way it is”, but we don’t often ask them to imagine how might things be.
At other times education is focused on retraining the brain and getting us to see the world in a new way. Byron Good speaks about how medical students start to see people as a compilation of anatomical parts. This is really useful for someone learning to be a doctor, so long as they have the ability to switch frames and see people as people.
Design education retrains the brain to see and understand new realities. We ask that question that wasn’t posed to us often enough as children – “how might we reimagine the world?” In design training, we are given the tools of empathy building, design research, and defamiliarization so that we can see the world with new eyes. It’s essential to understand the realities of the people we are designing for. But much like how doctors must see humans as both anatomical parts and as people with feelings and fears, designers must dance between the realities of those we serve and those in which a solution lies. We are warned by Don Norman and Roberto Verganti to not become trapped in the current paradigms of a problem space, and lose your ability to see new ones.
Language and thought also shape reality.
Authors Dubberly, Mehta, Evenson, Pangaro give an example of how education reframes language. “The way we usually think about healthcare is bound up in the language of our healthcare system.” Which means the way we approach healthcare is limited by the paradigms of the system. These authors advocate for a shift, a reframe, in the way we think about and approach healthcare. They advocate for giving the responsibility of healthcare back to the patient, and have the patient envision themselves as the healer.
Language is another construct of the world we are taught at a young age. Keith Chen’s study on language tells us, “Languages that don’t have a future tense strongly correlate with higher savings.” Which means Eastern languages see higher rates of saving money for the future. This is as simple as saying “I will save for a house” versus “I save for a house”. The omission of the word “will” reframes the way the speaker thinks about their actions and in turn correlates with higher savings.
Steve Rathje says, “Metaphors can reframe the way we think.” He gives the example of a recent Stanford study, in which half of the participants were told that crime as a “virus infecting” the city. For the other half, crime was described as a “beast preying” on the city. The two different groups had very different ideas on how crime should be dealt with. Those with the “beast” metaphor thought that crime should be dealt with by longer jail time. Those with the “virus” metaphor thought crime should be dealt with using more reformative measures that addressed the root causes of crime.
Language and metaphors don’t just reframe the way we think, they reframe the way we behave.
Keith Chen wonders, “Why is it that we allow subtle nudges of our language to affect our decision making?”
I believe that we allow this to happen because we are not conscious of it. Rarely do most people monitor their thoughts and take the time to understand the outcomes of their thoughts.
Sunni Brown, is the author of the Doodle Revolution. She talks about we can use visualization to create new imagine realities. She says, “I believe that we contribute to our current situations more than we’re often comfortable with accepting.”
She is referring to the fact that our thoughts dictate the way that we experience the world. That we actually create reality through the way we construct our thoughts.
As designers, it’s important to remember how we are shaping and reframing the world through design. Ian Bogost warns that technology has it’s own purposes. He says that humans are ceding their lives to the world of machines and that human goals are now being influenced by technology’s goals.
This is dangerous because it steals from us our agency as humans. As designers, I believe it’s our responsibility to help people become unenslaved from the realities that have been created for them, and to be given the power to see the world in new ways. To see the world how it might be.
What subtle nudges are shaping the way you behave? How might we take control over our realities?