Designing for the non-conscious

Design interventions targeting the non-conscious mind have turned out to be far more powerful than communication targeted at the conscious, rational self


Non-conscious designs have been developed to induce drivers to drive safely on the road, to make people more honest while filling up tax forms, to increase on-time payments, to reduce mis-selling by insurance sales personnel, and more. Photo: HT
Non-conscious designs have been developed to induce drivers to drive safely on the road, to make people more honest while filling up tax forms, to increase on-time payments, to reduce mis-selling by insurance sales personnel, and more. Photo: HT

The greatest discovery so far about human behaviour is that more than 99.9% of brain processes occur at the non-conscious level. In addition to the huge capacity of the non-conscious, there is ample evidence that it is 5 to 10 times faster in processing as compared to the conscious. That this non-conscious drives almost all our decisions has met with a mixed response.

There are many who are sceptical about this discovery. They are like the “flat earth theorists” who were alarmed with the discovery that the earth is round. However, there is a small minority which has realized the potential of this new discovery much before others. This small minority on the brink of a paradigm shift has already gained significant competitive advantage.

The knowledge that the non-conscious drives behaviour can create a huge impact across various fields: redrawing policy decisions, corporate strategies, directing innovation and design, redefining morality—in short, everywhere that human behaviour plays a role.

Let’s take an example of road safety. The message in the rear-view mirror of your automobile, “the objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”, is a perfect example of what is wrong with traditional communication strategy—the assumption that a direct communication to the conscious would automatically lead to the desired behavioural change. The automobile maker, having displayed this message on the rear-view mirror, can tick the check-box and be satisfied regardless of whether this actually helps the driver avoid accidents. But despite this overt communication, the driver’s brain cannot but see the objects in the mirror as farther away and cannot respond appropriately.

In various sectors, from improving financial inclusion to inculcating healthy habits to improving tax collection, the world of policymaking is strewn with rear-view mirror equivalents of communication. We are simply communicating the desired response rather than eliciting those responses through design. These perfect messages targeted at the conscious, rational self yield suboptimal results.

The inefficiency of the traditional communication has been the bane that policymakers and corporate strategists have had to endure for long. The solution is to leverage the fast, efficient non-conscious processes of the human brain to influence behaviour.

How do we communicate to the non-conscious? In the last few years, several studies have shown that it is possible to communicate at a threshold below human consciousness. While academic studies have shown effects of subliminal messaging in controlled lab environments, I have not come across too many successful real-world examples of this type of communication.

In the last few years, the new paradigm that has emerged is “designing for the non-conscious”. Such designs are not subliminal. Instead, they are apparent to the target audience and change behaviour, but the target audience cannot link their changed behaviour to the design itself.

Here is an example of how non-conscious design was used to manage the problem of open defecation. Studies have shown that one of the reasons why people continue to defecate in the open in spite of having a toilet at home was that the routine seemed longer in a closed, dark toilet than in the open. However, they were not able to articulate the reason for this feeling.

Looking through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, one realizes that this exaggerated perception of time is a result of the darkness inside a typical non-electrified rural household toilet. It is this understanding of how the brain perceives passage of time in dark spaces (some of these inferences are evolutionary in nature, while others are culturally hardwired) that leads to the non-conscious design solution—a small translucent rectangular opening on the door of the toilet. This design intervention serves to correct the perception of passage of time. Having corrected this perception, the user is more predisposed to defecating in the toilet. While he would have surely noticed this change, he cannot articulate the reason behind his behaviour change. This is non-conscious design in action.

Similar non-conscious designs have been developed to induce drivers to drive safely on the road, to make people more honest while filling up tax forms, to increase on-time payments, to reduce mis-selling by insurance sales personnel, to mitigate the problem of girl-trafficking, to improve airline ancillary sales, to improve adherence to Parkinson’s medication and many more.

These interventions have turned out to be far more powerful than communication targeted at the conscious, rational self. But this approach to behaviour change communication raises an obvious question. Do I, the government, or anyone else, have the right to change one’s behaviour without one’s conscious awareness? How do we create an ethical framework to ensure that non-conscious designs do not lead to undesirable manipulations?

I have no doubt that this new understanding of human behaviour is a very powerful tool to influence human behaviour. This knowledge in the wrong hands can lead to undesirable outcomes. It is also true that anything new, more so paradigm shifting ideas, brings with it the fear of the unknown. But one thing we should avoid is the panic reaction of the Luddites. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

The world has a lot to gain by tapping into the biological reality of the non-conscious.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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