Thursday, September 10, 2015

A history lesson

Last week, I pulled out an old (is 2008 old?) behavioral science-based personal growth book from talk radio personality Melanie Robbins to see if there was anything in there to add to my arsenal of design techniques. 

Normally, I don’t put much faith in this domain for having any scientific foundation, but Melanie Robbins could be an exception. I discovered her purely by chance, when a radio show that I liked went off the air and I was nudged over to hers.  This is a good example of serendipitous discovery (the kind that the filter bubble created by Facebook and Google destroys).

I found a few nuggets of insight and some good terms to adopt from the book.  But perhaps the best Easter Egg was a set of references she put in about self-delusion.  Imagine my surprise that a personal growth book had real scientific references.  And because self-delusion is one of my favorite topics, I had to look up the papers.

From what I could see, self-delusion research emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, just after WW II and at the beginning of the cold war.  I wonder if there was a link here.  There was clearly some self-delusion going on during the war about what Hitler was doing that shocked the world when we finally opened our eyes.  We also had some huge self-delusions about the Soviet Union that were burst when WW II transitioned into the cold war.  Perhaps it was this realization that led to a concerted effort to study self-delusion more rigorously.

One of the great realizations was that the ability of people to self report their thoughts, feelings and even activities was sorely biased by self-delusion. Up to that time, much of the psychology research relied on self-reports for its data.  If most of it is of questionable validity, the findings are too.  Oops. 

In another great example of self-delusion, psychologists continued (to this very day even) to use self-reports.  Psychology researchers are deluding themselves that they can use self-reports and that their subjects are not biased by self-delusions of their own. 

I think this is why I talk about self-delusion so much.  It is a frustration of mine that despite the fact that researchers and designers know that self-delusion is a problem, they continue to ignore it.  Every time we tell ourselves that we will stop after just one potato chip and then eat the whole bag, we should recognize anew that self-delusion is real and common.  But it makes life harder, so we pretend it doesn’t exist. We do research that is faulty and we create designs that don’t work.

And now I know that this has been going on for 70 years.