Sciences of Human Understanding

by Dirk on November 8, 2011 · 3 comments

This article was originally published at Johnny Holland.

The Surgeon General of the United States says that “youth violence is an ongoing, startlingly pervasive problem.” Despite the fact that “the majority of aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes are never reported to the police,” one out of every 3,000 youths aged 10-17 are arrested for serious violent crimes – homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault – each year. While the predictive risk factors include family aspects we might all expect – low socioeconomic status, poor parent-child relations, broken home – many of the individual risk factors apply only to males and the most predictive risk factor of all in this troubling laundry list is simply “being male”.

By now you are surely wondering, “Um, isn’t this supposed to be an interaction design publication?” Yes, of course, it is. But the domain relevant to digital products that is most important, least understood, and represents the greatest opportunity for remarkable growth and advance is the degree to which we understand our users.

To be sure, a focus on users is nothing new. In computing devices it dates back at least to the long-standing Scandinavian tradition of cooperative design, later applied to IT artifacts around 1970. There is an entire subculture in the digital design community built around the idea of user-centered design. Memes about narrative, storytelling and ethnography punctuated the 2000s, and we generally believe we have refined, evolved framing and methods for considering users as part of the product development equation.

Hardly.

Divining Human Understanding
Going back to my opening about the epidemic of violent crime in young males, how well do we understand that problem? It is certainly recognized as a problem, by the highest governmental authorities. A litany of risk factors and predictive models exist, so people more likely to participate in violent crime can be identified by parents and teachers and kept track of as they wind their way through adolescence and young adulthood. Yet, as a society, we dismiss such perpetrators as criminals, animals, evil and inherently bad. We do this despite the fact that there is overwhelming evidence that their gender – a coin toss at birth – and socio-familial situation are the drivers behind their destructive behaviour.

Let’s break those two things down: why gender? To better understand that we need to learn a little about endocrinology, the field of medicine focused on our hormones. Androgen is the term for hormones that stimulate and control the development and maintenance of male characteristics, including those in the Surgeon General’s laundry list of risk factors. There is a long history of castration in human cultures all around the world, as even before the science behind it was understood, people learned that men without testes were far less aggressive. Enlightenment era hero Thomas Jefferson even created legislation in the state of Virginia after the Declaration of Independence was signed, making castration the punishment of choice for a handful of crimes. The amount of testosterone production varies widely from one man to another, and indeed those who are – from the standpoint of modern civilization – cursed with very high levels of testosterone are far more likely to prove unable to stay within the behavioural bounds dictated by our society.

Another critical discipline for understanding behavioural differences by gender is neuroscience. Like most of the United States sick care system, the preponderance of investment in and attention to neuroscience has to do with the work of neurologists, curing brain tumors and other diseases. But it is also the field that best understands from a mechanical perspective how and why we function. Male aggression is actually one of the more complex dynamics within the brain, involving all of the amygdala, hypothalamus, prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, hippocampus, septal nuclei and periaqueductal grey of the midbrain. While the complexity of each of these disparate brain factors’ impact on male aggressiveness is beyond the bounds of this article, needless to say there is a startling amount of science and real understanding into mapping observable brain structure, condition and operation to many critical human behaviours, male aggressiveness that leads to violent crime being only one.

Now, let’s consider the other main group of predictive risk factors for violent behaviour, socio-familial background. As just one example, MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee and Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan have done wonderful work on the psychology of why people can’t escape poverty. In a nutshell, they illustrated that since buying small, everyday comforts is far more costly to the poor than to the wealthy – representing a substantially larger proportion of their net worth – that poverty limits free will and in the process has a resultant drain on one’s overall willpower. Needing to make tough decisions and sacrifices much more frequently than their more affluent neighbours makes it far more likely that the poor will have willpower issues in other contexts. Such as, say, testosterone-fueled moments that spiral out of control. These are economists, studying issues of psychology and sociology, deconstructing behaviour in remarkably insightful ways.

While socio-economic status is only one vector of the socio-familial milieu, the example highlights the ample research and science which illuminates the conditions that finally culminate in serious violent crime. And it underscores an important point: while some criminals might be “bad” in some objective way, many of these criminals are simply very unfortunate people who are victims similar to those they’ve victimized: they happened to be born male, they happened to have high testosterone levels, they happened to be born into poor or broken families. Armed with this knowledge, surely we as a society can do better?

Truly Understanding Users
I’ve chosen the issue of serious violent crime in young males as my example because it nicely applies to all of the five sciences that should be essential learning to anyone serious about understanding users: endocrinology, neuroscience, economics, psychology and sociology. In each of these, crucial pieces of the human behavioural puzzle are provided:

Endocrinology: the study of the endocrine system which secretes hormones into the bloodstream and regulates the body;

Neuroscience: the study of the central nervous system which uses neurons to coordinate our actions;

Economics: the study of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services – crucial to the understanding of individuals in a fiercely capitalistic, free market society;

Psychology: the study of people and groups in order to best understand them;

Sociology, the study of a society in order to best understand that society and its inhabitants.

Needless to say that the role of some of the more social sciences on this list – particularly psychology – are already seen as having a role in successful user studies and understanding. However, the preponderance of research and publications on user studies deal more with principals and practices of the discipline and less with understanding the users themselves, much less in a deep, multi-disciplinary scientific way. The future of design will belong to those who are able to untangle what people do and why, even those who can predict and understand – using a scientific basis – what people are likely to respond to and why and how, as opposed to simply making gut decisions.

As it is a fairly straightforward matter to untangle the objective dynamics behind serious violent crimes in young males using these approaches, imagine the impact you can have on your product, service, company, market or even society if you have the vision, rigor and discipline to start truly unpeeling that most complex and layered of onions, ourselves.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sheila Roseneau July 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Hello, thank you for posting such an interesting article. I’m wondering if you could point me in the direction of prevention programs to target those male youth who have been identified as being at-risk of these types of behaviors?…

Thanks!

Reply

2 Dirk July 29, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Thanks Sheila. The most useful resource I have found is the now-10 year old U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the topic: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44294/

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