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The Sirens

How can a product designer use conscious design to affect behavior? Let me introduce you to one of our enemies, the harmful behavior that produces joy. Smoking, drinking, watching TV, cheating--you name it. In my practice, I call them Sirens.

SIRENS: In Classical Mythology, Sirens were monsters that were part woman, part bird, and were known to lure sailors to destruction with their seductive singing, crashing the boats into the rocks.

A Siren is a temptation that appeals to our primitive selves, even when we recognize them as being detrimental to ourselves. This is one of the most obvious behavior problems we all can relate to. When we sit down and reflect on our actions, the things we deem important don't always correlate with what we end up doing in everyday life. Our rational, cold-thinking selves cannot keep our irrational parts in line, and we end up taking some actions we vowed not to do.

The brain dual system theory can explain this phenomenon. It states that we have two functioning systems in our brain: a rational, conscious self in charge of planning and logic, and an automatic system that seeks to satisfy our immediate needs and keeps us functioning (if you haven't heard about this one, go to the source). Our conscious system is expensive to use, so our bodies only use it when it's strictly necessary.

Ulysses' Pact

Luckily, Classical Mythology also teaches us how to deal with Sirens. When returning from the Trojan War, as told by Homer in The Odyssey, Ulysses escaped the Siren lure using behavioral design. When approaching the islands where Sirens dwelled, aware of the danger they posed to the ship and its crewmates, but not willing to lose the chance to savor the Siren's song, Ulysses devised a plan. He instructed his men to tie him to the mast, ordering them to ignore whatever he may say while under the sway of the spell, and to stuff their ears with beeswax to dampen all sounds. When the Sirens sang their irresistible song, Ulysses fought to follow them to certain death, but his earlier actions kept him from doing so.

Using his rational thinking, Ulysses restrained himself, knowing that an irrational version of himself wouldn't be able to fight the temptation of the Sirens. This same strategy has been used to design products that allow us to make pacts with ourselves and help us keep them. One of my favorites, and one of the most literal takes on this strategy, is K Safe, a box that only opens after some time has passed.

Siren Amulet

Another ancient strategy to deal with this problem is using an amulet to help drive the Sirens away. An amulet is a magical small piece of jewelry that protects the wearer against a particular evil, danger, or disease.

Unfortunately, magic is not a force that can be relied on, but you can use an object to make your rational system “wake up” and help remind you of your logical decision. It doesn't have to be tangible--for me, when I stopped smoking because my wife was pregnant, it was the thought of becoming a dad.

To choose your amulet, you should be aware of how to wake your rational side effectively. System 2 (rational) is awoken by unexpected or powerful stimuli, so choosing something you really dislike or something especially bright could work better. Most famously, Mementos Mori is a charm that reminds the user that they are mortal and usually depicts skulls and bones.

I haven't seen any product design following this strategy, so I have worked on a design for a physical product that uses this concept as a base, but it is still not commercially available. If you are interested, let me know.

Peer Support

There are times when an amulet is not enough, and there is no possible way to restrain yourself ahead of time. In those cases, we use the help of other people to help us be better. Jane McGonigal's SuperBetter has a strong component of peer support. In SuperBetter, you recruit allies (friends, family, and community) who help you stay on track while improving your quality of life.

If you really want to be controlled by your peers, offer them a reward for catching you not keeping your promise. Let's say I want to run every Tuesday; I can tell my friend that if I don't show up to run with him, I must pay him ten bucks. Next time I want to skip a day, I will have more motivation to show up and a penalty of money and pride if I fail to do so, and most importantly, somebody to force me to be true to my commitments.

Commitment Devices

A commitment device is what we call these strategies as a whole when you restrict yourself, modify your environment, or allow others to take punitive actions to help you achieve your goals. I tried to show you some ideas on how a designer could use these things to get people to change.

Do you have any commitments your users want to do, but they fail to stick to them? Let us know!

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