Design and behaviourism: feedback and social traps

2 minute read

Studer (1970, The Organization of Spatial Stimuli) discussed applying operant conditioning principles to the design of environments (such as buildings), by treating them as “learning systems arranged to bring about and maintain specified behavioral topographies…What operant findings suggest, among other things, is that events which have traditionally been regarded as the ends in the design process, e.g., pleasant, exciting, comfortable, the participant’s likes and dislikes, should be reclassified. They are not ends at all, but valuable means, which should be skillfully ordered to direct a more appropriate over-all behavioral texture.”
— Dan Lockton (2011) Design and behaviourism: a brief review

The whole article is a really interesting read for both designers and people involved daily in the creation of objects and spaces that are going to be used by people. So… I think pretty much anyone. :)

Another good part is at the beginning when he clears a common misconception between positive and negative reinforcements:

It is important to note here that in Skinner’s terms (1971, Beyond Freedom and Dignity), positive and negative reinforcement do not imply ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and negative reinforcement is a different concept to punishment. Positive reinforcement is giving a reward in return for particular behaviour; negative reinforcement is removing something unpleasant in return for particular behaviour.

There are a lot of interesting details like the two I cited above, but another summary that you can find in the text is about the different social trapscategories (Cross and Guyer, 1980):

  1. Time-delay traps, where the lag between a behaviour and a reinforcer is too hight for it to be effective (“the high school dropout who, avoiding the present pain and unpleasantness of school, finds himself later lacking the education which could have prepared him for a more rewarding job”).
  2. Ignorance traps, in which people fail to make use of generally available knowledge when making a decision.
  3. Sliding reinforcer traps, in which certain behavioural patterns continue long after the circumstances under which that behaviour was appropriate, producing negative consequences
  4. Externality traps, where the reinforcements relevant to the first individual may not coincide with the returns received by the second (“if you spend a lot of time choosing your dessert in the cafeteria, you will not suffer anything, but all the people behind you will”).
  5. Collective traps, in which reinforcements or consequences will be paid by a group of people based on behaviour by one or more.

It’s interesting for me because as you can see all these categories are in a way or another a mismatch between the action and the received feedback, a mismatch that can be on different scales: type (positive good, positive bad), intensity (nothing, not enough), time (delay).

Take 10 minutes of your time and read the article, it’s worth it. :)

(thanks to Gianandrea for the tip)