Psychological Futures and Human Behaviour

Futures work is a branch of design that seeks to translate trends, ideas, and imagination based on data into visions of where we might go. What happens when we bring psychologists along?

The popular deployment of generative AI tools has put ‘futures thinking’ into our collective imagination front and centre. We humans love futures thinking — fantasizing about what might happen. (I used to spend my days working as a stock clerk at a grocery store imaging all I would do if I won the lottery).

The joke among those of us who do futures work professionally is that most of what people think of when they engage in futures thinking is either Jetsons and flying cars or dystopian apocalyptic Terminator-like visions. We don’t manage the middle ground all that well in our visions.

One reason for this is that we overload our models — scenarios, predictions, and images — with data that is decidedly non-human. This is both literally true and figuratively true. We may gather data from humans, but I’ve found very little good futures and foresight work that incorporates psychological theory or data into these models. Some of this is due to poor data about anticipatory behaviour, but also because we view futures as divorced from the psychosocial ways we approach the everyday.

For example, futures models tend toward rational, econometric thinking. Thus, if we have a new product that we can argue is better, we are likely to adopt it. Yet, the history of innovation shows how we often don’t take the “best” option. It turns out, us humans make decisions that aren’t always rational. Further and more likely, we also don’t appreciate the psychosocial ecosystem that informs our choices. Our decision to do or engage with one thing can affect how we use other things.

Designing With Psychology In Mind

Rory Sutherland is always good for a story and a laugh. He’s also an astute observer of human behaviour and knows how to walk the line between our rational selves, our social and emotional selves, and the built environments we create. This is why he’s in advertising. He’s also a leading voice and thinker in the applied behavioural science world. The talk below — delivered at TED in 2009 — is one of many where he points out the foibles of our rational approach to futures and design.

What Sutherland illustrates is how something as simple as a train journey could be vastly transformed by a few design choices. He’s speaking about a possible future design of a rail system — a real case — where he speaks to intangible value. Ironically, the connection is economic in nature. It’s why we often refer to this connection between value thinking and psychology as behavioural economics.

My point is that Sutherland uses psychology applied to the design of future things (in his case, mostly advertising). His amusing stories poke fun at situations, but they underlie a deep truth: the most attractive things in our visions of the future are tied to psychology (what we want, how we live, how we see ourselves, and how we see others and mostly — what attracts us). Attractors — the things that draw us in — are what bring us to things and what draw in others.

Most futures models exclude that relationship. Us and others, together. The great myth of psychology is that we are independent thinkers and actors and that that independence is what controls our behaviour. The truth is that we are far more driven by what we see around us and what others do (or don’t do) than anything we generate on our own. We are a product of the culture(s) we live in and among. Yes, we have degrees of independence, but our psychology is culturally embedded.

Future Creative

Consider the prevailing discussions on the future of AI and work. Much of what we are seeing, reading, and hearing are along a spectrum of jobs lost and gained, the role of creativity, and skills or education required to navigate these tools in the workforce. Yet, what will it mean for those people who lose their job?

What will it mean to not have gainful employment? This isn’t about the issue of income, rather the meaningful engagement that comes from productivity and contribution. Craft is what comes from dedication to work and its contribution to something beyond ourselves. Will these new jobs allow us to develop craft? Is there enough diversity in these roles to do that?

What happens when more of our work experience is off-loaded to devices? For example, Libraries have evolved with the Internet to serve different social and educational functions. What will these look like when those are taken away? (at least the educational part). Will we receive the same sense of accomplishment, competence, and satisfaction from entering a series of prompts versus active problem solving, searching, and sifting?

If we no longer have to write, film, record, or paint what will that mean for our creative identity and ability to process our thoughts — functions that creation all serves? Will I be likely to participate in learning something that is no longer economically viable, practical, or readily available? (For example: how many people learn to repair a car today?)

I don’t have the answers, but when we consider the way that creativity — active, engaged, committed work — in work, life, and education contributes to our sense of identity, well-being, and community, I think that ought to be included in our futures models. Would be as inclined to create the kind of digital landscapes we do if we did?

Image Credit by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash and Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

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