an old voting booth

Aesthetic Affiliation: Could it Really Be That Easy?

After a few practical design posts, I thought I would take a step back and share some research I read this week that I found quite interesting but from a journal that perhaps not all of you follow.

As many of you know, when people feel threatened or uncertain they tend to reject any unfamiliar arguments, products, policies, or situations. Adaptively, this makes sense. When already in a risky situation, why open yourself up to more risk. This has many applications in human factors, whether we are designing workplace systems, products, web sites, information systems, or any number of things that may take place in a high risk environment or where users might be coming in with a pre-existing feeling of uncertainty.

There is a stream of research that looks at self-affirmation as a way to overcome this. The basic lab study is to have one group of participants share some positive information. It can be listing their personal strengths. It could be telling a story of a happy experience. Anything positive really. The psychological effect of these activities is that the participant becomes more open to those unfamiliar or uncertain arguments, products etc. compared to a control group. This might sound kind of fuzzy, but the effect has been validated in dozens of contexts and is quite reliable.

But it is not practical. If you are designing a high risk product, do you ask your customers think happy thoughts as they are filling out the shopping cart forms? Or if you are a politician selling a new health care policy do you have voters tell happy stories before entering the voting booth?

Some previous work found that after participants choose an aesthetically pleasing design, they become more open to uncertainty. The hypothesis is that high aesthetic products have an innate value that gives you the same positive feeling that self-affirmation does. But again, this is not practical in the field. So this study wanted to find a more practical way to do it. They wanted to know if highlighting the participant’s connection to an aesthetically pleasing design could do it. This could be done in the field (i.e the real world).

Turns out it can. In a series of studies, participants who were exposed to more aesthetically pleasing annual reports for a high risk investment were more likely to invest, and this was mediated by making them more open to uncertain arguments. Same thing happened with a campus brochure that highlighted the campus attractiveness – readers were more likely to invest in a risky company, even when it had no relationship to the campus. They were also more likely to select a high risk Watersports obstacle course as a prize than a low risk boat tour that was matched with the obstacle course for perceived value.

And it is not just true for high risk. They also tested whether this could work for a lower risk but more unfamiliar condition and they found the same effect. It was not a preference for high-risk, it was a greater openness to uncertainty. So participants made BETTER decisions, not just riskier ones. They were better at deciphering uncertain and unfamiliar options after the aesthetic affiliation.

To cut to the chase, this opens up a lot of opportunities for persuasive design. Voters entering an attractive polling station and using an attractive ballot will be more able to make the hard choice. Attractive web sites can do the same thing for a HR department that wants employees to make smarter choices with their 401(k) or their health plan.

At least that is what the authors hope. What do you think?

Image credit: “University at Buffalo voting booth” by Dsw4 used under Public Domain

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