The Duality of Desire Kevin Dame

As people struggle to balance their impulsive and considered sides, design may hold the key

The tension between our competing selves has been written about for years: the id and the ego, the devil and the angel. In our daily choices, the negotiation of these two sides sits at the epicenter of a healthy (or unhealthy) lifestyle.

For most people, this delicate balancing act has become increasingly difficult, with many of the problems we face—obesity, climate change, escalating consumer debt—stemming from our impulsive sides winning out far too often. And businesses, eager for their own instant gratification in the form of increased profits, are all too eager to help.

As designers seeking to make a positive impact on people, we need to better understand and design for these two sides.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

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Voices of temptation

Greg, an obese diabetic, tells the story of one Sunday morning when he sat in a CVS parking lot struggling with his temptation to cross the street for a half-dozen doughnuts.

A conversation ensued between his impulsive and considered sides:

Impulsive Greg: Greg, those doughnuts are over there, and they are hot, they’re fresh. They’re not even an hour old. Go get one.

Considered Greg: No, turkey; don’t do that. You’re a diabetic. That’s pure sugar.

Impulsive Greg: Oh, but do it just the one time. You know, just one time. Get a half a dozen, go home, share it with mother.

Considered Greg: I may go into a diabetic coma. What may happen to mother then?

Greg says, “It was just like the devil sitting on your shoulder. I was doing pretty good at battling it and resisting. But, boy, that was all she wrote when she would take them out of the fryer, or whatever caused the odor to come across the street.”

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The secret account

Sue and Tim, a married couple living in Sacramento, are like most Americans when it comes to financial health. They live paycheck to paycheck, and have their fair share of credit card debt, a sizeable mortgage and a savings account of exactly $1.

However, Sue reveals that she also has a secret savings account in Oregon for an emergency or vacation. She hides the money from her husband because she fears they’d eventually spend it all if he knew about it. His impulsive side is the activation for her own impulsive side, so hiding the money is the only way to ensure she stays in control.

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In the heat of the moment

Twenty-nine-year-old Jaclyn knows the dangers of unprotected sex all too well. A single mother who had an unexpected pregnancy as a teenager, she now counsels teen women on the topic at her church. With such a strong understanding of and empathy for accidental pregnancy, she was convinced she’d never allow herself to make the same mistake twice. She was wrong.

Several months ago, contrary to everything she understands and counsels others about, Jaclyn had unprotected sex with her current boyfriend and got pregnant again. It was all impulse. “When you’re in heat like a bunny, I guess… you can’t stop it or control it. It’s just, NO! I want it now!”

Jaclyn has not told a soul. After all she’s been through, she’s embarrassed she made the same mistake again, and that despite everything she knows, was not able to control her impulsive side.

The willpower card

NetSpend is a leading provider of prepaid debit accounts. Designed for our considered sides, these cards put hard limits on spending and make it impossible to accumulate credit card debt. They are a godsend for people who have struggled with their impulses and credit card debt in the past and who are trying to establish more responsible spending habits.

A frictionless society

Businesses are increasingly recognizing the power of impulse and figuring out how to short-circuit our considered side. Central to this effort has been the relentless focus on lowering barriers to consumption. Coca-Cola pioneered the idea of frictionless temptation with the “Coke within an arm’s reach” strategy in the ’90s. Retailers and credit card companies have made the very act of purchasing frictionless—with the simple swipe of a card. While these strategies are good for business, they disempower our considered side and have exacerbated the consumption problem we share as a society.

Two sides of Martin

Martin reflects on his morning run, describing his two competing selves as “Evening Martin” and “Morning Martin.” Evening Martin wants to stay healthy, and vows to go running each morning. But when the alarm rings, Morning Martin hits snooze and keeps sleeping. Morning Martin likes how the warm bed feels, and rationalizes that it’s OK to run tomorrow. Eventually Evening Martin learned to outfox Morning Martin by arranging to meet a friend for his run. The accountability and commitment he feels towards his friend supports his considered side and keeps impulsive Morning Martin in check.

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Books on duality

Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, talks about our reflective and automatic modes of thinking, and proposes a new science of choice architecture to nudge people towards healthier decisions. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes, “We make pronouncements, vows and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out.” He describes a rider atop an elephant as a metaphor for our divided mind, with our considered sides (the rider) trying unsuccessfully to control our impulsive sides (the elephant).

Discussion

Steve

March 19, 2010

This is a great way of thinking about a particular challenge of “going green.”  Targeting a green consumer with an explicitly green offering seems logical, but in light of the *real* competition—our impulsive sides—it’s a strategy that has some real shortcomings.

What if we instead used sustainability to “Feed the Beast”?  Or strengthen our considered sides with meaningful information about the environment?

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scott

June 14, 2010

The analogy between two different mind sets is really very crucial.  Our impulsive mind speaks sometimes so firmly that we are unable to resist the fire to burn. However, it affects us most. What to do?

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G

July 12, 2010

Businesses are increasingly recognizing the power of impulse and figuring out how to short-circuit our considered side. Central to this effort has been the relentless focus on lowering barriers to consumption. Coca-Cola pioneered the idea of frictionless temptation with the “Coke within an arm’s reach” strategy in the ’90s. Retailers and credit card companies have made the very act of purchasing frictionless—with the simple swipe of a card. While these strategies are good for business, they disempower our considered side and have exacerbated the consumption problem we share as a society.

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