Reading Robert Sapolsky’s book "Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst", plus the Alan Lightman book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine", as well as “What Are We Doing Here?”, by Marilynne Robinson, all in quick succession, forces one to disentangle the three points of view. Or at least to smooth them out a little.
Lightman looks at the stars and lots of information and experiences and decides that we’re made of earthly stuff and our consciousness isn’t special or magical. We’re conscious because we think we’re conscious. A bunch of conditions happened in the right place at the right time and that’s that. We’re not responsible for our actions because we’re just running the installed software. There, now you don’t have to read the book.*
Robinson agrees to an extent with Lightman on the science, but adds her faith to the mix. So yes, serendipity for us in the stardust, but also something more, call it spirituality, adding the element of “self” to each of us. Her argument is based on Christian theology, but she’s insistent that that’s just her flavor and the big idea is the big idea. We are responsible for our actions, and for doing our best to be moral, ethical, civil and kind. There, now you don’t have to read that one either.**
Sapolsky leans towards Lightman. But that’s not the end of it. He’s a humanist-scientist; there is a lot that we don’t understand, and there really are no absolutes (quantum physics, anyone?). Have we seen the smallest possible particle for sure? Why are there chemical and biological things that the the brain does on its own for reasons we can’t fathom? There are many, many answers here, and plenty of juicy questions too; this guy is opinionated, wise, and confident enough to tell you what he knows, and to admit what he’s still trying to figure out. This one you have to read.***
From all of this arises the question of why we do what we do, which, not ironically, we have to answer for ourselves. The other question, of how we are influenced, is different. In the context of design, we consider the question to be one of our jobs: that of cultural interpretation. It's a big job, and to be done truly well should include considerations of "why" from biological, chemical, physical, genetic and cultural points of view. This forms the foundation of "how". Much has been said about Facebook and other social media venues formulating ways to get dopamine pulses happening in our systems, which effectively cause addiction. Dopamine is a chemical. How does that get released? In this case, by design.
"Likes" are designed to induce affirmation, legitimization, support—pleasure. They are built into the system and represented as fun icons in bright colors. Imagine how different the effect would be if they were just numbers next to the word "Likes" in black text. We like to be liked, especially with hearts and smiles. We are communal creatures. We survive as groups, we need group inclusion, we crave group approval from the bottom of our hearts. This can be manipulated as a "how".
Designers have that power. Images, color, density, frequency, all of a designed experience creates the "how," whether it's to sell credit cards or promote healthy eating. It's a power that can be masterfully understood, and because of its capacity to influence, should be carefully used. And on the recieving end it should be carefully considered. So read all three of the books above. You'll like them all.
* Just kidding, the writing and the thinking are extraordinary. Very much worth reading.
** Just kidding again. The complexity of her thinking and the ideas she presents are genuinely worth pondering.
*** Not kidding.