Designing with the social brain in mind

We are like a herd of buffalo quietly grazing on a plain until one of our neighbors starts to run… then we start to run, and others start to run, and suddenly mysteriously, the whole herd is barreling forward… 

Cooperation, altruism, punishment, and free-riding are written into our DNA.

 – Nicholas Cristakis and James Fowler, Connected

This herd behavior is a fundamental aspect of human nature. We are social creatures, with a social brain.

It’s time to discard the notion that people are fundamentally rational and self-interested, recognizing instead that we’re governed by social paradigms we aren’t directly conscious of, enormously swayed by social influence, and rely on limited and biased memory of past events to guide our decisions.

And if we accept this, then the task of what design is, what we need to do as designers, is fundamentally changed.

Instead of designing for mythical entities that make rational decisions with excellent information in a social vacuum, we need to design for predictably irrational decision making under knowledge constraints in a profoundly social context.

Like people, organizations are social organisms that follow a social logic not easily understood, make flawed decisions based on historic notions and hidden paradigms, and operate with something less than perfect rationality. Organizations have a social brain and are just as predictably irrational as individuals.

And if we accept this, then the task of what change management is, what we need to do as designers of change, is fundamentally changed.

If you haven’t yet seen these videos on social influence, they’re well worth watching. Then share your thoughts on the impliciations of designing with the social brain in mind.


A few things that spring to mind when I think of designing with the social brain in mind:

  • Epidemics:  Rob Paterson asks “What if new ideas were like germs and the process of change was like an epidemic? How could you set change in motion by using this concept?” Like the I Love NY campaign triggering an epidemic of good that helped change the city.
  • Structures: What structures can we put in place to connect people in support of a change? When thinking of structures, think of anything from creating communities, design of the workplace, design of meetings (like Open Space), socially creative governance strategies, to the hidden structures of rewards, processes, and hierarchy that shape an organization.
  • Language: The language we speak, the values we absorb shape the brain. We include or exclude others through language. We form tribes through language. If words create worlds, how can we leverage language, conversation, story, and social objects?
  • Social pressure: “[Muhammad] Yunus [innovator of the micro-credit movement] attributes the success of the Gramen Bank model to features of the social network: ‘Subtle and at times not-so-subtle peer pressure keeps each group member in line.” – Connected
  • Innovation: Be wary of consensus or groupthink.  Welcome the fools, outliers, eccentrics, tribal leaders, culture hackers, design thinkers, anarchists, and dancing guys. Connect teams to customers and the broader cultural context. “Teams made up of individuals who had never before worked together fared poorly (Broadway musicals). Weren’t well connected and contained mostly weak ties. At the other extreme, groups made up of individuals who had all worked together previously also tended to create musicals that were unsuccessful. Because they lacked creative input from the outside, they tended to rehash the same ideas that they used the first time they worked together.” – Connected

Other ideas?

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