I use social media, not unlike many of my peers. Recently, however, Apple has begun to notify me of my time spent on not only my total screen time but on each of my social apps. I was alarmed a few months ago when my phone happily reported that I had been on Instagram an average of two to three hours per day but I was down 5% from the previous week.
My first reaction was that this was completely wrong—I had no recollection of being on Instagram any longer than about 15 minutes per day, give or take a few. So, I started paying attention to my Instagram habit. What I quickly realized is that I was looking at Instagram for about 15 minutes per session at least 20 times a day. I also couldn’t specifically recall what I had seen. It was as if those 15 minutes had never happened.
According to Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post science writer and author of The Hidden Brain, my Instagram habit is a perfect example of how our subconscious minds can manipulate us without our awareness.
In a public radio broadcast, Vedantam relates how a 10-week test revealed differences between unnoticed visual stimuli. At an office beverage counter, an on-your-honor sign asked you to pay for whatever soft drink or coffee you consumed. In the first case, the eye-level sign was adorned with innocuous flowers. Subsequently, the image of the flowers was changed to a pair of watching eyes. In the end, no one even noticed the pictures—flowers or eyes—and yet they had a dramatic effect upon behavior. Contributions to the honor system were much more likely to be made by those who were being “watched” even though they were not real eyes.
Such is an example of our subconscious mind at work. The author explains that our hidden brain is a “dumb system”: that we act unaware, whether making decisions about driving a car or contributing to an on-your-honor cup of coffee.
The work of designers often operates within the hidden brain. We find the means to communicate to an audience about our message—both subtly and overtly—through the use of form, color, and typography.
We have written before about the minute nuances that shape a typeface and how it communicates unconsciously with everyone, regardless of your familiarity with the vocabulary of typography. The language of design suggests an object’s gender and reflects authenticity or its opposite: crass salesmanship. Design is the language that helps to define, or to signal value. It creates the visual clues that signal whether something is precious or cheap.
Enhancing perceived value is one of the primary goals of corporate design. This becomes very important if your product or service is not the low-price leader. In the fall of 2016, Apple released their Bluetooth Airpods. In the beginning, only the early adopters were seen wearing these minimal, highly aesthetic “headphones”. Two years later, and the masses have adapted. Design, price-control, influencers, and effective marketing have created a perceivable value, for Airpods, in the subconscious mind above all other wireless earbuds. It’s not necessarily because the Apple product is actually better, rather that it’s perceived as better. (Although, I would argue the functionality of the Airpods is truly superior and worth it). As the on-your-honor test showed, visual stimuli have a remarkable effect, even if you are unaware. And, if it weren’t so, we probably wouldn’t be in business.
I’ve since deleted Instagram from my phone.