If psychologists really knew so much about human minds, their parties would be off the hook. Their academic records would be flawless and their personas would exude an irresistible charisma. Their essays in student newspapers would be more explosive and electrifying than a Michael Bay trailer. But theory is divorced from practice, and just like physicists do not necessarily make finer baseball players, psychologists do not always make superior human being. This is not to say they cannot be. Just as physics can inform an athlete’s baseball swing or season statistics inform a fanatic’s March Madness bracket, knowledge of the human mind can drive one’s life decisions. Psychologists could use psychology to tell themselves how to make psychologists into superior human beings, even.
Don Norman serves as the prime example of this. Though most do not know his name, Don Norman is a legend in the design world. He has drawn praise from the laity, the artistic community and top-tier academics, including commendation from judgment and decision-making researchers Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein of Harvard—notably in their book Nudge — who extolled his understanding that “the users of everyday objects are humans who are confronted with myriad choices and cues,” a thematic acknowledgment in Norman’s work. Any philosopher who has misplaced a keychain realizes that people are neither all-knowing or omnipotent — “We’re only human,” after all, spouts a cliché. Norman is the kind of psychologist who would know how to make the unforgettable keychain.
Knowing what it means to be “only human” makes Norman remarkable in design. Making technology conform to intuition is his mission. He was among the first to explain Microsoft’s success over other platforms like Linux — Bill Gates developed a system which conformed to human intuition. Simple drag-and-click icons and shortcut keys are preferable to entering lines of text into a command prompt. Media today are following an analogous change. For example, in a digital game, it is intuitive to move one’s body in the desired direction of motion, so the names which used to dominate the gaming market like Sony and Nintendo are losing out to an unforeseen competitor: Apple. The iPod Touch and iPhone both have an accelerometer to measure changes in motion and have become increasingly popular platforms for that reason — they are designed with human intuition in mind.
By making our designs as sterile as possible, we inexcusably spoil knowledge in the classroom and elsewhere. In psychology, this is particularly depressing. Psychologists know how to make people understand psychology, how to motivate individuals, and have decades of research on teaching and communicating along with centuries of theories. Awareness of these theories is no substitute for their practice. Very often we do not understand that writing is for the reader, that teaching is for the student, and that design is for its audience.
As Lord Macbeth, Captain Ahab and Dr. Faustus will tell you, vaulting ambition gets you murdered, your whaling vessel swallowed by a swirling vortex and your soul pawned off to the devil after a term of years. We are only human, but it is an acknowledgement of his limitations which make him excel. Because of our humanity, psychology will tell you, individuals have an amazing capacity for change and discovery. Being only human makes us much more than we’d ever expect ourselves to be.
The impulse that drives people spontaneously out of their seats for a standing ovation, recognizing the perfect expression of something you’ve always felt printed on a page in front of you, seeing someone you miss for the first time in months—all are rapturous living experiences which drive us to do what we do. Similar experiences motivate people. When we set up our systems around maximization of such experiences and minimization of frustrations, we can fulfill the Normanian imperative: we can act with relevance and meaning, and, perhaps, study, communicate, party, and exist in a way which is truly in line with our desires.