Technology/Engineering and Psychology

“What a computer is to me is the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
Steve Jobs

I’m currently doing some teaching in psychology, but for students in a more technical subject (media and computing). It’s a lot of work, but also fun (the good kind of stress, at least at the moment). And it touches an issue that I important to me — combing psychology and technology.

After all, if a computer is a bicycle for the human mind as Steve Jobs put it (see quotation above), then the students should have a practical understanding of the human mind. After all, if you don’t understand how the mind works, how can you build a system that supports it? It’s like building a bicycle without knowing anything about human anatomy. Yet you better make sure the cyclist can reach the pedals, can work the steering, sits comfortably, and doesn’t accidentally drive over a cliff.

Thinking about the relationship between technology and psychology, I’m reminded not only of Steve Jobs analogy, but also of a passage in Crichton’s “The Lost World”. One of Crichton’s characters, Jack Thorne, puts the relationship between engineering and psychology this way:

“How can you design for people if you don’t know history and psychology?
 You can’t. Because your mathematical formulas may be perfect, but the people will screw it up. And if that happens, it means you screwed it up.”
Jack Thorne in “The Lost World” by Michael Crichton

Actually, the whole passage is very well written:

Colleagues who knew Jack Thorne agreed that retirement marked the happiest period in his life. As a professor of applied engineering, and a specialist in exotic materials, he had always demonstrated a practical focus and a love of students. His most famous course at Stanford, Structural Engineering 101a, was known among the students as “Thorny Problems,” because Thorne continually provoked his class to solve applied engineering challenges he set for them. Some of these had long since entered into student folklore. There was, for example, the Toilet Paper Disaster: Thorne asked the students to drop a carton of eggs from Hoover Tower without injury. As padding, they could only use the cardboard tubes at the center of toilet paper rolls. There were spattered eggs allover the plaza below. Then, another year, Thorne asked the students to build a chair to support a two-hundred-pound man, using only paper Q-tips and thread. And another time, he hung the answer sheet for the final exam from the classroom ceiling, and invited his students to pull it down, using whatever they could make with a cardboard shoebox containing a pound of licorice, and some toothpicks.
When he was not in class, Thorne often served as an expert witness in legal cases involving materials engineering. He specialized in explosions, crashed airplanes, collapsed buildings, and other disasters. These forays into the real world sharpened his view that scientists needed the widest possible education. He used to say, “How can you design for people if you don’t know history and psychology? You can’t. Because your mathematical formulas may be perfect, but the people will screw it up. And if that happens, it means you screwed it up.” He peppered his lectures with quotations from Plato, Chaka Zulu, Emerson, and Chang-tzu.
But as a professor who was popular with his students — and who advocated general education — Thorne found himself swimming against the tide. The academic world was marching toward ever more specialized knowledge, expressed in ever more dense jargon. In this climate, being liked by your students was a sign of shallowness; and interest in real-world problems was proof of intellectual poverty and a distressing indifference to theory. But in the end, it was his fondness for Chang-tzu that pushed him out the door. In a departmental meeting; one of his colleagues got up and announced that “Some mythical Chinese bullshitter means fuck-all for engineering.”
Thorne took early retirement a month later, and soon after started his own company. He enjoyed his work thoroughly, but he missed contact with the students, which was why he liked Levine’s two youthful assistants. These kids were smart, they were enthusiastic, and they were young enough so that the schools hadn’t destroyed all their interest in learning. They could still actually use their brains, which in Thorne’s view was a sure sign they hadn’t yet completed a formal education.
“The Lost World” by Michael Crichton

Sure, it’s the usual “ha-ha, these ivory tower academics” and being popular with students means nothing unless the students actually do learn. But Crichton’s fictional character got a point. Several, actually. First that psychology is needed to develop a system that actually works, because it’s used by humans who do screw up, panic, make mistakes, see and think differently than expected, and also differently in different situations. You need to know their strengths and limitations — and design for them. He also got a point that the academic system is going for specialization and lab work — and that’s a problem. Yes, there are the occasional interdisciplinary projects, but I wonder about their effectiveness.

Frankly, I think research works best if people are actually interested in the topic, not (only) in having a career. And if they cooperate with others, because they know they need complimentary skills to solve a hard problem and actually can work with these colleagues. Unfortunately, research seems to be driven by prestige projects. And it certainly is driven by publish-or-perish. And yes, at least in psychology, there is a rather unhealthy focus on laboratory research (beautifully — or tragically — put by Cialdini, see the “Background” section).

So yeah, the fictional quotation by/about Thorne and Cialdini’s judgment beautifully describe a serious problem. Psychology risks becoming obsolete if it loses contact with the field. And the field, well, here rather technical disciplines, risk losing theories about the human mind. Theories that serve as a magnifying glass to see the adjusting screws and — in sum — provide a highly useful toolbox to influence human cognition, emotion, and behavior. And they risk losing the expertise in empirical research with humans as well (including laboratory experiments, but also field studies and evaluations). And it’s the empirical side that provides a lot of inspiration and serves as a much-needed bullshit detector.

And yep, I think the world would be worse off if psychology’s contribution in theory and empiricism gets lost.

Now I just need to convince my students that psychology provides useful tools to design and evaluate their products, and support them in learning how to use them.