Xumeng Mou considers herself lucky to have been born a daydreamer. Growing up in an environment that valued so-called rationality and objectivity over fantasy and creativity placed her natural inclinations at odds with outside expectations. This inner conflict led her to explore the human mind and to examine whether daydreams should rightfully be considered “barriers to success.”
After one year of research, Xumeng found that the unconscious mind is very powerful at providing consolation and influencing decision-making. And yet, the influence of the unconscious is not always logic-based; in fact, unconscious influences can seem downright absurd.In her thesis Absurd Intelligence: Explorations of the Unconscious, Xumeng explores design as a way of upgrading the unconscious mind to being a reliable and legitimate tool for creative problem solving.
...fantasy is actually a kind of “defense mechanism” that the unconscious mind creates in order to decrease the anxiety caused by uncomfortable, self-esteem threatening situations.
As part of her research, Xumeng conducted interviews on the topic of daydreams and fantasy with a varied group of science fiction writers. One of the interviewed writers, psychologist Dr. Wu Yan, contended that although “many people think of fantasy as escapism [and] twisted reality—it can cure psychological harm.”
According to psychiatrist George Vaillant at the Harvard Medical School, fantasy is actually a kind of “defense mechanism” that the unconscious mind creates in order to decrease the anxiety caused by uncomfortable, self-esteem threatening situations.
There are four maturity levels of defense mechanism: pathological, immature, neurotic and mature. Fantasy falls under the “immature” level.
“In the same way that daydreaming and fantasy are viewed differently by various people, immature and neurotic defenses are treated in diverse ways, but oftentimes, more carelessly,” Xumeng said.
Immature and neurotic defenses should not only be accepted but also learned and valued just as much as mature defenses.
Aesop’s fable “Fox and the Grapes” tells the story of a fox that wishes to eat grapes from a vine but simply cannot reach them. Rather than admitting defeat, the fox ultimately tells himself that the grapes are undesirable and thus negates his initial feeling of loss. The idea of sour grapes is a perfect example of rationalization as a neurotic defense mechanism. Interestingly, the fox and his behavior are generally seen as negative. To contrast this generalization, Xumeng conducted research to prove that such immature and neurotic defenses should not only be accepted but also learned and valued just as much as mature defenses.
Xumeng argues, “What if there were a service that could help people learn to comfort others more effectively by applying defense mechanisms that most people already use unconsciously for themselves?”
Sour Grape is a chatbot that utilizes immature defense mechanisms—such as rationalization, compensation, and identification—to inspire people to learn better ways of comforting others.
The following is a simulation of the user journey of the Magic Mirror (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) on Sour Grape, and how it receives advice on comforting the Evil Queen, who is jealous of Snow White.
Aside from providing customized suggestions, there is one more level of functionality: if the user clicks a sentence, they can see which kind of defense mechanism has been applied and then learn more about it.
“In desperate situations, people rarely behave ‘sensibly’ or ‘logically.’ When desperate, people try anything.” This desperate response, which oftentimes involves what Xumeng calls magical thinking—making a deal with one’s self in order to get through a difficult situation. It is yet another example of a neurotic defense.
“In our lives, we sometimes have wishes for outcomes we can’t control, like wishing a lost pet would just appear when we return home, or fantasizing that the doctor actually made a huge mistake with a cancer diagnosis,” said Xumeng. In order to build empathy and help people understand someone else’s anxiety, Xumeng created Cross—a platform for people to visit when they wish for outcomes in situations they cannot control.
In Cross, people can make magical deals with themselves or a “supernatural being” by typing a wish and a promise. The promise is made in exchange for the assurance that the wish will come true. Once the deal has been made, the wishes and promises show up together in a feed that friends can review, like or comment on.
If a user’s wish comes true, they are required to keep the associated promise. For instance, if the promise is to donate money to a preferred charity, the app will facilitate that. Similarly, if the user promises to make a change in their own daily lifestyle, they can post photos to show followers that they are keeping their word. However, if the wish does not come true, Cross also facilitates the comforting process by allowing the user’s followers to console them through the app.
It could be said that the realm of design is one of the very few areas in which intuition is moderately acceptable as the basis for decision-making.
Xumeng states that “in addition to providing consolation, our unconscious mind also plays an important role in our decision making process—though in a somewhat unusual way.”
The unconscious mind influences our decision-making in the form of intuition. “Intuition is the ability to instinctively understand what information is unimportant and can thus be discarded,” suggests Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition (ABC) at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Unlike conscious reasoning, which can be explained scientifically, intuition is still not accepted as a sound method of arriving at a “reasonable” decision in most situations. It could be said that the realm of design is one of the very few areas in which intuition is moderately acceptable as the basis for decision-making.
Inthlete, an experience designed to have participants act solely on intuition, celebrates this inexplicable ability to intuit sound choices, effort, and energy of drawn-out decision-making processes.
Xumeng designed Inthlete as an experiential game in which participants were divided in pairs, and then competed with their respective partner to see whose intuition addressed a given challenge more effectively.
Each challenge had a time limit in order to make the questions impossible to analyze. Some of the questions had the added challenge of not quite offering enough information.
“KooKoo is not much of a timer; it really just reminds users of what they already know and to give them permission to move on."
According to neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute, monitoring the micro patterns of activity in the front polar cortex allowed researchers to predict which hand the participant would choose at least seven seconds BEFORE the participant was aware of the decision. “Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done,” said Haynes.
Xumeng made the connection that paying more attention to intuition could help indecisive people—those who the irrational fear of making the wrong choice and who tend to over-analyze situations—learn to make quick decisions and not worry excessively about “right” or “wrong.”
Based on the above finding, Xumeng designed KooKoo—a timer that only goes up to seven seconds. Every time a user realizes that they are over-analyzing or hesitates when presented with multiple options, the user can pull the string of KooKoo. When the timer goes off, and the user must make a decision. Xumeng clarified, “KooKoo is not much of a timer; it really just reminds users of what they already know and to give them permission to move on.”
Because the unconscious has already made the decision seven seconds before the user realizes it, KooKoo will have helped its user to realize their intuitive decision by leaving no time for users to think twice.
In the future, all forms of intelligence should be valued. Xumeng’s designs are meant to inspire self-betterment and improve connections between one’s self and others.
Learn more about Xumeng Mou's work at www.mouxumeng.com, and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.