Psychology of Design Masterclass – 7 Secrets of Social Dynamics

Psychology of Design Pt7 - 7 Fascinating Secrets of Social Dynamics

Table of Contents

We all are social beings and our society is built on principles of social dynamics. When we design new products, we are creating things people will interact with. I think that it is important for every designer to know at least the basic principles of social interaction. As you will learn, we have certain expectations about online interactions just like about social. In this article, you will learn about seven interesting facts about social dynamics. You will learn the concepts of how we interact with each other and also how we learn. Let’s use social dynamics to design better experiences.

Psychology of design and the science of social dynamics

We are social animals. Social dynamics play an important role in our lives. We use it more or less every day whenever we are at work, home or shopping center. Also, we rely on social dynamics every time we communicate with other people through social media and various apps. We can safely say that this discipline or field of psychology and sociology is one of the most important tools we have available that also helps us keep humanity in one piece.

Do you remember Arab Spring, Velvet Revolution, fall of the Berlin Wall, Cuban Revolution, The October Revolution, The American Revolution or The French Revolution? All these events were result of large groups of people unified with single goal or purpose in mind. In other words, these events were result of social dynamics. As you can see, these social principles, the whole humanity is built upon, are so powerful that they can even overthrow the government or start war.

Whether you design for a some social cause, small business, startup or your friend, there are couple basic psychology principles can use to improve the results and impact of your designs. We can use these principles in design to help people create stronger and healthier relationships with other people. Then, we can create environment allowing communication to flow smoothly. As a result, we can design tools that will help people connect with others almost effortlessly. Here is how to do it.

No.1: Groups should be limited to 150 members

Let me ask you three questions. First, how many friends do you have in your life? Second, have many “friends” or connections do you have on Facebook and other social networks such as Linkedin and Twitter? How many of these people you regularly get in contact? It is very likely that even if you have couple hundreds friends on Facebook, you are in regular contact only with couple of them. This principle of social dynamics also applies to any other network or group.

Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar did a study with the intention to find out what if there is any general limit of members for social groups. Dunbar also wanted to know whether there is any connection between the size of neocortex and the amount of active connections in social groups. The result of this study was an equation and one number. This number says what is the limit for any social group in human society. This number became known as Dunbar’s number.

The magic number, Dunbar came up with, is 150. This is the maximum number of members any group can safely reach and sustain stable and strong bonds between its members. Well, the number is actually 148. However, 150 is easier to remember. Therefore, the rounded version is better known and used more frequently. With regard to the fact that he studied number of communities and cultures across the world through the history, Dunbar is pretty confident.

Wait a minute! What about cities? What about Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin? Many of us exceeded this limit a long time ago. Isn’t this making Dunbar’s number invalid? Not exactly. Dunbar’s number is applied only to groups where the purpose is to keep all members together. In the terms of social dynamics, this number should be rather applied to colonies or settlements than social networks. In case of colonies, strong and close bonds are critical for survival of the colony.

The same can’t be said about online social networks. In these places, our bonds are much more loose. We are also not in daily contact with many members of our social group. This is why someone can have more than thousand “friends” on Facebook, couple hundred connections on Linkedin or couple thousands followers on Twitter. Dunbar’s number is related to groups where people know each other very well and live close to each other. In other words, social dynamics here are more dependent on physical proximity.

The takeaway

First, the maximum number of members in communities where members live close to each other is about 150. When we lack this foundation, we may feel isolated and stressed. Second, our relationships with people we created through social media are weaker and less stable. Third, if you are working on design for product with features for socializing, consider what kind of links or relationships your product should build. These links can be either weak or strong.

If your product aims to build strong links or relationships, you should implement some option for users to meet with each other in the real world. You should also make it easy for users to get to know each other. Finally, you should also restrict the number of connections to 150. If your product will be built on weak links, remember that not every member will be active. Social dynamics will be more diverse. Some people will communicate more while others will just “watch”.

No.2: We are naturally hard-wired to imitate and empathize

What will baby do when you make some grimace? It is high likely that the baby will try to imitate your grimace. We can see this ability in babies from early childhood. This ability or skills to imitate what we see around us is something that is hard-wired in our brain. This ability helps us learn faster and even understand social dynamics in unfamiliar groups. What’s more, knowing about this ability can help us use it for designing better products and experiences.

We are naturally hard-wired to learn by imitation. As a result, there is one area, premotor cortex, in our brain containing special type of neurons. These neurons are called mirror neurons. Interesting is that this part of brain doesn’t emit any signals about our movement. Instead, this part of brain is responsible for planning our movements. Okay, this is not most interesting. Premotor cortex will light up even when we see someone performing activity we know.

For example, let’s suppose that you are skilled in skateboarding, tennis or playing piano. Then, when you see someone performing any of these activities, in premotor cortex, the same matrix of neurons that are required to perform this activity will light up. On other words, watching other people doing something you know will activate the same neurons like in case you were doing it. Mirror neurons are the reason that people skilled in certain disciplines can “train” and also improve their skills by watching someone else performing the activity.

There is also theory saying that mirror neurons are necessary for empathy, which is critical for healthy social dynamics. Let’s say that you see someone experiencing some feeling you know as well. Then, mirror neurons allow our brain basically to simulate that feeling. As a result, you will literally start to experience the same feelings just like the person you are watching. So, when you say someone that you feel with him, you are actually not lying. Your brain is really “running” some kind of simulation to help you understand what exactly the other person feels.

The takeaway

First, we can influence behavior of other people by showing them what they should do. There is a chance that our example will light up their mirror neurons. Then, they will learn just by watching us. Second, there is some evidence that even stories that spark people’s imagination can also activate mirror neurons. Therefore, using captivating and vivid stories in design can influence people’s behavior as well. Third, use videos in your design to connect previous two tips. You can convince people to do something by showing them video of people doing that thing.

No.3: We expect online interaction to follow social rules

Everything we do online is some type of social interaction. Whether are we posting something on Facebook, sending a tweet, filling a form or buying some product, it is all social interaction. Meaning, every time we make some online interaction, we have certain expectations. For example, we expect the website to “answer” our reactions in a certain way. One potential problem might be that these social interactions often doesn’t follow rules of social dynamics we are accustomed to.

For example, when we meet one of our friends, there is a “social” protocol based on how well we know each other we follow. Meaning, depending on formality of the relationship, we say “hello” to each other. Then, we can start a little small-talk. We can also decide to sit somewhere and talk a little bit longer. In situation such as this one, both of us have some expectations about our interaction. When one of us will not meet some of these expectations of social dynamics, it can have significant impact on how will the other person feel and the future of our relationship.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this section, these protocols and rules of social dynamics we are using during social interactions in the “analog” world also apply to online intentions. Let’s say you want to buy something. You visit e-shop of your choice and start looking for the product you want to buy. When you finally find the product you are looking for, with the right parameters, you add it to your cart and either continue in shopping or proceed to checkout and pay for it. Then, you just have to wait until the order is disposed.

If everything went well, the whole process of this interaction may seem seamless to you. The reason is that, just like our interaction with our friend followed protocols of social dynamics, your online interaction followed certain protocols as well. In other words, you visited that e-shop with set expectations and all these expectations were met. Now, let’s imagine that what would happen otherwise. Instead of landing on a website of an e-shop that’s well-designed you would end up on a website that’s average at best. It’s incredibly slow and looks like from the era of Sputnik.

After couple (dozens) of minutes, you would find desired product. When you try to add the product to your cart, nothing happens. The whole website stops responding for a moment. Then, when you click again, product is finally add to your cart, twice. You open the cart, remove the duplicate and proceed to checkout. There, you are asked to either log in or register. As a new customer, you have only one option – you have to register. When you complete the registration, you will find out that the cart is empty. System has no clue about your order. Your next decision?

We can translate this situation into and use social dynamics to illustrate this example. Imagine you meet with someone. You didn’t talk with this person for a years. Now, your friend looks like he or she is in pretty bad stage of life. Huge dark bags under eyes, lacking any energy, barely able to stand up, rumpled clothes. You almost think that your friend just got back from war. You decide to take your friend on a coffee and talk. The whole conversation quickly start to be uncomfortable.

Your friend is not paying attention to you. She is constantly forgetting what you previously said. You also don’t see any engagement on her side. As a result, you are actually happy when the conversation is over and you can let your friend go and get back to your own life. Similarly to the example with slow e-shop website, this situation broke many principles of social dynamics and social (your) expectations. The result is that you will don’t want to see your friend for a while.

The takeaway

First, we have to remember that just like our interaction with other people follows certain rules and protocols of social dynamics, online interactions has to do it as well. Second, when we design some product, we should always think about the way people will interact with it. Does our product follow the rules of social interaction? Third, we must understand that many of the best practices in design and user experience are based on recommendations derived from social expectations. Fourth, by adhering to principles of usability, we are more likely to meet expectations of social interactions.

No.4: The amount of lies we use is related to the medium we use

When do you think we are more likely to tell some “small” lie? Available options are written communication (pen and paper) and mail. There was one study done on DePaul University that focused exactly on this. This study showed that we are most likely to lie either in electronic communication, i.e. mail. When people were communicating via mail, they were more likely to lie about various things such as money and were less fair when they have to allocate money.

Another interesting thing about email related to feedback. When we have to review someone, we are more likely to show “tough love” if we communicate via email. When we write review by hand on paper, we are more likely to be more gently and use softer words. However, if you are about to get rid of email, wait. Another study from year 2004 showed that, although email has its flaws, it is still better than phone. According to this study, phone is by far the worst way to communicate if you want to get to know the truth. By the way, chatting and messaging clients are in the middle.

The takeaway

First, we are more likely to lie over phone and less likely to lie in handwritten communication. Second, we are more likely to be tough or negative in email than in handwritten communication. Third, if part of your work is designing email surveys, remember that people will approach them with more negative attitude than spoken or handwritten forms of communication. We should also remember that there is some chance that people will either lie or slightly modify their answers.

Fourth, if you do user research, data gathering over phone will give you worse insights than you could get from email. Fifth, if you want to learn about your customers and their opinions, conversation done in person will give you the best and most accurate results.

No.5: Our brain react to people we know in unique way

Let’s take a closer look at social networks and how well they work with social dynamics. When we meet with someone, there are four possible situations that can occur. First, that person is someone you know very well or part of your family and you have a lot in common with her. Second, she is your friend or part of your family, but there are only few things you have in common. Third, she is stranger, but you have a lot in common. Fourth, she is stranger and you have nothing in common.

The questions is how our brain reacts in these four situations. Does it react in the same way or are there some differences? Do we follow the same rules of social dynamics? Do we have any assumptions or expectations depending on how much do you have in common? How important is it for us that people, our friends and family members, are close to us? Lastly, will the people we consider to be our friends activate the same brain areas like people from our family do?

Fortunately, thanks to technology such as magnetic resonance, we have answers for all these questions. First, we do perceive our friends in different light than people we never saw before. When we see or even think about one of our friends, our prefrontal cortex will light up like a city on New Year day. This part of our brain processes values and regulates social dynamics on our side, our social behavior. What will happen when we see or think about people we don’t know, but share some opinions or values?

In this case, our prefrontal cortex looks like South pole in the middle of the night. There is no activity at all. So, even if we have something in common, there is no regulation or value processing happening in our brain. In other words, it seems that we are naturally hard-wired to distinguish between our friends or members of our family and the rest of the human kind. This brings us to Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. We perceive each of these networks in a different way.

We can theoretically justify this with theory proposed by Jonah Lehrer. The difference between Facebook and other social networks like Twitter and Linkedin is that Facebook is mostly made up by our friends and members of our family. On the other hand, the same cannot be generally said about Twitter and Linkedin. These two networks are often made up by people we don’t know, at least personally. What this means for us? Facebook has the power to activate our prefrontal cortex.

Other social networks such as Linkedin, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Ello or whatever your favorite network is, doesn’t have this power. This is also why we can often resist checking our Linkedin or Twitter profile for a number of days. It is also why some of us feel the urge to check their Facebook account couple times a day. In some way, we can say that Facebook is designed in better way.

The takeaway

First, there is a significant difference in how we perceive the people we know and complete strangers. Second, when we see or think about people we know, areas responsible for regulating our behavior and processing our values are activated. As a result, we are more likely to follow rules and principles of social dynamics. Third, not all social networks are made equal. Our brain is able to distinguish between social networks made up by people we know, like friends and family, and networks made up by people we don’t know (personally).

Fourth, since Facebook is usually made up by our close friends and family members, it is more addictive than other social networks such as Linkedin, Twitter or Google+. It is almost addiction by design. Fifth, we are hard-wired to recognize and distinguish between people we know and people we don’t know. As a result, social networks made up by people we know will appeal more to us.

No.6: Laugh is powerful tool of social dynamics

Have you ever tried to be angry on someone while you were laughing and having a great time with the same person? We would have to make a serious effort to get that done and even then it is possible that we would fail. Many of us also probably know that it is much easier to create new relationships in comfortable environment. How many times have you met someone on some party or similar event and became very good friends? We can say that laughter works like a glue.

When we take into account research conducted on laughter, it seems that laughter is not something we learn. Meaning, if there is something like innate social dynamics principles, it seems that laughter is one of them. Or, do you remember when you “learned” how to laugh? Probably not. It was not like a ridding a bike or swimming. You didn’t have to learn any specific technique and set of steps to laugh “properly”. Laughter just came naturally. There are also other things we know for certain about laughter.

We know that laughter is universal. People from all cultures laugh, at least sometimes. Laughter is something that happens unconsciously. We can’t force ourselves to laugh without faking it. Laughter is indispensable part of social dynamics. Meaning, we laugh less when we are alone than when we are among other people. Laughter is contagious. When we hear someone laugh, we slowly begin to smile and then we start to laugh as well. Laughter occurs early in our life, around four months of age. Laughter is tool for creating social bonds, humor is only small part of equation.

When we talk, we laugh twice more than when we listen. We are also more likely to laugh in the middle of sentence than on its beginning or end. Women laugh twice more than men. Also, laughter is an indication of your position in social hierarchy of some group. The higher in hierarchy you are, the less likely you are to laugh. Lastly, we don’t have monopoly on laughter. We know about many animals such as chimpanzees, dolphins and even rats that are able to laugh.

The takeaway

First, laughter is part of social dynamics and it is something innate. Second, we can force ourselves to laugh without faking it. Third, laughter is primarily used to create social bonds, not to respond to jokes and humorous situations. Fourth, communication that includes laughter is better for forging new and stronger relationships. Fifth, laughter is universal across all cultures. Sixth, the higher you are in social hierarchy in a group, the less likely it is that you will laugh. Seventh, laughter is contagious. If you want to make other people laugh, do it first.

No.7: We are good at distinguishing real smile from fake one

I previously mentioned that we can’t force ourselves to laugh without faking it. Whether faking laughter is a good thing or not, is up to you to decide. However, you should know that we are really good at distinguishing between real and fake smile or laughter. When we genuinely laugh or smile, there are two specific types of facial muscles that are activated. The first type is responsible for enlarging our cheeks and exposing our teeth. We can consciously control this muscle and fake it.

The second type of muscle is responsible for forming wrinkles on the edge of our eyes. When we try to fake smile or laughter, we often forget to include this type of muscles. Therefore, when our eyes close up as the cheeks move upwards, the smile is high likely to be genuine. This gives us three tools or tips we can you use to distinguish between fake and real smile better. First, number of people don’t close their eyes when the fake smile. Therefore, absence of movement in the eyes area is one of the signs that smile is not real.

Second tip is to always look for something called crow’s feet. This is a wrinkle in the skin at the outer corner of your eyes. For many people, these wrinkles (crow’s feet) appear outside the eyes when they smile honestly. The third and last tip is to always notice teeth, especially bottom teeth. When you can see bottom teeth, there is high chance that that smile is fake. The reason is that when we genuinely smile, our mouth muscle moves upwards.

However, some people are not showing their bottom teeth even if they fake the smile. It is, therefore, a good practice to look for other signs such as conflicting emotions and body language. Meaning, pay attention to other parts of the face as well as body. I should also mention that it is easier to spot fake smile on photo than on the video. Video is dynamic and we can watch the whole process and the moment of smile also takes longer than on static photo.

The takeaway

First, we are naturally good at distinguishing real and genuine smile from fake. Second, there are two specific types of muscles that are activated if your smile is genuine. Third, we can imitate smile. Fourth, it is easier for us to spot fake smile on video than photo. Fifth, one good sign of fake smile are conflicting emotions. Sixth, when our smile looks genuinely, it attracts more attention and people will trust us more. Seventh, get rid of all stock photos featuring fake smiles.

Closing thoughts on psychology of design and social dynamics

This is all I have for you today in this shorter article. I hope that these seven interesting facts and secrets about helped you understand how social dynamics work and how can you design for it. As always, let’s quickly recap the best practices we discussed today. First, if we are about to design social network or anything made of groups, we should limit the number of members 150. This is a step toward sustainable group with equally active members and healthy, flowing social dynamics. Second, we all are naturally hard-wired to learn by imitation.

Our brain contains special area composed of mirror neurons that are activated when we see someone performing some activity. This means that we learn by watching. Also, when we get into unfamiliar environment we look for clues to understand rules and protocols of local social dynamics. The fact that we have these mirror neurons also means that we are hard-wired to empathize with other people. Our brain can simulate the emotions we see to help us understand what is the other person feeling at the moment.

Mirror neurons can be also the reason why sociopaths are so hard to spot. They can watch and imitate social dynamics in the environment. Then, there is no difference between our and their behavior. Third, whenever we are interacting online or offline, we still expect these interactions to follow certain rules of social dynamics. This is why we should remind ourselves about the basic principles of usability and implement them in our designs.

Fourth, we are more likely to lie when we use phone or email than in person. Also, we will get more accurate data by talking with users and customers in person (or watching them) than in any other way. If we use phone or email to gather data and feedback on our work, we should include some space for small deviations caused by adjusted responses of users. We should also remember that we are more likely to give tougher feedback via email than other ways of communication.

Fifth, when we see or think about people we know it reacts in different way than in case of strangers. When we think about or see some we know, area responsible for keeping our behavior in line with known social dynamics is activated. Thanks to this, our brain is able to recognize between social networks made up by people we know networks made up by people we don’t know (personally). We always put more emphasis on the first. As a result we are more likely to regularly check Facebook than Twitter or Linkedin.

Sixth, laugh is universal and powerful tool that helps us navigate through the ocean of social dynamics and forge new and strong relationships. Remember, if you want to make people laugh, laugh first. Lastly, we are good at distinguishing real smile from fake one. When we see genuine smile, we have more trust in the other person.

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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