Artwork: John Miles
Human nature is not fixed. What we pay attention to and respond to depends on the environment we find ourselves in, and the manner in which that environment is designed.
The greatest modern evidence of this lies in the digital landscape, which is designed and framed in such a way as to reel us in and encourage mass communication.
However, environmental framing has been used to change our behaviour for centuries.
Consider the case of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, born in 1737. Parmentier was an army pharmacist captured in Prussia during the Seven Years’ War, and while in prison was forced to eat potatoes that the French saw as ‘hog feed’. This was the public perception at the time.
Ever the optimist, Parmentier grew to learn that potatoes were actually an excellent food source–cheap, nutritious, and easy to grow–and wanted to introduce them to France as part of a nutritious, balanced diet.
The problem was, the idea didn’t take. Returning home to France, Parmentier couldn’t garner any interest in his newfound passion for potatoes. Even when he tried to give the crops away, no one seemed to want them. Why would they? As far as the public knew, potatoes were only fit for pigs. So what did Parmentier do?
He framed them differently.
Parmentier placed his own private patch under heavy guard, instructing the guards to accept any and every bribe offered for the potatoes. The people assumed that a crop under such heavy guard must naturally be high in value, and so the townsfolk came in droves to haggle and barter. Soon enough, Parmentier’s entire patch was close to gone.
All this happened in the 1780s; before social media, before big data, before content marketing, and long before the digital landscape and its proponents were proposing theories on how best to circumnavigate the biases of the human mind.
What Parmentier understood was that making something attractive enough to be wanted, even something that no one wanted, depended almost entirely on how it was designed and framed in the environment. People “stole” his potatoes because the presence of guards increased their perceived value. Parmentier didn’t need an eighty-slide presentation and three months of quantitative research to tell him that.
The digital environment is no different, and in many cases, biases that we are folly to in the real world are only magnified online. Getting people interested in a product or brand in a digital sphere depends far more on framing and environmental design than on co-creation or giveaways or ‘influencers’.