Swipe… review… sign… pay later [repeat?]
Understanding Martha Augustinos’ and Ian Walker’s approach to schemas and how it can aid a designer frame reflexive behaviors during a consumer experience.

Reflect about the purchases made in the last few days. Did any transactions involve checks, money orders, cash, or even a visit to the bank? Most likely the quantitative answer to this question will be low, if not zero. Physical currency no longer plays a major role in commercial negotiations. Items, information, and services can be acquired, and sometimes are required (try to reserve a vehicle without a credit card), through the use of credit-based-cards in lieu of tangible currency. The benefits of such a system are hard to deny: a credit card is often faster than paying with cash, avoids having to deal with change, offers an ever-present source of funds in case of an emergency, minimizes economically-based social judgments, and serves as an element that grants certain social power.

American critic Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, wrote: “Any return to the haptic and tactile… seem to hearken back to… the “late modern,” when building materials were expensive and of the finest quality and people still wore suits and ties. It is like the transition from precious metals to the credit card: the “bad new things” are no less expensive, and you no less consume their very value, it is the value of the… equipment you consume first and foremost, and not of its objects.” (Jameson, p.99) The credit card is not only a means to consumption, but it now represents consumption itself, and as such, it has developed its own set of appeals. The credit card is now a must and there is no turning back.

Credit cards have become the predominant buying tool for individuals and families. In 2004 the Census Bureau reported that there were more than 1.4 billion credit cards for 164 million cardholders—an average of 8.5 cards per cardholder, out of which 115 million carry a month-to-month debt. (Thaler, Sunstein, p.142). In the pre–credit card era, households were pretty much forced to use a pay–as–you–go accounting system… If you don’t have the cash to fill your car with gas, there is always your credit card. (Thaler, Sunstein, p.143) The use of credit cards has changed how we think of our monetary assets, adding an extra layer of abstraction to an already abstract relationship with money, further disconnecting us from possible reflective moments and concrete connections. We no longer see our money decrease when we use it. We have an idea about what we are spending, but any physical correlation is now denoted in a pile of receipts and swipes of a card.

Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, looks at how credit card behaviors in the United States have lead to an average debt of about $9,000 per average card–using-family; and states that seven in ten households borrow on credit cards to cover such basic living expenses as food, utilities and clothing.

Why would people do this? Are the paths, actions an decisions deliberate or on purpose? What kind of conditions are being experienced that would force them to reach such a point? Or are they forced?

As individuals we are confronted by alternatives in our daily processing, and among these choices some are preferred over others. At any given moment, a person finds him or herself in a field of choice, where he or she has to exercise an option conceived from of a set of alternatives. In general, the set of attainable alternatives actually will not be as large as the set of conceived alternatives. Thus, an individual’s attainable set of choices is only a subset of his field of choice. (Crouch p.2) In order to make a choice, the individual must construct a scale of preferences out of the field of choice, a ranking of descriptions, values, and relationships in order to execute a decision. When confronted with options, individuals should be able to decide: (1) whether one alternative is better than another in terms of the [wealthWealth here used in relation to the original meaning of the word, where it is not about having more physical possessions, but about being better in the general sense of the word. A wealthy person is that which is doing well.] it would contribute to his or her life or (2) whether both alternatives are equal in level of [wealth]. (Crouch p.2) Something is clearly wrong if all these people are living in such a debt. The factors that could help us in making a clear decision are being blurred in some way.

New York Times journalist John Leland, author of Debtors Search for Discipline via Blogs, found in the blogosphere a shockingly candid window into the day-to-day finances of American households in this time of rising debt, failing mortgages and financial uncertainty. Leland studied people who blog intimate details of their financial life, including their net worth, the balance and finance charges of their credit cards, and the amount of debt that has been paid down on them, only to find that many carry out this personal sharing as part of a self-control system. One of the subjects said: “I know that if I use my credit card, I’ll have to go on there and say I used it. I’ll have to fess up. I’ve wanted one of those L.C.D. TVs for quite a while now, but every time I see them, I think about having to come on the blog and say I bought it. Because we don’t need it, we have a TV, but it’s still a temptation that’s there. And I’m sure if I wasn’t blogging we’d already have it.” Individuals are trying to make up for what is missing and are trying to regain control. On a non-digital scale, others find ingenious ways to interrupt their spending habits. For example, the known “ice glass” method, where you drop your credit card into a glass of water and put the glass in the freezer so that when you impulsively decide to make a purchase you must first wait for the ice to thaw before extracting the card, is just another of many temporary solutions in an effort to battle non-reflexive impulsive consumer actions.

In this constantly changing environment in which blog audiences may disperse and online financial systems store the credit card information (in case the physical card has been frozen), a different approach is needed. The behaviors and patterns associated with credit card use need to be interrupted by moments for possible reflective thought. The variables that seem hidden from us in order to make clear choices need to be re-integrated into our processes as we consume.

Think about the last time you used a credit card. Actually, think about all of the times you’ve used one. What can you recall? What images come to mind? More than likely this information can be described in a sequence of actions. Do they look something like this?

• Carry the card at all times
• Use the card
• Verify items being charged (or not)
• Sign receipt (electronically or paper)
• Enjoy the purchase (item or service)
• Receive credit card bill
• Review purchases
• Pay (full or parts)
• Manage the balance leftover in next months bill

Your recollection of this event probably includes other steps that are not portrayed in this prototypical list, but most likely the essence of your sequence is very similar. The ordered system of expectations related to this experience is called a schema.

A schema is a mental structure that contains general expectations and knowledge of the world. This may include information about people, social roles, events and how to behave in certain situations. Schema theory, which proposes how human beings utilize such knowledge in the daily executions of activities, suggests that we use such mental structures to select and process incoming information from the social environment. We categorize people and events to simplify and structure the social world and thus anticipate future events, behaviors and experiences. (Augustinos, Walker, Donaghue, p.35) It could be argued that because we all operate in terms of schemas, our fields of choice appear even smaller when we face decisions. Actions have become unconscious behaviors that we execute without thinking. Possibilities have now become routine.

Martha Augustinos’ and Ian Walker’s approach describes four types of schemas: person schemas, which deal with abstracted conceptual structures of personality traits… that enable a person to categorize and make inferences from the experience of interactions with other people; self schemas, which are cognitive generalizations about the self, derived from past experience, that organize and guide the processing of self-related information contained in the individual’s social experiences; role schemas, which refer to the knowledge structures people have of the norms and expected behaviors of specific role positions in society (these can be achieved (acquired) or ascribed (present) roles; and event schemas, which describe the sequential organization of events in everyday activities; providing the basis for anticipating the future, setting goals and making plans.

Think about it this way. By using the information stored as schemas we do not need to experience every moment as if it were a new one. It would be very difficult to function if we went about our everyday life without prior knowledge or expectations about the people and events around us, so schemas give us some sense of prediction and control of the social world. As such, schemas are theorized to be functional and essential for our well-being. The schema provides hypothesis about incoming stimuli, which include plans for interpreting and gathering schema-related information. (Augustinos, Walker, Donaghue, p,32) The information in schemas allows us to categorize information and develop expectations and behaviors toward things that may come to happen, allowing us to do some things faster without much thinking or effort.

It could be argued that mental-shortcuts could limit our alternatives: if options and stimuli become patterns, we are no longer thinking about them as we did before, so we are maybe not considering them as we should.

Now think back to your experiences using your credit card. Augustinos and Walker argue that people take less time to process, interpret and remember information that is consistent with their general expectations (Augustinos, Walker, Donaghue, p.44). Consider how familiar you are to the procedures of using a credit card. You barely think about it at this point because the schemas associated with these procedural steps have become mental shortcuts. You have learned these from your direct and indirect experience with the credit card environment and these schemas take over to organize each subsequent experience. What if we could use this to our advantage rather than to our detriment?

Think about all of the automatic steps that take place. With the help of schema knowledge, a designer can frame and understand patterns of repetitive actions that might arise and intervene in automatic behaviors to prevent experiential spending. By considering the information stored in schemas a designer might understand our processes and create systems where pauses can be inserted to cause us to reflect and spend less money. Schematic behaviors could provide clues as to the factors that may not be visible when consumers face a buying decision.

Consider Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase’s investigation into the ways in which we interact with technology, which led him from the villages of Uganda to the insides of our pockets in an effort to understand as much as he can about who we are as people. Through his human behavioral research, he made some unexpected discoveries along the way. He began by asking: “What do you carry? If you think of everything in your life that you own, when you walk out that door, what do you consider to take with you? Of that stuff, what do you carry? And of that stuff what do you actually use?” (Chipchase) His research, carried out around the world, studied hundreds of event schemas embedded in the activity of leaving a place to move to another. It led him to conclude that if you ask people what are the three most important things that they transport, across cultures, and across gender, and across contexts, most people will say: keys, money, and if they own one, a mobile phone. “Why keys, money, and a mobile phone? It boils down to survival: survival to us and survival to our loved ones. Keys provide access to shelter and warmth, transport as well. Money is useful for buying food, sustenance, among other uses. The mobile phone turns out to be a great recovery tool.” (Chipchase)

Research into schemas can yield specific and effective results. For example, through Chipchase’s research, we now know that when we use our credit cards we most likely have with us a set of keys and a mobile phone. So, instead of later bloggling about our spending habits, could we enroll in a system in which the cell phone notices the card being swiped and calls your significant other to let him/her know of your purchase? Could a text message arrive on the spot with the unpaid bills from this month? On a cognitive level, if our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, and the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor (Lakoff, Johnson, p.3), what if our credit cards were shaped like keys (calling up the concepts of shelter and warmth) and we had to unlock the buying system to make a purchase, thus activating associations we have with securing important or precious items behind a lock.

These examples, maybe superficial and problematic in nature, are the result of an understanding rooted in schemas. All three share an important aspect: by recognizing the presence of such cognitive features in the daily processes of others, designers can then focus on designing experiences, rather than on objects, to intervene in undesirable or inappropriate consumer behavior. Hopefully, if the experience is designed effectively, not only will the person not fall into financial troubles, but also will be on its way to fixing their previous ones and understanding the larger context implicated in their day-to-day actions and decisions.

Works Cited

Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational : The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions. 1st ed. New York, NY: Harper, 2008.

Augoustinos, Martha, and Iain Walker. Social Cognition : An Integrated Introduction. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif. ; New Delhi: Sage, 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean, and Inc NetLibrary. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1998.

Chipchase, Jan. Our cell phones, ourselves. Ted.com. Accessed on October 16, 2008. [http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jan_chipchase_on_our_mobile_phones.html]

Crouch, Robert L. Human Behavior: An Economic Approach. North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1979.

Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind : The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors we Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Wurman, Richard Saul. Information Anxiety is Produced by the Ever-Widening Gap between what we Understand and what we Think we should Understand … 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

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