A role for emotions in design
Emotions play an important role in the debate on innovations such as wind parks, robot carers and genetically-modified food. A team of MVI researchers is investigating the role of these emotions in the design of socially-responsible innovations.
Psychologists Linda Steg and Goda Perlaviciute, philosopher Sabine Roeser and postdoctoral researcher in human-technology interaction Nicole Huijts argue that engineers and policymakers need to seriously think about what the intended users of an innovation really find important, and adapt their innovation accordingly. “Emotions are a clear indicator that someone feels very strongly about something, and should not be trivialised as irrational,” says professor in environmental psychology Linda Steg of the University of Groningen.
Roots in values
“We assume that emotions are rooted in values. Of course, different people find different values important; one person may attach great value to nature and the environment or justice, while another may find prosperity or pleasure important. People can experience negative emotions if their important values are perceived to be threatened,” says Steg.
“Some views can be related directly to a value that we find important, while others are simply a consequence of an emotionally ‘tinged’ observation,” says Sabine Roeser, professor of ethics at TU Delft. “Some views can be properly justified, while others may be based on incorrect information, such as scaremongering by a lobby group. If you want to incorporate emotions into the design of an innovation, you cannot avoid selecting and classifying these emotions. And neither do you need to, because ethics provides good tools for making such a classification.”
The researchers will test their hypothesis that emotions are rooted in values by presenting participants with a case study, for example smart networks that link renewable energy sources to new technologies. Some people may be pleased that we are step closer to a sustainable energy system, while others may be concerned that the energy price will go up, or that there will be privacy issues. The researchers will identify the emotions that such an innovation elicits in people, and how these correspond to underlying values. “We expect that people’s emotions will depend on the impact that an innovation has on the values that they find most important. For example, someone who finds privacy particularly important may be more negative about smart networks than someone who finds the environment and future generations important,” explains Steg.
Based on their research, the scientists can provide policymakers and designers or engineers with suggestions on how to incorporate emotions into their designs in order to develop socially-responsible innovations. Well-known in psychology, for example, is the idea that a strong feeling can colour all our perceptions. If we are opposed to nuclear power, we will not listen to the argument that it can provide clean energy. If we support nuclear power, we believe that the safety risks are exaggerated. The fact that our perceptions are coloured by emotions does not mean that all our views necessarily weigh equally heavily.”
This research is innovative in that it fully combines psychological and philosophical approaches, and this reflects the spirit of the time, says Roeser. “More and more ethicists and other philosophers want to test their theories in practice. We do this in our research into the ethics of risk, for example, with in-depth interviews. However, a quantitative study in which data are collected on a large scale to test a philosophical hypothesis is really very new in my field. We even have a research laboratory.”