As part of a project assignment for a design research course, our team was challenged to deconstruct sanity and figure out a way to increase its presence across the university.
We started by conducting interviews with students about how they stayed sane at Stanford. We asked them about their day to day lives and probed into sources of stress, their definition of sanity, and what that looked like in their lives. We were surprised to find that all of our interviewees were quite sane, each with their own approach to sanity.
To provide an area of focus to our analysis, we chose to concentrate on a single story. Of the people we had talked to, we were most compelled by the story of Rachel. She had taken five years off in the middle of her undergraduate education to explore what she wanted to do with her life, and she had come back to Stanford with a deeper understanding of herself, which she referred to as her “femininity”. When we asked her to tell us more about it, she described it using several analogies, such as “the yin to the yang” or “the archetypical crone”, and admitted that its definition was elusive to her.
We felt her Rachel’s “femininity” was core to how she stayed sane at Stanford, but struggled to put it into words. We found instead that the best way to capture Rachel’s femininity was a picture with background and foreground. The background, her “femininity”, was this vague and ambiguous unknown that Rachel cultivated, which in turn gave rise to her foreground, her developing identity that the rest of the world saw. After several failed attempts at finding a verbal equivalent, we realized that it was exactly this inability to verbalize that was perhaps the insight. Society’s options for talking about identity were constricting, and Rachel’s sanity came from not being afraid to go outside of those bounds.
Based on this insight, we moved onto our next step of finding a way to help others achieve sanity at Stanford. We wondered how people would define their identities if they were not afraid of going outside of society’s options for talking about identity, and if this might make them more sane. We put this question to the test with a displacement, a specific type of prototype aimed at behavior change. After coming up with several possible concepts, we converged upon an interest in how introductions, a concentrated moment in time when we convey our identities to the world, affected self-image.
We hypothesized that career-based introductions induce stress through perceived competition, but if people were to introduce themselves in terms of their virtues, they might feel awkward initially but ultimately feel more grounded in who they are when interacting with others who introduce themselves in terms of career.
We created two groups of participants, a career group and a virtue group, and set it up similar to a speed dating event. We held two rounds, one within groups (i.e. virtue-virtue, career-career) and one between groups (i.e. virtue-career). During the rounds, we observed what happened when the participants introduced themselves in terms of virtue vs. career and how their conversation partner’s introduction (i.e. whether they were from the same or other group) affected the conversation. We also assessed each participant’s emotions with a survey before and after each round, and we conducted a debrief with all participants at the end of each round.
What emerged was a positive effect of virtue-based introductions not on a self-image, but on participants’ ability to relate to others. Participants felt that talking about virtues, while perhaps initially jarring, cut past any superficiality and helped them get to know the other person more quickly. Yet at the same time, one participant pointed out that careers and virtues are not mutually exclusive, which left us with a question. If what people do typically emerges out of what they value, why is it taboo to talk about one and not the other?
Ultimately, we concluded that virtue-based introduction would in fact help increase sanity. However, if we were to have more time to iterate the project, we would want to explore what real-world applications would look like. For example, could parents ask their children “what kind of person would you like to be” instead of “what do you want to be when you grow up”? Or could schools encourage declarations of “virtue journeys” rather than “majors”? It could help grow a generation more sane than we are today.
We shared our work with the rest of the class and received feedback from the teaching staff that it was “intellectually compelling”, which I felt conveyed that we had truly tackled our challenge to deconstruct sanity. It was also personally satisfying to have worked on the prototype, which had presented an exciting opportunity for me to directly apply my background in psychology research to user research work.