I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel to a lot of different places. While I generally like to feel like I’m in another world, unique unto itself, there’s another travel style I find frequently: those that incessantly compare everything they see and experience to something they’ve already done or know.
“Looks like the..”
“Reminds me of …”
“It’s kind of like…”
It’s like they are playing a never-ending game of “spot the differences”.
“Tastes sort of like… except”
“Sounds like… but”
“Makes me think of… but it’s more…”
For me to find myself in inescapable company of one of these people is pure misery for me. I just want to shout “If you can’t stop thinking about home – just go back there!”
“Back home that home/sandwich/beer/whatever would cost….”
Wouldn’t it be better to just enjoy things for what they are rather than compare them to other things that they aren’t?
“This sauce is like the chutney we get at India House back home but more spicy.”
“Those mural has a similar aesthetic as the one back home on 6th Street.”
“That car is just like a mini Cooper, but taller.”
“Those tiles look like the floor of our bathroom.”
“This music sounds like it’s from the cantina from Star Wars.”
No Really. Why?
If I had to make some guesses as to why this is happening:
- On some level the person feels disoriented, unsure of their environment, some mild uncertain fear. Knowing that “this place is just like a place I know” provides safety and comfort and firm footing.
- Humans are highly associative beings. Our brains store new information next to related information. When someone sees something unfamiliar, the brain goes “OMG what is that like? Where do I put it?” It goes into overdrive and the excitement spills out our mouth: “This is just like that one episode of The Simpsons”.
- Changing and adapting takes time, energy, and there’s risk involved. If we can tell ourselves that this is the same stuff we already know, then we don’t have to adapt.
I won’t claim to be some special individual that doesn’t do some associative experiencing. It’s almost certainly a behavior that we all exhibit to different degrees in different situations. But some people exhibit it less than others. Perhaps the more someone is in situations where they have to experience new things, the less they are driven to associate?
What Does This Mean For IRL Experience Design?
Admission: I’ve yet to land on a great answer to this question. I have spent a few sittings on this section of the blog post and I have more questions and observations than answers. I’ll share them here, but leave broader conclusions and how-to’s for another time.
- If there’s nothing in a new experience that has a clear reference point in our own reality, we eventually (or in short order) get uneasy. For some this uneasiness is exactly what they are seeking. It’s been shown that the difference between anxiety and excitement is what you tell yourself about what you are experiencing. When there’s nothing to associate, some get excited. Others get anxious.
- Semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation) are one of the most prevalent and effective tools of marketing. But how can they influence IRL Experience Design? What are the things will people see and do in your experience that will trigger some association (and the emotions you have attached to them?) How do we use them to create awesome experiences that are at the same time, novel? (And, how do we accommodate the diverse range of personal histories and cultures we all have?)
- With semiotics and other associative material you can give people scaffolding to get more into the experience and you can also guide them to where they want to go. You can put them in an ocean of the unknown and give them one semiotic lillypad. Then, when the time is right, that lillypad sinks and a new one appears and they jump to that one. If you want to keep visitors safe and on the right track, give them a series of semiotics.
- Semiotics are also great tools for humor and surprise. You can allude to things, have the visitors make an association – but then present another outcome – then you’ve used their own mind to create a surprise. (You don’t want them to feel “tricked”, of course – so the payoff of being “wrong” should be worth it).