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Decoding the Human Experience

Roy Bendor Cohen
March 9, 2021

Why is it that we feel very annoyed when we get stuck in traffic behind a big truck that blocks the road, but we enjoy the experience of flying overseas for dozens of hours?

Philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists have been trying to decode the human experience ever since these disciplines were established.

Over the past three decades, human-centric approaches have grown in usage as business and organizations seek to improve customer/user/employee experience. (To exemplify, Don Norman coined the term "user experience" in the 1990s.).

However, in order to improve anything, it must first be understood.

The Fundamentals of Human Experience

To avoid a purely philosophical discussion, let's agree that one person can never fully know or entirely understand another human's experience (for those who are interested - I invite you to search the term ‘Qualia’ - make yourself a strong coffee first, and be prepared for a mind-blowing intellectual journey). But, what we can do is get close by studying reactions, asking questions and making observations.

There are a few distinctions we must consider when endeavouring to study human experience:

Explicit vs. Implicit: In the context of experience, what can be studied empirically is what people consciously report about their experience (explicit) versus what’s gleaned from observing their unconscious behavior (implicit).

Experience vs. Memory: Nobel Prize Laureate and pioneer of Behavioral Economics Daniel Kahneman believes that we have two selves, namely the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self exists only in the present. The remembering self looks back on past moments and describes how they felt or what they endured. The remembering self can also look ahead and define an anticipated memory (i.e. “That will be a tasty meal”).

Time lapse: This refers to when the measurement is taken (i.e. how much time has passed between the event itself and the time when feedback about the event was gathered?). Over the long-term, memory affects how we process and interpret an event (or experience) in the past.

Defining ‘event’: How you define an ‘event’ (how long of a period). Zooming in and out changes the perception of the event. Are we referring to an entire process? Just to a specific stage? A moment? The way you define, frame and scope an ‘event’ changes the way you judge and experience it.

Having clarified this, I will now suggest a general framework that guides human experience, one that is driven by internal states.

A Framework for Human Experience (MEASE)

Motivation - “What am I trying to achieve?” Refers to the goals and objectives of the individual.  

Expectations - “How should things work around here?” This includes everything that is known by the individual and his/her past experience regarding the situation, including social norms, reputation, etc.  

Attention / Awareness - “What am I paying attention to now?”, “What are my thoughts about?” “Am I distracted?

Self-Narrative - “Who am I? How do I perceive myself?” This includes the identity of the person and how they perceive themself. It’s the story we tell ourselves, which affects the way we frame situations.

Emotional state - “How do I feel now?” The emotional state, independent from the situation itself. If you woke up and are just having a bad day, any experience would be interpreted in the same negative light.

Ready for Liftoff? An In-Flight Example of the MEASE Framework

We enter the plane with a clear motivation - to get to the destination in time for an important meeting. And, we have certain expectations, such as the duration of the flight, quality of food, attitude of the flight attendants, the leg distance, etc. We can control our attention by deciding to bring a book, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast, for example. We speak to ourselves in our self-narrative, saying things like, “I’m a responsible person; I’m never late.” As humans, we feel our emotional state - How did I wake up this morning? Am I happy or stressed about the meeting?

All of these factors influence our judgement and interpretation of events, consequently shaping our experience of the flight, and subsequently, the meeting.

Touching Down

To reiterate, the human experience is made up of both internal states and external contributing factors. While it’s possible to develop a comprehensive framework that would include external contextual factors, the MEASE framework is focused on mainly internal states.

Despite the MEASE framework’s internal focus, it’s still important to note that a service or product provider has the ability to impact, shape and reframe the human/user/employee experience. That’s why businesses and organizations are and should be increasingly focused on researching and understanding the human experience and respective behaviors. The ability to design, produce and maintain positive experiences translates into loyalty and retention.

At the end of it all (the article and beyond), how would you define your experience?

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