Psychological Dimensions of Interactivity


The aim of this paper is to identify and analyse some of the psychological mechanisms which underpin interactive science exhibits, and give them their motivational appeal. The analysis involves six aspects of interactive design which are found, singly or in various combinations, in interactive exhibits: surprise & unexpectedness, choice & multiple outcomes; social interaction & co-operation; utilising other senses; exerting physical control; self and social image.

These aspects of interactive design tap into several well-researched psychological mechanisms, and it is from these that they draw their motivating aspects. The psychological mechanisms include aspects of self-efficacy and learned helplessness; schemas and scripts; features of constructive memory and discourse; personal constructs and social representations; self-actualisation and stimulus-seeking; and social identity and positive regard. Some design constructs are more likely to connect with particular psychological mechanisms than others, and in doing so, they are also likely to produce distinctive types of outcome. Identifying the various potential outcomes from the relationship between psychological mechanisms and interactive design allows us to bring the motivational aspects of interactive exhibits to the fore, and to develop a vocabulary which will allows these aspects to become better articulated, and more clearly understood.


What follows is an attempt to identity and analyse some of the psychological mechanisms which underpin interactive science exhibits, and which give them their motivational appeal. The work originally came about as a result of a paper given at the first International Congress of Science Centres, in Finland in 1996, the text of which can be found here.

Click here for a diagram summarising the model.

Design constructs

In a working paper written in January 1997 for the Science Museum in London, I discussed a number of features of interactive exhibits, which came to be known as design constructs. These were: surprise and unexpectedness; choice and multiple outcomes; social interaction and co-operation; utilising other senses; and exerting physical control. A combination of application of the model, feedback, and theoretical reflection suggested that there is value in adding a sixth aspect to this list: interests and self-image. This sixth aspect is concerned with the personal interests of the individual, and also of the way that we perceive ourselves, and project ourselves to other people.

These design constructs have been given the abbreviated titles of: Surprise, Choice, Co-operation, Sensation, Control and Self. However, as with all abbreviations, it would be misleading to take the title as indicating the full dimensions of the construct. They are more fully described below.


Surprise and Unexpectedness - encountering the unanticipated, through size, suddenness, counter-intuitive knowledge, or dramatic effects.
Choice and Multiple Outcomes - allowing decision-making; enabling different actions to produce different effects
Social Interaction & Co-operation - enabling joint actions or joint decision-making between two or more people engaged with the same exhibit
Utilising Other Senses - requiring the use of touch, smell, taste, proprioception or kinaesthesia, rather than just vision and hearing
Exerting Physical Control - enabling or providing a direct, one-to-one relationship between the exhibit and the actions of the person engaged with it
Self and Social Image - reflecting or affirming the person's sense of self and ideal-self; contributing to, or affirming, the image they wish to project to others.

These design constructs were visible aspects of interactive exhibits, obtained through a process of observation, exploration, and the application of psychological knowledge. But there is no simple one-to-one relationship between these design constructs and motivational outcomes for visitors. Rather, they have their effect because they tap into a number of well-established psychological mechanisms.

The second phase of the model, therefore, involved the identification of the relevant psychological mechanisms. Table 2 describes some of those psychological mechanisms, which operate in very different ways within the human psyche. There are six of these too. Some design constructs may be more likely to connect with particular psychological mechanisms than other; but any one psychological mechanism may involve several design constructs, and any given design contruct may, in different exhibits, elicit different psychological mechanisms.


Self-efficacy and learned helplessness The belief that one is capable of acting effectively or competently in relevant situations; or of learning to do so.

Passivity generated by previous experiences of helplessness in unpleasant situations, which generalises to new situations and results in lack of interest or rejection.

Schemas and scripts Mental frameworks or structures which encompass memories, ideas, concepts and programmes for action pertinent to a particular topic

Patterns of social action and interaction which have been socially established and accepted, and are followed implicitly and automatically.

Constructive memory and discourse Memory which adjusts itself to the person's beliefs, values and opinions.

The way that people say things to one another, and the behavioural and symbolic implications of the forms and content of their conversion.

Personal constructs and social representations Individual ways of making sense of the world, developed on the basis of personal experience.

Widely-accepted shared beliefs which serve an important function in explaining reality, and in justifying social action.

Self-actualisation and stimulus-seeking The making real of one's abilities and talents: pursuing interests, developing skills, and generally realising one's potential

Courting excitement or danger, provoking confrontations, or seeking new, physically demanding experiences.

Social identity and positive regard Membership of social groups, which forms a significant part of the self-concept, and is the basis for "them-and-us" perceptions.

Liking, affection, love or respect for someone else. In this context, gaining or maintaing social respect, and therefore also avoiding ridicule.

One of the things which emerged very quickly from this work is that identifying psychological processes in this way also began to enrich the concept of outcome. Up to this point, science exhibits were almost exclusively assessed in terms of cognitive outcomes. But this work also led to discussion about the other domains of the human psyche.

Many people are familiar with the idea of the domains of the human psyche. The original Greek model was of cognitive, conative and affective domains. However, in the first half of this century, the conative domain was dismissed by the behaviourists, who argued that people's behaviour was determined by behaviooural contingencies, and so intentionality and will were irrelevant. They introduced the "behavioural" dimension instead.

Nowadays, we recognise that intentionality and will are important - but equally, habits and learned behaviours have relevance too. So when discussing types of outcomes I discussed all four domains:


the Cognitive domain perception, memory, thinking.
the Affective domain emotions, feelings, and impressions.
the Conative domain will, intentionality, and planning.
the Behavioural domain movement, activities and habits.

In terms of interactive exhibits, this has proved to be a useful model. By articulating the four different domains in this way, we are better placed to be able to develop meaningful ways of evaluating outcomes.

The model itself is in day to day use, and is proving to be of considerable value in exhibit design. What it has done is to surface and make explicit many of the "woolly" concepts which were involved in the development of exhibits, and to provide a vocabulary which encourages creativity and innovation.

It inevitably raises questions about measures for exhibit evaluation. If interactive exhibits have some operation in all four of the psychological domains, then clearly evaluations which are limited to the cognitive domain will not be adequate to give a full assessment of their effectiveness. Different types of psychological mechanism are likely to produce different types of outcome. Table 4 shows some hypothesised outcomes, based on established psychological theory, but these still need to be explored systematically, in a real-life exhibit.


Psychological MechanismPotential outcomes
Self-efficacy & learned helplessness Personal readiness to engage with other scientific ideas; increased sense of competence & skill
Schemas & scripts Readiness to explore new experiences; a sense of learning or re-evaluation.
Constructive memory & discourse Social affirmation of a distinctive life-experience; acquisition of anecdotes / conversational material
Personal constructs & social representations Feeling of increased knowledge; sense of challenge, also of distinctiveness
Self-actualisation & stimulus-seeking Sense of excitement and discovery; affirmation of positive sense of self
Social identification Sense of personal validation; social respect and/or approval

It is possible to envisage a systematic research project which would to track the application of the model through the design and production processes. There are a number of things that we would like to explore - for example, whether some design constructs are more likely to connect with particular psychological mechanisms than others. Table 5 shows some of our hypothesised connections, although we also believe that any one psychological mechanism is likely to involve several design constructs, and any given design contruct may, in different exhibits, elicit different psychological mechanisms.

Table 5


Self-efficacy & learned helplessness Choice & Control
Schemas & social scripts Surprise, Control & Self
Constructive memory & discourse Surprise, Sensation & Self
Personal constructs & social representations Choice, Self & Co-operation
Self-actualisation & stimulus-seeking Surprise, Self & Sensation
Social identification Co-operation, Control & Self


What we have, then, is the application of well-established psychological knowledge to a new set of problems. Existing psychological research has enabled the development of a theoretical model which makes sense and has practical value for those working in the field. The theory has been modified considerably by informal observation and application, and we are currently attempting to open up options to undertake some of the systematic psychological research which will permit us to explore and refine the model.



Nicky Hayes 1998

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