I have a complicated relationship with my GPS unit. On the one hand, it rarely works. Here’s what happened the last time I turned it on. First, there was a five minute delay while it searched for the satellite signal. Then, it couldn’t find the street I was searching for. Then, it found the street but lost the satellite signal. Then, it regained the signal but sent me in the wrong direction. And then, after I’d already gotten accurate directions off my phone, the GPS unit finally decided that it knew where I was going. In other words, the device sucks.
But here’s the funny part: I still use the device every time I’m even a little lost or unsure of where I’m going. In fact, I sometimes turn the machine on even when I know exactly where I’m headed. Why? I’m not quite sure. Although the device drives me crazy, and I’m constantly complaining about it (see above), I also enjoy interacting with that posh British voice emanating from the gadget, as it mispronounces every street name and tells me to take the wrong turn. When I’m alone in the car, the stupid piece of plastic feels like a companion.
We spend our days surrounded by machines and microchips. With few exceptions, these machines feel like machines. We treat them like mindless tools because they are mindless tools. My laptop, in this sense, is just a fancy version of a can opener – it performs a nifty function, but I don’t worry about its interior life. As a result, if the tool malfunctions – if the can opener gets rusty, or if my computer crashes when I’m working on a file – I get furious. I curse the damn device and threaten to throw it in the trash.
Why, then, am I so indulgent of my GPS unit? The answer, I think, has to do with the facade of agency. This machine speaks to me, calmly telling me where to go and why it’s failing to telling me where to go. Sometimes, when the gadget is really struggling, I get the sense that it wants to apologize, that it feels bad it’s so utterly ineffective.
Of course, I know my intuitions about my GPS unit are ridiculous. I know that the genteel voice isn’t real, and that the device is just another piece of plastic crafted in China. But I think my response to the device captures something interesting about the human mind, which is that loves looking for other minds. Consider this elegant study, led by Scott Huettel at Duke. The scientists demonstrated that merely watching a computer “play” a video game – this is roughly equivalent to looking at a device on demo mode – led to increased activation in the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), a brain area associated with the perception of agency. (Interestingly, subjects who showed more activation in the pSTC while watching the computer were also more altruistic in real life.)
The moral is that it doesn’t take much before we start attributing feelings and intentions to a machine. (Sometimes, all it takes is a voice giving us instructions in English.) We are consummate agency detectors, which is why little kids talk to stuffed animals and why I haven’t thrown my GPS unit away. Furthermore, these mistaken perceptions of agency can dramatically change our response to the machine. When we see the device as having a few human attributes, we start treating it like a human, and not like a tool. So here’s my advice for designers of mediocre gadgets: Give them voices. Give us an excuse to endow them with agency. Because once we see them as humanesque, and not just as another thing, we’re more likely to develop a fondness for their failings.
And this doesn’t just apply to gadgets. Every company is now on Twitter and Facebook. For the most part, companies use these platforms as just another way to pump out banal promotional messages. However, I think these platforms actually have potential for corporate communication. The reason returns us to perceptions of agency. Consider this study led by the experimental philosophers Joshua Knobe and Jesse Prinz. They wanted to understand which psychological concepts people were willing to apply to corporations. They quickly discovered that people were perfectly happy to give companies intentionality, so that it would be acceptable to use sentences such as:
“Acme Corporation believes that its profit margin will soon increase,” or “Acme Corporation intends to release a new product this January.”
However, the vast majority of people refused to allow companies to have feelings or subjective experiences, so that sentences like this were deemed ridiculous:
“Acme Corporation is now experiencing great joy,” or “Acme Corporation is getting depressed.”
I think this asymmetry comes with important implications. When we fail to endow an organization with emotions, we’re much lower tolerance for mistakes. Instead of reacting with empathy when our plane is late, or when the product is imperfect, or when the item goes on sale the week after we bought it at full price, we react with unmitigated anger. This is why I think companies are missing the real potential of social networking platforms. Twitter and Facebook and whatever comes next aren’t just echo chambers for corporate messaging. (BP, as usual, is a case study in how not to do it.) Instead, these interactive platforms are a rare opportunity to endow a brand with agency, to inject some emotion into an emotionless corporation. By interacting directly with customers, by showing us a sense of humor, or making grammatical mistakes in tweets, or even apologizing for a mishap, we suddenly see the corporation as more than just a monolithic organization. We treat the company more like a GPS unit and less like a can opener.