You don’t have much time to engage someone on the other side of a website or application.
Users move quickly without fully understanding all the tools at their disposal.
Visitors make judgements in 1/20th of a second.
People do not RTFM.
How impatient! How careless! How shortsighted!
Hold on, though.
You’re a user, a visitor, a person, too. Would you describe yourself as impatient, careless, and shortsighted? Of course not!
You’re not impatient; you just had things to do that day.
You’re not careless; you were just trying to get something done for your boss.
You’re not shortsighted; you just haven’t had time to look for new features yet.
Or, put another way: that person who cut you in line the other day was rude, but when you cut people in line, it was because you needed to meet a friend. You’re not rude!
We tend to attribute others’ behavior to internal characteristics in a phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error. We have a hard time identifying and remembering situational factors with others when we think their actions were intentional, and that hard time is well-documented and heavily researched.
Not helping this at all is something called actor–observer asymmetry, in which we tend to give ourselves more of a break. We much prefer that every action we take—especially negative ones—not be considered a reflection of our inner state of being.
We’re all a work-in-progress, am I right?
And yet, as people who work on the web, we’re often required to infer causality from another person’s actions. Whether it’s looking at bounce rates in Google Analytics or performing a task-completion analysis in UX work, the goal is still to understand what’s causing a particular action.
We want to manipulate the actions of others’—let’s not avoid saying it. As long as it’s benign, and you’re not misleading anyone for your own gain, let’s admit that this is acceptable. It’s pretty much the foundation of traditional sales tactics.
So, getting past the moral implications, we’ve got to understand how we tend to attribute behavior in order to more correctly…attribute behavior.
In observing behavior (again, as simple as looking at your blog stats), people will distinguish between intentional and unintentional events.
For an action to be judged as intentional, it “must be based on a desire for an outcome, beliefs about the action’s relationship with this outcome, a resulting intention to perform the action, and skill and awareness when actually performing it” (source). Intention is seen as a choice and commitment to act as a result of the actor weighing beliefs and desires.
So, once we’re settled on something being intentional, we go through an interesting process of explaining the behavior—at least, according to the folk-conceptual theory. Explanations break down into three modes: reason, causal history of reason, and enabling factor.
Reason explanations are the most common, as they’re easy to map to a desire for an outcome as well as beliefs that the action leads to the outcome.
“She wants a new pair of jeans [desire], and she thinks Amazon is the right place to buy them [belief].”
We try to reconstruct the subjective viewpoint of the actor and string together the rationality that led to the action. It’s important to remember that, in doing this, we’re mostly guessing and, often, projecting ourselves onto that viewpoint. For instance, I would tend to guess that she bought jeans from Amazon because it’s easy to find what you’re looking for and buy it there. The jeans were probably reasonably priced as well. But I don’t know.
Causal History of Reason
The causal history of reason explanation mashes the “nature vs. nurture” argument together into one clump. It’s an attempt to explain what led up to the action based on anything from personality to upbringing to circumstances.
So, using the previous example:
“She bought jeans from Amazon because she’s lazy.”
I might think there are obviously better ways to buy jeans, so I attribute her behavior to things that have happened to her previously. But, note that this assumes that she never considered those factors herself; she didn’t consciously note to herself that she was lazy, and thus decide to buy from Amazon because of it. I assume intentional action, but absent (or irrelevant) rationale.
Lastly, this rare mode of explanation assumes the actor had motives and, instead, clarifies how the action was successfully performed.
“She bought jeans from Amazon because she has a Prime account.”
Beliefs and Desires
Both beliefs and desires are necessary to something to be perceived as intentional. Sometimes one implies the other, as in assuming that a user is sending an email about an event because that users wants event attendees. However, in many cases, it’s easy to create tons of implied assumptions when a belief is presented as a reason.
Thus, even if we can get past something broad like this:
Liberals do this because they hate the rich.
Conservatives do that because they hate the poor.
We can still end up with something like this, which has most of the same assumptions:
Liberals do this because they believe the rich are above the law.
Conservatives do that because they believe the poor are lazy.
Or, expressing the same idea with a desire reason:
Liberals do this because they want to let the rich know they are not above the law.
Conservatives do that because they want the poor to know their laziness is unacceptable.
Politics makes for easy hyperbole because it’s basically satire in disguise. It helps make the point: if you identify with one of these groups, you likely reject the broad characterization I presented. But you’re much more likely to have at least approached thinking about the other group in that manner.
We tend to judge others’ actions in one light and ours in another, because we have an interest in self-presentation and have better access to our reasoning (obviously).
For instance, one interesting study looked into how people make sense of others’ self-portrayals in social media when they seem inconsistent with their impressions.
Subjects rated the inconsistencies of acquaintances as more intentionally misleading, more hypocritical, and less trustworthy relative to the inconsistencies of friends. In addition, the types of attributions people made for online behavior depended on the perspective of the person providing the explanation: People explained their own online behavior more favorably than the online behavior of both friends and acquaintances.
You see, we have great reasons to show the best side of ourselves, but all those other people are engaging in hypocritical behavior.
Further, we often base those great reasons on beliefs more than desires, which we also tend to state as fact. For instance:
“Why did she buy the jeans from Amazon?”
“She wants a new pair of jeans, and she thinks Amazon is the right place to buy them.”
“Why did you buy the jeans from Amazon?”
“Amazon is the right place to buy them.”
And that’s if you can manage to get past the assumption that she did it because she was lazy.
Acknowledging this tendency and understanding modes of explanation helps us more accurately understand the behavior of others. Biases can be counteracted with some effectiveness simply through awareness of them. You can dive into the assumptions you’re making based on your observations and make more informed judgements.
And, wouldn’t you like to make more informed judgements of people anyway? Wouldn’t you like it if others make better judgements of you?
Focus on making yourself a better observer; get the added benefit of being a better human!