This one starts with a story.
I have a baby cousin-in-law who’s the sweetest little kid. Three years old, cute as a button, shock of golden hair. If you ever visit her, after some coy hiding behind her mom’s leg, she’ll eventually show you her ballet moves and invite you to a tea party by holding up an empty plastic tea cup that you’ll have no choice but to appreciatively sip from.
Their family has a dog who’s the sweetest dog you’ll ever meet. A chocolate lab, loyal to a fault, and loves to play. Pet him on the head, rub his belly, and he’ll follow you to the ends of the earth. My wife and I accidentally lost him for the most harrowing 10 hours of our lives, but that’s neither here nor there.
One day, my sweet little cousin was walking around the house with her sweet little dog. Seemingly unprovoked, she slammed his tail in the door and broke it. There was a lot of frantic yelping and screaming and running around; the dog went to the vet, my cousin banished to her room. They’re both fine now, but this is all to set up the pivotal moment for the purposes of my post. When her parents took her aside after the incident, they sternly demanded, “Why did you do that?!” As the story goes, she looked her parents dead in the eye and simply replied:
“Because I can.”
Chilling, isn’t it? Maybe even a little distrubing. “Oh, my god,” you’re thinking, “That child is a psychopath!” Maybe she is; it’s a bit early to tell. But for the sake of argument, I will counter: quite the opposite! In fact, I must say that she was, if nothing else, honest - and in a way that adults simply cannot be. And by the end of this post, I hope to have convinced you of the same.
So why do I tell you this story? Ironically enough, it’s to illustrate how difficult it is for humans to answer the question, “Why?” Why did you do that? Why do you feel that way? Why do you want that? The ease with which we usually come up with answers to that question - as encountered in our daily lives - belies the difficulty of getting a truly valid answer.
This has profound effects on human factors and psychology. Every human instinct tells us that answering the question, “Why?” should be easy and straightforward, but psychology has definitively demonstrated that a lot of the time, we’re just making stuff up that has almost nothing to do with what originally drove us. If you’re a human factors researcher trying to figure out how people feel about your product and how to fix it, that leaves you at a loss for solid data. My goals for this post are two-fold: first, to clear up some misconceptions I find many people - even professionals in industry - have about humans’ access to their thoughts and emotions. Second, I hope to completely undermine your faith in your own intuitions.
Because I can.
I’ll start with emotion. We like to believe we know how we feel or feel about something (and why), but try this little experiment (if you haven’t already had it inadvertently carried out on you by a significant other or friend). Just have someone you know stop you at random points during your day and ask, “How do you feel?” Your first instinct will be to shrug and say, “fine,” and the fact of the matter is that you really aren’t experiencing much past that. You’ll find it’s actually pretty difficult to think about how you’re feeling at any given moment. You start thinking about how you feel physiologically (i.e., am I tired? Hungry? Thristy?), what’s happened to you recently, what’s happening around you now, and so on. Then, only after considering these data do you have any more of an answer.
Don’t believe me? Well, you shouldn’t - I just told you that you can’t trust introspection, and then proceeded to tell you to introspect on your behavior. But there are some solid experimental findings that back me up here.
First is the study that formed the foundation of what is currently the consensus in how emotion works in psychology. We often just think we feel the feelings we do because they’re just intrinsically triggered by certain thoughts or circumstances. But it’s not nearly that straightforward.
In 1962, Dan Schacter and Jerome Singer tested the theory that emotion is made up of two components: your physiological arousal (which determines the intensity of your emotion) and a cognitive interpretation of that arousal (which determines which emotion you experience). The first part, arousal, is pretty clear and measurable, but that cognitive interpretation is a hornet’s nest of trouble. You start running into questions of what people pay attention to, how they weigh evidence, how they translate that evidence into a decision, bla bla bla. It’s awful. in all honesty, I would rather take on a hornet’s nest with a shovel than try to isolate and understand all those variables.
So Schacter and Singer kept things simple. They wanted to show they could experimentally induce different levels of happiness and anger through some simple manipulations. They brought some subjects into the lab and gave them what they said was a vitamin shot. In actuality, they were either shooting you up with epinepherine (i.e., adrenaline, to raise your arousal) or a placebo saline shot as a control condition (which would probably raise your arousal a little bit, but not as much as a shot of adrenaline). Then they had these subjects hang out in a waiting room with a confederate (someone who was working with the experimenter, but posing as a subject).
Now comes the key manipulation. In one condition, the confederate acted like a happy-go-lucky dude who danced around, acted really giddy, and at one point started hula-hooping in the room. I don’t know why that’s so crucial, but every summary of this experiment seems to make special mention of that. In the other condition, the confederate was a pissed-off asshole who very vocally pointed out how shitty and invasive the experiment was - things we normally hope our subjects don’t notice or point out to each other.
This gif makes me interpret my physiological state as happiness.
After hanging out with the confederate (either the happy one or the angry one) for a while, the experimenters took the subjects aside and asked them to rate their emotional states.
So, what happened?
People who were in the room with a happy person said they were happy, and the people with the pissed off person said they were pissed off. On top of that, the degree to which a given subject said they were happy or pissed off depended on the arousal condition. People with the epinpherine shot were really happy with the happy confederate and really pissed with the angry confederate, whereas the subjects in the control condition were only moderately so.
The data support what’s now known as the two-factor theory of emotion. Even though we don’t feel this way, there’s no intrinsic trigger for any given emotion. What we have is an arousal level that we don’t necessarily understand, and a situation we need to attribute it to. If you’re in a shitty situation, you’re likely to attribute your arousal level to the amount of anger you’re experiencing; if things are good, you’re likely to attribute your arousal to your happiness. Either way, the category of emotion you experience is determined by what you think you should be experiencing.
What a lot of people in the human factors world sometimes overlook is just how volatile subjective reports can be. Now, I’m not saying all human factors researchers are blind or ignorant to this; the good ones know what they’re doing and know how to get around these issues (but that’s another post). But we definitely put too much stock in those subjective reports. Think about it - if you ask someone how they feel about something, you’re not prompting them to turn inward. In order to know how you feel about something, you start examining the evidence around you for how you should be feeling - you’re actually having people turn their attention outward. The result: these subjective reports are contaminated by the environment - the experimenter, other subjects, the testing room itself, the current focus of attention, the list goes on and on. Now, these data aren’t useless; but they definitely have to be filtered and translated further before you can start drawing any conclusions from it, and that can be extremely tricky indeed.
For instance, people can latch onto the wrong reasons and interpretations of their emotions. There’s a classic study by Dutton and Aron (1974) where they had a female experimenter randomly stop men for a psych survey in a park in Victoria, BC. (The infamous Capilano Bridge study, for those in the know.) They key manipulation here was that the men had either just crossed a stable concrete bridge across a gorge (low arousal) or a rickety rope bridge that swung in the wind (high arousal). The female experimenter asked the men about imagery and natural environments (or some such bullshit - that stuff isn’t the important part of the study), then gave them her business card. She told them that they could reach her at that phone number directly if they wanted to talk to her about the study or whatever.
I kind of wanna piss myself just looking at this photo
Now, here’s the fun part: the men who talked to the experimenter after staring the grim specter of death in the eye were significantly more likely to call her up than the men who crossed the stable (weaksauce) bridge. The men on the rickety bridge were more likely to call the experimenter because they found her more attractive than the men on the wuss bridge did. The men misattributed their heightened arousal to the female experimenter rather than the bridge they just crossed. "Wait a minute," you might say, "maybe it was selection bias; the men who would cross the rickety bridge are more daring to begin with, and therefore more likely to ask out an attractive experimenter." Well guess what, smart-ass, the experimenters thought of that. When they replicated this experiment but stopped the same men ten minutes after they crossed the bridge (and their arousal returned to baseline), the effect went away.
By the way, this is also why dating sites and magazines recommend going on dates that can raise your arousal level, like doing something active (hello, gym bunnies), having coffee, or seeing a thrilling movie. Your date is likely to misattribute their arousal to your sexy charm and wit rather than the situation. But be forewarned - just like the confederate in Schacter and Singer’s experiment, if your provide your date with a situation to believe he or she should be upset with you, that added arousal is just going to make them dislike you even more. Better living through psychology, folks.
Another favorite study of mine generated the same phenomenon experimentally. Parkinson and Manstead (1986) hooked people into what appeared to be a biofeedback system; subjects, they were told, would hear their own heartbeat while doing the experiment. The experiment consisted of looking at Playboy centerfolds and rating the models’ attractiveness. The trick here was that the heartbeat subjects heard was not actually their own, but a fake one the experimenters generated that they could speed up and slow down.
The cool finding here was that the attractiveness rating subjects gave the models was tied to the heartbeat - for any given model, you would find her more attractive if you heard an accelerated heartbeat while rating her than if you heard a slower one. Subjects were being biased in their attractiveness ratings by what they believed to be their heart rate: “that girl got my heart pumping, so she must’ve been hawt.” They found a similar effect also happened for rating disgust with aversive stimuli. So there’s another level of contamination that we might not otherwise notice.
No one likes to believe they don’t know where their feelings and opinions come from, or that they’re being influenced in ways we don’t expect or understand. The uncertainty is troubling at a scientific - if not personal - level. And guess what? It gets worse: we will bullshit an answer to where our feelings come from if we don’t have an obvious thing to attribute it to.
If memory serves (because I'm too lazy to re-read this article), Nisbett & Wilson (1977) set up a table in front of a supermarket with a bunch of nylon stockings set up in a row. They stopped women at the table and told them they were doing some market research and wanted to know which of these stockings they liked the best. And remember, these things were all identical.
The women overwhelmingly chose pairs to the right. Then the experimenter asked: why did you go with that pair? The “correct” answer here is something along the lines of “it was on the right,” but no one even mentioned position. The women made up all sorts of stories for why they chose that pair: it felt more durable; the material was softer; the stitching was better; etc., etc. All. Bullshit.
Steve Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, is said to have carried out a similar experiment on some hoity-toity wine snobs of the Harvard intellectual society he belonged to. He wanted to see if expensive wines actually do taste better than cheap wines, and if all those pretentious flavor and nose descriptions people give wines have any validity to them. As someone who’s once enjoyed a whiskey that “expert tasters” described as having “notes of horse saddle leather,” I have to say I’m inclined to call that stuff pretentious bullshit, as well.
So he had three decanters: the first had an expensive wine in it, the second had some 8 buck chuck, and the third had the same wine as the first decanter. As you probably expect, people showed no reliable preference for the more expensive wine over the cheap wine. What’s even better is that people gave significantly different ratings and tasting notes to the first and third decanters, which had the same goddamn wine in them. We can be amazing at lying to ourselves.
My favorite study (relevant to this post, anyway) comes from Johansson et al. (2005) involving what they called "choice blindness." It happens to involve honest-to-goodness tabletop magic and change blindness, which are basically two of my favorite things. In this study, the experimenter held up two cards, each with a person’s photo on them. He asked subjects to say which one they found more attractive, then slid that card face-down towards the subject - or, at least, he appeared to. What the subjects didn’t know was that the experimenter actually used a sort of sleight of hand (a black tabletop and black-backed cards, if you’re familiar with this kind of thing) to give them the card that was the opposite of what they actually chose. Then the experimenter asked why they thought the person in that photo was more attractive than the other.
Check out the smug look on his face when he listens to people's answers
Two amazing things happened at this point: first, people didn’t notice that they were given the opposite of their real choice, despite having just chosen the photo seconds before. (That’s the change blindness component at work.)
Second, people actually came up with reasons why they thought this person (the photo they decided was less attractive, remember) was the more attractive of the two choices. They actually made up reasons in direct contradiction to their original choice.
The moral? People are full of shit. And we have no idea that we are.
These subjects didn’t have any conscious access to why they made the choices they made - hell, they didn’t even remember what choice they made to begin with! And probing them after the fact only made matters worse. Instead of the correct answer, “I dunno, I just kinda chose that one arbitrarily, and also, you switched the cards on me, you sneaky son of a bitch,” subjects reflected post hoc on what they thought was their decision, and came up with reasons for it after the fact. The “why” came after the decision - not before it!
When you try to probe people on what they’re thinking, you’re not necessarily getting what they’re thinking - in fact, you’re much more likely to be getting what they think they should be thinking, given the circumstances. Sorta shakes your trust in interviews or questionnaires where people’s responses line up with what you expected them to be. Is it because you masterfully predicted your subjects’ responses based on an expert knowledge of human behavior, or is it just that you’ve created a circumstance that would lead any reasonable person to the same conclusion about how they should feel or behave?
This rarely crosses people’s - lay or otherwise - minds, but it has a profound effect on how we interpret our own actions and those of others.
Taking this evidence into account, it seems like understanding why humans think or feel the way they do is impossible; and this is really the great contribution of psychology to science. Psychology is all about clever experimenters finding ways around direct introspection to get at the Truth and understand human behavior. It takes what seems to be an intractable problem and breaks it down into empirically testable questions. But that’s for another post.
So let’s return to my baby cousin, and her disturbing lack of empathy for the family dog.
“Why did you do that?”
“Because I can.”
If you think about it - that’s the most correct possible answer you can ever really give to that question. So often, when we answer that very question as adults, the answer is contaminated. It’s not what we were really thinking or what was really driving us, but a reflection of what we expect the answer to that question to be. And that’s not going to come so much from inside us as from outside us - our culture, the situation, and our understanding of how those two things interact. There’s a huge demand characteristic to this question, despite the fact that it feels like we should have direct access to its answer in a way no one else can. And it contaminates us to the point that we misattribute those outside factors to ourselves.
If you think about it that way, there’s a beautiful simplicity to my cousin’s answer that most of us are incapable of after years of socialization. Why did you major in that? Why do you want to do that with your life? Why did you start a blog about human factors and video games only to not talk all that much about video games?
Because I can.