Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Do People Behave The Way They Do?

After a brief (okay...not that brief) hiatus from the blog, we are back again. I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays and that 2012 has started off in the right direction.

I've been reflecting a lot on why people do the things they do. The things we are expected to do, like pay our rent or drive on the correct side of the road. The things that take an amazing amount of courage, like defending those being exploited or showing kindness to people who have wronged us. The crazy things we do, like bungee jumping or falling in love.

I’ve made a career off the pursuit of answers to these and other such questions. A pursuit often motivated, admittedly, by the desire to unravel these mysteries for the express purpose of influencing people to buy more of my client's fast food, choose their banking services, recommend their particular brand of mobile phones to family and friends. But there is also a more genuine motivation behind my fascination with this topic:  with so much going on in the world - from the rise of international terrorism, to America's first black president, to the global financial crisis, to citizen-led protests resulting in the removal of fascist government leaders - this is an extraordinarily interesting time to be alive. A time that is as perplexing as it is exhilarating. Gaining a better understanding of why people behave the way they do a small way of converting some of that bewilderment to delight.

Many great thinkers have tussled with this same pursuit. And scanning the academic and scientific body of work devoted to the question makes two things plain. First, there are as many answers to the question as there are people willing to take on the challenge of answering it. Second, rarely are the offered explanations uncluttered enough to be accessible to the non-academic.

But there is a single framework that can be applied that is elegant in its simplicity and yet full of strength, merit, and flexibility. It's a logical approach that may not precisely explain all the reasons behind human behavior, but does an exceptional job of teasing apart the component parts that go into a person's decision to act (or their choice not to act). By using this framework, someone with a basic degree of instinct can draw important conclusions about why their best friend ditched them to see a movie with the girl from the third floor. Or why their parents choose the family car they drove. Or why Neda Agha-Soltan risked her life to demand change in the way her country was run.

At its root are three elements that have anchored our American legal system for more than 200 years: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. In this sense, "motive" is defined as the reason a person gives to account for behavior. "Means" are the physical, mental resources required for action. And "opportunity" is that moment of truth when someone is faced with the decision to act or not. The existence of these three elements is crucial for any behavior. No behavior is possible without them. You are no more likely to purchase a box of dishwasher detergent from the convenience store down the way if you are at home on your sofa (lack of opportunity), than if you are flat broke (lack of means) or if you don't have an automatic dishwasher at dishes to clean in the first place (lack of motivation). Such behavior will only happen if you're standing in the convenience stores dishwasher detergent aisle with money in your pocket and a dishwasher full of dirty dishes (or, some strange affinity for dishwasher detergent). Similarly, you will only find yourself getting off your sofa to the convenience store down the way for dishwasher detergent if you have dishes to clean, money in your pocket, and you are able to weigh the decision to get up or remain lounged.

Barriers certainly can stand in the way of these elements, complicating our behavior.  A cold, rainy night may dampen ones motivation to make a trip to the store. Having only a jarful of coins as the sole means of payment may complicate the transaction to the point that one decides it makes more sense to wait until payday Friday to purchase detergent. Falling asleep on the sofa effectively rules out the opportunity one has to rise and begin the journey to the detergent aisle in the convenience store. What these barriers do is eliminate for us one or more legs of our decision, making it impossible for us to willfully undertake the behaviors they rule.

Yet even in an environment free of barriers, the existence of these elements only puts us in a position to adopt a behavior. Something more is needed. Something to compel us to action or inaction. Something to trigger an emotional response that compels us into action or inaction. That something is what I call simply "The Spark".

The Spark is the emotional event that activates a behavior and it takes many forms:

Last week, more than 2,000 people gathered at the Apple Store in Beijing the night before the planned release of the first iPhone 4S in China. But when security officials believed the crowds had grown out of control, the planned release was scrapped. As could be expected the crowds did not take kindly to the decision, the store was egged, and police were required to dispel the crowds. The disappointment triggered by the (poor) Apple employee who had to break the news to the waiting customers was what I term a “Real Spark” that led to the crowds’ behavior. It was a clear, authentic event that led directly to an emotional response.

A Few weeks ago in Philadelphia, three men who believed Kevin Kless was yelling and making gestures at them beat Kless to death. It turns out Kless was only trying to hail a cab. The men’s misinterpretation of Kless’s shouts and gestures that triggered their emotional reaction is what I call a “Misread Spark”.

In August, Opelika police launched ‘Operation: Iron Snare’ to lure suspects wanted for refusing to pay child support to police custody with the ruse that they had won Alabama-Auburn tickets. The sting involved much fanfare, as the suspects were showered with attention by local news teams and cheering fans when they showed up at the ticket collection location, only to be told after identifying themselves they were being placed under arrest. The enthusiasm the suspects felt over “winning” tickets – enthusiasm which compelled them to drive to an unknown location to claim their winnings – is the result of a “Fabricated Spark”.

The final type of spark is the most complicated but, perhaps, could be the most frequent spark one will encounter. I term it the "Usurped Spark" and its use is frequently the result of a group of people or an organization operating under a strong personal agenda. When the Usurped Spark is applied, an emotion-triggering event is seen on the surface as the most likely reason behind people's behavior. But a deeper analysis reveals that other, more motivating forces are at work. The obvious "spark" simply provides the opportunity for the group to act upon its true trigger. 

There are few uncontroversial examples of Usurped Sparks as, by definition, this spark implies that the people it compels to action are perhaps disingenuous and at least opportunistic. But a good example of this kind of event that is backed by an accumulating amount of evidence happened during this summer's London Riots. Mark Duggan's shooting by London police was largely viewed as the spark that touched off the unrest which began in Tottenham and quickly spread to much of England. But while surely everyone who partook in the riots and looting knew of Duggan's demise, few could honestly say they were burning buildings, absconding with stolen sneakers, or squaring off with police because of that event. Rather, the shooting and the resultant unrest gave rioters the opportunity to unload frustrations with the London police, the UK government, and their opportunity to make a living that had been building for years. In this way, the Mark Duggan shooting touched off an emotional response that had been swirling below a thin surface for some time.

I’ve found this approach to be very helpful when analyzing behaviors. Hopefully you can use it for practical purposes as well.