Why People Are Polite Towards Their Computer

Did you ever talk to your television? Have you ever given your computer a good angry whack because it didn’t behave? Fear not. You are not alone.

In general, people treat media like computers and televisions as if they were dealing with other people, not dumb electronic devices. This is because media are complex enough in their behaviour and appearance to active the brain’s mental models for dealing with people. When people talk to their television, it is because their brains basically go “Hmm – that box over there looks like a human, and talks like a human. It must be human.” And so we talk to it.

Of course, on a higher level, we ‘know’ that the television can’t hear us, but this knowledge is surprisingly often absent when you look at how people actually behave. For instance, two social scientists found that people are polite towards their computers.

In essence, they asked people to perform a task using a computer, and were afterwards asked to evaluate how the computer was to work with. Interestingly, if people did this evaluation on the same computer as the one they just worked on, their replies were significantly more positive than the control group, who was asked to fill out the evaluation on a different computer, standing right next to the first one. That is, people are polite towards computers.

And it is not because the people they tested were country hicks from some remote and media-ignorant village. They also tested tech-savvy people who dealt with computers every day, and surprisingly, the effect was more pronounced for this group. In effect, this ‘politeness’ is similar to the automatic politeness we show if someone comes up to us after giving a speech and asks, ‘So, how did I do?’. Face to face with the speaker, most people are more polite than they would be, were they asked by a third person.

The learning point is this: media are complex enough to activate the brain’s mental models for dealing with people – or, as the experimenters put it, ‘new media engage old brains’. This obviously has enormous significance for the way we should design media products so that they become more user-friendly.

The experiment is taken from the book The Media Equation, written by Reeves & Nass, which is filled with similar stories on how our hard-wired brain affects our behavior (see my review here).

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