CommonSense Blog

Digital world: Human Nature Prevails

By Danielle Whitney | Sep 23, 2015

As the PreCommerce Summit in London concluded, the final panel discussed global trends for digital engagement.  Discussion opened around a question proposed by Gary Grates, Principal W2O Group, which summed up the key debate posed at the event: as an unintended effect of our adoption of digital, have we created a society in which it is more difficult to relate?  Are we losing our humanity?

  • IMG_8243Cynthia Storer, former CIA analyst, answered from a security standpoint that the trend she sees is laziness in interaction and interrogation of information.  We now oversimplify information and situations.  We eliminate nuance.  In our hurry to find answers and synthesize the dearth of information available to us from an ever growing number of channels, we use cognitive short cuts and tend to look for classifications that can be summed up in a short-hand, 140-character sentence of dichotomy: good or bad.  Humans have never been this simple and it is lazy for us to assume this would change based on digital tools we use to express our humanity.  Humans are humans.
  • Pradipta Bagchi, VP & Global Head of Corporate Communications at Tata Consultancy Services, built on Cynthia’s points to highlight the need for online and offline interactions to be integrated.  From his perspective,  we are having more interaction, but it is less meaningful.  For example, in India, a telecom giant had bots answering customer service calls.  Someone figured this out and called stating their issue was a desire to marry the CEO’s daughter.  The bot responded: thank you for your comments, we will get back to you shortly with a solution.  In the end, machine to human interactions fall flat.
  • Bob Pearson, President and Chief Innovation Officer at W2O Group, took an anthropologic view.  He discussed how humans are programmed to learn via play to enable survival.  For example children learn to walk so they can travel.  There is a purpose to why we have this innate sense of curiosity, desire to interact and drive to discover.  In the case of Millennials, they are comfortable with digital tools because they grew up playing with them and now they are part of their survival mechanism – how they communicate.  Older generations are uncomfortable with this because we didn’t have these digital tools, so the adaptation process is different – though usage patterns have shown that digital tools continue to be rapidly adopted across all age groups.  So digital isn’t really the culprit here, it is human nature to play with these tools and human nature to use them as a part of how we evolve our communications.
  • Gary closed this topic citing his approach to teaching at the university where he is a professor emeritus.  When he walks into a classroom, no one is talking to each other, they are all bent over their phones.  So the first thing he does is force them to introduce themselves.  And the students respond with surprise and wonder at how connected some of them are offline (ie, this guy is actually my neighbor!).  Digital should not supplant, but complement and facilitate face to face interaction.  On the other hand, our dedication to digital will likely result in a boom for another industry: interest in chiropractic services after so much time bent over our devices!

A question from the audience probed how we can factor multiple online personas into our understanding of people.

  • Pradipta responded first highlighting how platforms naturally push us to segment our personalities.  For example, Facebook is a visual and personal channel and Linked in is more professional.  The persona you have on each isn’t different so much as the weighting to your specific qualities related to your professional life or personal life shift.
  • Bob chimed in using issues management as an example.  If you are managing an issue, the first step is to separate out the noise from the reality.  We see this in particular with protests and the emergence of “slactivism”.  Initially, a digital platform will lead us to believe the magnitude of an issue is quite high based on a perception that 200,000 people are retweeting and liking things.  However, if you look at a different channel for cross over, or look at how many people are contributing to the conversation versus observing it, the numbers rapidly decrease.  The question for me is around how we get people to become more passionate about a topic so they are true activists versus just amplifiers.  Retweeting doesn’t fund a cause.
  • Gary added another anecdote about BP.  Several years ago, there was a group of angry environmental protestors outside the gas station in his town; however, the station lowered its gas prices, and the next day that group of protestors was replaced by lines of cars waiting to fill up.  The price change ferreted out the false positive of passion for the environmental cause, and leverage sensitivity to cost.
  • Cynthia mirrored this interest in human nature.  For the security industry, the spider web of personas is very important.  Cross-referencing those caricatures of a person exposes the base values that a person holds true.  Humans are humans and we rely on basic truths to define ourselves which means that across personas we can often find that thread and stitch together a valuable profile.

Another audience member took this question further to ask about how these personas help predict human behavior.

  • Cynthia elaborated that humans use routines to frame the way we make sense of and interact with the world.  These routines make us feel comfortable and safe.  You don’t have to think about how you are presenting yourself because it is true to your routine self-perception.  These routines make it easier for us to predict or forecast human behavior.  For example, we knew Bin Laden always lived with multiple wives and children so wherever he was hiding would need to be family appropriate.  We also knew he didn’t approve of blowing up school buses so we could discredit any claims to terror acts of that nature.  We do this all the time offline.  We say so-and-so is going to be late or so-and-so will take the public transport because we have learned how to predict their behavior on past actions and their values (lack of punctuality and cost-sensitivity).
  • Bob took this question in a different direction by talking about the recent election in Britain.  Polling didn’t predict the outcome of the election.  Bob believes this is because polling relies on short-term memory which means people can only recall 3 – 7 things and not even accurately, just their interpretation of those things.  So if you marry what people say in polls with their online behavior – which is subconscious or, at least, doesn’t require recall – you start to see more predictive patterns.  And this can get even more insightful using geolocation to look at specific voting districts.
  • Pradipta supported Bob’s points with an anecdote from his company’s app, Elect UK.  The app measured social sentiment, noise and activities of the parties and politicians.  In the end, the app was more accurate than polls as it showed the demise of the Lib Dems.
  • An audience member concluded the session by making a point around the value of the right question.  The audience member shared that there was a poll just before the voting booths opened that asked not who people would vote for, but who they thought would win.  The result favored Cameron.

The panel closed with a final audience member asking: what digital tool has had the greatest impact on their personal lives?

  • Cynthia – Smartphone, it is how she checked in for her flight.
  • Pradipta – Social platforms which have replaced traditional news sources.
  • Bob – It isn’t invented yet, but SnapChat for business.
  • Gary – FitBit as now his wife calls him at work to tell him to move as she can monitor his movement online.