Human Hardware and Our Operating System: Why Ask Why?

First published January 10, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Probability is a consistent master. In many, many things, given a big enough population, you’ll find a bell curve rising from the center, showing how closely we adhere to the norm. As much as we think we’re unique and distinctive, when you start to look at why we do things, more often than not we find ourselves bound by what I call human hardware and operating system issues. These are products of how we’ve evolved as a species, our physical shells, the mechanisms of our brain (all hardware constraints) or how our society has conditioned us to act in a given circumstance (operating system constraints).

The Tyranny of the Bell Curve

Bell curves exist because we share these common characteristics. They keep most of us close to the norm, just through the things we all have in common. That’s why 50% of the human population has an IQ that falls within a 20 point range, and 80% have an IQ between 80 and 120. That’s why humans will never run (unaided) at 60 mph. It’s even why the vast majority of us use search engines the way we do. These things are all dictated by our anatomy, our neural wiring and the society we live in: human hardware and operating systems. But to get here, you have to ask why.

Why is a question I’ve been asking a lot lately. In fact, I’m driving everyone within 5 miles of me crazy with this recently acquired habit. Because you don’t just ask why once. You have to ask it over and over again. And the novelty of this wears off in a hurry if you’re on the receiving end.

Why We Hate Telemarketers

Let me give you just one example of a conversation I had last week:

Chris: I hate telemarketers!
Gord: Why?
Chris (somewhat surprised at the question): Well, because it’s an invasion of privacy.
Gord: So is junk mail. Do you hate that as much?
Chris: No…
Gord: Then why do you hate telemarketers so much?
Chris: They’re a waste of my time.
Gord: So are TV commercials. Do you yell at the TV?
Chris: No.
Gord: So why do you hate telemarketers more?
Chris: Because I feel I have to answer the phone. I can ignore the TV.
Gord: Why do you feel you have to answer the phone?
Chris: Because it might be something important.

And there you have the real reason we hate telemarketers. We have a Pavlovian response they use to fool us into paying attention. We’ve been conditioned to expect important news when the phone rings. And all we get is a poorly scripted and delivered sales pitch for credit cards or a new long-distance plan. We instantly get angry because we feel foolish. It’s not rational, but we all do it. See? Human hardware and, in this case, the HOS, or human operating system.

Why We Stop Asking Why

When we’re young, we ask why a lot more than when we get older; i.e. why is the sky blue? I even asked why about that. It turns out there’s a good reason why we stop asking why. Why questions are a lot tougher to answer, because, as I’ve shown, you have to keep asking why. And often, the answers, when we find them, cause us to have to shift our belief frameworks. The older we get, the harder that becomes. We ask why when we’re young because we’re building our view of the world. When we get older, that view is largely formed. So we start asking questions that allow us to slot information into those existing views. More often than not, those questions start with “what” or “who” or “when.” They seldom start with “why.” That’s too bad. Why? For precisely the reason we stop asking why. Once our beliefs and paradigms shift, we can see things we couldn’t see before.

Why “Why” Should be the First Question You Ask

For instance, let’s return to the telemarketer question. Let’s imagine I asked you to rewrite the telemarketing scripts for Sprint. Once you understand why we hate telemarketers, you’d probably take a totally different approach than you would have before you had this knowledge. I’ve shifted your paradigm, so you’re seeing the problem in a totally new light (if this example caught your interest, I explored more aspects of our relationship with the phone in this blog post ).

My understanding of how people use search started with a string of why questions. Why do people click on top listings more? Why is the No. 1 organic listing almost always the most popular link? Why do we use search so often as we move from awareness into consideration in purchase decisions? Why is there a significant drop-off of scanning activity below the fourth or fifth result? Why was Google more successful in monetizing its search traffic? It turns out all these questions had answers that were buried into our skulls. And in many cases, the reasons had been hardwired into us eons ago. Believe me, there’s a lot more to learn here.

My New Year’s resolution is to ask why a lot more often. I encourage all of you to do the same. And to get the ball rolling, next week I’ll share the name of some books that started to answer some of the great marketing whys.

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