Mindless Online Behavior: Web Navigation on Autopilot

One of the biggest problems with Rupert Murdoch’s view of the world is that he’s assuming people are making conscious decisions about where they go to get their news and information. He somehow believes that people are consciously deciding to get their information from Google rather than one of his properties, and Google is encouraging this behavior by indexing content and providing free “back doors” into the WSJ and other sites. In other words, Murdoch has a conspiracy theory, and Google and online users are co-conspirators. The truth isn’t quite so evil or intentional.

Our Stomach’s Autopilot

I talked yesterday about the importance of information foraging and how we use the same strategies we use to find food to find online information. But tell me, how conscious are your decisions about where and what to eat? How long do you deliberate over eating a piece of toast in the morning, a sandwich at lunch or a plate of pasta at night? If you’re hungry, how often do you find yourself standing in front of the fridge, staring inside for a quick snack? It wasn’t as if you had a detailed series of decisions here: Hmmm..I’m hungry. Where would be the best place in the house to find food? The bathroom? No, that didn’t work. How about the bedroom? No, no food there. Hey, this kitchen place seems to be promising! Now..where in the kitchen might there be food? In this cupboard? No, that’s dishes. Down under the sink? Ooops..no, I don’t know what the hell’s under there, but it’s definitely not food. Hey..what’s in this big steel box here? Ah…Bingo!

Okay..it’s a ridiculous scenario, but that’s my point. It only seems ridiculous because we’ve found a more efficient way of doing it. We don’t have to go through these decisions every time because we’ve done it before and we know where to find food. Even if we went into someone else’s house, we would know that the kitchen is the best place to find food, and the fridge is probably the surest bet in the kitchen. We don’t have to think, because we’ve done the thinking before and know we can navigate by habit and instinct.

Where Do You Keep the Cockatoo Chichild Fillets?

But what if you visited the Jivaro tribe of South America, where the culture is so different that we have no cognitive short cuts to follow? Much of the food they eat we’ve never even seen before. And, as one of the most primitive cultures in the world, there are not a lot of kitchens or fridges to act as hints about where we might find something to eat. If we were suddenly dropped into the middle of a Jivaro settlement with no guide, we would have to do a lot of thinking about what to eat and where to find it. And how would we feel about that? Anxious? Frustrated? Uncertain? We don’t like it when we have to think. We much prefer relying on past experience and habits. The brain heavily discourages thought if there’s a more efficient short cut. It’s the brain’s way of saving fuel, because mobilizing our prefrontal cortex, the “reasoning” part of our brain, comes with a big efficiency hit. The PFC is powerful in a “single minded” way, but it’s also an energy hog. The way the brain discourages unnecessary thought is through stimulating unpleasant emotions. If you’ve spent much time in foreign cultures, you know the constant stress of finding something to eat can quickly go from being exciting to being a complete pain.

Here’s the other thing about our brain, it isn’t discriminating about when to kick in and when not to kick in. It usually takes the path of least resistance first, relying on past experience rather than thinking. The more familiar the environment, the more the brain feels safe in relying on past experience and habit. What does this mean? Well, when you’re hungry, it will mean you suddenly find yourself standing in front of the fridge with the door open without even knowing what you’re looking for. When you realize you actually want some crackers (i.e. when your brain finally kicks in), you swing the door shut and go to where the crackers are kept. Online, it means you go to Google and launch a search without thinking through what your actual destination might be.

Google, The Information “Fridge”?

So, I’ve gone fairly far down the path of this analogy to make a point. According to Pirolli, we use exactly the same mechanisms to find online information. We go first to the fridge, or, in this case, Google, because nine times out of ten, or even 99 times out of a hundred, we find what we’re looking for there. And, if we don’t, we start to get frustrated because our brain is suddenly called into service and it isn’t at all happy about it. There’s no conscious conspiracy to screw Rupert Murdoch, there’s just us following our own mental grooves. And these grooves dictate a huge percentage of our online activity. There’s been little neuro-scanning research done on how our brains work during online activity, but the little that’s been done seems to indicate a regular shifting of activity from the “reasoning” to the “autopilot” sections of the brain. I suspect strongly that this is especially true when we use search engines. If we can navigate on autopilot, we will.

This principle holds true for almost all online interaction. I keep hearing about the “joy” of discovery online. I believe that’s largely crap. As online becomes a bigger part of our lives, we depend on it to do more and more and we don’t have the time for “discovery”. We don’t have the time to set aside 2 hours to browse through WSJ.com, meandering through the content and providing a willing set of eyeballs for all those ads. We want to find what we’re looking for, get in and get out. There are occasions when we’re willing to invest the time for a long voyage of discovery, just as there are times when we will go out and graze our way through a smorgasbord buffet, but it’s not the norm. As I said in the last post, Google and search has given us a “just in time” information economy and we have forever shifted our concept of information retrieval. How the providers of the information make money from that remains to be figured out, something I’ll spend some more time talking about tomorrow.

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