The Psychology of Usefulness: How Our Brains Judge What is Useful

To-Do-ListDid you know that “task” and “tax” have the same linguistic roots? They both come from the Latin “taxare” – meaning to appraise. This could explain the lack of enthusiasm we have for both.

Tasks are what I referred to in the last post as an exotelic activity – something we have to do to reach an objective that carries no inherent reward. We do them because we have to do them, not because we want to do them.

When we undertake a task, we want to find the most efficient way to get it done. Usefulness becomes a key criterion. And when we judge usefulness, there are some time-tested procedures the brain uses.

Stored Procedures and Habits

The first question our brain asks when undertaking a task is – have we done this before? Let’s first deal with what happens if the answer is yes:

If we’ve done something before our brains – very quickly and at a subconscious level – asks a number of qualifying questions:

–       How often have we done this?

–       Does the context in which the task plays out remain fairly consistent (i.e. are we dealing with a stable environment)?

–       How successful have we been in carrying out this task in the past

If we’ve done a task a number of times in a stable environment with successful outcomes, it’s probably become a habit. The habit chunk is retrieved from the basal ganglia and plays out without much in the way of rational mediation. Our brain handles the task on autopilot.

If we have less familiarity with the task, or if there’s less stability in the environment, but have done it before we probably have stored procedures, which are set procedural alternatives. These require more in the way of conscious guidance and often have decision points where we have to determine what we do next, based on the results of the previous action.

If we’re entering new territory and can’t draw on past experience, our brains have to get ready to go to work. This is the route least preferred by our brain. It only goes here when there’s no alternative.

Judging Expected Utility and Perceived Risk

If a task requires us to go into unfamiliar territory, there are new routines that the brain must perform. Basically, the brain must place a mental bet on the best path to take, balancing a prediction of a satisfactory outcome against the resources required to complete the task. Psychologists call this “Expected Utility.”

Expected Utility is the brain’s attempt to forecast scenarios that require the balancing of risks and rewards where the outcomes are not known.  The amount of processing invested by the brain is usually tied to the size of the potential risk and reward. Low risk/reward scenarios require less rationalization. The brain drives this balance by using either positive or negative emotional valences, interpreted by us as either anticipation or anxiety. Our emotional balance correlates with the degree of risk or reward.

Expected utility is more commonly applied in financial decision and game theory. In the case of conducting a task, there is usually no monetary element to risk and reward. What we’re risking is our own resources – time and effort. Because these are long established evolved resources, it’s reasonable to assume that we have developed subconscious routines to determine how much effort to expend in return for a possible gain. This would mean that these cognitive evaluations and calculations may happen at a largely subconscious level, or at least, more subconscious than the processing that would happen in evaluating financial gambles or those involving higher degrees of risk and reward.  In that context, it might make sense to look at how we approach another required task – finding food.

Optimal Foraging and Marginal Value

Where we balance gain against expenditure of time and effort, the brain has some highly evolved routines that have developed over our history. The oldest of these would be how we forage for food. But, we also have a knack of borrowing strategies developed for other purposes and using them in new situations.

Pirolli and Card (1999) found, for instance, that we use our food foraging strategies to navigate digital information. Like food, information online tends to be “patchy” and of varying value to us. Often, just like looking for a food source, we have to forage for information by judging the quality of hyperlinks that may take us to those information sources or “patches.” Pirolli and Card called these clues to the quality of information that may lie on the other end of links information scent.

Cartoon_foraging_theoryTied with this foraging strategy is the concept of Marginal Value.  This was first proposed by Eric Charnov in 1976 as a evolved strategy for determining how much time to spend in a food patch before deciding to move on. In a situation with diminishing returns (ie depleted food supplies) the brain must balance effort expended against return. If you happen on a berry bush in the wild, with a reasonable certainty that there are other bushes nearby (perhaps you can see them just a few steps away) you have to mentally solve the following equation – how many berries can be gathered with a reasonable expenditure of effort vs. how much effort would it take to walk to the next bush and how many berries would be available there?

This is somewhat analogous to information foraging, with one key difference. Information isn’t depleted as you consume it. So the rule of diminishing returns is less relevant. But if, as I suspect, we’ve borrowed these subconscious strategies for judging usefulness – both in terms of information and functionality – in online environment, our brains may not know or care about the subtle differences in environments.

The reason why we may not be that rational in the application of these strategies in online encounters is that they play out below the threshold of consciousness. We are not constantly and consciously adjusting our marginal value algorithm or quantifiably assessing the value of an information patch. No, our brains use a quicker and more heuristic method to mediate our output of effort – emotions. Frustration and anxiety tell us it’s time to move onto the next site or application. Feelings of reward and satisfaction indicate we should stay right where we are. The remarkable thing about this is that as quick and dirty as these emotional guidelines are, if you went to the trouble of rationally quantifying the potential of all possible alternatives, using a Bayesian approach, for instance, you’d probably find you ended up in pretty much the same place. These strategies, simmering below the surface of our consciousness, are pretty damn accurate!

So, to sum up this post, when judging the most useful way to get a task done, we have an evaluation cascade that happens very quickly in our brain:

  • If a very familiar task needs to be done in a stable environment, our habits will take over and it will be executed with little or no rational thought.
  • If the task is fairly familiar but requires some conscious guidance, we’ll retrieve a stored procedure and look for successful feedback as we work through it.
  • If a task is relatively new to us, we’ll forage through alternatives for the best way to do it, using evolved biological strategies to help balance risk (in terms of expended effort) against reward.

Now, to return to our original question, how does this evaluation cascade impact long and short-term user loyalty? I’ll return to this question in my next post.

One thought on “The Psychology of Usefulness: How Our Brains Judge What is Useful

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Usefulness – Part Five: A Recap | Out of My Gord

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