Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When Thinking Feels Hard: New Layouts, New Features, and New Thought Patterns

It feels like the Internet landscape is changing.  Recently, Facebook unveiled its new look (as well as some additional features that have had more than a few express concerns about privacy).  As with any new Facebook roll-out, people are complaining.  The news feed has been replaced with Top Stories and Not So Top Stories (okay, not the term, but that's what it comes down to).  On the side, users not only have the chat list that has been available for some time, but a Twitter-style feed (dubbed the ADD bar) giving real-time updates from friends, friends of friends, and the occasional random friend of a friend of a friend.

As people have pointed out, the people who complain about a Facebook update are likely the same people who complained about the update before that, and before that, perhaps suggesting that some people like to complain.  But just like Dr. Gregory House thinks everyone lies, I say, "Everyone complains", at some time or another.  I think there's more to these layout changes than predisposition to complain.  That's right, ladies and gents, I'm talking about the situational influences - notice a theme here? :)

You may also have noticed the look of this blog has changed.  'Tis the season.  It seems like as a child, I would always want to reinvent myself in the Fall.  Perhaps the same is true for websites.  But how might these changes influence our perceptions?

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of listening to researcher Norbert Schwarz give a talk at my grad school alma mater, Loyola University Chicago.  If you've never checked out his research, you definitely should; visit his homepage here.  Not only is he incredibly friendly and funny, his research, while definitely theory-driven, is incredibly applicable to a variety of social situations.  Or maybe it's that he's really good at taking theories and applying them to a variety of situations; either way, I would love to be able to do that.  Theory is not my strong point.

One area Schwarz has studied a great deal is metacognitive experiences, basically thinking about thinking, and how we use cues from our thinking to influence the way we think.  Wow, that made so much more sense in my head.  Okay, how about a concrete example?  Let's say I show you an ad for a car, then ask you to come up with a list of 10 reasons why you should buy that car.

Go ahead and get started on your list; I can wait.
Unless you know a lot about the car or I offered a really great option to consider (Batmobile anyone?), you probably had a lot of trouble coming up with a list of 10 items.  You might use that cue, "Wow, thinking of 10 items was really hard" to tell you something about whether you really want to buy the car.  That is, because thinking felt difficult, you took that as a cue to mean the thing you were considering was not that good.  Schwarz refers to this perceived ease/difficulty as "processing fluency".

Schwarz has shown that processing fluency can be manipulated in many ways, such as by using an illegible font or by asking participants to remember very specific personal events (such as 12 times you behaved assertively).  Another way is familiarity; more familiar things are easier to process.

Now obviously, we don't always need thinking to feel easy.  Sometimes, we encounter things to which we want to devote our full cognitive effort.  But as I mentioned in a previous blog post, we're cognitive misers.  We're choosey with how we spend our cognitive resources.  If we're asked to learn a new software package for work, for example, we might be willing to devote the effort (there are a lot of other variables operating, but this is just a for instance).  Facebook, on the other hand, is a leisure time activity, and many people who aren't high need-for-cognition folks would rather be able to have fun without thinking too hard.

But people continue to use Facebook, and though some users have likely split recently, Facebook currently has 750 million members (according to Google population data, the Earth's population is currently 6,775,235,700, so that means about 1 of every 9 people uses Facebook).  Perhaps processing fluency is not the only issue at work here; the very nature of the social networking site is, well, it's social.  Your friends are there, and in some cases, it might be your only opportunity for interaction.  That might make some people unlikely to leave (of course, since Google+ is now open to the public, the landscape may continue to shift).

For those who left Facebook, I'd love to hear your reasons (in comments below), even if you left long before the recent update.  For those who stuck around, don't worry; eventually you'll get used to the new look and thinking won't feel so difficult... just in time for the next update.

Thoughtfully yours,

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