Sunday, 18 July 2010

The psychology of Antennagate

How groupthink, availability heuristic, nocebo and hypnosis have created a reality distortion field that is casting an unfair spotlight on the world's finest smartphone.

The blogosphere is charged with speculation that there may be a fundamental design flaw with the new iPhone 4, and yet on Friday, Steve Jobs took to the stage to argue that there were not any serious problems with the device. We have Jobs's word against that of a hoard of angry bloggers. They can't both be right, so what is going on?

It might seem reasonable to take the "no smoke without fire" approach, and conclude that thousands of angry bloggers can't all be wrong. There must be some truth to the allegations. After all, even Whoopi Goldberg had a tantrum with hers.

But to argue that thousands of bloggers can't be wrong is like arguing that thousands of lemmings can't be wrong. As James Surowiecki explains in The Wisdom of Crowds, large numbers of people tend to make better decisions, but only when those decisions are arrived at separately. When each member of the group is influenced by the others, they tend to coalesce into single viewpoint, steered by those who cry loudest, rather than those who think smartest. Or in other words, they succumb to "groupthink".

When you pit Steve Jobs, recently recognized by Fortune Magazine to be the smartest CEO in tech, against a hoard of bloggers who may have fallen victim to groupthink, it's a tougher call to determine who is right.

During Friday's press event, it was clear that Steve Jobs was furious - he seemed to be working really hard to maintain his composure as he took a skeptical bunch of tech journalists through the data, that evidently supported his argument. There isn't a real world problem with the iPhone 4. Groupthink can explain why so many people erroneously think that there is, but it doesn't explain where the idea originally came from.

I think Jobs hit the nail of the head when he said that they inadvertently put a bullseye on their phone. In launching the iPhone 4, Apple proudly highlighted how the stainless steel band around the device also functioned as an antenna system. Upon reflection, they would have been better advised not to draw people's attention to this. After all, this is a feature, but not a benefit. The benefit is the compact form factor of the device. In their desire to highlight the cleverness of their industrial design, they inadvertently handed a stick to their enemies to beat them with.

The iPhone 4 has a black line, clearly indicating the reception weak spot on the lower left-hand corner of the device. While all phones have week spots - it's an inevitable downside to having the antenna integrated into the body of the device - Apple have put a black line on theirs, which effectively is saying "x marks the spot". They had also made a great deal of noise about the antenna being revolutionary and new.

Consider that for months before the release of iPhone 4, people had been complaining about dropped calls on the previous iPhone. However, this was blamed upon the (long suffering) AT&T network. The release of iPhone 4, with its revolutionary antenna design and x-marks-the-spot weak spot, gave the moaners a new scapegoat. Suddenly, dropped calls previously blamed on AT&T were being blamed on antennagate - even though AT&T's actual data on dropped calls indicates no meaningful increasing in dropped calls for the new device.

This is an example of what psychologists refer to as the availability heuristic. Simply put, this is our tendency to favor explanations that are easy to recall, or to put it another way, "if you can think of it, it must be important". The availability heuristic is what makes some people scared of flying, because media coverage of rare events such as plane crashes make us believe that they are far more frequent than they actually are. In a similar way, when you're using your iPhone and you encounter a dropped call, you're going to blame it on AT&T if that's what the media has been blaming recently, or you'll blame it on antennagate if that's the media's new pet peeve. And of course, if, like in Whoopi's case, that dropped call came at precisely the wrong moment, you may chose to communicate your frustration through the media, further increasing people's awareness of the issue, and thus further increasing the salience of this explanation.

So, groupthink explains why so many people could be wrong, and the availability heuristic can explain where the idea came from and how it propagated. But there is one final ingredient to the psychological cocktail, that explains how the scale of the problem has become so out of proportion. Nocebo.

Nocebo is the evil twin brother of placebo. Everyone is familiar with the positive effects that patients sometimes experience from sham medicine, if they believe it will do them good. Nocebo is the other side of the same phenomenon, where patients experience negative side effects of a sham medicine, simply because they believe that they should experience them. It's a kind of self hypnosis. And like any kind of hypnosis, those who are most open to suggestion are most vulnerable to it.

And this brings us back to that black mark on the side of the iPhone. In an early response to the emerging media-storm, Jobs personally responded to one customer e-mail by saying "don't hold your phone that way." The problem with this instruction is that our unconscious mind does not process negative operators. The hypnotic message is clear: "hold your phone that way." The black line greatly exacerbates the problem. If you tell someone not to hold their phone in a way that grips the black spot, they'll find it almost impossible not to. Quite quickly, it will seem like the only way that they can hold their phone. Derren Brown built an entire career on this phenomenon.

And so, like the nocebo effect, where a fake pill can cause very real side effects, a very minor problem with the iPhone's reception can become a very major problem, when the user's attention is drawn to it.

Where does this leave us? If the causes of antennagate are more in the mind than the antenna, does this mean that Apple is off the hook? Maybe not - it wouldn't be the first time that groupthink has resulted in disastrous consequences. America's failure to anticipate Pearl Harbour is widely blamed on groupthink. As is the current economic crisis. In comparison, antennagate would be a relatively trivial example. But that doesn't make it any less of a problem for Apple. On Friday the company attempted to address the issue with the facts. But facts aren't very useful when the problem is a psychological one. The issue needs to be addressed at an emotional level. A good starting point would be for Apple's PR team to read Drew Westin's brilliant book, The Political Brain, which provides a convincing account of how Al Gore lost a presidential election, while Barack Obama won one. Apple needs to become less like Gore, and more like Obama if they want to win back the hearts and minds of the blogosphere.

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