Don’t trust someone until you see what makes them sweat

Eaon Pritchard
By Eaon Pritchard | 31 August 2020
Eaon Pritchard

Before the Melbourne COVID dystopia we worked with one of our retail clients who were puzzled by their footfall and sales numbers.

Whilst periods of lower than usual footfall correlated with a dip in sales, corresponding periods of high footfall did not necessarily equate to more sales.

Was it something wrong with the product?

Perhaps it was something to do with the store layout?

One theory attributed this anomaly to variances in in-store lighting affected by the weather.

Our hypothesis was something simpler.

A simple fact is that - outside of groceries - much shopping activity doesn’t end up in a sale.

It is the shopping experience itself that is the goal.

And yet the Silicon Valley pundits have not been slow to point to the seemingly happy adoption of click’n’collect and ‘contactless’ shopping by retailers and consumers during COVID.

What could be better?

Simply order via the web or an app, get a text when the order is ready, get the car loaded at the kerbside and then head home having never left the car. All this ease raises the question.

Do retailers need all that floor space?

Clearly the Technorati know something about tech, but not so much about human behaviour.

Aside from the transaction there are many potential implicit sub-goals in play when people are shopping. They may just be having a nose around to get in a better mood, another popular non-buying activity is ‘value’ shopping just for satisfaction the of noticing deals (hey, I could have got that thing if I’d wanted to), or ‘idea’ shopping to stay up to date with trends.

A wander round the department store can just be a bit of light relief from a routine grocery shopping trip, but more importantly a significant amount of the appeal of shopping malls is ‘social shopping’. Going out to hang out with friends, or just be where there are other people.

Human beings are social creatures. Constant interaction with others, even complete strangers, is important as it provides us with a huge amount of information that we need to be able to function in the world.

After COVID we are all going straight down the shops. If we have any money left, of course.

But what about work? If one is to believe the same techno pundits then everything about work has changed forever.

Maybe for those of ‘us’ in the ‘knowledge economy’ and the media. And for public sector pen-pushers and the political classes, anyway.

Not so for the other 80% of workers - the shop workers, ‘front-line’ workers who have been in the field all the way through, the mechanics and road-workers and many others – all largely invisible to the chattering classes of LinkedIn and for whom WFH is not a privilege they are afforded, they may well just be happy to have any kind of employment to go back to.

But, for us myopic one percenters, can Zoom really replace the office? 

Despite many agencies announcing WFH policies in the press during the pandemic, and further extending these to ‘permanent’ for the benefit of another press release, I’ll give it 6 months post-vaccine for things to return to something much closer to business as usual.

For the most part, creative businesses just function better with everyone in the same place at the same time.

It is widely claimed that COVID-19 has ushered in a new era in which work from home is a necessity. Likewise, employees are reporting greater productivity and higher job satisfaction.

Of course they are.

(Working from home has always carried its own set of air quotes.)

But if a claim is made that would require us to permanently revise or overturn well-established knowledge, we should be suspicious and ask for evidence.

A few months of making do is insufficient evidence to predict wholesale behaviour change, and turn the tide on a couple of million years of human evolution.

There is strong evidence that human beings have been engineered by evolutionary forces to communicate in very specific ways, principally through facial expressions, body language, and speech.

What evolutionary theory defines as ‘natural’ communication is composed of five key elements:

  • A high degree of co-location, allowing individuals engaged in an interaction to see and hear each other.
  • A high degree of synchronicity, which would allow the individuals engaged in a communication interaction to quickly exchange communicative stimuli.
  • The ability to convey and observe facial expressions.
  • The ability to convey and observe body language; and
  • The ability to convey and listen to speech.

Why does this even matter?

Well, the more natural the communication is, it reduces cognitive effort and communication ambiguity and increases physiological arousal.

Human minds contain specialised mental modules that are designed for the recognition of faces and the generation and recognition of facial expressions and emotions.

There is no AI that even comes close to the kind of computations your mind does to decode these signals.

It's therefore reasonable to conclude that selectively suppressing these five elements in communication media will require extra cognitive effort, and learning.

New, learned circuits are unlikely to be as efficient as the ones hardwired by natural selection. Not least because they will need to be continually refreshed.

As it processes information, your brain makes connections growing and strengthening the synapses that connect neurons, fact fans.

So we can define the naturalness of any communication technology based on the degree to which the technology selectively incorporates (or suppresses) the critical five elements.

By these criteria then, a dozen people on a Zoom call is only marginally better than the execrated phone conference.

In ‘How the Mind Works’ the psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out the irony of the ‘information technology’ age. The rise of communications tech from email to Zoom should have made the face-to-face business meeting obsolete.

Yet they still continue to be both a major expense for corporations and support entire industries like hotels, airlines, and rental cars.

Why is it we still insist on doing business in the flesh?

Because we do not trust someone until we see what makes them sweat.

As an independent consultant stuck in my home office/cleaning cupboard all day I can’t wait to be getting back on the train to town, and sweat in front of my potential clients (3 days a week, obvs).

Eaon Pritchard
Founder ArtScienceTechnology – the applied evolutionary psychology consultants.

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