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Cognitive Dissonance and Frequency

As I was sitting in the airport yesterday, I started to notice the number of people complaining about various things about air travel, and thinking to myself that yes, there are plenty of things to complain about, but some of what was being said just really wasn’t accurate. It seems to me that there are a large number of people who seem to think that flights arrive late, baggage gets lost, flights get cancelled, etc. “all the time”. As someone who now travels quite a bit (I’ve already spent 75 nights in hotels during 2013, I think that qualifies), I’m always taken aback a bit about these claims, because while they do happen, it really isn’t that frequent. The statistics on airline travel back me up. Based on May, 2013 there’s a 1 in 10,000 chance you’ll be denied boarding, and about a 3 in 1,000 chance that your luggage will get mishandled. Both of those mean there’s less than 1% chance of it happening to you, and while there is a somewhat decent chance (Generally above 20% most months, increasing slightly in months more likely to have sever weather) that you will encounter some delays, it’s still hardly “all of the time”.

Again, as someone who travels quite a lot, I can look at the number of times I’ve been delayed, or had other problems, compared to the number of times I’ve flown without any problem, and put it in perspective. Most people, however, don’t fly that often. A more typical traveler travels maybe twice a year, once for a family vacation in the Summer time, and once for the holidays. Both peak travel times, where there’s little extra space to account for any problems, and both times when you are somewhat more likely to run into severe weather. All it takes is one delay caused by a storm, one person getting bumped from an overfull flight, one mishandled bag, and you come to think that this must happen all the time. After all, if you travel twice a year and it happens to you, it must happen all the time. Even more, when you took to the internet and complained about it, your tweet, Facebook post, etc. gets commented on by every other person this has ever happened to, leading to the obvious conclusion that, if you fly, the airline will delay your flight, lose your baggage, and there will be some combination of drunk adult or unruly children on your flight. And if you don’t experience those things as part of your flight, you just got lucky. The fact is, if something bad does happen, you just got unlucky.

Unfortunately, I see much of the same sort of belief system set into place over technology too. Most people do not interact with large database systems, or complex networks, on a regular basis. Their interactions mostly involve using a mobile device to access email, or Facebook, etc. or simply using a computer at work. They have infrequent interactions with their own IT departments, and almost always when something goes wrong. They don’t see the 99% of the time things are working perfectly, they see the 1% when it doesn’t and judge you based on that interaction. There’s no sense of perspective, there’s “it didn’t work when I needed it to”. Just like the airlines are always losing luggage, or always overbooking flights, because I saw it happen the one time I interacted with the airlines, the IT department is always non-responsive, always clueless, always rude, because the one time I interacted with them, the Exchange Server had crashed and they were all running around clueless as to how to fix it. It doesn’t matter that they were simply stressed, trying to get it back working again, the impression left with the users is that they were rude, or non-responsive. Of course, those users will then complain to their peers, who also never interact with tech support until something is broken and get a similar response.

On the other hand, if you can slowly explain the situation, set the expectations for how things are going to get fixed, and when, the user might still be unhappy that this happened, but they are less likely to walk away with a bad feeling about the people running the technology.

Still think working in IT is a good way to avoid having to deal with people? If you do, you should probably get out before your poor interactions add to the pile of stories that lead users to believe IT people are always rude.

Where else do you see this sort of dissonance occurring? I can think of plenty of things that people believe happen “all the time” because they know someone it did happen to, or saw it in the media, that in fact are very infrequent. (Natural disasters, crime statistics, etc.) Where do you see it? Where do you not see your own incorrect assumptions?

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