The Man Who Lied to his Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships
By Clifford Nass with Corina Yen (Penguin Group)

You know how difficult it is to manage individuals and teams; all those personalities to contend with, all those egos to stroke. Tell you what – it’s simple. Just read this book and you’ve got it licked. What’s more, all the psychological insights were gained by substituting a computer or a TV as the ‘collaborator’ in each interaction. This means you’ll be able to apply what you learn to designing software too.

It’s an odd, but utterly logical, approach to researching human behaviour. Imagine, as Professor Nass did, how impossible it would be to conduct consistent experiments on the impact of flattery. How could you get an experimenter to repeat the same behaviour, time after time, with tens or hundreds of subjects?

It would change every time according to their subconscious attitudes to the sex, race, appearance and behaviour of the person in front of them. The computer has no such hangups. It exhibits the same behaviour time after time.

Thus was born the great insight which led to this book. Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University and a human-computer interaction expert, got computers to be members of the same ‘team’ as the participants to see if that changed their outlook. He got them to be alternately cheerful and miserable to see what effect it had on participants.

If you’re interested, the effect depended on how cheerful or miserable the person was in the first place. Miserable people prefer miserable computers while cheerful computers make them even more miserable. He even got TVs to act as ‘experts’ by labelling them as ‘News’ and ‘Entertainment’.

The book is not written along the anecdotal lines of classics such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It is more sober and less entertaining, because it describes each experiment in considerable detail. However, it will interest you if you have the remotest interest in what makes us tick, and how we might be helped to tick differently.

Like all pop psychology books it is long on simplicity and short on nuance. According to Nass, we can all be graded along two axes: ‘Calm to Excited’ and ‘Negative to Positive’. Turn that into a quadrant and you have Rage, Ecstasy, Serenity and Despair at the four corners. So, once you’ve cracked where someone is in the quadrant, then you can figure out how best to deal with them.

Figuring this sort of thing out on the fly is probably quite challenging for some people. But, in the absence of any other help, knowing that the grid exists and how to exploit it is actually quite helpful. By the way, Nass labels his axes ‘Arousal’ and ‘Valence’, which does seem both helpful and unhelpful, respectively.

He tackles five themes, one per chapter: Praise and Criticism; Personality; Teams and Team Building; Emotion; and Persuasion. His experiments are ruthlessly even-handed if you ignore the fact that most of the participants were drawn from students and staff at California’s Stanford University and the remainder from Japan, who were called in to help resolve some cultural differences to do with reciprocity.

To paraphrase some of the authors’ conclusions, praise works regardless of whether or not it is sincere. Criticism and praise don’t mix well. Self-deprecation diminishes you. And, if you want to be seen as competent, praise yourself and criticise others – you’ll be respected, but you won’t be liked.

Those with similar personalities like each other and trust each other more. Ambiguous personalities are disliked more than different, but clear, ones. Modifying your personality to become more like someone else’s is valued more highly than being like them in the first place.

Teams work best when they have a shared identity (even a ‘team shirt’ could work) and interdependence (working together with a common goal). So-called team building exercises generally support neither. But the authors warn of the dangers of ‘group think’ and stereotyping.

On emotions, they warn of sending out mixed messages. Essentially they’re saying that ‘faking it’ leads to confusion, dislike and suspicion. While happiness is the ideal position for everyone, it may be necessary to mirror miserable people in order to move them, as described earlier. I’m not really sure how this fits in with not faking it, though. The authors suggest ‘cognitive reframing’ to regulate your own emotions – analyse the situation and decide if it really deserves your imminent emotional reaction.

People are persuaded by their perception of you – are you an expert and can you be trusted? The latter is more important than the former.

It seems likely that at least some of the conclusions in this book will come as a surprise to you. But, surprise or not, the book provides useful validation. And, with its simple and easy to remember rules of thumb, it helps us get back to the basics of managing human relationships. And, as it happens, our relationships with computers too.