The Mysteries of Human Behavior

Let me introduce you to My Little Pony Scootaloo. According to the manufacturer, “SCOOTALOO pony loves to play games and be outside. She’s always on the go to meet and play outdoors with all her pony friends!” The suggested retail price for this toy is US$4.99.

To be honest, My Little Pony is not something I’ve spent any time thinking about before, but last Saturday night I couldn’t avoid thinking about it as I watched a My Little Pony toy just like the one pictured get auctioned to the audience at the current Broadway revival of Equus. After the curtain call, the cast asked the audience to bid on the toy in order to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. By the time the bidding ended, they had raised US$800. That’s impressive considering the prize normally sold for US$4.99.

What accounts for this incredible increase? You can find chapter and verse online about the psychology of auctions. Were the folks who bid on the toy completely irrational? Some (like Seth Godin) would say yes. However, that isn’t the complete answer. What I observed that evening was an audience that got caught up in the excitement of the show, the unscripted interaction with the cast, and the perceived value of the prize. It should be noted that the perceived value likely had less to do with the great work Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS does and more to do with the fact that members of the cast (including Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, Richard Griffiths (History Boys) and Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager)) had autographed the toy.

People don’t always act rationally. However, people do tend to react predictably — if you know enough about human nature. When implementing a knowledge management program don’t assume that people will always do the right thing or even the sensible thing. People usually just do the thing they’ve always done. But they can be swayed by powerful countervailing forces. So while you’re drawing up your neat, logical plans on paper, make sure you spend a little time thinking about human psychology, documented user behavior, and key elements of your law firm’s organizational culture. That way you can plan for the way the very real people in your law firm are most likely to react. And, if a countervailing force is needed, you can dedicate the necessary time and effort to arranging it. To be clear, this is less about offering incentives (which according to many do not work), than it is a warning that perfect paper plans that assume rational user behavior rarely result in flawless implementations. Above all, you need to account for the messy and sometimes mysterious behavior of the users you are trying to help.

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