Rational Agents and Emotional Humans: Why you should ask “Why?”

An intelligent agent is by definition a rational agent, who will “acts so as to achieve the best outcome or, when there is uncertainty, the best expected outcome.”

With the agent being rational and humans emotional, how can we tell a rational agent what the best possible outcome is?

How do you translate emotional needs into a rational goal – when we might not even know the answer to this ourselves?


Think about it, how would you define a rational goal for your needs, such as buying new pants? Price and size is a given, but how about the social cues from clothes? For what occasions will you use them? Is your price point different for work clothes vs leisure? Do your social cues differ between different settings?

With artificial intelligence and machine learning, the output is a result of our input. Any bias in our input will be in the output. This is already a concern. It is up to us to define what rational behavior is. For you it might be good value for your money, for me it might be buying animal cruelty-free products. The different rational outcomes are based on our values and emotions. Why do you value a good deal? Why is animal rights important for me?

When working with rational agents it is critical to understand what a good outcome is. Why are your users doing whatever they are doing?

I have a startup that use different A.I. technologies (ex. AR, image recognition) to create a new ecommerce solution. Our team is like many other tech product teams, with more-than-average rational people. (Or at least we like to think we are). It is so easy to get excited about new technology and the possibilities it offers. And with that, so easy to fall into the trap of building a state-of-the art solution that no customers wants.

I know this because I’ve done this mistake not only once, but several times. It happens whenever you get more excited about the solution than the problem. I try to overcome this by doing pretty basic user research, looking at what is important for people.

I think of this as balancing A.I. with “H.I.” – Human Intelligence.

Since we’re building a shopping solution I went to the mall. I just observed people shopping. It was a busy Saturday, it was dark and cold outside. People was rushing to and from, carrying big and small boxes and bags to their cars. Their faces showed so many emotions. There was the couple in love, buying stuff for their first apartment. A grandmother with grandkids, buying a toy. I could see guys with determined “getting sh** done” faces, carrying home improvement tools. There was women browsing for the perfect ‘extra touch’ for their living room interior. And of course, lots and lots of people shopping for clothes.


This is a good time to start asking Why? 

Why do people leave their homes on their day off to go to the mall? Why do we spend hours looking for a tool or a great piece?

Asking “Why?” is a good technique to use when you want to understand your users. Another technique is to look at the feature, ask what the benefit is, and then what the benefit of the benefit is.

Let’s try this out on “John”, who bought a set of drill bits, and “Lisa” who bought a framed picture.

Why 1: Why did John buy a new set of drill bits?
To drill a hole in the wall. = Feature

Why 2: Why do John drill a hole in the wall?
To hang up a picture = Benefit

Why 3: Why do John hang a picture on his wall?
Because his wife told him to

Why 4: Why did John do what his wife told him to?
Yes, there are many answers here. One is that doing practical stuff around the house makes John feel useful and needed.  = Benefit of the benefit

Why 5: Why do John want to feel useful and needed?
In general, we all want connection and acceptance.


Let’s look at Lisa, John’s wife.

Why 1: Why did Lisa buy a new picture for the wall? 
Because for a long time she’s wanted to add something to that blank space on the wall AND it was on sale. = Feature

Why 2: Why did she want to add something to the wall?

To make her home look nicer, and to get a good deal. = Benefit

Why 3: Why did Lisa want to her home look nicer, and do a good deal?

To get praise from others on her interior decorating skills and for getting a good deal.  = Benefit of benefit
Why 4: Why is Lisa seeking praise?
Because she too want social acceptance and connection.

So in the end, why did John buy a new set of drills, and why did Lisa buy a new picture?

Because they feel good when they get social acceptance and feel social connection. Marketers understand this, product developers and tech people still have lots to learn.


So in the end, why did John buy a new set of drills, and why did Lisa buy a new picture?

Because they feel good when they get social acceptance and feel social connection. Marketers understand this, product developers and tech people still have lots to learn.

As Nir Eyal writes –

All humans are motivated

– to seek pleasure and avoid pain;

– to seek hope and avoid fear;

– to seek social acceptance and avoid rejection


Understanding “Why” is only the first step.

Now that we understand a bit more about why people, like in this example, go shopping, how can we use this insight when building products?

There’s more to the shopping experience than the end result “why”.  The “why” is the motivation, but you need to add other emotional elements. The key here is variable rewards.


Read part one: 

Rational Agents and Emotional Humans: Why you should include variable rewards. 

(…) Would you compliment a gift if you knew your friend ‘only’ did what her I.A. recommended? According to NYTimes, you would. Though, your friend might not value the compliment as much if there was no effort in the hunt.

How about that drink? Would you try new stuff only when an algorithm suggested that you might like it? How would you discover anything radically different? What about “black swans”?

This touches in on social behavior theory, as well as product design and habit theory.

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