Diagnose The Root Causes of Behavior

February 11, 2016Comments Off on Diagnose The Root Causes of Behavior

A friend is looking for a solution to deal with members overwhelming the comments area of his site.

Let’s call these folks the overwhelmers.

They dominate a discussion with their views and continue debating until no other opinions are left standing unchallenged. This generates activity but by its nature drives others away from participating.

Most people think up possible solutions in this situation and keep testing things until something clicks. Sometimes they get lucky, but usually they don’t. Others overreact and take drastic action that negatively affects everyone.

You can take a more methodical approach. Work backwards from the causes of the behavior. Identify the questions that would isolate each cause and then develop interventions to change that behavior.

The four possible causes of this behavior are:

  • Personality causes. This includes values, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and self-esteem. The overwhelmers might dislike others, have a strong opinion on a single topic, or have low self-esteem and need to impose themselves upon the group for validation.
  • Habitual causes. The overwhelmers might have learnt that overwhelming is rewarded with more attention and/or respect. Hence their natural habit is to overwhelm the discussion.
  • Social causes. The overwhelmers are trying to impress the group to be accepted as a member or trying to fit in with what they consider to be the prototypical group behaviors. They’re following the social norms established by others.
  • Environmental causes. The overwhelmers are nudged by the environment to overwhelm. If the system rewards overwhelming (by quantity or self-assertion), you’re likely to see a lot of overwhelmers. If the first thing people see is other people overwhelming, they’re likely to overwhelm too. If something on the site primes you to be in a negative, argumentative state (i.e. you get frustrated the site is loading slowly), you’re more likely to feel argumentative.

Now we need to methodically develop the questions to identify which could isolate each of these behaviors. These will vary depending upon the behavior, but a good starting point is how many participants are making the behavior and when did the behavior begin. This tends to isolate if it was a pre-existing behavior or something participants learned through the site.


1) What % of participants are overwhelming? If it’s a few (let’s say less than 3%), it hints that this is restricted to a small number of individuals with problematic personalities before they arrived or have picked up negative habits from previous behavior. If it’s >3%, we can assume participants learned to become overwhelmers after arriving on the site. This suggests it’s an environmental cause or a social norm problem.

2) Did the overwhelming begin immediately or later? This question splits the two strands into four. If it’s a relatively small number of people who were overwhelming from their first few contributions, we can assume this is a collection of people with problematic personalities. This is often low self-esteem, aggressive personalities, or a deep need for attention. If the behavior began after their first contributions, we can assume this is a learned behavior. They saw or learned that the more frequently they posted or assertively they made their case, the more attention and respect they received.

This highlights whether the people were always likely to overwhelm when they arrived or whether they developed the habit once they arrived. This tends to split out the most likely causes for that behavior (multiple courses are also possible).

If we’re dealing with a larger number of people that began the behavior immediately, this suggests a proximate environmental cause. Something they see on the site or are primed with on the site is driving that behavior. If it’s a behavior that begins later for a larger group, it’s more like social norms they pick up from the group itself.

In a decision-tree diagram, it looks like this:


Now we have isolated the cause of the behavior (and among your group of members there might be several causes for different people), we can develop specific, targeted, measures to change that behavior.

The interventions themselves matter far less than isolating the behavior to begin with. Once we understand the cause of that behavior by developing the right method, we can change that behavior. 3 months and 5 contributions might not be the right metric, but it’s a metric to start with and adapt as you identify what’s relevant to your audience.

Developing advanced methods to change behavior is one of the many things we will be tackling during our Advanced Engagement Methods program. The program begins on February 29. I hope you will join us: 


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