Technology and Behavior Around the Office Coffee Machine

An office familiar to me has for many years generously provided coffee packets to its employees as a benefit. One selects their particular type from a large assortment, inserts it into the machine and, voila, a freshly brewed cup. As I myself was partaking of the office’s generosity one day, my behavioral-psychologist wheels began turning as I ruminated over the duties associated with maintaining such a coffee-providing operation.  In the days before the machine with its neat little packets, there were grounds to be cleaned out and pots to be washed. Still, there are cups and spoons to be cleaned, cabinet tops to be tidied, and other miscellaneous things to keep the operation going. My attention for this commentary was drawn to the water reservoir, which until recently required refilling several times a day.

Obviously if I want a coffee and the reservoir is empty, I have to replenish it. I can do this in two ways: Fill it to the top or put enough in to make my cup of joe and go. I wouldn’t do the latter unless I were, say, late for a meeting or in the middle of something really pressing (but, then would I have time to stop for coffee in the first place?). If I did the latter, the next person in search of their caffeine fix would be faced with the same choice. And so on, until either that person or some other altruistic person fills the thing. And then the cycle repeats. If the duty of refilling falls on one person too often, it could present some minor grumblings and the like. Furthermore, some may not ever fill the reservoir, preferring to go without until someone else fills it. So, what’s the most efficient way to get the reservoir filled? One way would be post a sign reminding people to fill the reservoir. I don’t need to point out how likely this is to have long-term effects on anyone’s behavior. People quickly habituate to signage of any type, making its effect short-lived indeed (for more on rules, see “Lessons from a French Washing Machine”).  No, not even a blinking neon sign would work. The old “send a memo” trick falls in the same category. How about bringing up the issue in a meeting and developing a rotational plan for filling it? Maybe, but this seems cumbersome because whose-ever turn it is has to monitor the reservoir and be its dedicated servant for the day, maybe disrupting other activities. Other solutions involving the management of the users are possible, but the clever person in charge of much of the day-to-day management of office personnel developed what I thought a beautifully elegant solution in its simplicity.  For a small price, she had a plumber install a continuous refill water line to the machine. No more hassles, no more reservoir discontent.

This got me thinking about the relative merits of solutions to everyday problems involving systems that change behavior versus mechanical/technological systems that change the need for human interventions. To me, this was a great example of how technology can be used effectively to solve a simple problem in human behavior. There are, however, a couple of other things to consider when evaluating these mechanical/technological approaches to solving problems of behavior.  

advancements in technologyThe first is that technological solutions, developing machines or servomechanisms of one kind or another to replace human actions, don’t always work.  Many technological solutions actually work against the humans the solutions are designed to help. Some monitoring systems, for example, may make humans inattentive and thereby cause them to miss important things that the machines don’t catch. Other machine-based solutions actually may make the work environment less safe because they allow the human operator to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The second was raised by a colleague with whom I discussed my observations. He took strong exception to my conclusion that calling in the plumber was a good solution. Rather, he had two observations. First, he contended that filling the reservoir serves an important function in contributing to group cooperation and shared responsibility.  Taking this opportunity away from the staff makes things more “mechanical” and decreases human interactions in solving the problem. Second, he suggested that sometimes when people complain about (what is to many of us) small things like this, fixing this problem will not decrease complaints from them about other things. This would suggest that, at least in some cases, there may be a broader pattern of discontent that might require a different and more general intervention to fix it.

My own view is that his second point may be valid in some cases, but not in others. It would require further examination in individual cases, and would be something for those charged with managing staff to consider – the small complaints as a litmus test of more chronic issues, one could speculate. With his first point, I respectfully disagree. For me, if a little plumbing can make the staff happier, I am all for it. His interesting observations, however, do raise the question of where do we draw the line in using technological solutions that impact the ways people interact with each other. With our children, for example, sometimes we intervene with an imposed system when siblings can’t work out, say, their shared household duties, but with other problems we say to them “work it out, kids.”  This is the same thing, and in the end our own fallible human judgment prevails in whether we take on the problem or have those involved “work it out.” The real lesson here, for me at least, is this: When we choose a technological/mechanical or a behavioral approach to solving a problem of human behavior, there are always costs and benefits to both approaches that should be considered before jumping in with “the solution.” It seems important, too, to remember, that solving problems of human behavior is always an experiment, we have to be willing to try things and also admit when they are not working, as well as pat ourselves on the back when they work well.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.