As someone that works troubleshooting stuff, I've seen a surprising amount of people that, when confronted with messages, warnings and errors, tend to seek help fast (or early in the process) in the hope someone will understand what their problem is, rather than reading the error and searching directly for a solution, or solving what they did wrong independently. To illustrate this, consider an example (I'm not sure if this captures the qi of the problem, but here it goes):

User $A$ performs a certain action that leads to the current error/warning/message:

Error: your input was greater than two, please use $X$ tool when input is greater than two.

When the user is presented with an error message, there are 4 things that could happen:

  1. User comes back and uses the correct tool.
  2. User tries again until frustrated.
  3. User tries again until frustrated and seeks help.
  4. User tries again until frustrated, seeks help and doesn't get it. The user either figures out the message or just leaves things as they are.

My question: why do endings 2, 3, and 4 happen? Is the message too difficult for some people to understand, or do they believe they are not wrong and the tool should do what they want or the message should be more calling (IN CAPS or bold)? Do people ignore seemingly perfectly crafted messages? Or have we learned to ignore them, given all the media with which we are bombarded?

  • $\begingroup$ I must be one of 2 to 4, because I have never seen an error message asking me to use a certain "tool". Can you supply a screenshot of an example? $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Feb 23 '14 at 17:46

Several explanations could apply crossing psychology and linguistics:

Cognitive: It is perhaps bold to suggest that there could be a perfectly constructed error message. Reading comprehension and interpretation is impacted by a diverse array of cognitive processes, including literal, inferential and evaluative cognitive processes(Basaraba et al., 2013). Despite having comprehensive vocabulary and general knowledge, individuals may still encounter difficulties with text comprehension due to metacognitive deficits with memory and reading strategies(Oakhill et al., 2015), diversity of cultural background(Yousef et al., 2014), and developmental opportunity(Paris & Hamilton, 2009). Given the extensive array of cognitive processes required to comprehend text, it is not surprising that a range of interpretations will exist, no matter how well constructed the response is.

Opportunity cost: The amount of time an individual will devote to solving the conundrum of the error message is dependent on their other priorities(Kurzban et al., 2013). The individual is unlikely to know in advance how much time it will take to comply with the error message, so they are likely to make assumptions. If the opportunity cost associated with the estimated time is less than the value the individual estimates is associated with other opportunities, then they are unlikely to respond in the manner expected.

Learned behaviours will also be involved. If the user has learned from prior interactions that the same result can be achieved through non-compliance, then they are likely to repeat this learned behavior in the future.

In addition to the above, self-efficacy(Bandura & Locke, 2003) and embarrassment avoidance(Jiang et al., 2018) may have a role to play.

Bandura, A., & Locke, E. A. (2003). Negative self-efficacy and goal effects revisited [Review of Negative self-efficacy and goal effects revisited]. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(1), 87–99. psycnet.apa.org. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.88.1.87

Basaraba, D., Yovanoff, P., Alonzo, J., & Tindal, G. (2013). Examining the structure of reading comprehension: do literal, inferential, and evaluative comprehension truly exist? Reading and Writing, 26(3), 349–379. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-012-9372-9

Jiang, L., Drolet, A., & Scott, C. A. (2018). Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer’s perspective. Motivation and Emotion, 42(5), 748–762. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-018-9673-7

Kurzban, R., Duckworth, A., Kable, J. W., & Myers, J. (2013). An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(6), 661–679. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X12003196

Oakhill, J. V., Berenhaus, M. S., & Cain, K. (2015). Children’s reading comprehension and comprehension difficulties. In A. Pollatsek & R. Treiman (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Reading (pp. 344–360). Oxford.

Paris, S. G., & Hamilton, E. E. (2009). The Development of Children’s Reading Comprehension. In S. E. Israel & G. G. Duffy (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension (pp. 32–53). Routledge.

Yousef, H., Karimi, L., & Janfeshan, K. (2014). The Relationship between Cultural Background and Reading Comprehension. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 4(4). https://doi.org/10.4304/tpls.4.4.707-714


There is a lot of context to extract from this:

For example if "using the X tool" requires a lot of time, it would be time-consuming to actually go by yourself and try for hours, when you could instead ask for help from someone who already has some knowledge of it.

Also, people are all different, some people want to know how "things work in their details," while some just want results, so they will seek the fastest way to do it.

But to conclude, I tend to notice that as the time passes and technologies increase, people tend to be lazy and stop thinking for themselves, except to think, "If it does not work, then the tool is broken, not me."


I don't know if this an answerable question but I KNOW exactly what you're taking about. I think much of it can be attributed to how humans learn new things.

People need to be reassured that the process, methods, and results they're getting are correct. When doing something for the first time yourself you need this feedback.

So I tend to attribute this behavior as a manifestation of this. Until a person has been properly grounded in something, their confidence in their own ability and performance of a set of tasks is low. Only with feedback from other humans that they're doing it correctly, does ones confidence rise to a point where they no longer need the affirmation/reaffirmation from others.


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