Yelling at Siri or Alexa doesn’t make you a jerk, BYU study finds

(Photo courtesy of Jaren Wilkey with Brigham Young University) Pictured is a man jokingly yelling at Amazon's Alexa.

“Hey, Siri, do you think I’m a jerk?”

For most people with a smartphone, it has become easy — even routine — to demand answers, bark commands, boss around and even call your personal device names when asking for help.

In a rush? “Tell me the quickest way to get to work.”

Need to talk to someone? “Call Mom now.”

Not sure what to wear? “Give me the weather forecast.”

But, it turns out, even if you’re prone to yelling at your digital assistant, it likely doesn’t mean you’re a rude person. (Although iPhone’s Siri isn’t programmed to disagree.)

A new study out of Brigham Young University looked at whether people who rely on technology for assistance — including Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home — might be less polite because of it. The Provo researchers were surprised to find that wasn’t the case.

“The way you treat artificial intelligence assistants seems to have no relation with the way you treat others,” said James Gaskin, who created the project and is an associate professor of information systems at BYU.

In other words, being a jerk to Siri doesn’t translate to being a jerk to people.

Gaskin became interested in the subject after buying a smart home speaker. His 5-year-old daughter, he found, would have full conversations with Alexa, asking questions for hours and constantly demanding: “Tell me a joke.” One day, Gaskin said, he asked his little girl to say “please,” but it ended up confusing the device.

That made him curious. The devices were programmed not to require niceties like “please” and “thank you” and actually were less effective when they were said. So if people got used to not saying them when asking for something from the digital assistant, would they then also stop asking the people around them?

Gaskin and Nathan Burton, a graduate student and lead author on the research, talked to 274 people as part of the test — a big enough sample size to find even weak connections. The two measured how terse those individuals were in their interactions with Siri and Alexa and compared it to how they talked to other people.

Even those who shouted at the devices reported that they were kind to their neighbors. And there was no connection either between those who shouted and low life satisfaction. Some of the angriest people to Siri had some of the highest scores for being nice to kids and pets, too.

Burton said he believes the reason lies in the response from the digital assistant (even though he acknowledges saying “thank you” to his Google Home).

“It is easier to be mean to a robot because there are no consequences for it,” Burton explained. “If I’m mean to another person, that person will likely get angry at me. But with a digital assistant, they will still be cheerful and happy to help.”

That is, for now.

The researchers say that as devices start to become more humanlike, it might change behaviors. Currently, it’s easy to tell when you’re talking to an automated machine and, Gaskin added, adults “fully understand that artificial intelligence has no feelings.”

The two researchers wrote in their conclusion: “Worried parents and news outlets alike have fretted about how this personification affects our politeness, yet we have found little reason to worry about adults becoming ruder as a result of barking our orders to digital assistants.”

The research was preliminary and looked only at college students, though. Gaskin and Burton wonder — and might next study — if there’s a bigger impact on kids, who are less able to differentiate between a device and a person.

Additionally, they plan to look into devices that are more lifelike. The new Vector Robot, for example, has expressive eyes and a head that moves. And that could change how people talk to it.

The first version of Siri came out on the iPhone 4S in October 2011. By 2020, the researchers say, there will be 76.5 million smart speakers active in the United States. At that point, the devices will likely be able to react with something like an emotional response.

And they just might be able to tell you if you’re being a jerk.