As I’ve studied and written about human nature over the last many years, one thing has struck me over and over: Often it may seem to me that people’s behavior makes no sense, but when I understand their perspective, I see why they do what they do.
Sometimes, behavior that seems ridiculous to me may have a very reasonable explanation.
One extraordinary example of this principle is a story about the rock band Van Halen, which I read about in Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.
By way of background, let me explain that Van Halen was an extraordinarily popular band, and in the 1980’s they toured constantly, and they were one of the first rock bands to have major stage productions in smaller markets. Their set-up was extremely complex and technical, and a lot of it needed to be done by the people who worked for the venue. The band was always concerned that the stagehands would cut corners, and they’d be exposed to some kind of injury (which did happen to bands). But because they had such a busy schedule, the band’s own crew didn’t have time to do a full quality check at each stop. So what did they do?
Now in other news, Van Halen had a wild reputation. They partied like crazy, they were out of control. They were demanding and destructive. One of the most notorious stories was that the band’s contract rider specified that they had to have a bowl of M&M’s backstage, with the brown M&Ms removed.
Article 126 of the contract said “There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”—buried in the middle of countless technical details.
There were stories of David Lee Roth walking backstage, seeing a brown M&M and trashing the dressing room. And this was true.
It seemed like he was making absurd demands because he could, like a kind of crazy egocentricity, but in fact, his action made sense.
Because of this specification in the contract, with just a glance at the bowl of M&Ms, band members could see if the contract had been followed to the letter. If not, it was a huge warning sign to check the entire production for possible mistakes. The band had this demand included so that they could immediately assess whether the stagehands at a venue had followed every line of the contract. Brilliant!
Sometimes, when people do things that seem inexplicable, there’s actually a very good explanation, if we take the time to find out what it is.