Oct. 1, 2021

Haskayne researcher receives funding to explore consumer decision-making and artificial intelligence

Mehdi Mourali investigates people's understanding of how AI algorithms work
Mehdi Mourali
Marnie Burkart, Jazhart Studios Inc.

Machines have become responsible for making integral decisions in our lives, particularly when it comes to banking and finances. Artificial intelligence-based algorithms are heavily utilized to determine whether we are eligible for financial loans, credit cards and mortgages — and not everybody makes the cut.

While no one likes receiving bad news, if you’ve ever been denied an approval on a potentially life-changing application, how did that make you feel?

"Most consumers are not aware of these algorithms that are making decisions about them," says Dr. Mehdi Mourali, PhD, associate professor of marketing in the Haskayne School of Business.

Research into how consumers interact with technology and AI algorithms has provided a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant to Mourali, along with colleagues Dr. Ruth Pogacar, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at Haskayne, and Dr. Neil Brigden, BA’04, BComm’04, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at Mount Royal University.

Consumer empowerment and AI

Their research explores how people perceive the processes behind the decision-making algorithms that directly impact their lives, and questions how consumers can be made to feel empowered during these processes.

"A lot of important decisions that impact people’s lives are automated, and, if not fully automated, at least highly assisted by computer programs,” says Mourali. “We want to understand how people perceive these processes. Do they see them as fair? Are they accountable? Can the results of these algorithms be disputed?"  

To delve deeper into the relationship between consumers and AI technology, Mourali and his team are focusing specifically on the ways in which consumers react to the explanation, or lack thereof, that is provided following the delivery of an important decision determined by an AI algorithm. This research stems from another study done by the team that focused on the general perception of AI technology by consumers which found that, while algorithms tend to be more accurate, consumers prefer receiving their decisions from humans.

"We are comparing how consumers perceive these decisions after receiving an explanation, which can be not receiving an explanation, versus other types of explanations, some of which are more actionable than others,” says Mourali.

We want to know what kind of post-hoc explanations companies can provide to make consumers feel empowered through feedback that can help inform future decisions.  

The SSHRC grant will be used to train graduate students and make the study feasible by offering participants an honorarium. The study will be conducted by manipulating the presence and kind of explanations associated with different outcomes and looking at how people perceive these decisions in terms of fairness, how much they feel empowered, and whether they trust the decision and the organization that deployed this algorithm.

“We will be looking to partner with an organization for a field study once we have accumulated enough evidence in the lab of what interventions might work best,” Mourali says.

As of now, there is no strong theoretical framework available to accurately hypothesize the outcome of the three-year study, making Mourali’s research integral to the ongoing study of relationships between consumers and AI technology