Denied by an (Unexplainable) Algorithm: Teleological Explanations for Algorithmic Decisions Enhance Customer Satisfaction

60 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2020 Last revised: 22 Jan 2021

See all articles by Geoffrey Tomaino

Geoffrey Tomaino

INSEAD - Singapore

Hisham Abdulhalim

Ben Gurion University

Pavel Kireyev


Klaus Wertenbroch

INSEAD - Marketing

Date Written: August 31, 2020


Algorithmic or automated decision-making has become commonplace, with firms implementing either rule-based or statistical models to determine whether or not to provide services to customers based on their past behaviors. Policy-makers are pressed to determine if and how to require firms to explain the decisions made by their algorithms, especially in cases where the algorithms are “unexplainable,” or are equivalently subject to legal or commercial confidentiality restrictions or too complex for humans to understand. We study consumer responses to goal-oriented, or “teleological,” explanations, which present the purpose or objective of the algorithm without revealing its mechanism, making them candidates for explaining decisions made by “unexplainable” algorithms. In a field experiment with a technology firm and several online lab experiments, we demonstrate the effectiveness of teleological explanations and identify conditions when teleological and mechanistic explanations can be equally satisfying. Participants perceive teleological explanations as fair, even though algorithms with a fair goal may employ an unfair mechanism. Our results show that firms may benefit by offering teleological explanations for unexplainable algorithm behavior. Regulators can mitigate possible risks by educating consumers about the potential disconnect between an algorithm’s goal and its mechanism.

Keywords: Algorithms, Consumer Psychology, Explanations, Digital Interactions, Customer Relations

JEL Classification: M30, M31, M38, O32, O33

Suggested Citation

Tomaino, Geoffrey and Abdulhalim, Hisham and Kireyev, Pavel and Wertenbroch, Klaus, Denied by an (Unexplainable) Algorithm: Teleological Explanations for Algorithmic Decisions Enhance Customer Satisfaction (August 31, 2020). INSEAD Working Paper No. 2020/39/MKT, Available at SSRN: or

Geoffrey Tomaino

INSEAD - Singapore ( email )


Hisham Abdulhalim

Ben Gurion University ( email )



Pavel Kireyev

INSEAD ( email )

Boulevard de Constance
77305 Fontainebleau Cedex


Klaus Wertenbroch (Contact Author)

INSEAD - Marketing ( email )

1 Ayer Rajah Ave.
Singapore, 138676


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