because we hate cognitive dissonance: we can’t stand a mismatch between our actions and thoughts. So if we find ourselves helping someone out, we’ll unconsciously adjust our feelings for them. After all, we don’t want to feel we’re valuing someone who doesn’t deserve it. In one key study, students won money in a contest; afterwards, some were asked to return it because, they were told, it was the hard-up researcher’s own cash. In a subsequent survey, that group liked the researcher significantly more than those who weren’t asked to give any money back.
The implications are striking. Don’t suck up to your boss – make demands. Don’t shower your friends with gifts – ask to borrow their stuff.
‘Like laughing at your own joke,’ said F. Scott Fitzgerald of this most gaudy of punctuation marks. He had a point. Overusing exclamation marks makes you sound hectoring and overexcited. That idea of laughing at your own joke – of paying yourself a compliment – has been there from the beginning. When they arrived in the language in the fourteenth century, David Crystal tells us, they were called the ‘point of admiration’ – and later, the ‘admirative point’ and the ‘wonderer’. It’s since Dr Johnson that we’ve had ‘exclamation’ – shifting the emphasis from admiration to the expression of strong feeling.
The Power of Confirmation
Three scientists, Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper, recruited forty-eight American undergraduates who either strongly supported the death penalty or strongly opposed it. They presented them with two scientific studies; one offered evidence regarding the effectiveness of capital punishment, and the other data showed its ineffectiveness. In reality, the studies had been fabricated. Lord, Ross, and Lepper had made them up, but the students did not know that. Did the students find the studies convincing? Did they believe that the data provided good evidence that should alter their minds? They did!
But only when the study reinforced their original view. Those students who strongly supported capital punishment thought the study that demonstrated its effectiveness was well conducted. At the same time, they argued that the other study was poorly executed and not compelling. Those who were originally against capital punishment assessed the studies the other way around. As a result, believers in the death penalty left the lab supporting capital punishment with more passion than ever, while those in opposition to it ended up opposing capital punishment with more zest than before.
‘How many marketers does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is “Millennials”. Because the answer to every fucking question in marketing is “Millennials””
I designed an experiment to test this idea. It involved designing Converse shoes. First, I would invite volunteers into the lab and ask them to evaluate eighty different Converse shoes on a computer screen. Each shoe would be slightly different in color and design. Then, for each volunteer, I would divide all of the shoes into two groups: half the shoes would be assigned to the “create” group and half to the “just watch” group. For the forty “create” shoes, the volunteer would have to log on to the Converse website and use the special online tool there to recreate the exact same shoe. The Converse website used to have an application that allowed anyone to design their own shoe. Notice, however, that the design and colors of the shoes in this experiment were predetermined; the volunteers did not create their favorite design—they simply re-created a design we had already made. For the forty “just watch” shoes, I asked my volunteers to watch a video on the computer screen of the shoe being created. They would sit passively in front of the computer watching, rather than clicking buttons themselves. That was the only difference between the “create” shoes and the “just watch” shoes. When the volunteers were done, two hours later, they were asked to evaluate all the shoes again.
Similar to my oil painting saga, the volunteers liked the shoes they thought they had created two hours before better than the ones they remembered “just watching.”
It’s worth being particularly careful of boastful self descriptions; or, worse, boastful self-descriptions that appear to be neutral or even self-deprecating. It’s the equivalent of giving yourself a nickname like ‘Dutch’ or ‘Ace’ and hoping it sticks. You are asking to be bullied. Some are obvious. If you describe yourself as a ‘maverick’, a ‘cynic’, a ‘reprobate’, a ‘provocateur’, a ‘wag’, or similar, you are on a sure course for others to apply less flattering descriptions to you.
But others are subtler: ‘sceptic’, ‘realist, “radical or “progressive’ are all essentially boasts masquerading as statements of fact. ‘Sceptic’ says: ‘I’m the sort of person who thinks critically about what I read or hear.’ Since everyone presumably aspires to do just that, you’re trying to say you’re cleverer than those around you. ‘Radical’ means nothing at all, in this context, except that the speaker thinks that there’s a particular disruptive bravery to his her political persona – which is a judgment for others to make.
A question was given to a bunch of engineers about fifteen years ago: How do we make the journey to Paris better? They came up with a very good engineering solution, which was to spend £6 billion building completely new tracks from London to the coast and knocking about forty minutes off the 3.5 hour journey time. It strikes me as a slightly unimaginative way of improving a train journey to merely make it shorter. Now, what is the hedonistic opportunity cost of spending £6 billion pounds on railway tracks? Here’s a thought; what you could do is employ the world’s top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train handing out free Château Pétrus for the entire duration of the journey. … At which point you’ll still have about £5 billion left in change, and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down.
Figure 11. Innovation and innervation: digital projections transform waiting into a remarkable art gallery at Gate 14 for Toerisme Vlaanderen.
Figure 5.2. People’s desire to know their own worth is related to market performance. The black line represents the S&P 500, and the gray line represents the number of times people logged on to their accounts to check on their stocks. When the market goes up, people are more likely to take a peek at the value of their holdings than when it goes down.
If not quite a ‘rule’, it’s at least a strong guideline for successful rhythm that you should put the shortest term in any list first and the longest last. This is the principle of climax underscoring the rising tricolon. ‘I am Scottish by aspiration, birth and choice’ has nothing of the drum-roll about it. ‘I will be fishing for cod, blue-fin tuna, the inedible but mighty basking shark, and the many-tentacled deep-sea octopus’ just, somehow, tends to sound better than ‘I will be fishing for the many-tentacled deep-sea octopus, blue-fin tuna, the inedible but mighty basking shark, and cod.’
Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan has said: ‘Once you’ve finished the first draft of your speech – stand up and speak it aloud. Where you falter, alter.’ That applies especially to speeches, of course: in that case you’re trying to produce something that’s hard to stumble over when spoken aloud. Tongue-twisters such as ‘red lorry, yellow lorry’ are easier on the page than in the mouth. But it is also good advice to the prose writer. There is a developmental connection between reading aloud and reading silently – and there is a neurological one too.
The bias runs deep. Few of us, surely, think of ourselves as having a fixed, monochrome personality: we’re happy or sad, stressed or relaxed, depending on circumstances. Yet we stubbornly resist the notion that others might be similarly circumstance-dependent. In a well-known 1960s study, people were shown two essays, one arguing in favour of Castro’s Cuba and one against. Even when it was explained that the authors had been ordered to adopt each position based on a coin-toss – that their situation, in other words, had forced their hand readers still considered that the pro Castro author must be deep down, pro Castro and vice versa.
In a study entitled “After the Movies’, some crafty Australian researchers grilled people leaving the cinema about their views on politics and morality; they discovered that those leaving happy films were optimistic and lenient, while those leaving aggressive or sad ones were far more pessimistic and strict.
In 1958, a young psychologist by the name of Bernice Eiduson began a long-term study of the working methods of forty mid-career scientists. For twenty years, Professor Eiduson periodically interviewed the scientists and gave them a variety of psychological tests, as well as gathering data on their publications. Some of the scientists went on to great success: there were four Nobel Prize winners in the group and two others widely regarded as Nobel-worthy. Several other scientists joined the National Academy of Sciences. Others had disappointing careers.
In 1993, several years after Bernice Eiduson’s death, her colleagues published an analysis of this study, trying to spot patterns. A question of particular interest was: what determines whether a scientist keeps publishing important work throughout his or her life? A few highly productive scientists produced breakthrough paper after breakthrough paper. How?
A striking pattern emerged. The top scientists switched topics frequently. Over the course of their first hundred published papers, the long-lived high-impact researchers switched topics an average of 43 times. The leaps were less dramatic than the ones Erez Aiden likes to take, but the pattern is the same: the top scientists keep changing the subject if they wish to stay productive.
Psychologists Gretchen Chapman and Brian Bornstein tested this idea in a 1996 experiment, when Liebeck v. McDonald’s was much in the news. They presented eighty students from the University of Illinois, U.S.A., students with the hypothetical case of a young woman who said she contracted ovarian cancer from birth control pills and was suing her health care organization. Four groups each heard a different demand for damages: $100; $20,000; $5 million; and $1 billion. The mock jurors were asked to give compensatory damages only. Anyone who wants to believe in the jury system must find the results astonishing.
The jurors were amazingly persuadable, up through the $5 million demand. The lowball $100 demand got a piddling $990 average award. This was for a cancer said to have the plaintiff ‘almost constantly in pain… Doctors do not expect her to survive beyond a few more months.’
Netflix learned a similar lesson early on in its life cycle: don’t trust what people tell you; trust what they do. Originally, the company allowed users to create a queue of movies they wanted to watch in the future but didn’t have time for at the moment. This way, when they had more time, Netflix could remind them of those movies. However, Netflix noticed something odd in the data. Users were filling their queues with plenty of movies. But days later, when they were reminded of the movies on the queue, they rarely clicked. What was the problem? Ask users what movies they plan to watch in a few days, and they will fill the queue with aspirational, highbrow films, such as black-and-white World War II documentaries or serious foreign films. A few days later, however, they will want to watch the same movies they usually want to watch: lowbrow comedies or romance films. People were consistently lying to themselves.
There’s a popular subgenre of books about writing known informally as ‘writer porn’, in which famous authors describe their daily routines, which pens they use and, especially, the secluded mountain-top cabins where they work each morning for six blissfully undisturbed hours. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met such an author, but for anyone whose job is even slightly ‘creative’, they stir envy: we’d all love such big chunks of time in which to focus. Instead, our lives are plagued with what the blogger Merlin Mann, at 43folders.com, calls ‘interstitial time’ – small chunks of minutes spent waiting at the doctor’s surgery, or for someone who’s late, or for a meeting postponed at short notice.
It feels like time wasted. But it needn’t be. The poet William Carlos Williams, for example, wrote much of his oeuvre on the backs of prescription pads during gaps in his workday as a paediatrician.
As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted in his journal in 1843, ‘It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” The day-by-day business of living feels, at this particular moment, spectacularly distant from the ways in which I and others will come to comprehend these events.
Yet this is just an extreme version of something that is always true. Human understanding is always both provisional and belated. Many things that appear obvious in retrospect were anything but obvious at the time, because the clarity we experience when looking back in time is utterly unlike the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds day-today existence. The world is far more complex than any stories we can tell about it; far more mysterious, far harder to predict.
One common situation is for two supermarkets to be competing for the same customers. As we’ve discussed, it’s hard for be systematically more expensive than the others without losing a lot of business, so they will charge similar prices on average, but both will also mix up their prices. That way, both can distinguish the bargain hunters from those in need of specific products, like people shopping to pick up ingredients for a cook-book recipe they are making for a dinner party. Bargain-hunters will pick up whatever is on sale and make something of it. The dinner-party shoppers come to the supermarket to buy specific products and will be less sensitive to prices. The price-targeting strategy only works because the supermarkets always vary the patterns of their special offers, and because it is too much trouble to go to both stores or to order two separate internet deliveries, carefully comparing the price of each good every time we go online. If shoppers could predict what was to be discounted, they could choose recipes ahead of time, and even choose the appropriate supermarket to pick up the ingredients wherever they’re least expensive.
Excerpt from: The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
But in his book If Only, the psychologist Neal Roese argues that when it comes to real-life choices, ‘if you decide to do something and it turns out badly, it probably won’t still be haunting you a decade down the road. You’ll reframe the failure, explain it away, move on, and forget it. Not so with failures to act’. You’ll regret them for longer, too, because they’re ‘imaginatively boundless?’ you can lose yourself for ever in the infinite possibilities of what might have been. In other words: you know that thing you’ve been wondering about doing? Do it.
Joyce uses the analogy of a playground. 12 Researchers found that when you put up a fence around a playground, children will use the entire space—they’ll feel safe to play all the way to the edges. But if those walls are removed, creating a wide-open playground, the space the children choose to play in contracts: they stay toward the middle and they stick to each other, because that’s what feels safe. This, Joyce suggests, is what happens in the creative process. When there are no clear limits in the brief itself, we aren’t sure what boundaries to explore and push against. We end up without the necessary focus and passion of which Marissa Mayer speaks. In fact, one of Joyce’s surprise findings was that in the absence of explicit constraints, the unconstrained teams created more conflict, stemming from all the different unarticulated assumptions and implicit constraints that team members created in their own heads, as if to fill the void.
Indefinite wait seems longer then defined ones, writes David Maiste in his paper “The Psychology of Waiting Lines’, which is why Disney theme parks use complex formulae to calculate and display wait-times. ‘Pre-process’ waits seem longer than ‘in process’ waits, which is why restaurants will seat you before they’re ready to serve you. Customers are happier when queues are acknowledged: when a supermarket calls ‘all staff to the checkouts’, it’s as much about you hearing it as about staffing. And occupied time passes faster than unoccupied time: mirrored walls are especially effective, apparently because most people love looking at themselves.
Bottom line: it’s hard to change someone’s mind when you feel morally and intellectually superior to them. As Megan McArdle memorably put it: “It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else.”
It’s for this reason that banks always used to build such impressive buildings. In the days before governments began to insure banking deposits and simply let banks collapse – such days seem a long time ago now – depositors needed to think hard about where to place their money. If they deposited their savings with a fly-by-night operation, nobody would come to their aid when the bank collapsed. Customers realise that crooks planning to run off with the money or gamble it away do not first clad their branches with bronze and marble: they’re in for the long haul instead. This is one reason, too, why you will pay more at an established shop than at a market stall if you buy a product about which you lack inside information about quality and durability. The established shop will still be there to refund your money in the case of a complaint, and that very possibility gives you an assurance that a complaint is less likely to be necessary.
Other economists have used Spence’s theory to explain enormously expensive advertising campaigns with no informational content.
Excerpt from: The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
The article is called “The Abilene Paradox’, and it’s by the management theorist Jerry Harvey; it begins with a personal anecdote set not at Christmas but during a stiflingly hot Texas summer. Harvey and his wife were staying with her parents, and relaxing one afternoon when his father-in-law suggested a trip to Abilene, 50 miles away, for dinner. Harvey was appalled at the thought of driving ‘across a godforsaken desert, in a furnace-like temperature … to eat unpalatable food. But his wife seemed keen, so he kept his objections to himself.
The experience was as terrible as he’d predicted. Later, trying to be upbeat, he said, “That was a great trip, wasn’t it?’ but one by one, each family member confessed they’d hated they had agreed to go only because they believed it was what the others wanted. “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene”, Harvey’s father-in-law said. “I just thought you might be bored?”
Once, in an experiment, the Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert and a colleague gave hundreds of people the opportunity to pick a free poster from a selection of art prints. Then he divided the participants into two groups. The first group was told that they had a month in which they could exchange their poster for any other one; the second group was told that the decision they’d already made had been final. In follow-up surveys, it was the latter group — those who were stuck with their decision, and who thus weren’t distracted by the thought that it might still be possible to make a better choice — who showed by far the greater appreciation for the work of art they’d selected.
When the new school year started, teachers at Spruce Elementary learned that an acclaimed scientist by the name of Dr Rosenthal would be administering a test to their pupils. This ‘Test of Inflected Acquisition’ indicated who would make the greatest strides at school that year. In truth it was a common or garden IQ test, and, once the scores had been tallied, Rosenthal and his team cast them all aside. They tossed a coin to decide which kids they would tell teachers were ‘high-potentials’. The kids, meanwhile, were told nothing at all. Sure enough, the power of expectation swiftly began to work its magic. Teachers gave the group of ‘smart’ pupils more attention, more encouragement and more praise, thus changing how the children saw themselves, too. The effect was clearest among the youngest kids, whose IQ scores increased by an average of twenty-seven points in a single year. The largest gains were among boys who looked Latino, a group typically subject to the lowest expectations in California.’ Rosenthal dubbed his discovery the Pygmalion Effect, after the mythological sculptor who fell so hard for one of his own creations that the gods decided to bring his statue to life. Beliefs we’re devoted to — whether they’re true or imagined — can like-wise come to life, effecting very real change in the world. The Pygmalion Effect resembles the placebo effect (which I discussed in Chapter 1), except, instead of benefiting oneself, these are expectations that benefit others.
By promoting one technique, the twist, and one effect, surprise, stories get bent out of shape. They try too hard to counter expectation and resist predictability. The Lord of the Rings is totally predictable from beginning to end, but the series does not suffer for it. William Shakespeare gave away the end of his tragedies by billing them as such and no one seemed to mind (Romeo and Juliet even told the audience the story in a prologue). Columbo, a classic crime serial, reveals who committed the murder at the beginning of each episode and succeeded in making the investigation thrilling to watch. Stories that promote surprise over character end up as mere soap opera, a series of sensational shocks. That corrodes credibility, while some reveals – it was all a dream! – do not so much blow minds as waste time. More significant than all of this, though, is the fact that surprise is overrated. A study carried out by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld of the University of California, San Diego, in 2011 found that knowing how the story ends doesn’t hamper enjoyment – it increases it. Fittingly, the researchers announced their conclusion in the title of their me “Story spoilers don’t spoil stories”.
In 1998, Keltner and his team had small groups of three volunteers come into their lab. One was randomly assigned to be the group leader and they were all given a dull task to complete. Presently, an assistant brought in a plate containing five cookies for the group to share. All groups left one cookie on the plate (a golden rule of etiquette), but in almost every case the fourth cookie was scarfed down by the leader. What’s more, one of Keltner’s doctoral students noticed that the leaders also seemed to be messier eaters. Replaying the videos, it became clear that these ‘cookie monsters’ more often ate with their mouths open, ate more noisily and sprayed more crumbs on their shirts. Maybe this sounds like your boss?
Excerpt from: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
Did the simple act of painting lines on roads save hundreds of thousands of lives? In their book Reducing Global Road Traffic Tragedies, Gerald Balcar and Bo Elfving argue that it did. The first American centre line appeared near Detroit in 1911; the man responsible for it claimed a leaky milk van leaving a white streak inspired him. Over the next few decades, road engineers began to favour yellow centre lines, which were made reflective by adding glass beads to paint. But edge lines remained rare outside cities.
What changed that were studies from the 195os showing that painted edge lines cut road accidents, especially fatal ones. In the early 1970s Potters Industries (which made the glass beads, and employed Mr Balcar) calculated that driving on a rural road at night was six times deadlier than driving on an urban road during the day. Cars were running off the roads largely because drivers could not see their edges. As edge lines and marked intersections proliferated, and Americans began wearing seat-belts, the takes death rate began to fall.