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”.