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.
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.
It is not only humans who like to choose: animals prefer to have a choice as well. In fact, they choose to choose even if having a choice does not change the outcome. If rats need to select between two paths that lead to food—one path is a straight line and the other subsequently requires them to select whether to go right or left—they choose the latter path. Pigeons do the same thing. Give a pigeon two options: the first is a button to peck that results in grain being dispensed, and the second is two buttons from which it needs to select one to peck in order to receive the same grain, and the bird will pick the option with two buttons. The pigeons quickly learn that the seeds are no different; yet they prefer the seeds that were obtained by making a choice.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Take the following study carried out by another psychologist. In this experiment, a series of volunteers first heard the sad story of Sheri Summers, a ten-year-old suffering from a fatal disease. She’s on the waiting list for a life-saving treatment, but time’s running out. Subjects were told they could move Sheri up the waiting list, but they’re asked to be objective in their decision. Most people didn’t consider giving Sheri an advantage. They understood full well that every child on that list was sick and in need of treatment. Then came the twist. A second group of subjects was given the same scenario, but was then asked to imagine how Sheri must be feeling: Wasn’t it heartbreaking that this little girl was so ill? Turns out this single shot of empathy changed everything. The majority now wanted to let Sheri jump the line. If you think about it, that’s a pretty shaky moral choice. The spotlight on Sheri could effectively mean the death of other children who had been on the list longer.
Excerpt from: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
`If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years — something that has happened probably once in history — it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.’
Excerpt from: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
The same goes for chores: in her book More Work for Mother, the American historian Ruth Schwarty Cowan shows that when housewives first got access to ‘laboursaving’ devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, no time was saved at all, because society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits; now that you could return each of your husband’s shirts to a spotless condition after a single wearing, it began to feel like you should, to show how much you loved him. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion, the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining w became known as Parkinson’s law. But it’s not merely a joke and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of what needs doing that expands to fill the time available.
The same logic, Abel points out, applies to time. If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there’ll be some left over at the end, you’ll be disappointed. So if a certain activity really matters to you – a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause – the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention. After years of trying and failing to make time for her illustration work, by taming her to-do list and shuffling her schedule, Abel saw that her only viable option was to claim time instead – to just start drawing, for an hour or two, every day, and to accept the consequences, even if those included neglecting other activities she sincerely valued. If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week,’ as she puts it, ‘there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.’ This is the same insight embodied in two venerable pieces of time management advice: to work on your most important project for the first hour of each day, and to protect your time by scheduling ‘meetings’ with your-self, marking them in your calendar so that other commitments can’t intrude. Thinking in terms of ‘paying yourself first’ transforms these one-off tips into a philosophy of life, at the core of which lies this simple insight: if you plan to spend some of your four thousand weeks doing what matters most to you, then at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.
Among other things, Uber has made it far easier for party-goers to get home safely. A study published in 2017 found that after Uber’s arrival in Portland, Oregon, alcohol-related car crashes declined by 62%. But at the same time, the spread of ride-hailing apps may have tempted people to drink to excess, knowing that they won’t beat the wheel. A study published in November 2019 by three economists – Jacob Burgdorf and Conor Lennon of the University of Louisville, and Keith Teltser of Georgia State University – found that the widespread availability of ride-sharing apps had indeed made it easier for the late-night crowd to binge.
By matching data on Uber’s availability with health Surveys from America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the authors found that on average alcohol consumption rose by 3%, binge drinking (in which a person downs four or five-drinks in two hours) increased by 8%, and heavy drinking (defined as three or more instances of binge drinking in a month) surged by 9% within a couple of years of the ride-hailing company coming to town. Increases were even higher in cities without public transport, where the presence of Uber led average drinking to rise by 5% and instances of binge drinking to go up by around 20%. (heavy drinking still rose by 9%.) Remarkably, excessive drinking had actually been in decline before Uber’s appearance, giving further evidence that the firm’s arrival affected behavior.
The original manager of the Rolling Stones, Andrew Loog Oldham, acted out his own form of emotional contagion in 1965 , from the back of the theatre where the band would perform. As the band came onstage, he noticed that if he crouched down to be out of sight and screamed in high-pitched voice, then everyone would would scream with him. The rest, as they say, is rock and roll history.
Talking of which, another strategist called Russell Davies does a talk on “How to be interesting”. And guess what metaphor he uses – albeit in a very different way?
“We need to have lots of random hooks and loops,” he says. “If we read the same old books, we get to know more about the thing we know lots about already. We need to subscribe to magazines that we wouldn’t normally subscribe to; we need to go to places that we wouldn’t normally go to, eat at places that may not be our kind of place. We stay interesting when we don’t just stay in our groove. We keep pushing; we leave what we know behind for a bit. Velcro goes in many different directions in order to make a connection. If we are interested in new ideas so should we.”
to discount with WEIRD logic. “We can ask a consumer what’s most important for them when they pick out an insurance policy, and people will give us the standard answers: it’s the cost, the expected return, the service, that people are friendly, and all of that,” Glottrup said. “But when we pose the second line of questioning-what did you pay in costs last year, what was your return, when was the last time you actually used our service? – people will go blank. They will have no answer [so] these things simply cannot be the reason.”
Time is money. That, at least, is the principle behind an innovative scheme being tested in Estonia to deal with dangerous driving. During trials that began in 2019, anyone caught speeding along the road between Tallinn and the town of Rapla was stopped and given a choice. They could pay a fine, as usual, or take a ‘timeout’ instead – waiting going when stopped. In other words, they could pay the fine in time rather than money.
The aim of the experiment was to see how drivers perceive speeding, and whether loss of time might be a stronger deterrent than loss of money. The project is a collaboration between Estonia’s Home Office and the police force, and is part of a program designed to encourage innovation in public services. Government teams propose a problem they would like to solve – such as traffic accidents caused by irresponsible driving – and work under the guidance of an innovation unit. Teams are expected to do all fieldwork and interviews themselves.
If you’ve ever wondered why every poster and every trailer and every TV spot looks exactly the same, it’s because of testing. It’s because anything interesting scores poorly and gets kicked out Now I’ve tried to argue that the methodology of this testing doesn’t work. If you take a poster or a trailer and you show it to somebody in isolation, that’s not really an accurate reflection of whether it’s working because we don’t see them in isolation, we see them in groups. We see a trailer in the middle of five other trailers, we see a poster in the middle of eight other posters, and I’ve tried to argue that maybe the thing that’s making it distinctive and score poorly actually would stick out if you presented it to these people the way the real world presents it. And I’ve never won that argument.
In the first few decades of cinema, patrons would buy a ticket that granted general admission to the theatre. Several features would be playing on a loop, and you could choose whichever you fancied. You might enter halfway through the main movie, watch it until the end, see the cartoons and the newsreel and then start from the beginning to catch what you’d missed. It functioned rather like a big public television. Then, in 1960, a director decreed that no one would be permitted to enter screenings once his new film had begun: the integrity of the viewing experience was paramount. The film was Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock’s edict – part artistic statement, part marketing ploy – placed new emphasis on plot twists in the final act. (He also asked critics not to discuss those key details.)
Consider a study I helped conduct, led by my doctoral student Aneesh Rai, which involved thousands of volunteers at a large nonprofit who had promised to work two hundred hours within a year of joining but were falling short of their pledge. Knowing that facing such a massive goal can be demotivating, my collaborators and I instead asked the volunteers to comm it to four hours each week or eight hours every two weeks-which, of course, is basically the same as two hundred hours a year. But these smaller commitments, despite amounting to the same annual pledge, yielded 8 percent more time volunteering overall than simply prompting people to make progress on a yearly commitment. (Likewise, the online financial services company Acorns has found that it’s more effective when people are asked to set aside monthly even though these amount to the same thing.) If a commitment is bite-size, it appears less daunting to us, and we’re more likely to stick to our world.