Pain […] is, in almost all cases, a more pungent sensation than the opposite and corresponding pleasure. The one almost always depresses us much more below the ordinary, or what may be called the natural state of our happiness, than the other ever raises us above it.
a. are wealthier (especially when compared to people who are like them)
b. are young or old (being in your forties and fifties is a bad time for life satisfaction)
c. are healthier
d. have lots of social contact
e. are married (or at least cohabiting)
f. are a little more educated (having a degree is good but you probably shouldn’t get a PhD if you want to maximize your life satisfaction)
g. are religious (it doesn’t matter which religion)
h. have a job
i. commute a short distance to work
Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith of Stanford University once asked their students to carry out an hour of excruciatingly boring tasks. They then divided the subjects into two groups. Each student in group A received a dollar (it was 1959) and instructions to wax lyrical about the work to another student waiting outside – in other words, to lie. The same was asked of the students in group B, with one difference: they were given $20 for the task. Later, the students had to divulge how they had really found the monotonous work. Interestingly, those who received only a dollar rated it as significantly more enjoyable and interesting. Why? One measly dollar was not enough for them to lie outright; instead they convinced themselves that the work was not that bad. Just as Aesop’s fox reinterpreted the situation, so did they. The students who received more didn’t have to justify anything. They had lied and netted $20 for it – a fair deal. They experienced no cognitive dissonance.
Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
We also seem to crave more variety at the point of decision than we will actually desire down the road. When I was young, for example, I was obsessed by the Kellogg’s variety packs of cereal. Wooed by the sight of the Apple Jacks and Frosted Flakes jostling up against each other, I would clamor for my parents to buy the largest package on offer, a towering block of shrink-wrapped goodness. Having raced through my favorites, however, I would find my liking gradually diminishing, from dizzy Applejacks heights to the sad denouement of a few sparse clusters of Special K and All-Bran, which often went unconsumed, dying a slow death in a shroud of plastic. My parents would, of course have been better off simply buying a few boxes of my favorites, which I would reliably eat every day.
My personal favourite from Festinger’s many brilliant examples of cognitive dissonance deals with people’s beliefs about the link between smoking and lung cancer. He was writing at the very birth of research on the causes of cancer. It was a unique window of time during which it was possible to test whether groups of smokers and non-smokers would accept or reject new information that had been uncovered about a link. Festinger saw the effects you’d expect from anyone suffering cognitive dissonance: heavy smokers – those who had the most to lose from the new research being right – were the most resistant to believing that a link had been proven; only 7 per cent accepted the validity of the new research. Twice as many moderate smokers accepted the link, at 16 per cent. Non-smokers were much more willing than smokers to believe the link had been proven, but as a mark of just how far social norms have swung since then, only 29 per cent of them believed the link had been proven, despite having nothing to lose.
With sports affiliations, random birthplace suffices, and in business it is where you work. To test this, the British psychologist Henri Tajfel split strangers into groups, tossing a coin to choose who went to which group. He told the members of one group it was because they all liked a particular type of art. The results were impressive: although A) they were strangers, B) they were allocated a group at random and C) they were far from art connoisseurs, the group members found each other more agreeable than members of other groups.
Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
When Spotify looked at its music-streaming data, it found that teens listen to contemporary and popular music almost exclusively. As listeners age, their tastes expand. They spend more time listening to obscure bands and album tracks that were not hits. As the years go by, some take up jazz or world music or classical. But somewhere around age thirty-three, most stop listening to contemporary hits at all. The phenomenon even has a name—taste freeze. Men are more susceptible to it than women. Another fun fact: become a parent, and your “music relevance” takes a hit equivalent to ageing four years.
Excerpt from: Head in the Cloud by William Poundstone
A quick digression on expectations (we’ll return – almost as a recurring theme — to the importance of teaching and teachers later). In 1968 Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment in America where teachers were told that randomly selected pupils had actually performed in the top 20 per cent of a test that identified ‘potential’. This was, of course, untrue. But here’s the thing: when those pupils’ IQs were tested at the end of the year, they had increased relative to everybody else. Expectations improved performance.
In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a longterm perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time -literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.
Excerpt from: Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker
Trying to look backward, to the last remembered experience of a meal—if only to make a new choice—invites its own distortions. In one experiment, psychologists were able to change how much people liked something (in this case, a “microwavable Heinz Weight Watchers Tomato & Basil Chicken ready meal”) after they had eaten it—not, as has been done with rats, by physically manipulating their brains. Instead, researchers simply had subjects “rehearse” the “enjoyable aspects” of the meal. This, the idea goes, made those best moments more “accessible” in the memory, and thus they popped out more easily when people were later thinking about the meal. Voila! The food not only suddenly seemed better, the subject wanted to eat more of it.
The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second-best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the sane thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him.
But by using familiar form, TiVo mad people more comfortable adopting radical innovation, By hiding the technology in something that looked visually familiar, TiVo used similarity to make difference feel more palatable.
Many digital actions today visually evoke their analog ancestors. We click on the icon of a floppy disk to save documents and drag digital files to be thrown away in what looks like a waste bin. Visual similarity also shows up offline. High-end care often use fake wood grain on the dashboard and veggie burgers often have grill marks. All make the different seem more similar.
The opposite also holds. Design can be used to make incremental innovations feel more novel. When Apple introduced the iMac in 1998, it featured only minor technological improvements. But from a visual standpoint it was radically different. Rather than the same old black or grey box, the iMac was shaped like a gum drop and came in colors like tangerine or strawberry. The device was hugely successful, and design, rather than technology, created the needed sense of difference that encouraged people to purchase.
Beyond War would arrange “house parties,” in which a host family invited a group of friends and neighbors over, along with a Beyond War representative to speak to them. Ainscow recounts a simple demonstration that the group used in its presentations. He always carried a metal bucket to the gatherings. At the appropriate point in the presentation, he’d take a BB out of his pocked and drip it into the empty bucket. The BB made a loud clatter as it ricocheted and settled. Ainscow would say, “This is the Hiroshima bomb.” He then spent a few minutes describing the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb — the miles of flattened buildings, the tens of thousands killed immediately, the larger number of people with burns or other long-term health problems.
In the UK, there was a popular game show called The Weakest Link broadcast on television that aired between 2000 and 2012. The show was presented by Anne Robinson who was known for her sharp and forthright style, to put it mildly.
If you’re not familiar with the game, each contestant answered a question in sequence determined by their position in a line up. Each correct answer earned an ever-increasing sum of money until the pot was “banked” or kept, at which point the value of the pot was reset, but the round continued. At the end of each round, the contestants voted who they’d like to eliminate until one person, the winner, remained.
If players were acting rationally, they would vote out the “weakest link”, the worst player, at the end of each round in order to “bank” the most money in preceding rounds. However, the number of incorrect answers given was not the only determining factor used by the players when deciding who to vote off.
In many cases, players overlooked errors that those in the centre of the line-up made to a greater extent than errors made by those in extreme positions. This gave centre position holders more favourable assessments and, as such, they were often ignored when it came to voting. During the twelve years that the show aired, significantly more winners came from the centre of the stage.
This phenomenon is known as the centre-stage effect, and we are influenced by it every single day. Positioning is vitally important and has drastic implications on consumer behaviour, and your own success.
A promotion was launched that gave Xbox users 20 Microsoft points, a digital currency issued by Microsoft that could be used purchase a range of digital goods. There were a number of criticisms of this since discontinued digital currency, not least because points were deceptive in terms of actual real-world cost. 79 Microsoft Points was, at one point, worth about $0.99 USD.
Some back-of-the-napkin math shows Microsoft’s birthday present of 20 Microsoft points was worth just $0.25! “Don’t spend it all at once”, “100 more years and I can buy a game” and “thanks Microsoft!” are just a few of the sarcastic comments posted in the very public Xbox forums.
Microsoft got it wrong. In this instance no reward, the status quo, or simply saying “thank you” would have been better than all the negative press garnered from offering such a relatively small sum to reward users.
We reject “petty” financial rewards that do not meet our expectations. When we do accept them, it can have a negative impact on our satisfaction.
So the local community has formed a group called EXIT, to help educate and de-radicalise young people, to encourage them to leave the group and help them find better lives.
But EXIT needs funding.
So the townspeople have decided, since they can’t stop the neo-Nazis marching, to use the march for their own ends.
Instead of resisting the march they are now encouraging the march.
Because they are using the march to raise money.
For every metre the neo-Nazis march, local businesses are donating ten euros to EXIT.
So the neo-Nazis will now be marching to fund EXIT.
The further they march, the more money EXIT gets.
If the neo-Nazis don’t like it they can stop marching.
Whichever way they decide, it’s a result for the local community.
Whether the neo-Nazis march or not, the little village wins.
The inhabitants now treat the march as something to enjoy and have fun with.
Every 100 metres there are signs stencilled on the ground, thanking the marchers for the money they’re raising:
YOU HAVE RAISED 1,000 EUROS FOR EXIT.
YOU HAVE RAISED 2,000 EUROS FOR EXIT.
YOU HAVE RAISED 3,000 EUROS FOR EXIT.
And so on.
By the time the neo-Nazis reach the cemetery they’ve marched a kilometre, which means they’ve raised 10,000 euros for EXIT.
So there is a huge rainbow sign thanking them, and the locals throw rainbow confetti over them.
Loewenstein writes of a test in which participants were confronted by a grid of squares on a computer screen. They were asked to click on five of them. Some participants found that with each click, another picture of an animal appeared. But a second group saw small component parts of a single animal. With each square they clicked, another part of a greater picture was revealed. This second group were much more likely to keep on clicking squares after the required five, and then keep going until enough of them had been turned that the mystery of the animal’s identity had been solved. Brains, concluded the researchers, seem to become spontaneously curious when presented with an ‘informations set’ they realise is incomplete. ‘There is a natural inclination to resolve information gaps,’ wrote Lowenstein, ‘even for questions of no importance.’
Excerpt from: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
In advertising, we assume the only way to get an emotional response is with an emotional appeal.
But Bill Bernbach knew that isn’t true.
Look at the history of Volkswagen advertising.
For fifty years they did product demonstrations.
And they build a brand that has massive emotional appeal.
Ask anyone about VW and they’ll say “reliable”.
That’s an emotional response based on rational advertising.
Because a rational demonstration can have a more powerful emotional affect than something vacuous designed purely to appeal to the feelings.
Done properly, reason is emotion.
Excerpt from: Creative Mischief by Dave Trott
Reason, despite what we would like to think, is not why we do what we do: it is the result of what we feel or do.
Famed adman David Ogilvy recognized this long ago when he wrote:
“Customers need a rational excuse to justify their emotional decisions. So always include one.”
(In France I once saw this expressed as “le rationnel est l’alibi du desir”.)
Why I love this observation is that Ogilvy uses a word not often given an airing in the communications business: excuse. Not reason or even (eugh) benefit or proposition, but excuse.
Excerpt from: The Storytelling Book (Concise Advice) by Anthony Tasgal
Think of all the ways people steal your time. Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, wrote, ‘People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.’ Though Seneca was writing more than 2,000 years ago, his words are just as applicable today. As he noted, people protect their property in all sorts of ways – locks, security systems and storage units – but most do little to protect their time.
They invited students to a lab at Harvard University and asked them to rate pictures of various home interiors. In exchange for their time, they were given $10, but told that they were required to pay a “lab tax” of $3. The instruction was to put $3 in an envelope and hand it to the experimenter before they left. The students were not thrilled by this plan. Only half complied; the other half either left the envelope empty or gave less than the required amount.
Another group of participants, however, was told that they could advise the lab manage on how to allocate their tax money. They could suggest, for example, that their taxes would be spent on beverages and snacks for future participants. Astonishingly, merely giving participants a voice increased compliance from about 50 percent to almost 70 percent! That is dramatic. Imagine what such an increase in compliance would mean for your country, if it were translated to federal taxes.
Why do guests do this? In 2011, Francesca Gino from Harvard and Frank Flynn from Stanford conducted an experiment to find out. They recruited ninety people and then allocated them to one of two conditions. Half became ‘senders’ while the other half became ‘receivers’. The receivers were then asked to go to Amazon and come up with a wish list of gifts priced between $10 and $30. Meanwhile, the senders were allocated to either choose a gift from the wish list, or a unique gift.
The result were emphatic. The senders expected that recipients would prefer unique gifts – ones they had chosen themselves. They supposed that recipients would welcome the personal touch. But they were wrong. Recipients would welcome the personal touch. But they were wrong. Recipients, in fact, much preferred gifts from their own list. The psychologist Adam Grant reports the same pattern with friends giving and receiving wedding gifts. Senders prefer unique gifts; recipients prefer gifts from their wedding list.
Why? It hinges upon perspective blindness. Senders find it difficult to step beyond their own frame of reference. They imagine how they would feel receiving the gift that they have selected.
The students were unanimous. And full of bravado. Of course they would honk. And they certainly wouldn’t make any distinction between the two cars. Some claimed they would honk sooner at the high-status car. But what actually happened on the roads that subsequent sunny Sunday morning told a different story. Whilst overall close to 70 percent of waiting drivers sounded their horns in frustration, the distribution of results was unevenly split between the two cars. Fewer than 50 percent honked at the high-status car; 84 percent hooted at the lower-status car. Not only was a Californian driver’s likelihood to honk influence by the status of the car that was delaying them, but their latency to honk was influenced, too. When behind a low-status car, people would sound the horn much sooner than when behind a high-status one. Very often, more than once.
A clever study by the Rotterdam School of Management analysed more than three hundred real-world projects dating back to 1972 and found that projects led by junior managers were more likely to succeed than those with a senior person in charge. On the face of it, this seems astonishing. How could a team perform better when deprived of the presence of one of its most knowledgeable members?
The reason is that this leadership comes at a sociological price when linked to a dominance dynamic. The knowledge squandered by the group when a senior manager is taken out of the project is more than compensated for by the additional knowledge expressed by the team in his absence.
I’ve been to several scientific conferences at which Professor Kahneman has spoken; and, when Daniel Kahneman talks, people listen. I am invariably among them. So I took special notice of his answer to a fascinating challenge to put to him not long ago by an online discussion site. He was asked to specify the one scientific concept that, if appreciated properly, would most improve everyone’s understanding of the world. Although in response he provided a full five-hundred-word essay describing what he called “the focusing illusion,” his answer is neatly summarized in the essay’s title: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”
Today, information technology is changing the world making it more idea intensive, better connected, and ultimately more urban. Improvements in information technology seem to have increased, rather than reduced, the value of face-to-face connections, which might be called Jevons’s Complementarity Corollary. The nineteenth-century English economist William Stanley Jevons noted that more fuel-efficient steam engines didn’t lead to less coal consumption. Better engines made energy use effectively less expansive, and helped move the world to an industrial era powered by coal. The term Jevons’s paradox had come to refer to any situation in which efficiency improvements lead to more, not less consumption — one reason why low-calorie cookies can lead to larger waistlines and fuel-efficient cars can end up consuming more gas. Jevons’s paradox applied to information technology means that as we acquire more efficient means of transmitting information, like e-mail or Skype, we spend more, not less, time transmitting information.
Excerpt from: Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser
Yet there are, when you think about it, two different approaches to business. The is the ‘tourist restaurant’ approach, where you try to make as much money from people on their single visit. And then there is the ‘local pub’ approach, where you may make less money from people on each visit, but where you profit more over time by encouraging people to come back. The second type of business is much more likely to generate trust and yield positive-sum outcomes than the firsy.
How might people distinguish the second type of business from the first? Well, the scoop of extra fried you get at Five Guys is one such gesture – an immediate expense with a deferred pay-off. It is a reliable signifier that you are investing in a repeat relationship, not milking a single transaction. Likewise, when your company pays your salary this month, it says you are worth this money for now; when it sends you to Kitzbuhel, it signals that it is committed to you for a few years at least.
All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle, flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact we couldn’t is taken as an indication of out limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the the world.
In general people prefer something freely chosen to the same thing forced upon them. The effect is dramatically revealed in a study that did not directly involve reward or punishment. Lottery tickets costing $1 each were sold to the employees of two companies. Some of the employees were allowed to choose the number of their tickets, others had no choice but were merely handed a ticket. Just before the draw, the experimenter approached each subject offering to buy the ticket back. The subjects who had no choice were prepared to sell back for $1.96 on average, but those who had selected their own tickets held out for an average of $8.67. There could be no better demonstration that we irrationally overvalue what we freely choose.
Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland
Big doesn’t necessarily mean good. It could even be bad.
By contrast, there are tremendous advantages to making small changes.
Behavioural science has shown that tiny variations in phraseology can cause huge change.
Small changes are usually less costly, and often free.
Small changes attract less attention from bosses and meddlers, so they are easier to implement.
Small changes are easier to rectify if they don’t achieve their original objective.
So bear in mind that the ‘next big thing’ could be small.