In 1860 a young doctor called James Crichton Browne spoke to the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh in language we would recognise today: ‘We live in an age of electricity, of railways, of gas, and of velocity in thought and action. In the course of one brief month more impressions are conveyed to our brains than reached those of our ancestors in the course of years, and our mentalising machines are called upon for a greater amount of fabric than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime.’ The roots of information overload run deep.
And hundreds of surveys have shown that men and women of all ages, regions of the country, and even social classes tend to rate themselves as above average on almost any positive dimension: more sensitive than average, more unbiased, better leaders, better drivers—you name it. Perhaps the most remarkable finding is that even people who are in the hospital for injuries sustained in automobile accidents rate themselves on average as better than average drivers.
Amos talked about research then being conducted by one of his graduate students at Hebrew University, Baruch Fischhoff. When Richard Nixon announced his surprising intention to visit China and Russia, Fischhoff asked people to assign odds to a list of possible outcomes—say, that Nixon would meet Chairman Mao at least once, that the United States and the Soviet Union would create a joint space program, that a group of Soviet Jews would be arrested for attempting to speak with Nixon, and so on. After the trip, Fischhoff went back and asked the same people to recall the odds they had assigned to each outcome. Their memories of the odds they had assigned to various outcomes were badly distorted. They all believed that they had assigned higher probabilities to what happened than they actually had. They greatly overestimated the odds that they had assigned to what had actually happened.
As the medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman has documented, one of the important determinants of a drug’s efficacy is the colour of the pill it comes in. When people suffering the symptoms of depression are given the same drug in different colours, they are most likely to get better when the pill is yellow. Sleeping pills, by contrast, tend to be more effective when they’re blue.
In a more recent study, psychologists from New York University asked students to estimate the distance between their own position and a full bottle of water on the table at which they were sitting. Beforehand, they fed some of the students a diet of pretzels to make them thirsty. The thirsty students judged the bottle to be closer than the other students did. Another study revealed that hills appear steeper to us than they actually are, and that this tendency is exaggerated when the observer is old, unhealthy, or wearing a backpack.
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about the Library of Babel. His library was composed of a near-infinite labyrinth of hexagonal rooms, which contained every possible combination of a 416-page book, randomly sorted. Yes, somewhere in the library was every useful and brilliant possible book. But in reality the library was endless and entirely useless. Without curation, or aggregation, or filtering, the Internet would be such a Borgesian nightmare.
Elizabeth Loftus showed subjects a videotape of a car accident. Some subjects were then asked, ‘How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’, others were asked, ‘How fast were the cars going when they hit one another?’ The average speed given by the first group was 41 miles per hour and by the second 34 miles per hour. A week later subjects were asked whether they had noticed any broken glass resulting from the accident. The presence of broken glass was incorrectly reported by twice as many of the first group as of the second: the suggestion that the cars had been travelling fast had made subjects confabulate the occurrence of broken glass.
Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland
If there is a dark side to fluency, might there be a bright side to its opposite, disfluency? Alter’s work suggests there might be. In one of his studies, he printed a simple, easy-to-read question: “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?” Many respondents said two. But when the question was printed in a harder-to-read font, respondents were 35 percent more likely to recognize that it was Noah, not Moses, who built the ark. The less legible font made people more careful readers.
Recent research indicates that suggestion not only influences what we smell, but also how we react to smells. In 2005 researchers at Oxford University asked subjects to sniff two odors, one labeled cheddar cheese and the other body odor. Predictably, the subjects rated the body odor as significantly more unpleasant. However, the two smells were identical. Only the labels differed. Consider that the next time you’re enjoying some especially pungent cheese at a cocktail party.
Hal Arkes and Catehrine Blumer created an experiment in 19S5 which demonstrated your tendency to go fuzzy when sunk costs come along. They asked subjects to assume they had spent S100 on a ticket for a ski trip in Michigan, but soon after found a better ski trip in Wisconsin for S50 and bought a ticket for this trip too. They then asked the people in the study to imagine they learned the two trips overlapped and the tickets couldn’t be refunded or resold. Which one do you think they chose, the $100 good vacation, or the $50 great one?
Over half of the people in the study went with the more expensive trip. It may not have promised to be as fun, but the loss seemed greater. That’s the fallacy at work, because the money is gone no matter what. You can’t get it back. The fallacy prevents you from realizing the best choice is to do whatever promises the better experience in the future, not which negates the feeling of loss in the past.
A company is making a small profit. It is located in a community experiencing a recession with substantial unemployment but no inflation. There are many workers anxious to work at the company.
The company decides to decrease wages and salaries 7% this year.
Sixty-two per cent judged the pay cut unfair.
In an another version of the question, the community was said to have ‘substantial unemployment and inflation of 12% . . . The company decided to increase salaries only 5% this year.’ Now 78 per cent said this was acceptable. But of course the workers’ lot is almost identical in both versions. Getting a 5 per cent ‘pay rise’ when prices rise 12 per cent translates into nearly a 7 per cent cut in buying power.
One conclusion is that inflation is the Scroogish employer’s best friend. A similar principle applies to bonuses. It was judged acceptable for a troubled company to skip an annual 10 per cent bonus it had been in the habit of paying, but not to cut pay by 10 per cent for a year. (Wall Street employers, at the mercy of a volatile market, have long made use of this.)
For eighteen years, the American media was prohibited from showing photographs of fallen soldiers’ coffins. In February 2009, defence secretary Robert Gates lifted this ban and images flooded on to the Internet. Officially, family members have to give their approval before anything is published, but such a rule is unenforceable. Why was this ban created in the first place? To conceal the true costs of war. We can easily find out the number of casualties, but statistics leave us cold. People, on the other hand, especially dead people, spark an emotional reaction.
Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
Consider green goods. Rebecca Strong and I conducted an experiment to quantify the impact of labelling washing-machine tablets as ‘ecologically friendly’.
We sent a group of consumers the same type of washing-machine tablet. They washed a load of clothes and reported back on the tablets performance. The twist was that half were told that they were testing a standard supermarket tablet, the other half a green variant.
Once again, there was an element of subterfuge. We didn’t ask consumers directly what they thought of green goods. Generally, they make positive noises. Instead, we monitored behaviour in test and control conditions.
The results were clear. Those who used the green variant rated the tablet as worse on all metrics.
Respondents scored the eco tablet 9% lower for both effectiveness and likeability, while the number who would recommend the product was 11% lower and the number who would buy it themselves, 18% lower than for the standard version.
Despite eco-friendly products often having a higher price, consumers who tested the green tablet were only prepared to pay £4.41 on average compared to £4.82 for the standard version. Consumers believe that products involve a trade-off: improved eco-friendliness entails corresponding loss in cleaning efficacy. This is a concern for any brand interested in a green variant. If brands in this category are going to successfully sell green variants, they’ll need to counteract these negative associations, or spend heavily to bolster their cleaning credentials.
It’s not just repeated physical actions that can rewire our brains. Purely mental activity can also alter our neural circuitry, sometimes in far-reaching ways. In the late 1990s, a group of British researchers scanned the brains of sixteen London cab drivers who had between two and forty-two years of experience behind the wheel. When they compared the scans with those of a control group, they found that the taxi drivers’ posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a key role in storing spatial representation won much larger than normal.
For example, a questionnaire on the number of headaches people experience in one week was given to two different groups of subjects. One group had to indicate whether the number was 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, and so on, while the other was presented with the numbers broken down into 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, etc. The first group reported many more headaches than the second. Moreover, almost everyone is influenced by the two end points of a scale, tending to pick a number that is near the middle.
Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland
But a 2013 study conducted by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University pointed in that direction. Henkel noticed that visitors to art museums are obsessed with taking cell-phone shots of artworks and often are less interested in looking at the art itself. So she performed an experiment at Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art. Undergraduates took a guided tour in which they were directed to view specific artworks. Some were instructed to photograph the art, and others were simply told to take note of it. The next day both groups were quizzed on their knowledge of the artworks. The visitors who snapped pictures were less able to identify works and to recall visual details.
Excerpt from: Head in the Cloud by William Poundstone
In the experiment conducted by Wilson on 5 classes of Australian students a man was introduced as a visitor from Cambridge University in England. However, his status at Cambridge was represented differently in each of the classes. To one class, he was presented as a student; to a second class, a demonstrator; to another, a lecturer; to yet another, a senior lecturer; to a fifth, a professor. After he left the room, each class was asked to estimate his height. It was found that with each increase in status, the same man grew in perceived height by an average of a half inch, so that as the “professor” he was seen as two and a half inches taller than as the “student.”
We are all in a constant state of ‘olfactory change blindness’. Intriguingly, this is something that the food companies have been trying to exploit to their, and hopefully our, advantage for a few years now. The basic idea is that you load all the tasty but unhealthy ingredients into the first and possibly last bite of a food, and reduce their concentration in the middle of the product, when the consumers are not paying so much attention to the tasting experience. Just think about a loaf of bread with the salt asymmetrically distributed towards the crust. The consumer will have a great-tasting first bite, and then their brain will ‘fill in’ the rest by assuming that it tastes exactly like the first mouthful did. This strategy will probably work just as long as the meal isn’t high tea and the taster eating cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off! Or imagine something like a bar of chocolate, which most people will presumably start and finish at the ends, not in the middle. In fact, Unilever has a number of patents in just this space.
In 1935 the pioneering social psychologist Mazafer Sherif invited people to take part in an experiment using the autokinetic effect. Participants looked at a point of light in a darkened room and were asked to report whether they thought the light was static or moving, a recreation of a natural phenomenon first observed by astronomers who thought that stars were moving. When participants were asked individually opinion was equally divided; however, when they were put into groups people tended to agree with the majority, even if this meant contradicting what they’d said originally. Later, when asked individually, they continued to subscribe to the group view. In other words, when placed in the context of a group, people will devalue their own opinion in the interest of developing an arbitrary position that is acceptable to the group.
Subjects were asked to complete a bogus personality test. The experimenter then gave them all exactly the same sketch of their personalities, which he claimed was based on their test results. When asked about the accuracy of the sketch, 90 per cent of the subjects thought it a very good or excellent description of themselves. People are so good at distorting material to fit their expectations that the identical sketch was thought by each of nearly fifty subjects to apply specifically to him or her.
In addition to trying unconsciously to confirm his or her beliefs, anyone who pays to see a fortune teller will have invested time and money: unless he has just gone for a lark, he will therefore want to feel he has got something out of it (misplaced consistency) and hence will be predisposed to believe what he hears.
When experiencing heightened emotions, people often mistakenly attribute the cause of arousal to the wrong source. The mind does not make clear and accurate assessments of why we feel a certain mood.
In a famous experiment, young men were asked to cross a high, dangerous suspension bridge. Whilst on the bridge, they interacted with a young female experimenter who offered them the opportunity to call her afterwards to ‘further discuss the research’. The group who met the woman on a high, dangerous bridge showed a much higher propensity to call the woman afterwards vs the control group who met the same woman on a safe bridge. Men in the dangerous bridge condition mistook their high state of emotional arousal for romantic attraction.
Excerpt from: The Unseen Mind by Ogilvy Change
What keeps the relationship honest, trusting and mutually beneficial is nothing other than the prospect of repetition.
In game theory, this prospect of repetition is known variously as ‘continuation probability’ or ‘w’. Robert Axelrod has poetically referred to it as ‘the shadow of the future’. It is agreed by both game theorists and evolutionary biologists that the prospects for cooperation are far greater when there is a high expectation of repetition than in single shot games. Clay Shirky has even described social capital as ‘the shadow of the future at a societal scale’. Yet businesses barely consider this at all (in fact procurement, by setting shorter and shorter contract periods, may be unwittingly working to reduce cooperation).
Yet there are, when you think about it, two different approaches to business. There 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 make less money from people on each visit, but you profit(?) more over time by encouraging people to come back. The second type business is much more likely to generate that + yield positive sum outcomes then the first.
Excerpt from: Eat Your Greens by Wiemer Snijders
In one study of simulated driving led by David Strayer and colleagues at the University of Utah, subjects talking on their phones “missed seeing up to 50 percent of their driving environments, including pedestrians and red lights.” (They were also ten times more likely to not stop at a stop sign.) Another experiment by Strayer and colleagues found that people talking on their phones had slower reaction times than drivers with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit.
What causes these mental deficits? The scientists blame inattention blindness, which occurs whenever the amount of information streaming into the brain exceeds our ability to process it.
In a provocative exploration of this idea, nursery school children were asked to draw a picture with what was then a novel drawing tool: felt-tip markers. Some were offered a prize for drawing a picture with the markers; others received the prize unexpectedly, after they had already drawn their picture; still others were offered no incentive at all. When the markers were later introduced into a free play period, the children who had drawn a picture in order to get a reward played with them significantly less often that children who had not been “bribed” to draw their picture. In essence, the promise of a reward turned play into work. But when the prize was unexpected – when it was experienced not as a bribe but as a bonus – it did not decrease the children’s interest in playing with the markers.
In 1985, at the dawn of the computer age, the psychologist Susan Belmore conducted a simple experiment on twenty undergraduates at the University of Kentucky. The students were exposed to eight different short texts and then asked to answer a series of questions about what they’d just read. Four of the passages appeared on paper (a sheet of white bond, single-spaced, forty-seven characters per line) and four appeared on the monitor of an Apple II Plus 48k computer. Belmore was curious if reading the text on a screen might influence both the speed of reading and levels of comprehension.
The results were depressing, at least if you were an early adopter of computer technology. “These data indicate that reading texts on a computer display is not equivalent to reading the same texts on paper,” Belmore wrote. “Overall, college students took 12 percent longer to read and comprehended 47 percent less with computer-presented text.”
Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a magic number of repetitions that result in a habit forming. Some say that you need to repeat an action fifty times or for twenty-one days, but very few researchers have actually looked at this question systematically. And those that have done tend to find that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to the question. In one of the few studies to have tracked the formation of healthy habits in real-world settings, researchers studied ninety-six students who had just moved to university and were encouraged to repeat behaviours in response to consistent cues (such as ‘going for a walk after breakfast’). They found that habits formed in some of the students after eighteen days, but for some it took much longer – up to 254 days. The average was sixty-six days.
In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were eight by ten inches, and showed women facing the camera or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the eyes of the women were dilated, and in the other half they were not. The men were consistently more attracted to the women with dilated eyes. Remarkably, the men had no insight into their decision making.
To test this theory, a few years ago I ran a study in which two groups of people were asked to take part in an experiment in which they spent an afternoon picking up litter in a London park. Participants were told that they were taking part in an experiment examining how best to persuade people to look after their local parks. One group were paid handsomely for their time, while the others were only given a small amount of cash. After an hour or so of backbreaking and tedious work, everyone rated the degree to which they had enjoyed the afternoon. You might think that those clutching a large amount of well-earned cash would be more positive than those who had given their time for very little money.
In fact, the result was exactly the opposite. The average enjoyment rating of the handsomely paid group was a measly 2 out of 10, while the modestly paid group’s average ratings were a whopping 8.5. It seemed that those who had been paid well had thought, ‘Well, let me see, people usually pay me to do things I don’t enjoy. I was paid a large amount, so I must dislike tidying the park.’