💎 On the problem with opinion polls (many opinions are invented on the spot)

One alternative would be an opinion poll. The drawback is that many “opinions” are invented on the spot to satisfy a pollster. Political scientist George Bishop once demonstrated this by asking people whether they favoured repeal of the “Public Affairs Act of 1975.” There was no such act. But thirty percent took the bait and offered an opinion. Bishop found that the less educated were more likely to claim an opinion.

Excerpt from: Head in the Cloud by William Poundstone

💎 On small changes leading to big outcomes (behaviour change)

In 2012 Facebook tweaked the algorithm to manipulate the emotional content appearing in newsfeeds of 689,003 randomly selected, unwitting users. Posts were identified as either positive’ (awesome!) or negative’ (bummer) based on the words used. In one group, Facebook reduced the positive content of news feeds, and in the other, it reduced the negative content. ‘We did this research because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,’ Kramer says. ‘We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.’ Did tinkering with the content change the emotional state of users? Yes, the authors discovered. The exposure led some users to change their own behaviours: the researchers found people who had positive words removed from their feeds made fewer positive posts and more negative ones, and vice versa. It could have been an online version of monkey see, monkey do, or simply a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. ‘The results show emotional contagion’, Adam Kramer and his co-authors write in the academic paper.

Excerpt from: Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together – and Why It Could Drive Us Apart by Rachel Botsman

💎 On too much polling being bad for political parties (just like brands)

As a consequence, government too often moves from active to reactive — from thinking of new ideas to pandering to the latest popular trend. Public opinion, says Nadhim Zahawi, a Tory MP and founder of the polling firm YouGov, ‘used to be like a fine Scotch whisky: sipped and savoured occasionally’. Outside election season, Margaret Thatcher only received monthly updates on what voters thought, if that. Now, governments swig from that bottle every day.

You could argue that this helps them respond instantly to voters’ concerns. Yet all too often it leads to a focus on presentation over policy, and a willingness to back down in the face of noisy opposition (which itself is easier to put together in a more connected and less hierarchical age). As Zahawi says, ‘polls can only tell you how you should communicate what you want to do. They can’t tell you what you should do. Every policy creates a minority of losers, yet always the losers who are best organised and most vocal, particularly in an online arena.’

Excerpt from: The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster by Robert Colvile

💎 On more information leading to worse decisions (investment losses)

Why does this matter? There’s solid evidence that experiencing such losses—noticing that our portfolio is losing money—leads to poor choices. In one lab experiment by Richard Thaler, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, and Alan Schwartz, subjects were far more likely to invest in a bond fund when feedback was given more frequently. Unfortunately, these low-risk bonds also generate lower returns over the long haul. As the scientists noted, “Providing such investors with frequent feedback about their outcomes is likely to encourage their worst tendencies…. More is not always better. The subjects with the most data did the worst in terms of money earned.” Such is the vicious circle of loss aversion, as our strong dislike of losses causes us to lose even more.

Excerpt from: The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior by Shlomo Benartzi and Jonah Lehrer

💎 On how we twist the facts to see what we want to see (personality tests)

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.


💎 On the damage of rewards (devaluing the task)

At the end of the last chapter, I showed that giving someone a negligible reward (or no reward) for performing an unpleasant act makes the act seem less disagreeable than it really is. One can also ask what is the effect of a large reward on the perception of a pleasant task. The answer is unequivocal: it devalues the task — in the eyes of those performing it. Nursery school children were provided in their playtime with brightly coloured Magic Markers and attractive drawing paper. Those who showed an interest in drawing were subsequently given the same apparatus in the classroom and encouraged to draw. One group was promised a glossy certificate for good drawing, while another was given no reward. Two weeks later the material was again provided and the children were told it was up to them whether they wanted to draw or not. The group previously given the certificate showed a marked decline in interest, while the other group drew as much as they had done in the previous two sessions. Presumably the children thought that drawing could not be of much interest in its own right if a reward was needed to make them engage in it.

Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland

💎 On estimating how long a phenomenon will last (50% longer)

He made the assumption that the moment when he encountered the Berlin Wall wasn’t special—that it was equally likely to be any moment in the wall’s total lifetime. And if any moment was equally likely, then on average his arrival should have come precisely at the halfway point (since it was 50% likely to fall before halfway and 50% likely to fall after). More generally, unless we know better we can expect to have shown up precisely halfway into the duration of any given phenomenon. And if we assume that were arriving precisely halfway into something’s duration, the best guess we can make for how long it will last into the future becomes obvious: exactly as long as it’s lasted already. Gott saw the Berlin Wall eight years after it was built, so his best guess was that it would stand for eight years more. (It ended up being twenty.)

Excerpt from: Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

💎 On getting controversial topics past censors (your boss)

But Marshall… not only admits his tricks… he seems to revel in them. On one episode of his [then] top-rated Laverne and Shirley series, for example, he says, “We had a situation where Squiggy’s in a rush to get out of his apartment and meet some girls upstairs. He says: ‘Will you hurry up before I lose my lust?’ But in the script we put something even stronger, knowing the censors would cut it. They did; so we asked innocently, well, how about ‘lose my lust’? ‘That’s good,’ they said. Sometimes you gotta go at ’em backward.”

On the Happy Days series, the biggest censorship fight was over the word “virgin.” That time, says Marshall, “I knew we’d have trouble, so we put the word in seven times, hoping they’d cut six and keep one. It worked. We used the same pattern again with the word ‘pregnant.’”

Excerpt from: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

💎 On stories persuading us more than bland stats (even for the most serious of matters)

Another frightening example comes from the realm of medicine. This time participants were given information on the effectiveness of treatments as a percentage of those cured overall (ranging from 90 to 30 percent). This is known as base rate information. They were also given a story, which could be positive, negative, or ambiguous.

For instance, the positive story read as follows: Pat’s decision to undergo Tamoxol resulted in a positive outcome. The entire worm was destroyed. Doctors were confident the disease would not resume its course. At one-month post-treatment, Pat’s recovery was certain.

The negative story read: Pat’s decision to undergo Tamoxol resulted in a poor outcome. The worm was not completely destroyed. The disease resumed its course. At 1-month post-treatment, Pat was blind and had lost the ability to walk.

Subjects were then asked would they undergo the treatment if they were diagnosed with the disease. Of course, people should have relied upon the base rate information of the effectiveness of treatment as it represented a foil sample of experience. But did this actually happen?

Of course not. Instead the base rate information was essentially ignored in favor of the anecdotal story. For instance, when participants were given a positive story and were told the treatment was 90 percent effective, 88 percent of people thought they would go with the treatment. However, when the participants were given a negative story and again told the treatment was 90 percent effective, only 39 percent of people opted to pursue this line of treatment.

Conversely, when told the treatment was only 30 percent effective and given a negative story, only 7 percent said they would follow this treatment. However, when low effectiveness was combined with a good story, 78 percent of people said they would take the drug. As you can see, the evidence on effectiveness of the treatments was completely ignored in favor of the power of the story.

Excerpt from: The Little Book of Behavioral Investing: How not to be your own worst enemy by James Montier

💎 On “decision by committee” leading to grey advertising (outcome is predictable and safe work)

Decision by committee needs to be scrapped. Group decisions are becoming more and more common in business, but when it comes to advertising, the result is often a very costly and public mess.

When the consensus of a large number of people has to be reached, the most likely outcome is predictable and safe work. “They sit there in committees day after day, and they each put in a color and it comes out grey.”

Allan Sherman, American writer and television producer.

Excerpt from: How To Make Better Advertising And Advertising Better by Vic Polinghorne and Andy Palmer

💎 On the importance of getting a representative sample (telephone survey to assess telephone ownership)

Particularly amusing is this recent telephone survey: a company wanted to find out, on average, how many phones (landline and cell) each household owned. When the results were tallied, the firm was amazed that not a single household claimed to have no phone. What a masterpiece.

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

💎 On our attention becoming scarcer in the age of information (inattention blindness)

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.

Excerpt from: The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior by Shlomo Benartzi and Jonah Lehrer

💎 On the importance of seeking inspiration from another field (the invention of Velcro)

The idea for Velcro, conceived by George de Mestral, occurred whilst out walking his dog. Burdock seeds were always getting caught in his dog’s fur as she ran through the fields. De Mestral, an engineer, inspected further, and found the seeds hooked onto the fur with a series of microscopic loops. And so Velcro was born. It would go on to be used extensively, from children’s trainers to boots for the moon landing. Good dog.

Excerpt from: Brutal Simplicity of Thought: How It Changed the World by M&c Saatchi

💎 On our problematic obsession with the new (it’s not always better)

Just because something’s new doesn’t make it better. And just because you can do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. We all know the advertising industry is obsessed with the word ‘new’, not just as a selling mechanism, but also a descriptor of its own corporate structures.

How many times have you read in advertising journals of the launch of a new agency with a new way of working? The advertising business is obsessed with the word ‘new’. Of course, ‘a new way of working’ with technology represents an embracing of evolving technologies and their opportunities, but sometimes in advertising we can behave like a child at Christmas who just keeps opening one present after another and never stops to play. It’s a case of: give me something new. New is good, old is bad. We talk about old technology as though it were bad and new as though it were virtuous. We need to have the wisdom to stand back and consider the gifts we’ve been given and how best to employ them.

Excerpt from: Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic by John Hegarty

💎 On how endings shape most of our memories (experiences are not remembered equally)

Experiences are not remembered equally, our memories are encoded with the experiences (both positive and negative) at their peak ‘most intense’ point and their ending ‘concluding moment’.

Participants experienced both of the following conditions:

Hand submerged in 14°C ice water for 30 seconds.

Hand submerged in 14°C ice water for 30 seconds followed by an additional 30 seconds while the water heated up to 15°C.

When asked which trial they wished to repeat, subjects actually counter-intuitively opted for the second, longer condition.

That is, exactly the same amount of time in the colder water, only to end a little warmer.

Excerpt from: The Unseen Mind by Ogilvy Change

💎 On why predictions are difficult (rounding errors)

In 1972 the American meteorologist Edward Lorenz wrote a paper with an arresting title: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” A decade earlier, Lorenz had discovered by accident that tiny data entry variations in computer simulations of weather patterns—like replacing 0.506127 with 0.506—could produce dramatically different longterm forecasts. It was an insight that would inspire “chaos theory”: in nonlinear systems like the atmosphere, even small changes in initial conditions can mushroom to enormous proportions. So, in principle, a lone butterfly in Brazil could flap its wings and set off a tornado in Texas even though swarms of other Brazilian butterflies could flap frantically their whole lives and never cause a noticeable gust a few miles away. Of course Lorenz didn’t mean that the butterfly “causes” the tornado in the same sense that I cause a wineglass to break when I hit it with a hammer.

Excerpt from: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

💎 On our tendency for lower comprehension of texts when read online versus in printed media (keep it simple)

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.”

Excerpt from: The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior by Shlomo Benartzi and Jonah Lehrer

💎 On how progress is not completely objective (even in science)

Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who helped lay the groundwork for quantum theory, said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Excerpt from: Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson

💎 On the myth of brainstorming’s effectiveness (versus working alone)

Researchers have gone to a great deal of trouble to test the efficacy of group brainstorming. In a typical experiment, participants arrive in a group. Half of them are randomly chosen to be in the ‘work as a group’ condition and are placed in one room. They are given standard brainstorming rules and have to come up with ideas to help solve a specific problem (perhaps design a new ad campaign, or find ways of easing traffic congestion). The other half of the participants are asked to sit alone in separate rooms, are given exactly the same instructions and tasks and asked to generate ideas on their own. Researchers then tally the quantity of ideas produced under the different conditions, and then experts rate their quality. So do such studies show that group brainstorming is more effective than individuals working alone? Many scientists are far from convinced. Brian Mullen from the University of Kent at Canterbury and his colleagues analysed the efficacy of group brainstorming in this way, and were amazed to discover i the vast majority of experiments, the participants working on their own produced a higher quantity and quality of ideas than those working in groups.

Excerpt from: 59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot by Richard Wiseman

💎 On the clash between creatives and researchers (artists and scientists)

As John Ward of England’s B&B Dorland noted, “Advertising is a craft executed by people who aspire to be artists, but is assessed by those who aspire to be scientists. I cannot imagine any human relationship more perfectly designed to produce total mayhem.”

Excerpt from: Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads by Luke Sullivan and Sam Bennett

💎 On using humour in negotiations to make it more likely to get what you want (laughing all the way to the bank)

An elaborate multivariate analysis showed:

The results provide firm support for the major hypothesis that verbal humor leads to greater compliance. Subjects who received a demand accompanied by humor made greater financial concessions than no-humor subjects… Humor was equally effective as an influence technique when used by both sexes, and when directed toward both sexes. Our compliance data provided no evidence that joking was more appropriate for males.

Excerpt from: How To Make Better Advertising And Advertising Better by Vic Polinghorne and Andy Palmer

💎 On there being no magic number of times an activity needs to be done to fix a bad habit (just keep doing it)

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.

Excerpt from: Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals by Owain Service and Rory Gallagher

💎 On producing content being the easy part (getting anyone to listen is the hard part)

Ideas that are allocated no attention at all – those that are never exposed to anyone – make no impact on the world, by logical extension, since no one sees them. The 50 per cent of YouTube videos with less than 500 views don’t individually make much impact on culture. So attention is a powerful thing – but what kind of thing is it?

Excerpt from: Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World by Faris Yakob

💎 On how we learn through mimicry (observing others guide for action)

Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.

Excerpt from: The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour by Adam Ferrier