Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

The Language Instinct

Friday, March 23rd, 2018 | Books

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language is a book by Steven Pinker.

I have raved about Steven Pinker before. How the Mind Works is a fascinating read and The Blank Slate has changed my worldview more than almost any other book. Along with two or three others, it is probably the more important book I have ever read.

Sadly, I could not get on with the The Language Instinct in the same was as Pinker’s other books. It was too technical for me, even as someone currently studying childhood language development (the book is about language more broadly, but can’t help but stray into development).

I found Pinker’s other books highly accessible, but, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get into this one. Ultimately, I had to give up.

I have no doubt that the many positive reviews about this book are accurate. If you understand the material, or just stick with it, perhaps you get a lot out of it. It just wasn’t the case for me.

Sport Psychology

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018 | Books

With a rather long full title of Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science, Sport Psychology (Olympic Handbook Of Sports Medicine), this textbook provides an introduction to the major issue in sport psychology.

It’s a really well put together book. It covers each area in short and to-the-point chapters. The whole thing is just over 100 pages and gives you a brief but comprehensive introduction to the areas.

What it’s missing are the details on some of the interventions. It talks about confidence, mental preparation and focus. And explains what these areas are. But then it goes on to say “imagery is useful for this” without going into any detail about what exactly imagery is.

Overall, though, this is a great introduction to the subject.

What Google autocomplete tells us about humanity

Monday, July 3rd, 2017 | Thoughts

If you want to find out what people are interested in, one of the worst ways to do that is to ask them. Why? Because humans respond to incentives and there is very little incentive to tell your interviewer the truth.

We humans are biased by what we think the questioner wants to hear, but what we are willing to admit, or the self-image we want to portray. For example, few people would admit to voting for UKIP or liking Justin Bieber. And we all exercise far more, eat junk food far less, and enjoy a lot more sex than reality would agree with.

Reported vs observed data

This is a major problem in psychology.

However, there is a way around it. We just have to look at times when people are incentivised to tell the truth.

There is a whole book about this for online dating. In Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), OkCupid founder Christian Rudder points out that although people say they are not racist when it comes to rating people of a different race as equally attractive, our self-reported beliefs come unstuck.

Another example is Google Search. People are searching for the information they want, so they are unlikely to hide it. Google then anoymises this data and makes it available via autocomplete. You start by putting in “President Donald” and Google, having noticed that everyone else is searching for “President Donald Trump”. offers to complete the search term for you.

Which means you can also work backwards. If you put in the first half of a question, Google will give you the most popular options for the rest.

Should I…

Pop culture wins out here. Most people are looking for the famous song by The Clash. Once we get pasted that we move to people struggling with relationships and dating, and finally onto the big questions i life, such as switching careers or hair styles.

Visiting the doctors

If we add “go to the doctor” onto the end of that, people are worrying about two things: colds and mental health. Colds and flu makes sense: it is the most common thing to get, so there are lots of people worrying about it. Anal bleeding, for example, is less ambiguous about a doctor’s visit being required (it is) and not many people get it. Bad flu, on the other hand, occurs a lot.

Mental health is something that comes up a lot, too.

What should I do if…

Here people are worrying about health and dogs. Getting pregnant is the big question, then two entires on dogs and mental health crops up again.

How long until…

This is all about the holidays: people are already counting down the days until Christmas. Of course, if they had a tracker app like I do, they would already know it is 175. No mention of Jesus coming back, which I was surprised about. How long until I get home: I am not sure if this is some kind of Google maps query; I imagine it is as Google offers that functionality.

Is it true that…

This one is just bizarre. Is cats and cucumbers really the most fact-checked question on the internet? Good to see people are doing their research, though.

Films about…

Mental health and dogs both make a re-appearance here. What is even more interesting is if you go into privacy mode and look at the top ten…

Here mental health dominates, taking spots one and three. People are also interested in drugs, dogs, aliens, 9/11, and somewhere down the bottom is love, space and religion.

Films about self…

Taking the search a step further and adding the word “self”, the topic of self harm comes up a lot. People are interested in self-esteem and self-love, but no self-improvement on the list.

Conclusion

People are frequently concerned with their mental health and the health of their dogs. Everything else can go hang. And they’re really not sure whether 9/11 was an inside job or not.

What we can learn from this? Nothing. It’s a couple of data points pulled out in a non-scientific way. But at least now you know that it is only 175 days until Christmas.

Influence: The Science of Persuasion

Sunday, March 19th, 2017 | Books

I will admit it: I’ve been a bit prejudice. When I was recommended a book called Influence: The Science of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, I thought to myself “wow, that is a very Machiavellian-sounding name.

However, as I read the introduction to the book, I was soon corrected. Cialdini is a professor at Arizona State University. His research on influence stems from his own confusion as to how he continues to end up with magazine subscriptions, kitchen appliances and charity direct debits that he never wanted.

He is an academic, trying to make sense of a world in which compliance professionals (sales people, charity chuggers, marketers) keep hoodwinking him. Of course, a true master of the Machiavellian art would disarm me by leading to believe this. But, if so, fair play: I’m sold.

He did his homework, applying for sales jobs and following people around to see how they worked. In the book, he describes many commonplace situations that many of us have probably found ourselves in. Everyone should read this book, if only to understand what has happened to us so many times over the years.

He breaks the tactics down into a series of topics. I will discuss some of the most interesting below.

Contrast principle

Sell someone a less expensive item after selling them something big. For example, why are extras on cars so expensive? The answer is that once you have spent £20,000 on a new car, £500 for a slightly-better-looking tyre seems like small change.

Reciprocity

When we are given a gift, we feel an obligation to give back. It is wired into us. This is a tactic used relentlessly by the Hari Krishna movement. They thrust a free gift into your hand, and then ask for a donation later.

I have a copy of the Bhagavad Gita on my shelf. And yes, I gave the guy a donation after he gave it to me.

It even works when you do not want the gift. At airports, Cialdini observed the Kristina’s in operation, scooping their gifts out of the bins people had thrown them in, to re-use on the next target.

I also fell for this in Milan. Around the major squares are groups of African men who put bracelets on tourists and then ask for money. Before I knew what was happening, there was a bracelet on my risk. And yes, I did give him a euro.

Cialdini points out that the defence strategy we most often use is to steer a wide mark around such people. Why? Because it is to hard to resist our natural urge to give back.

Concession

Concession is about asking for more than you want and then backing down. Say you want to borrow £50. Ask for £100. Then, when they say no, ask for just £50. Because you have made a confession, the other person will feel like they have to make a concession also. It also makes them feel like they have set the terms.

This can often be seen in extended warranties. “Do you want the 5-year super-protect plan? No? Okay, just the 3-year basic plan then?”

Declarations

Companies love to get you to declare that you like their product? Why? Because people are driven to act in a way consistent with what they have said.

Charities do this all of the time. They will give you a free sticker or ask you to sign up for free information. Why? Because once you have expressed that you are in some way a supporter of them, when they ask you for money, you are far more likely to feel you have to.

Written commitments are the best. These were used extensively by the Chinese communists during the Korean war. They would get American prisoners of war to write essay contests and give away small prizes. Once someone wrote something positive amount communism, they would have them read the essay out. Maybe even put it on the camp radio. Step by step, American soldiers were broken down as their guards asked for more and more.

Likability

Bad times for ugly people: being attractive helps. People are more likely to help out and be more generous to attractive people. Shared interests are important too. Salespeople love to find out your hobbies so that they can pretend they do them too.

Similarity is a big key here. You identify with people similar to yourself. So, if you want to market to a certain demographic, you need to use an actor from that demographic.

Finally, compliments are also powerful. Cialdini tells the story of a car salesman who earned more than almost anyone at the entire company. What was his secret? Every month he sent a postcard to all of his previous customers with three words on the front: “I like you”.

Summary

Compliance professionals are experts at getting us to do what they want. We do this because we work on auto-response. There is too much data in the world for us to sort through all decisions and check everyone’s back stories. So we use social cues to shortcut these decisions. Salespeople know we do this and try and exploit it.

Cialdini suggests the best defence is to listen to your gut. If you feel awkward, even if you cannot describe why it may be that you have been pressured into doing something you did not want to do. If so, follow Cialdini’s example and say “I’m not taking your product: no click wurr for me!”

Predictably Irrational

Sunday, November 27th, 2016 | Books

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions is a book by academic Dan Ariely. There is so much good stuff in this book. Whether you are looking to understand humans, sell products, design a better society or merely learn some interesting stuff, this book is worth reading.

He begins by telling a story about The Economist. They offer free options: online only, print only, online and print. Print only and online and print are priced the same. Why would they do this? Because people compare things relatively.

If you give people no basis for comparison, they will not know how to judge something. This is why a $1200 bread-maker may not sell at first. People do not know whether they need a bread-maker. But put it next to a $1600 bread-maker and people can see that picking the $1200 over the $1600 is clearly a smart move.

Similarly, you can bias people’s opinions about pricing. People like to buy the thing in the middle. So if you want to sell a certain TV at a certain price, but it between a cheap TV and a really expensive TV. Or, if you are in a restaurant, but one really high priced dish on the menu if you want to sell more of the second highest price dish.

What if you want to break this comparison? Starbucks certainly did when they started charging £10 for a coffee (I do not actually know what Starbucks charge). Why would people pay that when McDonald’s sell coffee for £1.49? Starbucks created an experience. A coffee house with music and chairs and pastries to break the price anchor.

People also love the word free. Amazon were smashing it with their free delivery. Except in France where they were doing terribly. Why? Their discount delivery was one cent. It made almost no difference to the price, but it was not free. People will also queue for free stuff, even though their time is valuable and they could just buy the product instead.

One of the keys here is social norms vs market norms. Professionals will rarely do work for low cost. You cannot get a lawyer to do discount work for the vulnerable. Once you are in the realm of market norms, they want their fee. However, if you ask them to do the work for free, they yes! Why? Because social norms are used instead of market norms.

Trials are a great way to sell stuff. Why? Because once you give someone something, it triggers virtual ownership. Even though they have not bought it yet, their heart tells them they already own it and they go into loss aversion.

Loss aversion may also a reason that we continue to hang on to old friendships, particularly long-distance ones, or ones that have fallen apart, when we should actually be putting that time into building new friendships.

Food glorious, food

How about food? It turns out the same food tastes between when you tell someone what it is in and add exotic ingredients. People’s restaurant behaviour is also interesting. In the West, where individualism is valued, people are less likely to order the dish they want if someone else had ordered it before them.

What that means is that if the waiter is taking your order, and someone orders the dish you wanted, you are more likely to switch your order to a dish you prefer less, because you want to be seen as being individual.

However, when you run the same experiment in East Asia, where fitting in with the group is valued more highly, the opposite is true. People are more likely to switch their order to a dish they prefer less when someone before them orders it.

Dishonesty

Ariely has a long section on dishonesty. Why is it okay to steal a pen from work or a conference for example, but not steal a whole box of pens? There seems to be a sense of what is being a bit cheeky, and what it actually morally wrong.

Cash replacements seem to divorce us from the true value of what we are doing. For example, stealing someone’s Skype credit (this happened to Ariely) seems less wrong than stealing the money directly from him. This is a concern as we increasingly move towards a cashless society.

Summary

I need to read this book at least one more time to get all of the knowledge out of it. It is packed full of stuff that is useful and interesting. Read it. Read it now. Then go buy a bread-maker.

predictably-irrational

The Paradox of Choice

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016 | Books

More choice is always better, right? Not according to Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. In his book, he argues that more choices actually make us less happy.

He begins by talking about buying a pair of jeans. He went into a shop and asked for some. The shop assistant asked him a lot of questions: what colour, what fit, what treatment, what distressing, and what type of fly did he want. His answer: “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” Not only did he now have to make a decision, which takes cognitive effort if you want to make the right decision, but the increased choice raises our expectations that we will get something better.

This is something I strongly identify with. When I need some new trainers I walk into a shoe shop and look at the choices. If you head down to Sports Direct in Leeds you will find literally a thousand shoes on the wall (I might be over-estimating, but not by much: it’s huge!). Does that make it easier to find the shoes I want? No! It makes it harder. Much harder. I spend time searching for the perfect shoe. If there were just six choices my life would be so much easier.

All of this choice might be okay if we made good decisions and were happier for it. But neither of these are true. Humans are terrible at making rational decisions and Schwartz summaries a lot of Thinking, Fast and Slow as well as other research to prove it. Anchoring is a big one, but there are many. Sunk cost fallacy is another big one: why continue to eat when you are uncomfortably full? I do that all of the time.

He goes on to say that people fear regret and try to avoid it. Therefore people often opt for reversal decisions: buying items you can return, booking things you can cancel for free, etc. However, the research shows that this makes us less happy because we continue to meditate on the choice after having made it. Whereas, if it is reversible we just get on with it. This affects small decisions, like ordering food from a restaurant menu, to life-changing decisions like marriage.

How does Schwartz recommend we remedy this? He has a number of suggestions. The most important is be a satisficer, not a maximiser. A satisficer wants something that is “good enough”. A maximiser will spend as much time as possible making the perfect decision. You could spend a month of weekends travelling around stores to find the perfect coffee table. Or you could buy the first one that would look good enough in your house. Which option do you think will make you the happiest?

It’s option B by a long way. Option A not only wastes all of your weekends, but you will regret all the possible coffee tables you did not buy, and the happiness of finding the best one will wear off over time. Which brings me onto another one of his suggestions: be aware that your happiness is making a good decision will wear off over time. If you expect it, it is not as bad.

Finally, consider artificially limiting your choices sometimes. Do you know one of those people who always chooses the same thing when you go to a restaurant? They’re usually really happy with their food. Instead of considering twenty different locations to visit on holiday, consider two or three. Make a non-refundable booking so you don’t get tempted to change your mind and you will enjoy it more.

The-Pardox-of-Choice

It is also worth noting that not everyone agrees with Schwartz. I wrote about this last month in a blog post about Schwartz’s TED talk on the same topic.

Does weather affect your mood?

Friday, July 29th, 2016 | Science

Recently an internal poll at Sky asked employees whether the weather affected your mood. Responders overwhelming said that it did.

weather-mood

However, this is people self-reporting in a poll. When you get into the science, the picture is far less clear.

The Huffington Post reported on all kinds of maladies that studies suggest are caused by weather. The list includes changes in empathy, violent crime and mental health problems.

In contrast, a 1998 study by David Shkade and Daniel Kahneman suggested that people’s hapiness was unaffected by weather. Their conclusion was clear: better climate does not make you happier. They conclude…

It is not unlikely that some people might actually move to California in the mistaken belief that this would make them happier. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.

The same BBC article also quotes a 2008 study by Jaap Denissen that concludes…

The idea that pleasant weather increases people’s positive mood in general is not supported by the findings of this study.

These findings cannot be generalised to everyone. Some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder. It comes with the acronym SAD, just like social anxiety disorder does, suggesting that mental health professionals would benefit from improved coordination.

Seasonal affective disorder is a genuine and widely-accepted condition and is one that should not be taken likely: it is a serious mental illness. However, it only accounts for a small amount of the population. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry puts the prevalence at 2.4% of the population.

So are the rest of us just imagining it?

Well, maybe. But a study by Klimstra et al. fought back. They suggested that some personalty types may be affected by weather while others may not be.

Their figures suggest that around half of people are unaffected by weather, while others are affected by summer, and by rain. They conclude…

Overall, the large individual differences in how people’s moods were affected by weather reconciles the discrepancy between the generally held beliefs that weather has a substantive effect on mood and findings from previous research indicating that effects of weather on mood are limited or absent.

So does weather affect your mood? Probably less than you think. But, as ever, more research is needed.

Is there a paradox of choice?

Saturday, June 11th, 2016 | Science

jars-of-jam

You may have heard of the idea that there can be too much choice. It’s a paradox because we think that more choice is always better. However, in his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz claims that once you have a certain level of choice, more actually makes us unhappy because it raises our expectations. If there are three choices of trainers, we pick one. If there are a hundred choices we agnoise because with such much choice we expect to find a perfect one, and don’t.

He makes a similar case in a TED talk.

A lot of this comes from a famous study about selling jam, conducted by Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar. They noticed that if you offered people six different choices of jam, they bought more than if you offered them 36.

All of this is easy to identify with. However, to muddy the water, a blog post by Freakonomics suggests that it is less clear after all. When looking at real-world datasets it is actually quite difficult to find examples of this working.

They make a similar claim in a YouTube video, pointing out that you cannot generalise one specific study, such as the jam study, and assume it applies everywhere.

How much is too much jam? Perhaps there is an upper limit. However, more research is needed before we can start making generalised rules.

What your genitals say about you

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 | Religion & Politics

Last week, this picture appeared in my Facebook feed:

astrology-genitals-tweet

For making a political point, it’s quite clever. However, in this case it is rather unhelpful. That is because astrology genuinely is a load of nonsense. And your child’s genitals genuinely do predict their toy preferences.

The debate regarding nature and nurture has been going on for a long time. Like so many things though, it is not a black and white solution, but probably somewhere in between. We are all products of our DNA, and our environment.

In the case of children’s toys, it’s obvious to anyone at a quick glance that boys tend to play with trucks and girls tend to play with dolls. The question has always been why. Is it that boys and girls have predetermined generic interests, or is it a result of social conditioning?

It is almost certainly the former, at least in part. As the New Scientist reports, a study on monkeys showed that male monkeys prefered trucks and female monkeys prefered dolls. It’s difficult to to argue that monkey society conditions their young to have a preference one way or the other.

That is not to say that sex is the only factor, or that social conditioning does not play a part. Some boys like to play with dolls and some girls like to play with trucks. It is merely that the statistical average, when looking at a large enough group, with tend to fall onto one side or the other. Your child’s genitals do in fact predict what toys they most likely have a preference for: it just isn’t 100% accurate.

This is where the importance of understanding equality really comes in. I think we can draw a parallel with car insurance. I wrote about this in 2011. It is unfair to charge male drivers more than female drivers. This has traditionally been the case because male drivers are more likely to have serious accidents. However, the EU banned it later that year (what has the EU ever done for us?!?). The reason why this is unfair is because although statistically over a large group, male drivers are more likely to have a serious accident, does not mean that one specific male driver is not a very safe driver. The specific driver getting insurance may be a very safe driver, so it would be unfair to tarnish him with the same brush.

This is also true of children’s toys. Just because boys tend to prefer trucks and girls tend to prefer dolls, does not mean you should force that toy on them: let them choose for themselves. They may choose a different toy to what society might expect them to. However, if your child does in fact choose the toy society expects them to, don’t worry that you have been a victim of social conditioning: they are statistically likely to pick that toy regardless.

The Happiness Hypothesis

Saturday, January 9th, 2016 | Books

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom is a book by Jonathan Haidt. In it Haidt, a psychologist, looks at the ideas of happiness developed by Eastern religions, and puts them in a context of modern science in an attempt to develop an evidence-based happiness hypothesis.

He uses the analogy of an elephant and a rider. The rider is the higher-level rational part of your mind, the elephant is the rest. The rider can decide the think happy thoughts, eat healthily, exercise regularly and not spend all one’s time eating cake. It can even tell the elephant. But unless you actually train the elephant, the elephant is going to do what it wants.

Haidt starts off my demonstrating just how little control over our lives we really have. For example people who are named Dennis are more likely to become dentists. You are also more likely to marry someone with a similar sounding name to you. He gives his own personal example: he (John) is married to Jane. I did a quick scan of my friends and family and the rule does not work so well, but statistically it does seem to hold. It’s kind of horrible when you think about it. Are we pawns to environmental biases to quite such an extent? It would seem so.

Haidt points out that if you try hard to not think about negative thoughts, you end up thinking about them more. This has interesting implications for anxiety. Actively trying to avoid negative thoughts for example could actually reinforce them. I also identified strongly with his example of feeling the urge to shout random things at dinner parties just because I know I shouldn’t.

Another example of Haidt being a soulmate was his discussion of vegetarianism. He, like myself, is a vegetarian. He believes that killing animals for food is wrong. But, like me also, he can’t quite seem to actually cut meat out of his diet.

He talks about the negativity bias. We are programmed to reactive to negative things more strongly than positive. This is because if we miss a meal, we will probably find some more. If we miss a predator, we we will probably be eaten. This is not be confused with the positivity bias that Kahneman demonstrates we also have.

Haidt argues in favour of gossip. He suggests it is an important social tool for maintaining fairness. If someone is cheating the system, morality only works when people know about the transgressor. Whether that justifies the deep invasion of people’s personal lives that is often associated with gossip is another matter, but gossip as concept serves a useful evolutionary purpose.

We all have a base level of happiness, and we tend to return to it. This is probably had news for someone like me that seems to have a low level of happiness. Winning the lottery is not going to fix that. However, on the flip side, getting a terrible debilitating disease is unlikely to decrease it in the long term either. We get used to the situation and our base levels return to normal. Material possessions will only bring very short-lived happiness. Spend the money on experiences instead, and for maximum affect ensure you do it with the people you love.

Some things we do not adjust to though. For example noise levels, traffic and commuting are always bad. It is worth eliminating noise from your life were possible, especially traffic noise. As I learnt in Happiness By Design, commuting really is the worst thing you can do with your time. Given that, and that money does not make you happy because you adjust, taking a pay cut to live closer work is a smart move that will increase your happiness.

Critically, social connections correlate with happiness more than almost anything else. This backs up something I can come to realise and begun preaching over the past few years. Moving away from your friends and family to a different city, for career advancement, is a bad move. Yes you get more money. However, as discussed, this does not make you happy. What does make you happy is friends and family and these you lose when you move cities.

Unless your job is literally your entire life’s passion, take a lower-paid job in a city where your friends and family live, with a short commute. Don’t worry if it’s not your perfect job, it’s not your life.

Too many choices are bad. You want some choice, but above half a dozen it actually decreases your happiness because you expect a better match than you get and the probably that you selected an imperfect match increases. If you, like myself, have had the experience of walking into a shoe store, seeing 200 different trainers, and not liking any of them, you will know what I mean. If there were five styles of trainer, it would actually be a lot easier.

In his conclusion he says that the ancient wisdom and modern science often converge and both are needed, to some extent, to achieve true happiness. Happiness does come from within (to the extent that you cannot buy it) but the only way to achive it is through behaviour changes, and these can only be achived by re-training your elephant, not merely deciding as a rider.

The-Happiness-Hypothesis