Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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.


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 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?”


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.


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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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:


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.


Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016 | Books

Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes – And How to Correct Them: Lessons From The New Science Of Behavioral Economics is a book with an obserdly long title. It’s written by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich.

I first assumed that it was going to be about why professional investors do stupid things. I was incorrect, much to my advantage. It was about us, all of us. We are the smart people making the big money mistakes.

A lot of the content I already knew from reading A Random Walk and Thinking, Fast and Slow, but it was all a valuable reminder. Especially as I am still making many of the mistakes! Though as the book concludes, as fallible humans we are probably going to continually make them. It’s a fun book to read as you get scenarios and have to try and guess the right answer. Just like QI, you quickly learn to avoid the obvious answers.

Mental accounting is a classic example. A pound is a pound. Yet so often we sub-divide our money into different funds that are more or less valuable. I was in this exact scenario as I was reading it.

I had recently received some compensation for a car accident. I was thinking about buying a stand mixer with it. It’s bonus money, right? At the end of each month I do a spreadsheet of all my bank balances and debts to see how much money I had on. In this case, I had even put a debit in to cancel out the effects of the extra money in my bank account, so that I could keep that money in a separate mental account.

But this is nonsense! I have that money, and it is just as valuable as any other money. If I can justify buying a stand mixer, I can justify it from my savings as much as from ‘found’ money as it is often called. If I can’t, then I shouldn’t be buying it. So I took the advice from the book – I removed the entry on my spreadsheet and I sent the money to my savings account. If I can justify taking it out, I can buy the stand mixer. If not, the money stays in my savings. Either way, all money has the same value.

The best way to avoid this issue is to put found money into your savings account, count it as part of your total savings for a while, then see if you still want to make the purchase.

Another example I fall pray to is using big purchases to hide additional extras. When I was going to buy my first desktop computer, I thought about buying a tablet to go with it. In the shadow of the cost of the computer, it wasn’t that much money. Luckily, my dad talked me out of it. I could have bought one later, but I never did because I could not really justify the cost on its own.

Contrast this with when I bought a piano. They offered to sell me a stool with it. It was a small cost in compassion to buying a piano. But did I really need it? I decided the sensible thing to do was wait and see if I really needed it, and could justify the purchase on its own. Six months later and I am still just using a dining chair, and it works fine. Better even, because a stool would get in the way.

Sunk cost fallacy is the idea that once you have spent the money it is gone, but people do not often actually believe this. The classic example is paying for a cinema ticket, or entry to a nightclub, getting bored, and then staying anyway to “get your money’s worth”. Of course, in reality the money is gone and you are just wasting another valuable commodity, your time, by staying there bored.

This in itself doesn’t cost you money of course. However, other examples do. Take for example, selling a house. People will often refuse to sell a house for more than they bought it for. Why? The buying price is irrelevant. If you need to sell your house, you should do so for the highest price you can get, rather than holding on to it because of an irrational psychological anchor. Yet, we’re all human, and I am sure I would try and hang on too, even though the rational part of my brain would be calling myself an idiot.

The book also talks about the ideal number of choices. Quoting the famous jam study. If you give people six choices, they are more likely to buy than if you give them 24. I mentioned this a few days ago in my review of the Happiness Hypothesis. It is worth noting that six and 24 were just the values that were picked for the experiment: it does not conclude that exactly six choices is the optimal number.

Insurance is an area that I am getting better at. I never took out extended warrenties and phone insurance anyway, but Daniel Kahneman has long since convinced me that I am correct not to do so. Insurance is a money making product, so if you could afford to replace it, you should not have insurance. I would be very annoyed if I smashed my £600 iPhone tomorrow and had to buy a new one. However, I could buy a new one, and the money I have saved over the past decade of owning a phone, not paying for insurance, and not smashing it, would still leave me in heavy profit.

A sneakier example is insurance excess though. On top of the £150 mandatory excess on my car insurance policy, I have an optional £250. Sometimes I think I should get rid of this. However, as the book points out, that would be a bad move. I can afford the £400 excess I would have to pay if my car was in an accident, so it makes sense to take advantage of the reduction in premiums because most years I will not claim on my insurance. In my case, this is pretty academic anyway, as my insurance company doesn’t think my car is worth anything.

In short, this is a very useful book. It references a lot of Kahneman and Tversky, which is useful for the every day money mistakes we make. It also talks a lot about retirement planning and stock market investing, which is less relevant to some people, but still useful to most.


Thinking about New Year’s resolutions? Read this first

Thursday, December 31st, 2015 | Success & Productivity


At this time of year, people often make New Year’s resolutions. Really, by definition, it is the only time you can do it.

I have never been very good at them. Not because I never stick to them, but because one of my few talents seems to be having some resolve. So when I decide to do something over the Christmas holidays, be it learning guitar or changing my diet, I just get on and do it without waiting for New Year to actually arrive.

Many other people fall into a different group. The one that devices to work on a weakness or eliminate a vice, and typically fail to stick to it. A study by Richard Wiseman suggested that 88% of people fail to keep them. If this is you, you could try again this year. However, as the old phrase goes, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.’

However, in The Happiness Hypothesis, a book I will be writing about in early January, Jonathan Haidt makes another suggestion. Work on your strengths. This probably should not be a novel suggestion, but thanks to society’s focus on self-improvement and being a well-rounded person, we tend to focus on our weaknesses so much that our strengths get overlooked.

This is something I have pondered for a while with Toastmasters. I am not very good at Table Topics. But, modesty aside, I am good at prepared speaking. I’ve already been to the UK & Ireland finals once. I could spend my time improving my Table Topics, and become an okay Table Topics speaker. However, do I need to be good at Table Topics? Spending time on my prepared speeches with the aim of going to the world finals seems a much more exciting prospect.

My own petty concerns aside, should Wayne Rooney work on his tennis, or John Grisham focus on advanced maths? Probably not. You don’t actually have to be good at everything; having one awesome skill may well be far more useful.

Utility aside though, there is a far more important reason that you should work on your strengths. That is that you are more likely to stick to it. Achieving your goals actually gives you very little reward or happiness. Yes it’s good, but probably not as good as you think it will be, and probably wears off quite quickly. To lead a truly fulfilling life, you have to enjoy the journey.

A weakness is probably a weakness because you do not enjoy it. Whether it is stopping drinking, starting exercises, or tackling your fear of public speaking, you are probably going to find that journey quite unpleasant. I am not saying do not tackle it, but do not be surprised if you soon find yourself giving up on it.

In contrast, if you make a resolution to do something you already love doing, taking it to the next level, you are far more likely to stick at it. This is important if you attach any esteem to following through on your New Year’s resolutions. So if you are planning to make them, do yourself a favour this year and pick a strength to work on.


Saturday, December 19th, 2015 | Books

Christian Rudder is a founder and head of data trends at the dating site OkCupid. For years he ran the blog OkTrends which looked at what data you could mine from their site. This book is a continuation of this work as well as bringing in other data sets, mostly to talk about human sexuality.

The full title is Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).

The anonymised data of OkCupid in aggregate provide some surprising facts, and some expected ones. Take gender differences, for example. Women rate men of a similar age to themselves as the most attract. Up until 30 women will rate men a year or two older than them as the most attractive; after 30 they find men a year or two younger than them most attractive. A drop off starts at 40. That is a good innings though. Compare this to the way men rate women. They rate 21 year olds the most attractive and it goes down hill from there.

He looks at the use of English on Twitter. Many people suppose the internet is degrading the quality of language used. Not so. The average length of a word used on Twitter is actually longer than that in professional publications, and historically. It turns out that when you limit people to 140 characters, they write concisely using a wide lexicon.

He quotes Steve Jobs: “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This always reminds me of the Henry Ford quote “if I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. Whether Ford actually said that is unknown, but it makes a good point. When asking for feedback you really need to find out what they think the problem is that you want to solve, rather than asking them what they think the solution is. In Ford’s case a faster way to get from A to B and in Job’s case an easier way to play and listen to music.

Back on OkCupid, it turns out that everyone is a racist. Rudder breaks the data down into how four groups: white, asian, latino, black, rate each other’s photos. It turns out that people generally rate their own race as the most attractive, but the real drop off is for black women by any other group, who consistently rate them lower. This has geographic differences however. There is a big gap in the US for example, while almost no gap in the UK.

He also looks at the differences between the heterosexual and LGBT communities. Is sexuality a spectrum, for example. Only 19% self-identifying bisexuals regularly message both males and females. This could imply a number of things. It could be that there is a spectrum and many bisexuals fall at either end of it. It could also be that some gay people identify as bisexual for cultural or social reasons. Especially given it correlates with their state’s tolerance of homosexuality. The answer is probably a number of different factors.

Rudder also mentions that Justine Sacco, the woman who made the “hope I don’t get aids” tweet, worked for OkCupid’s parent company. Sacco was discussed in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve been Publicly Shamed. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet is a classic example of how quickly things can travel world the world these days.

In summary, it’s not too clear what Dataclysm was actually about. It seemed to be mostly “here is some interesting data about people”. From that respect, it was genuinely interesting. It also had a lot of cross over with A Billion Wicked Thoughts in using anonymous internet data, a source that has only come around in the last few decades, to reveal fascinating insights into human thoughts and behaviour.