Laurie Santos looks at evolution by looking at how primates view the world. Now remember these are not our direct ancestors, but a proxy.

Often her work is asking the question, are these other primates as smart as us? For example, primates can count. They also know some simple Newtonian physics.

She's interested not only in how smart we are, but also the downsides of our abilities. Why are we irrational? Can we see seeds of our own economic biases in primates?

We're all walking around with a set of biases, per Daniel Kahneman. For example, we set different reference points - we frame decisions based on how we start; and loss aversion - the pain of loss outweighs the pleasure of gain. These biases are everywhere. 

So she tested monkeys to see if they exhibit some of the same biases that humans do. Turns out that monkeys play it safe like humans and avoid loss, too. Monkeys are often as irrational as we are, but they didn't fall for the pricing effect (when for example people say they like a wine that is more expensive). Monkeys do understand price - they respond to sales. But in her experiments they selected expensive versus cheap food at random. 

What more we can take from this remains to be seen. 

In the meantime, can we change these biases? It's difficult to shut off our intuitions. But Santos and the research shows that setting up different kinds of situations that protect us from ourselves do seem to work - these are nudges. To battle your biases you need to set up your environment to counter-act them. 









Consider the Source

About 5 years ago I upset my niece. She was around 20 years old, a college student at the time (I have a much older sister), and adamant that smoking pot was in no way harmful. I suspected her argument was primarily motivated by her own habit, but as a former lawyer I enjoyed the debate. I said that I thought her blanket statement was inaccurate and wondered out loud where she got her information. The conversation petered out and she left the room only to storm back in five minutes later and slam a laptop in front of me. "Here!" she said. "This website says it's natural and perfectly fine for you." I immediately looked at the website's name - it was a site for pot aficionados and started laughing. (She did not appreciate that). "That's your source?" I asked. "Have you considered that they have a vested interest in seeing pot as harmless?"

She looked at me dumb-founded. She had never heard this age old advice: Consider the source.

But it turns out she is not alone. Recent research out of Stanford shows that students, even as digitally savvy as they are, have trouble judging the credibility of information online.

Which also might explain a lot about our recent election results.





Belonging matters - in education and in Silicon Valley.

When students are uncertain about whether they belong, they are vigilant for cues in the environment that signal whether or not they belong, fit in, or are welcome there. They may also be concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about their group. This hyper-vigilance and extra stress uses up cognitive resources that are essential for learning, diminishing their performance and discouraging them from building valuable relationships.
Students from underrepresented or negatively stereotyped groups may worry about whether people like them are accepted by their peers and teachers.
          ~ Mindset Scholars Network

I'm an expert

I can't tell you how many times I hear men claim their expertise in business [and I purposely wrote "men"]. It's a constant and it's grating.  Because as expert as you may have been, it doesn't always mean you will be an expert in the here and now. Failure to understand that has consequences - largely around innovation. Research backs me up on this:

"the negative consequences of self-confidence, which leads people to stick with and repeat the actions that brought them past success — and forgo exploring new ideas or methods that might lead to more innovations."



White Privilege

“Despite this reality, policy makers and power brokers continue to debate whether racial privilege even exists and whether to address such inequity,” the researchers noted. “One reason for this inaction might be an unwillingness among Whites to acknowledge racial privilege — acknowledgment that may be difficult given that Whites are motivated to believe that meritocratic systems and personal virtues determine life outcomes.”

~ The hard-knock life? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology


Keeping a diary has been found to be "a valuable therapeutic means for relieving emotional distress and promoting well-being." A study asked adolescents to write a blog:

"The field experiment included randomly assigned adolescents, preassessed as having social–emotional difficulties, to 6 groups (26–28 participants in each): Four groups were assigned to blogging (writing about their difficulties or free writing; either open or closed to responses), a group assigned to writing a diary on personal computers, and a no-treatment control group. Participants in the 5 writing groups were instructed to post messages at least twice a week over 10 weeks.... Results showed that participants maintaining a blog significantly improved on all measures. Participants writing about their difficulties in blogs open to responses gained the most."


More Pronoun Research

Dr. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, is on a roll lately.  

His research was picked up by WSJ:

"112 psychology students were assigned to same-sex groups of two. The pairs worked to solve a series of complex problems. All interaction took place online. No one was assigned to a leadership role, but participants were asked at the end of the experiment who they thought had power and status. Researchers found that the higher the person's perceived power, the less he or she used 'I.' "



What Works?

“Personal anecdote trumps data.” F. Joseph Merlino

Unfortunately, that has been the case in terms of measuring the effectiveness of education materials. But today there is What Works, a clearing-house of educational tools ("programs, products, practices and policies") that have been tested using the research methodologies (e.g., double blind clinical trials) usually used in the medical industry.

Interestingly, the non-profit world is also facing a similar dilemma.  Are their efforts effective?  While they are dealing with a lot of push-back, mainly of the "the transformation of lives can't be measure" kind, it would be interesting to see if they will adopt more rigorous testing.  For an interesting story on the challenges faced by non-profits/philanthropy in this regard, see this American Life episode.

Finally, and more important to me, I would like to see soft skill development subjected to the same type of rigor.  How can we help people develop skills like self-awareness and how do we measure whether or not our efforts were effective?  I believe companies are a great starting ground for this type of exploration and "workforce science" seems to be a good start, though less focused right now on soft skills, as opposed to technical training.



Perchance to Dream

Researchers used brain scans" to reveal dreams. "The researchers awakened the study subjects more than 200 times to ask them to describe their dreams in detail so they could gather data on which patterns of brain activity meant what."

Right now I use a bedside journal and DreamMoods. I've been recording my dreams for years now and see patterns. I can't wait for the dream decoder. Do you remember your dreams?

Want to Be More Creative?

Get more sleep and have protein for breakfast. According to Stanford professor Baba Shiv: "...stress dampens the ability to be creative. When you’re pressured or anxious, your brain is high on cortisol. It seeks safety, which means it will keep you focused on the beaten path. This is not the road to innovation. The right neurochemical cocktail for your best creative work is a high level of both serotonin and dopamine. This will produce a condition in which you are calm but energized. And what’s the best way to get that combination? A good night’s sleep."



When Death is Not the End

Is there an afterlife? Two psychologists, Jesse Bering and David Bjorkland, put on a puppet show to find out. In the show a baby mouse is eaten by an alligator. The researchers then asked children what the (now dead) mouse might need.

Children below the age of ten understood the mouse was dead but believed the mouse still had emotions, like missing his mom. Children over the age of ten were more apt to believe the mouse no longer had emotions after death.

From the article:

"Bering and Bjorklund interpret these results: they think the sense that we 'continue on' is something that's with us from a very young age -- it’s how we "naturally" understand death before we're taught otherwise. Their idea is that to get to a place where you don’t believe in an afterlife, it actually takes UNLEARNING a basic belief."


And where did we get that belief? Object permanence. What babies learn - that when their mother leaves the room, she still continues to exist. We are not born with it, though. We learn object permanence and to learn it requires a leap of faith.



All of Your Options

Forget the paradox of choice, seeing all your options at once may just make you happier with your choice. Or so says new research out of Stanford Business School. "... in the chocolate experiment, the researchers presented participants with detailed descriptions of fine chocolates (such as dark chocolate ganache with black tea and hints of citrus and vanilla), and asked them to choose which one they wanted to taste. The “simultaneous” group saw the whole list at once, whereas the “sequential” group saw one at a time and stopped once they saw a description of the chocolate they wanted to sample. After they had picked a chocolate and tasted it, participants in both groups filled out a short survey about their satisfaction with their chosen confection. The result: sequential choosers were less satisfied with their chocolates than were participants in the simultaneous group. And, when offered the opportunity to switch to a different chocolate — a randomly selected one, they were told — more of the sequential choosers opted to do so, even though they knew virtually nothing about it."

But why? In a sequential mode we are waiting for better options to come along though usually they don't. So how to mitigate this bias when many of our options are offered sequentially (e.g., boyfriends, jobs, investment opportunities)?

"One strategy Shiv advises is to mentally convert a sequential choice into a 'quasi-simultaneous' one by recalling past instances of the best options you ever chose or of options that, in hindsight, you regret passing over. Once you do that, you can compare your present option with those recalled, almost as if you had all your options before you at once."

Money and Happiness

From a recent NYTimes article: The catch is that additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard. The magic number that defines this “comfortable standard” varies across individuals and countries, but in the United States, it seems to fall somewhere around $75,000. Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.

Why, then, do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy? One reason is that our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research we conducted with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.



The Delmore Effect

I was exploring goal setting and how to reach goals when I uncovered the Delmore Effect (definition below) and a blog by Paul Whitmore Sas. Interestingly this seems to be the only research (and original at that) on the topic.  Still, it's an interesting theory.

"My research built upon the well-grounded observation that people can accomplish more when they set clear goals. Almost everyone recognizes the great value of setting goals.
Still, most people tend to set much more explicit goals for low priority domains than for their most important ambitions. (This lapse is labeled the Delmore Effect, after the failed poet, Delmore Schwartz).
It seemed reasonable that this neglect of the most important could be reversed if people first reflected on their past achievements in that important life area. In fact, such an exercise made the Delmore Effect slightly worse. Another experiment demonstrated that distractions, per se, don't help. But finally, by thinking first about related goals which were not of top-priority, people finally managed to overcome the Delmore Effect. [emphasis added]
Astronomers know to look slightly away from the point at which they expect to locate a star.  Analogously, when a person aims to most clearly articulate her own guiding goals, she would be more successful by calling to mind the values which are peripherally related and supportive of her complete self.
Instead of directly confronting the value of greatest import, a person can become more articulate about their central life goals by taking a slightly less direct approach."


New research out of Oxford University suggests that the game of Tetris can help prevent PTSD related flashbacks. PTSD, short for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, can be alleviated by playing the game shortly after a traumatic event. It's thought by playing the game the brain's cognitive resources are used up and thus prevented from forming and retaining bad memories of the event.

The research was based on pretty mild "trauma" and it isn't a solution for those already struggling with PTSD.

I'm skeptical about tricking the brain in this way. Seems to me the solution is much simpler - a safe place for those struggling with PTSD to talk about their stories and through talking/exposure re-wire their thoughts about the experience.

How Will I Do It?

Will I? or I will? The interrogative versus the declarative. It turns out the difference is in the distinction. A study by Ibrahim Senay, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows how.

His study asked a group of people to prepare to solve anagrams by thinking either, “Will I work on anagrams?,” or “I will work on anagrams.” Those that asked the question solved more anagrams than participants who repeated the statement.

Why? Apparently when we pose a question of ourselves we give ourselves the ability to choose - we are empowered. Senay notes, “people are more likely to engage in a behavior when they have intrinsic motivation” or “when they feel personally responsible for their action.”

Further, Senay's findings have applicability to how we engage and teach children. From the report:

"Instead of encouraging kids to say to themselves, 'I can do it!', this research suggests that we should be telling young people to ask, 'Will I do it?' or 'Can I do it?' Better still, we can teach children to inquire of themselves, 'How will I do it?' The difference is subtle but powerful: The first is a potentially empty affirmation, while the second gets kids started on what they really need to make it happen: a plan."

Tiny Habits

I've mentioned BJ Fogg before in this blog and I'm mentioning him again because I think his behavior change concepts are getting more specific and useful. He has been testing his Tiny Habits concept and the results are impressive. I joined an early group of testers and enjoyed the experience. The gist is focus on creating good habits rather than battling your bad habits, and then sequencing the good habit you want to create with something you automatically do like brushing your teeth in the morning.

I highly recommend giving it a whirl.