How to Stop Choking Under Pressure


How to Stop Choking Under Pressure

Photo by  Kevin Ku  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom

— Søren Kierkegaard

Rewards are usually a motivator, but sometimes they are just too much. When enough rides on your good performance, you begin to feel the pressure. Professional athletes at the top of their game experience this during critical moments, and so do the rest of us when we realize that other people depend on our success, or when we step up to give an important presentation at work. Perhaps paradoxically, we are most likely to let ourselves down when we least want to. But at the same time, we need to keep attempting major challenges in our life, because without them we may be stuck at a dead end.

The main problem with pressure is the anxiety it causes us. Some level of anxiety is necessary when we face a challenge because it’s a sign that our efforts really matter. Sensible anxiety keeps us on our toes and gives us the impetus to prepare properly so that we do not mess up. If we don’t sufficiently care about an important event in our life, we are more vulnerable to failing simply because we did not prioritize it properly in our thoughts and preparations. But when anxiety is too high, it can become dysfunctional by pushing us into a shaky mindset as we approach the challenge itself. We need enough anxiety to care, but not so much that we choke.

There are two major competing theories about how pressure and anxiety actually choke us:

  1. Distraction: When we desperately want to succeed, it can distract us from performing at our best. The anxiety shifts our attention from typical performance rituals to thoughts of what it means to fail. We end up overthinking activities that normally come naturally and automatically to us. Imagine that I offered you $10,000 to type out a long sentence quickly on your computer without making an error. Although you probably do this successfully 9 out of 10 times in your daily life without even thinking about it, the added pressure of the money is likely to make you think too much about the exact locations of your fingers as you type, or the pain of losing $10,000. This unnatural focus to your attention means that you’re more likely to underperform by typing slower than usual or accidentally hitting the wrong button. You are thrown off your smooth expert mode.

  2. Over-motivation: When we are too emotionally active, we tap into our instinctive circuits that automatically pull us away from threats. If we are deeply anxious about losing or underperforming in some way, this fight-or-flight reaction is likely to overwhelm our practiced habits, reactions, and strategies, that usually guide us toward performing well.

If we could work out which theory explains our choking under pressure, it would put us in a better position to come up with a fix. Fortunately, each theory makes an opposing prediction about one crucial question: is there any difference between conscious explicit learning and incidental automatic learning? Let’s take the example of a boxer who needs to prepare for an upcoming fight with a new opponent. Would the boxer fare better under pressure if their trainer helped them analyze and memorize rules about the opponent’s behavior, or if the trainer immediately played out those rules in the practice ring and forced the boxer to react automatically and unknowingly to them?

The over-motivation theory would predict that both learning styles are equally vulnerable to choking under pressure, because our instinctive emotional reactions would overwhelm conscious and unconscious behavioral systems in the same way. The distraction theory, on the other hand, would predict a greater choking vulnerability for the boxer who prepares with the more conscious learning strategies, because the pressure will exclusively distract their conscious minds with worries about failure. The automatically learning boxer relies less on their conscious mind, so conscious distractions will interfere less with their performance.

Let’s get testing

Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.

— William Shakespeare

A group of researchers from across the US devised a clever experiment to directly test this question and find out which theory would come out on top. They randomly split 64 participants into two groups: an instructed learning group and an incidental learning group. Both groups sat in front of a computer and saw a row of four squares on the screen, one square for each finger of their hand excluding the thumb. Whenever one of the squares illuminated, participants had to press the button under their corresponding finger, and continue until a sequence of actions was completed. The sequences were made up of eight actions, and participants had to complete the sequences correctly under strict time pressure. Each participant learned a total of three different sequences, repeated 32–192 times, in a random order during training.

What exactly was the difference between the instructed learning and incidental learning groups? The instructed group saw a colored cue before each sequence began, which predicted the sequence they were about to practice — a yellow, blue, or green sequence. So these participants primarily used a conscious strategy in learning the sequences, thinking for example, “ok it’s blue, which means I will be pressing button 2, then 4, then 1…”. The incidental learning group had no such cue and were told that each sequence would be a completely random sequence. So they learned everything through a more automatic detection and reaction system, and couldn’t rely on their conscious predictions and rules.

After training, all participants continued with the same task they practiced. But now, they were playing for money. Before each sequence started, the computer told them how much money it was worth: $5, $10, or $20.

Over the course of training, both groups improved their speed in completing the sequences. The instructed learning group, who saw the predictive color cues for each sequence, showed a learning advantage over the incidental learning group. Their conscious predictions helped them progress more quickly in their training.

But the big question was whether the groups choked equally when faced with the high-stakes $20 sequences. The instructed learning group showed the characteristic pattern of choking under pressure. The added incentive of the $10 sequences improved their performance accuracy compared to the $5 sequences, but the $20 sequences created enough pressure to significantly harm their performance compared to the $10 sequences. So their peak performance was in the middle: enough incentive to care about getting the sequence correct, but not so much that it made them choke.

In contrast, the incidental learning successfully worked its magic in helping participants develop a resilience to the changing incentives. The levels of reward for each sequence made absolutely no difference to performance. The participants’ limited conscious knowledge about the sequences during training was actually a blessing in disguise. It prevented them from choking when it mattered. In fact, even if the predictive color cues were introduced just before playing for money, they still didn’t choke. As long as they learned and trained in implicit and automatic conditions, they were resistant to failing from too much pressure.

These results are a strong hint that choking is driven by our conscious knowledge and control processes in performing a task. Although conscious learning strategies help us to pick up and master a skill more quickly, they also introduce a cost when it comes to performance under pressure. We choke because those conscious strategies are interrupted by other conscious demands associated with a large emotional weight. In other words, the distraction theory explains the causes of our choking better than the over-motivation theory.

So what does it all mean?

What is the right attitude towards criticism?…To investigate candidly the charge; but not fussily, not very anxiously. On no account to retaliate by going to the other extreme — thinking too much.

— Virginia Woolf

The results have worked out in our favor. The distraction theory means that our implicit learning systems, which do not rely on conscious knowledge and awareness, are spared when the pressure mounts. Wherever possible, we can therefore adjust our training styles to fit. The pressures and anxieties caused by screaming fans and high stakes distract our conscious minds from applying the rules we learned back on the training ground. If we limit our awareness of these rules during training, there are fewer opportunities for our anxieties to interrupt our flow. Our implicit and automatic behavioral systems get on with the job they were trained to do, while our conscious minds are busy worrying about failure and judgment. To put it bluntly, there’s less interference because there’s less to interfere with, at least in our conscious performance.

So what can we do about the delicate balance of sufficient but not excessive anxiety for ideal performance? Can we lean away from choking territory? We have a couple of options: 1) Train ourselves in the most automatic and implicit ways we can when preparing for a major test, in order to build a resistance to pressure-related distractions, 2) Reframe our perceptions of the stakes, in order to reduce the pressure on our shoulders.

Questions such as “what’s the worst that can happen?” help to reframe our perceived stakes during a challenge, especially when we happen to be exaggerating the costs of failure in our anxious minds. Before giving important talks in my earlier career, I would get excessively anxious over vague thoughts such as “oh it would be just horrible if I embarrassed myself here” and “I’ll never forgive myself if I ruin this opportunity”. But as my experience evolved over time, with both fruitful and regretful highlights, new opportunities finally allowed me to ask “what is actually the worst that can happen here?”. It was then easy to see that my biggest fears were improbable and irrational nonsense.

Excessive anxiety, and unnatural attention to our conscious performance dynamics, are both choke-manufacturers. They derail us when we most need to remain focused. Introducing automaticity and reactivity to our training schedules, and rethinking the consequences that depend on our performance, can help with optimally utilizing each opportunity we find. Realizing that we won’t lose everything if we do a terrible job is freeing. It’s always worth appreciating the successes and pleasures that we have already achieved in our lives, because they are still likely to be there if we fail our next challenge. And besides, there’s always next time.


Multitasking Is a Myth You Should Believe In


Multitasking Is a Myth You Should Believe In

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Multitasking is the new norm. In the modern world of smartphones and continuous internet access, information and distractions are all around us. I never manage to write a full article or work on a project without regularly drifting toward WhatsApp, Twitter, and the news. Even when I’m not drifting toward distractions, I am always listening to music while I work. My excuse is that music helps to drown out distractions, and helps to put me in a more focused mental state. But if I’m honest, my singing and head-nodding breaks suggest that music acts as a frequent distraction too.

The truth about multitasking is that it’s not really multitasking at all. The attention processes in our brains aren’t built to simultaneously focus on several streams of information across different tasks. Instead, we shift between individual tasks that require our attention. Some people can do this fast enough that it looks like true multitasking — just watch professional gamers battle each other in demanding computer games — but when multiple tasks require focused attention, you’re never really engaging all of them at the same time.

This is why learning to drive a car is so difficult. When you’re learning, you need to pay careful attention to the several things you need to do: steering, checking mirrors, shifting gears, managing foot pedals, etc. You need to switch your attention between the tasks quickly and effectively to drive safely. But when you’re an expert, each of the tasks becomes habitual and requires less attention. So you can focus your mind on watching the road while everything else pretty much runs itself. You go from “multitasking” to single-tasking.

* * *

Rather than tackling the technicalities of what multitasking means in the brain, one group of researchers wanted to test how beliefs in multitasking affect performance. Most people think they’re great multitaskers: 93.32% of Americans in a survey believed they multitasked as well as, or better than, the average person. A large number of those people in the survey must be wrong, but perhaps their beliefs are good for them.

In their first experiment, the researchers recruited 162 participants and asked them to transcribe an educational video while watching it. The instructions for each participant were slightly different depending on which of two groups they randomly fell into. The first group was labelled the multitasking group, and participants were asked to complete two tasks at the same time: 1) learning the video content, 2) transcribing the video content. The second group was labelled the single-tasking group, and participants were instead asked to complete the single task of learning and transcribing the video content. In other words, all participants took part in exactly the same task, but only half of them were told that it would require multitasking.

Purely through this difference in perceptions and beliefs, the results between the groups diverged. The multitasking group outperformed the single-tasking group by accurately transcribing significantly more words (224 words vs 177 words on average). They also performed better in a pop quiz that tested knowledge of the video, after the transcribing part of the experiment ended. And these performance benefits emerged even though the two groups spent the same amount of time watching and transcribing the videos.

In a second experiment, rather than manipulating people’s perceptions, the researchers decided to look for possible effects of naturally occurring differences in participant perceptions. They asked 80 participants to complete two word puzzles presented side by side on a screen. The first puzzle was a simple word search while the other was an anagram task in which participants had to create as many words as possible out of a 10-letter string. After the puzzles, participants were asked how much they felt they were multitasking during their efforts. Stronger feelings of multitasking correlated positively with the number of correct words found.

To extend this word puzzle experiment, the researchers took a new set of participants and repeated their manipulations of multitasking perceptions from the first experiment. But this time, the researchers were slightly more subtle in their language. They told the people randomly assigned to the multitasking group that the two word puzzles came from separate studies, while telling the single-tasking participants that the puzzles came from the same study. Once again, the multitasking group performed better than the single-tasking group, finding significantly more correct words in the puzzles (13.65 words vs 7.5 words on average).

With the attentive diligence that marks any good scientist, the researchers repeated the word puzzle experiment a final time after manipulating perceptions, but this time included eye-tracking technology that allowed them to measure how much participants’ pupils dilated during the task. Pupil dilation is linked to greater mental effort, attention, and arousal, so if multitasking believers actually engaged better with the task, you would expect to see their pupils grow larger than the pupils of single-tasking believers.

In line with these predictions, participants in the multitasking group not only repeated their superior performance in the word puzzles, but also showed larger pupil dilation than the single-tasking group. You might think the larger pupils were due to the exciting arousal associated with performing better, but in fact, their pupils were already larger before they even found their first word. The larger dilation then continued throughout the rest of the task. Multitaskers’ brains and bodies physiologically engaged more deeply with the task as soon as participants were attempting the puzzles.

Amazingly, the researchers ran a total of 30 experiments focused on the question of how multitasking perceptions directly improve performance. So the last flick of their wand was to combine the data from all of these studies and understand the strength of the overall effect with a meta-analysis. They measured the magnitude of the difference between the multitasking and single-tasking groups in each study (the effect size), and then calculated the average effect size across the studies with a statistical model that took into account the size of each study. The overall effect was significant and moderate in magnitude, so a belief in multitasking meaningfully and consistently enhanced performance.

* * *

It’s always astonishing to find out how powerful our beliefs and perceptions really are. Everything from placebo effects to superstitions can dramatically influence our behavior and its outcomes. We can call it the power of faith and confidence. Thinking positive thoughts is not just a cheap trick that fools you into believing everything is going well; sometimes, things really do go better when you are optimistic. It’s not a supernatural energy or force at work, it’s simply your beliefs and perceptions improving how you approach and deal with a problem.

When it comes to multitasking, the idea that we can do several things at once may be technically incorrect. However, the belief that we are multitasking is enough to make us single-task more efficiently. So this may be a rare situation that calls for feelings over facts. Multitasking might be wrong, but it works.


E-Cigarettes May Be Your Best Hope to Quit Smoking


E-Cigarettes May Be Your Best Hope to Quit Smoking

Smoking remains one of the worst things we do to our health. We get hooked on the nicotine and then regularly ingest a list of poisons that slowly consume our organs. Health systems around the world are desperate to get people to stop smoking in a bid to reduce the healthcare burden of patients with smoking-related diseases. But their recommendations can only do so much when up against the physiological addictions in smokers’ brains.

As far as doctors and scientists today can tell, e-cigarettes do less bodily damage than traditional tobacco cigarettes, although our existing knowledge on their health risks is far from complete. With the overwhelming difficulty associated with going cold turkey on nicotine, vaping may provide a welcome aid on the journey to smoking cessation. Recent media attention has focused on the hazards of vaping, especially on its growing use among adolescents. While we should all agree that we need to curb the glamorous advertising of nicotine addictions to minors, we can still look for the potential advantages of e-cigarettes as a replacement device for smokers.

Do e-cigarettes actually help you quit smoking? At the end of January 2019, a noteworthy trial by researchers in the UK was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and it targeted exactly that question.

The researchers recruited a group of people attending stop-smoking services within the UK National Health Service, and randomly split them into two groups: one group that was prescribed e-cigarettes and another that was given a choice from a list of other nicotine-replacement products including gum, patches, and nasal/mouth sprays. People in both groups also received one-on-one behavioral support every week from a local clinician. It’s worth noting that all of these people were clearly motivated to quit smoking given their attendance at the stop-smoking clinics. Without a strong motivation to quit, it seems unlikely that any smoking cessation aid would do much good.

The two groups of participants were asked to persist with their efforts to quit smoking for a full year, at which point the researchers followed up to measure outcomes. Of the 886 people who started the trial, almost 80% completed their final follow-up assessments at the end of their 52 weeks. As you’ve probably guessed, the most interesting question for the researchers was whether either group would have a significant advantage in overcoming their smoking habits.

The researchers considered a participant abstinent if they reported smoking less than five cigarettes from the two weeks after they started their trial. They confirmed this report with a breath test for carbon monoxide, which is a harmful element found in tobacco smoke but not in the products of typical e-cigarettes or nicotine-replacement products. 18% of participants in the e-cigarette group and 9.9% of participants in the nicotine-replacement group remained abstinent from smoking cigarettes at the end of the year. On top of that, among participants who failed to remain entirely abstinent, carbon monoxide tests confirmed that 12.8% of people in the e-cigarette group, compared to only 7.4% in the nicotine-replacement group, managed to cut their smoking by at least 50%.

In the group of participants who remained abstinent after a year, 80% were continuing to use their e-cigarettes while only 9% were using their alternative methods of nicotine replacement. Although neither method could rival the pleasure of a traditional cigarette, participants reported feeling greater satisfaction from using their e-cigarettes than other replacement products, and found them more helpful in quitting smoking. In the early days of their efforts to quit, e-cigarette users reported less trouble with irritability, restlessness, and failures to concentrate than the other nicotine-replacement users.

The data suggest that e-cigarettes are a helpful tool for people who want to ditch their cigarette habit. They reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, and they lead to greater success in continuing abstinence from tobacco. The proportion of successful quitters overall in the trial wasn’t enormous, which is a testament to just how difficult the challenge is. It takes motivation, effort, and probably a few encouraging nudges from friends and loved ones.

Photo by  Matheus Lira  on  Unsplash

Several advantages of e-cigarettes could explain their greater success over other stop-smoking products. Perhaps the nicotine dosages are better-tailored to user needs than most other methods. As a behavioral scientist, my own mind leans toward the practical behavioral qualities of e-cigarettes as a delivery vehicle for nicotine. They don’t just drive nicotine into your system, they do it in a way that closely matches traditional cigarettes. They offer all of the habitual cues that smokers have adapted to: the small stick between the fingers, the glowing tip as nicotine is inhaled, and the gentle release of smoke during an exhale.

These behavioral elements might sound like nothing compared to the physical absence of nicotine in an addicted brain. Although nicotine absence may be the primary driving force behind failed attempts to quit smoking, all of the contextual elements that surround the habit of smoking may also make a difference between success and relapse. 

In the days before e-cigarettes were widely available, I witnessed family members doing all kinds of bizarre things in their efforts to patch up the hole left in their lives from throwing out the cigarettes when they decided to quit. They played with prayer beads to keep their fingers busy, they held candy sticks between their lips to mimic cigarettes, and they enjoyed the feeling of blowing vapor out of their mouths on a cold day. Now, e-cigarettes offer all of these in a more convenient and less silly-looking package.

But let’s not forget the problems of e-cigarettes. Non-smokers who choose to take up vaping are still putting themselves at risk of becoming vulnerable nicotine addicts. As the results of the study above highlighted, e-cigarette users were far more likely to continue with their new habit than other nicotine-replacement users. If we are talking about adults who willingly make this decision while understanding the dangers, it’s not necessarily a big deal. But if we are talking about children and teenagers who will grow to regret their addiction, and are blindly driven to the habit by exciting adverts, the problem is more obvious. Although it currently seems as though the health hazards of e-cigarettes are less severe than tobacco cigarettes, we may identify harms as the science and evidence develops in this area. And, of course, vaping costs money. In hard times when you want to spend less, the last thing you want to deal with is a nicotine addiction.

If you are trying to beat a harmful cigarette habit, an assist from e-cigarettes may be a sensible bet. For now, they appear to be the best available product for dealing with smoking cessation. As a society, we can use them in efforts to reduce the prevalence of smoking-related diseases, while doing our best to avoid throwing vulnerable groups such as children and adolescents into just another vortex of addiction.


Aerobic Exercise Beats Muscle Training in Improving Brain Function


Aerobic Exercise Beats Muscle Training in Improving Brain Function

Photo by  Jacob Postuma  on  Unsplash

Choose rather to be strong of soul than strong of body.

— Pythagoras

As intelligent as Pythagoras was, he was almost certainly wrong in his intuitive hard-edged separation of body versus soul. It hasn’t been long since I last wrote about the wonders of physical exercise for brain and mental function. But new studies have continued in the meantime, and it’s important to stay on top of them. Scientific progress is incremental, and evidence in support of a particular theory either continues to accumulate or wavers until a few killer studies finally disprove the theory.

By keeping up to date with evidence as it appears, we can minimize the chance that we hold outdated or erroneous assumptions about how the world or our bodies work. So is there still a strong case in support of regular aerobic activity as a cognitive enhancer? And does aerobic activity beat muscle training in boosting our mental function?

When we think about cognitive function and possible activities to enhance, stimulate, or protect it, we typically consider mental exercises; this is what makes brain training and problem-solving games so popular. We feel that our cognitive ability is being challenged and that our performance is improving in the game, so we make a natural analogy to the challenges of lifting progressively heavier weights at the gym: physical exercises push the limits of our body and improve it in the process, while mental exercises push the limits of our brain and improve it in the process.

But as my previous article highlighted, it’s a mistake to think about physical and mental activity as independent domains. They are both indispensable parts of the same unified structure that we call a human. So it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the aerobic activity that benefits our body also benefits our mind. All of our actions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences come from the operations of our biological organs after all.

In line with this logic, it’s reasonable to expect that physical exercise should benefit the brain and mind, but we still need good evidence to demonstrate that it actually happens. A new study published at the end of January 2019 in the journal Neurology targets exactly this question.

The group of researchers from Columbia University wanted to test the cognitive effects of regular aerobic exercise for adults between the ages of 20 and 67. They recruited 132 participants with normal cognitive ability but below-average physical fitness. Then, they randomly sorted these people into two groups: an aerobic exercise group and a stretching/toning group.

Participants in the aerobic exercise group selected from a list of different activities, but all activities were organized to meet a standard heart rate intensity during the exercise. It doesn’t particularly matter whether you run, cycle, or swim. As long as it gets your heart pumping in the same way, you should achieve similar aerobic effects. The stretching/toning group instead performed exercises that enhanced physical flexibility and core strength.

Recruits in both groups individually attended a fitness center four times a week, for a total of 24 weeks. Each session lasted approximately an hour under the guidance of trainers and coaches, and heart rate was continuously monitored to make sure that the aerobic training was hitting its desired targets.

Over the course of the experiment, the researchers assessed aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and cognitive ability three times for each participant: first before the experiment started, second after 12 weeks of training, and finally after the full 24 weeks of training. This allowed the researchers to analyze the change in aerobic and cognitive ability as participants trained throughout the 6 months of the study. If physical exercise does affect cognitive ability, it’s possible that it influences each of our mental functions differently. To make sure they were able to detect this, the researchers tested several cognitive skills including language, attention, and memory.

Photo by  Michal Vrba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Michal Vrba on Unsplash

Fortunately for us, we can unwrap the data now to learn the results rather than waiting 6 months like the diligent researchers. But first, a few sanity checks. Before the experiment started, the aerobic exercise and stretching/toning groups did not differ in age, sex, education, IQ, or any of the cognitive assessments that the researchers used. This is good news because it suggests the randomized grouping successfully removed any major bias in splitting the participants. The aerobic group had slightly more participants with hypertension, but the rarity of medical conditions overall meant that only six participants (out of the 132) were affected.

Now that the sanity checks are in order, let’s look at what happened to the measures of aerobic capacity. Unsurprisingly, the aerobic training group showed greater improvements in aerobic capacity than the stretching group. Their VO2 max was elevated to similar levels for both the 12-week and the 24-week assessments, while the stretching group showed no change. As expected, the aerobic training succeeded in improving participants’ cardiovascular fitness.

The more exciting question relates to how the cognitive outcomes changed. Most of the cognitive traits did not change with either training program, but one particular trait jumped out of the data. That trait is called executive function, which typically refers to our ability to effortfully guide our behavior toward specific goals. When you organize or prioritize your options, suppress inappropriate actions, categorize information, and focus your attention on critical aspects of a task, you are using executive function.

The researchers found that participants in the aerobic exercise condition showed a greater improvement in their executive function performance after 24 weeks of training compared to the stretching group. They also spotted an interesting interaction with participant age: older participants saw larger benefits to their executive function from the aerobic exercise.

To work out whether the executive function improvements might be linked to brain changes, they also ran some imaging scans. The scans revealed larger growth in a small area of the middle frontal cortex on the left hemisphere of the brain after aerobic training compared to stretching/toning. However, the amount of growth did not seem to correlate with improvements in executive function.

* * *

Bodily decay is gloomy in prospect; but of all human contemplations the most abhorrent is body without mind

— Thomas Jefferson

The results of this study support the idea that aerobic exercise is good for our cognitive function. As with any study though, it has its limitations and we need to wait for even better evidence before believing that we’ve hit upon the correct answer. Better evidence means bigger studies, with more participants followed over longer time frames, that replicate these effects. Perhaps the positive effect on executive function was just a fluke? If an independent lab finds the same pattern, we can be more confident that it’s a legitimate effect.

For now, the evidence is moving in an optimistic direction that suggests if you care about your mental wellbeing, jumping on your bicycle or treadmill regularly is a good idea. And let’s face it, even if it doesn’t improve your cognitive function, you’ll almost certainly be helping out your cardiovascular health, and there’s no real sign of a downside from regular exercise.

There are, of course, mental activities that benefit our mental wellbeing too. Mindfulness is growing in popularity and the evidence to support its psychological benefits is getting stronger. And rather like the benefits of physical exercise for cognition, mindfulness may also have important benefits for physical health. Whatever way we look at it, the road between mind and body is a continuous two-way street. Our body produces our mind and our mind feeds back to affect our body. This seamless cycle is a great reason to pay equal attention to our physical and mental health.


Psychological Targeting Makes You More Likely to Click “Buy”


Psychological Targeting Makes You More Likely to Click “Buy”

Photo by  Tony Reid  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tony Reid on Unsplash

It’s always surprising to learn about how similar we all are, but businesses often care more about the differences between us. It’s all about “target audiences”, “customer profiling”, and “personalization”. Lumping customers into a single group and holding the same umbrella over them is not as effective as detailing their differences and using tailored strategies to profit from them. Showing everyone an advert for a million-dollar luxury yacht is not as efficient as showing the yacht to high-income groups while promoting cheaper holiday breaks for low-income groups.

When content is personalized to our own tastes and circumstances, it means we are being shown what is most relevant to us. It minimizes our workload in accessing the information we want or need. If we open up our internet browser to buy a new pair of shoes, it’s far more convenient to immediately see an advert for our favorite style of shoes than to search several outlets to find them ourselves. The more information that companies have about us, the better they can filter out the irrelevant content that we do not want to see.

You may already be thinking about the potential hazards of companies knowing too much about us, and you’d be right to raise that concern. Privacy is an important priority in our lives, and the more of it we give up, the less protection we have against those who want to mould or mislead us. But the frequent scare stories around this issue make it easy to forget the ways in which selling off some of our personal data is actually streamlining our lives. I’m not arguing that we no longer need to worry. I’m arguing that it’s worth keeping sight of why we make these sacrifices.

The major online services that you use every single day, but don’t pay for upfront, are likely to be making their money by selling the data they gather on you to other businesses. Those businesses use your data to show you adverts that fit your online activity patterns and personal information. The better they can tailor their content to suit you, the more likely they are to sell you a product at a minimal advertising cost. They want to pump their conversion rates — the probability that you will buy the product when you see their advert — as high as they will possibly go. To do that, they want to know everything about you. And one particularly useful pot of gold may be your personality.

A team of academics wanted to test just how useful your personality could be to an advertiser. They didn’t need to interview users or even send them a questionnaire in order to assess their personalities. They only needed to analyze one important piece of information: Facebook Likes.

When we Like a piece of content on Facebook, we’re not just expressing that we like that specific feature. We are revealing deeper aspects of our identity, because the things we like and enjoy depend on our personalities. If we are extraverted rather than introverted, we may be more likely to enjoy social content. If we have high rather than low openness, we may be more likely to enjoy adventurous content. The truckload of Likes that Facebook has on each user allows them to analyze that data and infer a user’s personality. In fact, that data allows a computer to predict our personality better than our friends or family can.

So by assessing our personality through our Facebook Likes, the academics ran three experiments, all focused on identifying whether messages that fit Facebook users’ personalities would be more likely to convince them to buy a product.

In the first study, they created two versions of a beauty product advert: one they believed would be ideal for extraverted users and another that was designed for introverted users. The extraverted adverts would use messages that appeal to an outgoing and sociable nature such as “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are)”. In contrast, the introverted adverts would lean toward messages targeting a quieter and more withdrawn demeanor, such as “Beauty doesn’t have to shout”.

Their advertising campaign reached over 3 million Facebook users. When the advert matched a user’s personal level of extraversion, the researchers found that the user was 50% more likely to buy the product than when the advert was mismatched. So personality-based targeting allows adverts to connect with users on a deeper level, and is more likely to sway them toward clicking the buy button.

Photo by  Joshua Earle  on  Unsplash

The result above was more than just a lucky shot. The researchers ran a second experiment, this time with an advert for a crossword app, which was tailored in its messaging to people who were either high or low in openness. The high-openness messages appealed to users’ curiosity and imagination (e.g. “Aristoteles? The Seychelles? Unleash your creativity and challenge your imagination with an unlimited number of crossword puzzles!”). The low-openness messages instead appealed to tradition and familiarity (e.g. “Settle in with an all-time favorite! The crossword puzzle that has challenged players for generations.”).

Once again, after reaching over 84,000 users on Facebook and Instagram, the adverts that fit a user’s personality were over 30% more likely to convince the user to install the app than conflicting adverts. However, this time, the effect was primarily driven by those people who were low in openness. The high-openness people seemed to care less about which advert they saw, and were equally likely to install for both messages.

In a final third experiment, they decided to put their theory to a direct test in adjusting an existing company’s advert messaging in line with user personality, and examining whether it improved user interactions and conversion rates. The company in question was trying to sell a bubble shooter game and they usually targeted audiences who had downloaded similar games, using their standard advert: “Ready? FIRE! Grab the latest puzzle shooter now! Intense action and brain-bending puzzles!”. The researchers analyzed the personalities of the target audience and learned that they were highly introverted. So they created an advert that instead probed those users with a less excited and outgoing message: “Phew! Hard day? How about a puzzle to wind down with?”.

Over half a million Facebook users saw the adverts, and the researchers replicated their previous results by showing that the new personality-adjusted advert attracted more clicks, app installs, and a significantly better conversion rate than the standard advert.

* * *

Persuasion convinces people to change their behavior, but there are many variables that determine exactly how persuasive a message is. The more of those variables that an organization can get their hands on, the more intuitively and effectively they can speak to us. I’ve previously written about how well Facebook knows us, but I wanted to give the issue of targeted marketing some more comprehensive airtime, especially because adverts are rapidly moving in the direction of increasing personalization.

We all have different hobbies, interests, and temperaments, so we are attracted to different features of the world: some of us are drawn more toward a quiet night with a book while others are drawn more toward a loud and crowded party. We are also more easily convinced by people who have similar characteristics to us: when an acquaintance shares our age group and our interests, we find them more relatable, and we allow them more room and opportunity to persuade us. This all feeds into the power of personally-tailored adverts and messages.

Clearly, a personalized approach to content curation is influential, but perhaps it is also a little divisive. Most of us bury ourselves in social bubbles and curated news feeds, as we interact exclusively with our personal interests or networks. The deeper we root into social networks and targeted content, the more resistant our bubbles become. It takes effort and willpower to break out of a bubble, because we don’t particularly want to do it; we are engaged by personalization precisely because it gives us so much of what we want, and that’s why it’s so profitable for businesses.

However, breaking free occasionally and exploring the world beyond our bubble is likely to be an adventure we won’t regret. Whether it’s uncomfortable political commentary, new stimulating hobbies, or adventurous artistic tastes, venturing over to the other side of the wall gives us a much-needed refreshing escape from our tightening leashes.


Want Your Friends to Wash Their Hands? Try This Subconscious Nudge


Want Your Friends to Wash Their Hands? Try This Subconscious Nudge

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

— Edward Bernays

Behavioral “nudging” is taking over the world. Businesses, nonprofits, and governments are sprouting entire departments that design psychological tricks to change people’s behavior. When we need people to quit smoking, drive safely, or use their new smartphone properly, it’s often not enough to spend millions on new adverts or include an instruction manual. We’ve been telling people to stop smoking and eat healthily for decades, but their existing habits make it too difficult to simply follow instructions. We are all too tired, too busy, and too lacking in willpower to do all the things we are supposed to do.

Here enters the world of behavioral science. Rather than repeatedly telling brick walls to do better, we can use research from experimental psychology to design interventions that actually work. For example, we know that laziness is common, and that even when we are aware of a good idea, we still often don’t get around to doing it.

Consider the problem of organ donation. Many of us believe that donating our organs when we die is a great idea: we will save lives and contribute to scientific progress by giving away body parts when we are too dead to use them. And yet, too many of us still haven’t opted in for the program. It was only a couple of years ago, while I lived in the UK, that I finally found the opportunity while renewing my driver’s license. A compulsory message asked me (I am paraphrasing), “Hey, we’re going to donate your organs when you die. Is that cool with you?”. Of course it was cool with me, and I’m glad they finally asked.

This kind of opt-out rather than opt-in approach is useful because it gets around our lazier instincts. Countries with opt-out rather than opt-in programs end up with a greater number of liver and kidney transplants. If a simple technique like this can nudge us toward donating our cherished organs, then there are likely to be many other amazing outcomes it can achieve.

A recent study tackled the issue of hand-washing. Despite the title of this article, this is a serious problem. When medical staff or workers in other infection-ridden industries forget to wash their hands, people can die. Stickers on the wall that say “Please wash your hands” just don’t work well enough. So what else can we do?

Perhaps “the decoy effect” could help. This is a strategy frequently used in marketing, where a decoy product, which a business knows nobody will ever buy, can enhance the allure of another more realistic product. For example, imagine a magazine subscription with two options: an online-only option that costs $59 for a year, and an option offering both online and print versions for a total of $125 a year. As Dan Ariely explains in his book, with only these two options available, the large majority of subscribers choose the cheaper online-only version. But introduce a third nonsense option next to the other two, which offers a print-only version for $125, and suddenly preferences shift entirely. Now, an even larger majority of subscribers choose the expensive print-plus-online option rather than the cheaper online-only version. And that’s purely because the print-only decoy made the identically-priced print-plus-online option look so much better. Although nobody picks the decoy itself, its presence makes them feel “woah, the print-plus-online option is such a great deal because it’s the same price as print-only”. So their preference shifts from the cheapest online-only option toward the more expensive “good deal”.

A team of researchers from the US and China tested whether they could use the decoy effect to encourage food-factory factory workers to wash their hands more often. They went into a factory where workers were supplied with a sanitizer spray on their work desks, and placed an additional sanitizer squeeze bottle next to the spray on half of the desks. This was the decoy: it was just as hygienic as the spray, but it was less convenient to use because it required more effort to turn the squeeze bottle over and apply the hand sanitizer. So in effect, rather like the magazine subscription example I gave earlier, workers had three options: don’t clean at all (convenient but unhygienic), clean with the spray bottle (somewhat inconvenient but hygienic), or clean with the squeeze bottle (very inconvenient but hygienic).

Among the group of workers who saw no change on their desks and had access to only their normal spray bottle (let’s call them the control group), around 70% passed sanitary requirements in a test. But for the group of workers with the additional decoy squeeze bottle on their desk, pass rates were at around 90%. And that was because they increased their usage of the original spray bottle, which all workers, including those in the control group, had continuous access to. In a second experiment that replaced the squeeze bottle with an even less convenient decoy for workers, namely a sanitizing basin within which workers had to soak their hands for 30 seconds, results were even stronger. Across the 20 days of the intervention, sanitary test pass rates increased to an average of 98%, thanks to the convenient charm of the ordinary spray bottle sitting on the desk.

* * *

We are sorest bent and troubled by invisible hands.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Many people are understandably concerned about a world of nudges. Isn’t it psychological manipulation and possibly even brainwashing? If governments and businesses can use it against us, for bad rather than for good, are we in trouble?

If it makes you feel any better, you should know that organizations have been nudging you, and you have been nudging other people, for a long time. It just hasn’t previously had a consistent formal name. For decades, advertisers have been pushing your buttons and pulling your strings with images of attractive famous people and overhyped products. Retailers have been arranging their products in ways that make you more likely to pick them up. And we’ve all been adjusting our language and behavior to enhance our appearance in front of other people. We are built to convince others to like us and help us, and we are also built to respond predictably to the nice or nasty actions of everybody else. Whether we talk about angry mobs on Twitter or typical everyday conversations with friends, behavior is predictable enough that the world makes sense.

If nudging did not work at all, we would be living in a troubling and messy world. Life is more pleasant when we understand what’s going on, and people are behaving as we expect. We generally avoid uncertainty because it can be dangerous. A natural consequence of this healthy predictable mindset is that other people can manipulate it. Casinos make us gamble more, businesses sell us damaging products like cigarettes, and social pressure pushes us into situations we’d rather avoid. But we can’t forget the countless good things: health services can encourage us to prolong our lives, digital products can simplify our lives, and society can urge us to conform to positive social values. As long as we keep our wits about us, we can maintain some control over which influences we choose to allow into our own life, and which pressures we choose to reject.

There will always be external forces in our lives, outside our awareness, that push our behavior in particular directions. It simply comes with the job description of being human. With some additional attention to our motivations and reasoning each time we make an important decision, we can give ourselves the best chance of avoiding harmful behaviors and maximizing the actions that are good for us. We don’t need to worry about manipulation when it is in our interest and helping to increase our health and happiness. If you really want your pals to sanitize before leaving your bathroom, just put a particularly unpleasant soap dispenser right next to the normal soap.


Since writing this article, I have come across an important note from an editor at Psychological Science, the journal that published the original food factory study. You can read his comments here. After he discusses an investigation into the data from the research team, his conclusion states: “These considerations undermine confidence in these data. But, in my opinion, they do not constitute clear evidence of fraud. I also note that Li and Sun [authors of the work] cooperated very helpfully in the investigation of this case.”


Love Flicks Your Brain’s Commitment Switch


Love Flicks Your Brain’s Commitment Switch

Photo by  Evan Kirby  on  Unsplash

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs

— William Shakespeare

Romantic love is a powerful social force, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Many of our most dramatic memories are likely to come from interactions with people we adore. When we profess our love but the feeling isn’t reciprocated, it can leave us feeling lonely, embarrassed, and even depressed. When love is requited, it is almost the mirror image: elation, motivation, and boosted self-worth. These experiences have inspired some of the greatest literature and most popular entertainment in history, from Shakespearean tragedies to Witherspoonian romantic comedies. How do we fall in love in the first place, and why is it so breathtaking?

Let’s start in the brain. Are there any patterns of brain activity that predict whether we will like someone when we meet them? Researchers tested this question by putting participants in a brain scanner and analyzing their brain activity while they looked at photographs of prospective romantic partners. After the brain scanning, participants actually got to meet the people from the photographs at a speed-dating event. This gave the researchers a great opportunity to examine whether the brain activity they measured in response to the photographs predicted decision-making during dating.

The researchers identified two areas of the brain that were active while participants weighed up the photos, and that predicted their later choices. The first was the paracingulate cortex — an area on the medial surface of the brain — which coded for judgments of physical attractiveness. Beauty judgments were fairly consistent across participants. The second relevant brain area was the rostromedial prefrontal cortex — another more frontal medial area — which instead coded for judgments about perceived personality and likability, preferences that varied between participants.

The medial frontal surface of our brain therefore computes several bits of information about people who could become future romantic partners, including general information that we all tend to agree on, and information that is more specific to our personal preferences. Love at first sight may depend on the levels of activity in your paracingulate and rostromedial frontal cortices.

We understand some of what the brain is doing when we look at prospective partners, but what exactly is it that makes two people compatible and successful in building a relationship? A few obvious possibilities may spring to mind — a similar sense of humor, shared experiences, matching personalities, etc. But the answer is a lot more difficult than you might expect, because these variables are not great at predicting relationship outcomes.

In 2017, researchers tried to uncover what makes a couple compatible, but learned that it is incredibly difficult to predict romantic desire based on personal attributes before two people meet. The researchers assessed over 100 traits and characteristics for a group of undergraduate students who would then attend a speed-dating event where they would interact with around 12 people. Although the traits could predict people’s general tendency to romantically desire other people, and to be desired by other people, they could not predict relationship outcomes for a specific couple. Your personality and attitudes may explain why people generally find you attractive, but they won’t explain why you’re particularly compatible with your current romantic partner.

After we’ve dated someone a few times, we face the prospect of falling in love with them. As intense romantic love develops over the first couple of months and years of a relationship, the brain shows some specific patterns of activation. When we look at a photo of our recently established romantic partner, reward and motivation areas of the brain boost their firing. Those areas include the ventral tegmental area and caudate nucleus, which are typically involved in releasing and utilizing the neurotransmitter dopamine, an important chemical within the brain’s reward systems.

Love is essentially a motivation function and differs from the feeling of sexual arousal; the neural networks underlying love and sex overlap to some degree, but they are also distinct in important ways. Our sex drive pushes us to look for new mates, while our love drive encourages us to stick with a specific partner and take care of important responsibilities like raising children.

The activity in some of these early-stage love areas of the brain can actually predict long-term relationship outcomes. One group of researchers contacted their participants from a previous experiment on budding relationships, and asked them to return to the lab 40 months later. Half of them were still with their previous partners while the other half had separated. The researchers found that the people who showed more activation in their caudate nucleus during the early experiment were more likely to remain with their partners 40 months later and more likely to report greater relationship commitment. They found the opposite pattern in a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens: deactivation was associated with better relationship outcomes. Low nucleus accumbens activity in the presence of temptation has previously been linked to better self-control, suggesting that perhaps those with a better ability to control their impulses are more likely to remain in committed relationships over the long term.

Long-term love has some additional components in the brain. It recruits some of the same dopaminergic areas stimulated by early romantic love, but it also recruits areas involved in maternal love such as the globus pallidus and substantia nigra, which are structures packed with oxytocin hormone receptors. So, in a sense, we view our spouse as a disturbing mix of parent and lover. Oxytocin is a hormone that facilitates social bonding in humans and other species, helping us to strengthen attachments with family and romantic partners. Among early lovers, particular variants of an oxytocin receptor gene, specifically variants that are associated with social disturbances, can predict poor empathic communication. Many of us have probably experienced firsthand how a lack of empathy can be harmful to a relationship.

* * *

Love is anterior to life, 
Posterior to death, 
Initial of creation, and 
The exponent of breath.

— Emily Dickinson

We need love to be truly happy, and the online dating revolution has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for meeting prospective romantic partners. This increased opportunity is a blessing for many, especially those who have typically struggled to meet new people. But it may be worth keeping an eye on the possible costs too. Online interactions with strangers lack many of the rich social signals and qualities associated with meeting people in person. During the first interaction, we can’t look into their eyes and assess them based on the subtle way they physically speak or act in front of us. By looking at a static idealized photo as the first point of contact, we throw out all those years of evolution that fine-tuned us for rejecting unpleasant people and attracting us toward compatible people.

In essence, we may be swiping away the love of our life and arranging dates with people who would never have passed our initial sensory checks in the physical world. We may also be shifting our priorities toward a shallower mindset that isn’t necessarily suited to building the healthiest long-term relationships. In the traditional face-to-face social world, the person we swiped away in an app might have had a second chance to impress us with their other behavioral qualities. To be clear, I don’t consider myself a dating app skeptic; I’m actually an optimist but also a worrier who tries to look at both sides of every coin.

Love will continue to be the biggest priority in our life, whether it’s toward our families, partners, or children. It gives us a reason to live and motivates us to be a good person that people want to associate with. Although unreciprocated love can make us feel as though we never want to love again, our persistence in finding the right person pushes us into environments that develop and enhance our character. As we move closer to finding our lifetime companion, we become better people, and ultimately tie ourselves to a wonderful person who is willing to accept our remaining flaws.


Psychopaths Lack Human Social Reflexes


Psychopaths Lack Human Social Reflexes

Photo by  Ashley Jurius  on  Unsplash

Psychopaths have a strange allure about them. We enjoy reading their stories, talking about them, and watching them in Hollywood movies. It’s almost as though we are fascinated by their utter lack of care for our feelings. Mystery drives curiosity, even when the mystery is not particularly good for us. The simple fact that they lack empathy — a typical human trait that the rest of us automatically experience — makes us want to learn more about them.

Psychopathy (or the related diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) is characterized by selfishness, callousness, impulsivity, and a lack of empathy. Less than 5% of people truly meet the criteria to be properly diagnosed as psychopaths. But like with many other psychological characteristics, psychopathic traits sit along a continuum, and a person is diagnosed when their symptoms exceed some predefined threshold. So even if we don’t personally know a real psychopath, it probably is true that most of us know someone who is a bigger psychopath than we are.

* * *

Empathy is a pivotal feature for telling apart a psychopath from a typical person, but we can study empathy from several perspectives. The first relates to what scientists call “theory of mind”, which refers to our ability to reliably attribute mental states to other people. It allows us to read their behaviors, intentions, and beliefs. Without it, we struggle to understand what people are doing and what they are likely to do next.

Psychopaths do not seem to have much difficulty with theory of mind. Depending on how you look at it, their normal function in this domain may sound surprising. If theory of mind is a critical feature of empathy, then you would predict that selfish psychopaths lack that capacity for reading minds; after all, how can we understand other people’s beliefs and motivations without empathy? 

But what if you consider theory of mind as just one facet of empathy rather than its critical core? Then, it’s less surprising to know that psychopaths are good at reading people. In fact, much of their callous manipulation of others probably depends on an intact theory of mind. People are much harder to manipulate if you cannot understand and predict their thoughts and behaviors.

The truth is psychopaths understand other people’s feelings perfectly well, but simply don’t care too much about them. Therein lies another facet of empathy. If our conscious comprehension of other people’s mental states is one half of the story, then perhaps the other half is our unconscious reaction to those perceptions. How deeply do other people’s intentions and experiences — their thoughts, pains, and pleasures — affect us?

Photo by  Maxime Roedel  on  Unsplash

In early 2018, one study investigated this unconscious perspective of empathy in the context of psychopathy. They took over 100 male convicts in a high-security prison and ran through a standard psychopathy checklist with them. The prisoners then completed a computerized task that featured a human character standing in a room; the right and left walls of that room had a number of red dots painted on them and the computer character faced one of those walls.

The task itself was straightforward: participants had to report either how many dots they could see painted on the walls from their own perspective, or how many dots the computer character could see from his animated perspective.

Consistent with previous research using this type of task, the researchers first found that participants were faster in judging how many dots they could see themselves versus how many dots the computer character could see. Even with our decent theory of mind ability, it’s still easier to judge the world from our own perspective than somebody else’s perspective.

Participants were also faster to judge the number of dots when their own perspective matched the perspective of the computer character. If both they and the character could see the same number of dots, they responded quickly. If they could see a different number of dots to the character, then it would take them longer to indicate the correct number of dots because of the interference from the inconsistent perspectives.

The interference patterns overall differed depending on whether the participants judged their own perspective or the character’s perspective at the time. We can consider two types of interference: altercentric interference is when the number of dots that the computer character sees disrupts our own assessment of how many dots we can see; egocentric interference is when our own perspective interferes with how we count the other person’s dots. In other words, you could argue that egocentric interference is an automatic sign of human selfishness, while altercentric interference is an automatic sign of human empathy.

On the whole, participants experienced both types of interference, consistent with the behavior of non-criminal populations who have previously completed the task. However, the researchers found a more unique pattern when they analyzed the data depending on each prisoner’s level of psychopathy. 

The more serious psychopaths were less affected by altercentric interference, that is, they were less affected by the perspective of the other person when reporting how many dots they could see themselves. There was no such effect for egocentric interference. So psychopaths were perfectly unencumbered by the other person’s perspective when judging their own perspective, but they could not block out their own perspective when trying to judge how many dots the other person could see. They lacked the automatic sign of human empathy that characterizes a non-psychopath, but showed no such deficit in automatic human selfishness.

Unsurprisingly, a participant’s level of psychopathy as measured by the researchers’ checklist predicted the number of assault charges on their criminal record. But here’s a more interesting question: could their performance in the computer task also predict their real-world behavior? The answer is yes. A lower score on altercentric interference (automatic empathy), combined with a higher psychopathy score, predicted a larger number of assault charges. Their lack of an automatic empathy reflex did not just improve their ability to selfishly count dots in the computer task; it also made them more likely to violently assault other people.

* * *

We will all continue to be intrigued by a psychopath’s total disregard for our welfare. Our eyes and wallets remain open for terrifying stories about Mansons, Bundys, Geins, and Dahmers, but it’s also worth studying the less dramatic details of their psychological profiles if we want to understand their behavior. We may never intuitively relate to their severe callousness, but we can at least begin to explain it.

Psychopaths can read our minds and behavior as well as anybody, but when you look for the more unconscious and uncontrollable signs of empathy, you begin to see their depravity through clearer glass. That’s when they can no longer fool us. Only the very best actors can control their unconscious impulses well enough to mask their ordinary nature. The rest of us struggle to hide our thrills, desires, and automatic empathy. 

When we notice that psychopathic killers lack the immediate unconscious reflex of absorbing other people’s perspectives, their cold blood becomes less mysterious, even if it becomes no warmer. 


It Hurts When People Stare Because Their Eyes Are Like Force Beams


It Hurts When People Stare Because Their Eyes Are Like Force Beams

Photo by  Joshua Davis  on  Unsplash

Just over a month ago, I was hiking through a mountain rainforest in Uganda in search of a wild gorilla family. Upon finding them, my knowledgeable guide’s first piece of advice before our careful approach toward the animals was simple: do not stare into their eyes.

The logic of this advice was straightforward in the context of the gorillas: they can perceive a stare-off as a threat. And of course, when a 350-pound silverback perceives a threat, the human on the receiving end is likely to be the significant underdog in any consequent fight.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but in hindsight, the threatening nature of stares applies similarly to humans. I’ve witnessed fights erupt between angry men following a question along the lines of “what are you looking at?”, when one deems that the other has maintained eye contact for too long. And I can only imagine the tiresome frustration that many women experience from the overzealous and not-so-subtle sexualizing stares of certain men while walking down the street.

But why can a look have such a powerful effect? There’s no physical contact involved, so you might think it should be easy to ignore a stare, just as it’s easy to ignore someone’s cough or sneeze. We can think of the question “why?” in two parts.

The first part of the question is to ask what it means when a person stares into our eyes. It’s easy to understand why information is most important to us when it’s personally relevant. We can ignore a nearby conversation until somebody mentions our name, at which point we are suddenly all ears. Hand movements also don’t mean anything until we notice somebody pointing directly at us. Whenever others behave in a way that relates to our sense of identity, we desperately want to find out what is going on. What are they thinking about me? Why are they pointing at me? Why are they looking at me? Any thought or intention that the offending person harbors at that moment could be a sign of danger, and so we are built to pay attention and respond accordingly.

The second part of the question is the trickier one. What is the mechanism by which a look can exert its powerful effects? Even when we know it makes sense to ignore somebody looking at us on public transport, we can’t help but occasionally glance back to see if they’re still staring. A recent study out of Princeton University tackled exactly this question, and their results give new meaning to the phrase “shooting daggers”.

The researchers showed participants an image of a paper tube standing on a table and asked them to indicate the critical angle at which they thought the paper tube would succumb to gravity and fall over if tilted. Next to the tube was an image of a human character’s face, and its eyes could either be looking directly at the tube or be covered with a blindfold.

To understand whether participants treated the tube differently depending on whether someone stared at it, the researchers compared the tilt angle judgments for a tube falling toward the direction of the face and a tube falling away from the face. If participants felt any “push” coming from the eyes, then they would judge a tube to fall sooner when tilting away from the eyes, in line with the push.

Participants consistently estimated a smaller angle when the tube fell backwards away from the face; in other words, their estimates suggested the tube would fall more easily when tilted in the direction to which the character was looking. This difference did not exist when the face in the image was blindfolded. People attributed some sense of physical force to the visual gaze of the character in the picture, with an intensity equivalent to a light puff of air.

The experiment was set up in a way that made it difficult for participants to notice any patterns in their responses. So, without being aware of it, they were somehow intuitively and implicitly believing that staring directly at a falling paper tube would give it an extra push.

In a repeat experiment, the researchers replaced the blindfolded character images to see whether they could replicate the effect in different conditions. They instead used images with a non-blindfolded character who looked in entirely the opposite direction from the tube. Participants responded in the same way: a direct look at the tube was judged to project an invisible physical force toward it, and the force was absent when the character looked the other way.

In a final experiment, the researchers tried another interesting manipulation. Using exactly the same images, they told one group of participants that the character was looking directly at the tube, and told another group of participants that the character was actually looking past the tube at the wall on the opposite side of the table. They wanted to test whether participants were really attributing a force to the inferred focus of the eyes rather than, for example, just the direction of the head.

The first group of participants who knew that the eyes were focused on the tube responded in the same way as the participants in the previous experiments: they reported that it would take a smaller tilt for the tube to fall over backwards (away from the eyes) than forwards (toward the eyes) when that character was staring at the tube. But the second group of participants, who believed that the character was looking at the wall rather than the tube, showed no such effect. Looking at the wall was treated in the same way as being entirely blindfolded. The eyes could only exert their imaginary force on the tube when people believed that the character was gazing directly at it.

Participants were expressing an unconscious bias in their perceptions of how eyes work. When specifically questioned on their beliefs, only around 5% of people actually believed that the eyes could exert any direct physical force on an external object, and none of them were aware of how the character in the image was affecting their reactions to the tube tilt. And yet, their actual judgments during the experiment showed that they couldn’t help but feel an invisible force beaming out of the character’s eyes.

Photo by  Jared Rice  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

The idea that beams are emitted from the eyes during vision, often referred to as “extramission”, has been historically and culturally pervasive, dating all the way back to Greek philosophers around 400 BCE. This primitive intuition may explain the physical eye-force that participants perceived during the experiments above, and it may more generally explain the overwhelming power and influence that we can sense from extended eye contact.

Gaze is particularly powerful because it is one of our most reliable social signals for inferring attention in other people. Even newborns are sensitive to the direction in which other people are looking, because we are born with an instinct to use gaze signals in understanding the world around us. When we talk to someone, and we notice their eyes shift and fixate on something behind us, we cannot help but turn around to check it out ourselves. We assume that whatever they are staring at must be worthy of our own attention too.

Context is of course all-important when it comes to eye contact. The same loving look from our romantic partner can appear predatory from a stranger. We might experience a physical beam from both of them, but one hits us with a feeling of love while the other hits us with a feeling of discomfort. But unless we’re associating with Superman or X-Men’s Cyclops, both beams are invented within our skulls.

Next time we notice an obnoxious person staring incessantly at us with no hint of polite subtlety, we can reflect on why their line of sight is causing us to feel frustrated. Even in a completely safe environment, a stranger’s eyes can act like a faint push in the chest. We feel an illusory physical force breaking into our personal space and we perceive it as a social violation. But when we expect no real harmful threat, we can try to rationalize our reactions rather than start a fight or make ourselves more angry than we need to be. No matter how physical their staring feels, it’s worth remembering an obvious but perhaps camouflaged fact: the look itself is making no direct contact with our body. As long as others keep their distance, there will always be only light and air between us.


Even Honest People Want a Partner in Crime


Even Honest People Want a Partner in Crime

“The time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten hold of us.“

— Thomas Jefferson

Corruption may be an in-built feature of our brains. Some people are more corrupt than others, but when given the opportunity, many of us will choose an action that benefits us at a cost to somebody else. Athletes dope, bankers mislead, lovers cheat, and I’m sure the rest of us can recall a time we acted unfairly. I recently wrote about altruism and the pressures that produce it, but now it’s time to consider the flip side: how deep do the roots of corruption reach into our psyche?

Somebody somewhere is likely to be hurt by a corrupt action, so we can never doubt that honesty is the most ethical way forward. At the same time, corruption often requires instincts and behaviors that we view more fondly. As we have seen in many major news scandals over the past few years, when multiple people are involved in fraud or bribery, it takes a great deal of cooperation and mutual trust for them to pull it off.

So perhaps a social pressure to collaborate could lead us to corruption. In a study from June 2018, pairs of participants took turns to privately roll a die and let each other know the number they had rolled. The experiment was set up so that they would receive a monetary payoff when their numbers matched, and the payoff would be greater for rolling higher numbers. So there was an incentive for lying, and that incentive made a heck of a difference to participant’s behaviors.

Compared to what you’d expect from complete honesty, the pairs were 489% more likely to report rolling the same numbers. The responsibility of reporting a matching number fell with Player 2 because they had to react to the number called by Player 1. But Player 1 was certainly not being honest either, because they were inflating the numbers they reported to earn more money. The mean number you would expect to roll after many attempts is 3.5 (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 divided by 6). Player 1’s mean was significantly higher than this at 5.02. So in contributing to the corrupt cooperation, Player 1 was calling higher numbers, and Player 2 was calling more matches. In other words, both players were most certainly cheating.

In a way, there is something quite sweet about this joint and blatant cheating. The participants did not know each other or speak to each other; their only communication was through the numbers they were rolling and reporting on a computer while they sat in their individual cubicles. And yet, in the context of this game for which they were arbitrarily paired together, they began to cooperate successfully. Humans are social creatures, and cooperation is in our DNA, even when it means cheating together.

Another more recent academic paper took this experiment to the next level. The researchers kept the die-rolling task but introduced an element of choice in which members of each participant pair could choose to change their partner. This allowed the researchers to check whether corrupt participants were more likely to look for a corrupt partner in crime in order to maximize their earnings.

The most stable pairs of participants — the ones who were least likely to switch partners — were the ones composed of two liars: Player 1 asked to switch only 1.4% of the time while Player 2 asked to switch 5.6% of the time. In contrast, when paired with an honest Player 2, a dishonest Player 1 would request to switch partners a whopping 40% of the time. Similarly, a dishonest Player 2 would request to switch almost 50% of the time when paired with an honest Player 1.

But what did the honest players do? An honest Player 2 switched partners at approximately the same rate for honest and dishonest partners. But an honest Player 1 showed a rather different pattern: they were far more likely to request a switch when paired with an honest partner than a dishonest partner. In fact, they enjoyed playing with a corrupt Player 2 so much that the more matches a dishonest partner called, the more likely that Player 1 was to stick with them.

The difference in decisions between an honest Player 1 and an honest Player 2 is likely to be driven by payoff differences. Player 1 has far more money to gain from a dishonest partner than Player 2, because Player 2 can only react to the number being put on the table. So the temptation to keep a corrupt partner and get rid of an honest partner is simply greater for Player 1. But regardless of the total extent of the corruption, honest players overall did not search for honest partners in the same way that dishonest players searched for dishonest partners.

The authors of the research paper gave the honest but corruptible players the label of “ethical free riders”. Those players have a strong enough moral compass to avoid lying themselves, but not sufficiently strong to prevent them from participating in a dishonest partner’s corruption. They enjoy the benefits that come from the partner’s lies too much. Perhaps they more closely resemble hypocrites than liars, another sad quality to which all of us are susceptible.

* * *

“Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch.”

— Thomas Jefferson

The results of the studies above probably support what many of us already suspected. Angels are rare on Earth, and we all surrender to minor sins occasionally. In fact, temptations to cheat can sometimes come from the more noble parts of our personalities. We are driven to cooperate and we are motivated to make progress in life, and these pressures can occasionally shift our scales toward corruption rather than honesty.

At the same time, basic instincts, thoughts, and interventions can push us away from corruption too. As one of my previous articles explains, we are actually quite good at detecting corruption in other people’s faces. And generally speaking, we may be less convinced by temptations when fully aware of the costs and consequences of our behavior, like who we might be hurting and how we might get caught.

Often, better information is sufficient to help us in making a more ethical decision. A research trial published in June 2018 examined whether basic text message communications about government budget irregularities would sway voting behavior during the 2016 Ugandan district elections. When messages conveyed more budget irregularities than expected, recipients reported voting for the incumbent officials less often. And when fewer irregularities were reported, votes for incumbents increased.

If text messages can help to curb corruption, then there must be plenty more we can do. Of course, it may also raise our levels of concern for biased news and outright dishonest information circulating around our online networks. It’s easy for us to get lost in media bubbles and political partisanship when we are trying to vote in ways that truly benefit us.

Elements of corruption will likely remain in our politics, our media, and our ordinary life for a long time yet. In many parts of the world, we have succeeded in crafting less corrupt systems over time, and we will continue to do so. We still have much to learn about how corruption emerges and develops. For example, the slippery slope metaphor that suggests corruption gradually gets more extreme as we engage in increasingly dishonest behaviors may not tell the full story. Some evidence suggests exactly the opposite: we are often more likely to impulsively corrupt our behavior when we come across a sudden opportunity.

While acknowledging our immense progress in building safer and more honorable societies to live in, we should take nothing for granted. We are still only human after all. Plenty can go wrong, and we should make every effort to stamp out corruption in our own behavior and disincentivize it in others. Whether we are being honest or dishonest, we are all tempted by the thought of jumping on a corrupt bandwagon when the rewards are staring us in the face. But we would be right to remain optimistic about the better angels of our nature.


For Better Teamwork, Pump the Brakes on Communication


For Better Teamwork, Pump the Brakes on Communication

“In solitude the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself.”

— Laurence Sterne

Constant communication may be limiting your productivity. In the modern world of cell phones and the internet, communication is easier than ever. We’ve been harvesting the advantages of this for years. We communicate with people on the other side of the world, stay in touch with colleagues outside the office, and immediately share work outputs with anyone who asks. But we have failed to spot one possible disadvantage this whole time: seamless team communication may prevent individuals from contributing their full potential.

We have suspected that isolated decision-making may be valuable for a long time. The classic “wisdom of crowds” effect has shown us that a total lack of communication between individuals can be a good thing, for example, when guessing the quantity of jelly beans in a large jar. If everyone throws their own independent estimate into the ring, you can take the average of all those estimates, and reach a surprisingly accurate answer. This is primarily because extreme guesses can fall either side of the truth: some people will guess too low, others too high, but the average will balance out those effects to approach the true number.

If people communicate in guessing the number of jelly beans, effects of social influence will tend to pull estimates in a particular direction. The most convincing member of the group may succeed in attracting people toward their point of view, even if they are dramatically wrong. With their estimate acting as the new anchor for other estimates, the average of all guesses can drift away from the true number. If history has taught us anything, it is that when leaders are wrong, they take others down with them.

However, in iterative tasks characterized by several rounds, social information can be helpful if it spreads among a decentralized group where each participant is equally connected to others. This is because the individuals with more accurate estimates tend to be the ones who attract other estimates toward them in successive rounds of the task. Instead of the loudest or most charismatic people becoming the anchor for other people’s estimates, the smartest people become the influencers.

* * *

Jelly beans are one thing, but when it comes to typical problem-solving tasks at work, it may be hard to believe that communication among team members could ever a bad thing. But a recent experiment published in August 2018 presents exactly this conclusion.

These researchers in Massachusetts developed a tricky problem-solving task to compare performance between different teams. Participants saw a basic map on a computer screen with a number of cities distributed across it, and had to find the optimal route around the map, visiting each of those cities only once and returning to their starting point. The task was complex enough to rule out the simplest solutions and strategies, so good performance depended on careful thinking and planning. On top of that, participants had less than a minute to attempt a solution in each of 17 rounds for a specific problem. However, these multiple rounds meant that they had a chance to gradually improve their solutions and strategies over time for each problem.

The participants did not know each other but were randomly assigned to complete the task in anonymous teams of three. Different teams had to stick to different communication rules. One type of team was allowed constant communication, which meant that team members could see each other’s previous solutions during every round of the task. Another type of team only had intermittent communication, in which they could see each other’s previous solutions only every three rounds. The final type of team were in fact not really a team at all because they were allowed no communication whatsoever; they had to complete the task without using any information from other people’s solutions.

So how did these different teams compare in solving problems? First, consistent with some previous evidence, the researchers found that people who did not communicate at all ended up finding the optimal solution more often than teams who constantly communicated (44% vs 33% of problems). The lack of communication led to greater diversity in thinking styles and responses, increasing the chances that at least one of the independent individuals would land on the optimal solution.

Photo by  Max Langelott  on  Unsplash

In contrast, the teams who constantly communicated performed better than non-communicators when researchers calculated the quality of their average solutions. Communication allowed people with bad solutions to improve the quality of their decision-making by looking at the successes of their teammates, raising the average standard for the team overall. So at the cost of reduced creativity and diversity compared to the independent individuals, the communicators could better build on the best solutions among them in each consecutive round of the task.

But what about the intermittent communicators? In principle, they could achieve the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds. The results showed that they found the optimal solution to 48% of the problems, matching the independent non-communicators in their performance, and beating the constant communicators. Interestingly, when the researchers turned their attention to average performance rather than total optimal solutions, intermittent communicators also matched the high-performing constant communicators, and beat the non-communicators.

So according to the evidence, the intermittent communicators enjoyed the benefits of both non-communicators and constant communicators. They could make use of the diversity associated with isolated work and the cooperative development associated with communication. Their biggest improvements came when seeing the solutions of their teammates after a period of disconnected decision-making.

* * *

“One can be instructed in society; one is inspired only in solitude.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We may finally have an answer to the long debate about whether independent thinkers or highly interconnected teams make better decisions. The unexciting answer is that each of them has their strengths and downfalls. Independent thinkers can have flashes of ingenuity uncontaminated by the thoughts or interruptions of others, while communicative groups achieve a higher average standard by sharing the strengths of each person. The exciting answer is that we may be able to do something about this dichotomy: we can build teams characterized by intermittent rather than ongoing communication.

Isolation has been a useful tool throughout our history. Many historical geniuses have had their moments of insight and inspiration while working alone in their creative spaces. While they may have stood on the shoulders of giants, they didn’t have those giants standing beside them during their most critical moments of thinking and problem-solving. They found their foundation in the books that they read and theories they came across, and then gave themselves the necessary period of solitude to allow their most creative sparks to take hold and spread.

There may even be parallels in biological evolution. New species tend to emerge when old species are physically separated into multiple groups. Those isolated groups then evolve their own unique adaptations to their environments and gradually become different enough to the original species that they can no longer mate with each other. In other words, the isolation that leads to greater biological diversity over the long-term may be analogous to the isolation that leads to greater decision-making diversity over the short-term.

We have entered an era of hyperconnected communication in every aspect of our lives. We check our social network feeds and the news headlines every morning, we frequently video-chat with friends and colleagues, and we have access to all the existing knowledge in the world through a quick Google search. I remain appreciative of this extraordinary situation, but no longer sit with the illusion that there are no major costs. We may well be sacrificing elements of creativity and diversity that were previously so valuable for innovative progress.

With a little effort, it may be possible for us to break away from our communication rituals and stop corrupting some of our best ideas with the perspectives of others. But it may require a dose of internet withdrawal when we most need to be creative and alone with our thoughts. If we want to design a solution better than both a horse and a camel, we may need to temporarily suspend the committee.


Grit? It’s Not All Perseverance, You Need Passion Too


Grit? It’s Not All Perseverance, You Need Passion Too

Photo by  Jaco Pretorius  on  Unsplash

“In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Is grit really one of life’s power-potions? Can it really determine whether we succeed or fail? Controversies are common in the world of psychology research, and grit is no exception. Recent conversations have questioned whether grit science is mostly hype. With the shadow of the hotly-discussed replication crisis looming over researchers, news writers eagerly await the next topic to bash. The bashing is not necessarily unfair or misguided; much of the reporting on grit has been surprisingly sensible. But often, in the midst of the media storms, it’s easy for us to lose track of the original point.

More than 10 years ago, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues published a seminal paper all about the power of grit. They defined it as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. It’s important to revisit this definition and the original research, especially because somewhere along the line, many of us forgot the second fundamental principle within the concept of grit: passion.

In labeling new ideas, it is common for researchers to adopt an existing word that is similar to their imagined idea, before formalizing it as a distinct scientific concept. This helps scientists get a quicker intuitive grasp of the concept, but leaves us with two versions of the same word, each with a subtle but critically different meaning. One circulates in the scientific world, while the other circulates in the mainstream world, and occasionally they will uncomfortably butt heads.

Grit may be one of these stories. Its original usage as an English noun came before the 12th century in referring to gravel or sand. Toward the end of the 16th century, “gritty” was used as an adjective to describe a resemblance to small hard granules. Then, in the early 19th century, it entered American slang with a link to courage and persistence. We still use it in this same sense today, but at the start of this millennium, psychologists and researchers also began using it as label for a character trait defined by passion in addition to persistence.

So therein lies the potential for conceptual conflict. When someone refers to grit, are they talking about perseverance or are they talking about perseverance plus passion? In a paper published in late 2018, one group of researchers suggests this simple conceptual confusion could be responsible for swaying the data on grit from “powerful” to “so-so”.

* * *

Before I jump into this recent paper, what exactly was so exciting about grit in the first place? In Duckworth’s original research, a person’s level of grit (perseverance and passion) predicted their success in life. That success included educational grades, retention in a military academy, and ranking in the National Spelling Bee. So over and above intelligence and other personality traits, grit played a critical role in the difference between progress and failure in several domains.

The question now is whether the research as a whole supports the idea of grit as a uniquely meaningful predictor of success, or whether it reveals a faux concept riding the coattails of other personality traits like pure perseverance or conscientiousness.

Photo by  Cam Adams  on  Unsplash

Photo by Cam Adams on Unsplash

With the original findings on grit out of the way, let’s return to the 2018 paper from research groups in New York and Frankfurt. The researchers argue that a bulk of science and commentary on grit either ignores its core pillar of passion or fails to adequately measure it. Frequently used measurement scales for grit equate passion with “consistency of interests”, which they explain is actually different to passion and more similar to perseverance. Imagine a writer with a consistent interest in proofreading and correcting typos in their text. That writer will not necessarily have a sense of passion or drive to complete that activity; they simply do it because they should.

So in running their own studies to test the effects of grit, the researchers combined the typical questions used to measure grit — in their mind perseverance — with more specific questions for measuring passion, asking for example whether people feel as though they lack sufficient passion in their everyday work.

With their revised assessment method in hand, they approached a tech company, and measured both perseverance and passion for over 400 employees. They found that employee job performance was best predicted by using both perseverance and passion in calculations. When an employee had little passion, high or low perseverance had little effect on their performance. But when their passion was high, perseverance did make a difference: high perseverance led to better performance than low perseverance.

The researchers then recruited 248 university students, collected their GPA scores, and assessed their perseverance and passion. In an additional twist, they also measured each student’s levels of immersion in their work by including questions about how well they could block out all other distractions while they studied.

The results replicated what the researchers found at the tech company: both perseverance and passion mattered when it came to performance. In addition, the passionate students showed a meaningful connection between perseverance and immersion. Perseverance improved performance partly through increasing students’ immersion while they studied, but only when they emotionally cared about their work.

In a final part of the project, the researchers combined and re-analyzed data from previous studies on grit and performance. After analyzing 127 studies, they first replicated the results of a preexisting meta-analysis by finding only a small benefit of perseverance on performance overall. But then, they additionally recruited independent judges to quantify the relevance of passion for participants in each of those studies. As an example, passion would be highly relevant in a study that recruited entrepreneurs starting their own companies, but would be less relevant in a study that recruited students taking compulsory tests.

Consistent with the results of the researchers’ own experiments, their new meta-analysis showed that the relationship between perseverance and performance was stronger in the context of high passion relative to low passion. Hard work and persistence pays off most when you are passionate about what you’re doing.

* * *

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

— Marie Curie

Grit is more than perseverance, and it is also different — although correlated — to what we might call self-control or self-discipline. We can persevere without having grit. And we can resist unhealthy temptations without having grit. Grit’s special predictive power in our victories comes from a combination of both perseverance and passion toward a particular long-term goal.

When we have the choice, we need to find paths that matter and mean something to us. If a task has no personal importance in our lives, we struggle to find any motivation or driving force to push us toward the best possible answers, even if we are capable of working hard. And if a task is personally important but we cannot trigger the gumption to work hard, we never make sufficient progress. To reliably improve performance, whether at school or at work, we need to train perseverance while crafting a context of passion. That symbiosis is the only real sense in which we can have grit.


The Placebo Effect — A Love Story


The Placebo Effect — A Love Story

Photo by  Evan Kirby  on  Unsplash

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

Hope and expectation are powerful psychological forces. For this reason, we often use them as a baseline against which to test the efficacy of new medical treatments. This baseline is referred to as the placebo control, and has been relevant in medicine for several centuries. We know that some drugs will cure our problems purely because we anticipate that they will. So when we test whether medical innovations are a success, we want to know that they will do a better job than a chemically useless but psychologically convincing sugar pill.

Inert treatments may be more powerful than you think. When patients with Parkinson’s disease receive a placebo drug, their brains release additional dopamine and activate one of the primary systems damaged by the disorder. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome benefit from placebo acupuncture, but benefit even more from placebo acupuncture combined with a warm, attentive, and confident practitioner. The colors of placebo pills also affect our expectations: red, orange, and yellow drugs are perceived to be stimulating, while blue and green drugs are associated with calming effects.

These studies, and many others, demonstrate that the placebo effect is not just powerful, it is multidimensional. Benefits emerge from several directions, and some placebos are more effective than others, even though they are equally inert in their chemical contents. We may even be able to layer different types of placebo together to build a super-placebo.

To call the benefits of placebo treatments “fake” would be to do them a disservice. The point is that both our psychology and physiology can be agreeable subjects for treatment (of course, they are both technically the products of biological processes). Active drugs directly manipulate the mechanics of tissues in our body, and consequently improve our mental states. Psychological treatments manipulate the contents of our minds, and consequently improve the mechanics of our bodily tissues. Both routes — typically described as bottom-up and top-down processes — can be practical and effective.

* * *

Placebo effects are usually studied in the context of medical treatments and symptom outcomes. A study published in the middle of 2018 took a different approach, by asking whether the placebo effect could increase our prosocial behavior.

Participants in this 2018 study were told about the social benefits of an oxytocin hormone drug, and were then given a nasal spray that they believed was oxytocin, but was in fact an inert saline solution. Despite never receiving actual oxytocin, would the participants still demonstrate the enhanced social behaviors that they were taught?

The first test of social behavior was a trust game. In this game, participants could give some money to a second person, knowing that the second person would then receive triple that amount of money before deciding how much of that final total to return to the trusting participant. If the investing participants had faith in the trustee, they would presumably invest all of their money, in anticipation of a larger return than their investment. If they believed the trustee was greedy and would keep the money, they would risk less of their own cash.

Compared to a control condition with no spray at all, the placebo spray participants invested significantly more money with the trustee. The saline spray made them more trusting. And it did far more too. While high on the inert drug, male participants were more comfortable interacting with a female experimenter who stood a little too close to them (at least if the participants were single), and they perceived less anxiety in the experimenter during eye contact.

* * *

In explaining the benefits of placebo treatments, the point of this article is certainly not to support fishy therapies or snake oils. Quite the contrary. I hope it’s a warning signal about the dangers of believing too strongly in the value of particular products or substances that we may have bought into. It’s worthwhile to realize when we are helping ourselves and no longer need to rely on the promises of expensive supplements to our lives.

If the placebo effect proves anything, it’s that we should never underestimate the influence that we have on our own health and wellness, purely through the way we think and decisions we make. Perhaps we can harness the psychological effects of placebos without the need to believe other people’s deceptions.

For many medical problems, we have amazing treatments available to us that perform significantly better than placebo, and we trust our doctors to prescribe those to us. But for many other everyday issues, our levels of self-efficacy — our confidence in our own abilities and successes — may be the biggest hurdle standing in our way.

Belief can have a dramatic impact on the existing health activities in our lives, like regular physical exercise. In a study of 84 hotel cleaners, some were told that their work satisfied a doctor’s physical activity recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, while others in a control group were told nothing about their work in relation to good exercise. A month later, the informed cleaners perceived that they were exercising more, and showed healthier reductions in body fat and blood pressure than the control group.

The placebo effect won’t help us fly, but it may help us with many of the typical problems we suffer in daily life. During our moments of anxiety, sadness, lethargy, and listlessness, we can be our own hero by pushing ourselves into the right mindset. Optimistic self-belief is a tailwind rather than a headwind; it can give us the favorable momentum we need to overcome seemingly intractable challenges. Eventually, we may even be strong enough to throw out the sugar pills.


Your Brain’s Battle Between Science and Superstition


Your Brain’s Battle Between Science and Superstition

“The cause of my life has been to oppose superstition. It’s a battle you can’t hope to win — it’s a battle that’s going to go on forever. It’s part of the human condition.”

— Christopher Hitchens

Superstitions are our brain’s way of making sense of a perplexing world. Over time, as we learn nature’s truths and laws, we leave less space for the guesswork of superstition. In considering the causes of health problems, we replace our beliefs in evil spirits with our knowledge of viruses and organ failures. In putting defendants on trial, we replace our witch dunking with courts and evidence. Generally speaking, the loss of superstitions is a sign of progress. But that doesn’t mean superstitions never have value.

What do we mean when we use the word “superstition”? We are superstitious when we wrongly identify the cause of a particular effect, especially when we invoke a supernatural belief or myth in that estimation. Let’s take the example of a car accident caused by a drunk driver. If we initially assumed that the accident was caused by the car’s faulty brakes, then we would just be wrong. But if we assumed it was caused by a ghost who possessed the driver, we would be superstitiously wrong.

The difference between “wrong” and “superstitious” essentially comes down to how sensible we are in our guesses and judgments. Many car accidents are caused by faulty brakes, and we can find evidence of brake failure after the accident. But we will never find evidence of a ghost, and so far, there hasn’t been a recorded accident that was reliably attributed to ghostly behavior.

* * *

Given the bizarre and often disastrous consequences of superstition, from the historical killings of innocent “witches” to the bloodletting treatments for asthma, it may seem foolish to consider whether superstitions offer an advantage to humanity. But in reality, superstitions are simply an overextension of our desire to find truth in the world.

Where do we draw the line in our decision-making about whether A caused B? Imagine a deer on a savanna that hears a rustle in the grass beside it. Could that rustle be a lion that is preparing to pounce or is it just the wind? This is clearly an important decision; the deer’s life rests on it. The cost of wrongly believing that the rustle came from a lion when it just came from the wind is the wasted energy involved in running away. The deer could have stayed calm and continued to enjoy the fresh grass. In contrast, the cost of wrongly believing that the rustle came from the wind when it came from a crouching lion is far more catastrophic. Your flesh will be ripped right from your bone. So we can forgive deers for being a little skittish.

The deer could develop a superstitious belief when calculating whether the rustle of a tree’s leaves is caused by a lion. Let’s assume that there is absolutely zero chance that a tree’s rustling could predict a lion, because the lions on this particular savanna cannot climb trees. Then it makes sense for the deer to completely ignore the noise of a tree. The problem is that the rustling of a tree can sound similar to the rustling of grass. If the association between rustling grass and a pouncing lion is strong enough, and if the sounds of rustling trees and rustling grass are similar enough, then the deer may leap into a sprint when a nearby tree is shaken by a gust of wind. We might call that connection, between the sound of a tree and belief in a nearby lion, a superstition.

If we have a trigger-happy brain that believes anything causes anything, we will undoubtedly hit the correct answer occasionally, but we’ll end up in the impractical situation of working through infinite incorrect pairings of cause and effect. Anything from trees to trifles will set off our alarm bells about some problem we have. Maybe yesterday’s rain caused my headache. Maybe the apple I ate caused my headache. Maybe the cat’s sneeze caused my headache. If my head feels better tomorrow, maybe the bloodletting today worked! Any existing association becomes fair game in judging causality.

On the other hand, if we have a brain that waits for only the clearest and most foolproof evidence of an association between events, then it will take us a long time to get to any answer at all because the world is such a noisy mess. When we are too conservative in our decision-making, it prevents us from experimenting with an efficient process of trial and error, and it might even lead us to ignore dangerous signals in our environment because we’ve failed to notice their significance.

“Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational, but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?“

— Judith Viorst

So the optimal solution for our brain is somewhere in the middle between overenthusiastic and over-skeptical causal inference. Researchers have experimented with different models for explaining superstitions. They suggest that superstitious thinking may be biologically helpful when the correct answer to a particular problem would give us an enormous advantage for survival. In those high-stakes situations, any causal inference may be better than no causal inference. In other words, running away from harmless rustling trees may be an adaptive superstition when rustling grass can cause our immediate death.

At one point in human history, we began to believe that green ornamental beads were useful for warding off evil and enhancing fertility. The onset of these superstitious beliefs overlapped with our transition to agriculture. The green color associated with healthy crops and fertile ground may have led to the green color associated with happiness and fertility in good luck charms. So perhaps the superstitious associations that explain a deer running from rustling trees can also explain our historical attraction to the color green.

Photo by  Amy Reed  on  Unsplash

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

* * *

The ambiguities in our decision-making highlight why superstitions are relevant from the perspective of evolution. Natural selection doesn’t necessarily care about perfection: it just happens upon sufficient functionality for survival. Superstitions can appear under that umbrella of sufficient functionality.

In contemporary human life and culture, superstitions may have another curious interaction with our behavior. When you think about some of the most superstitious people you know, athletes may spring to mind.

One of the annoying mysteries about human athletic performance is why it’s so variable. Why, even after years of practice and expertise, do we still fail at basic tasks like throwing balls into baskets, kicking balls in goals, and jumping over hurdles? Even the best of the best struggle to reach 100% accuracy with precision actions, despite practically dedicating their life to the activity.

Part of the story behind our imprecise movements lies with our noisy motor control systems. Our brain is a hodgepodge of functions and incremental evolutionary improvements, and it is a messy rather than technically perfect machine. When we look at brain activity during any action, we find a substantial portion of irrelevant activity that we call “noise”.

A lot of the noise in our brain may be important activity that we can’t quite understand yet. For example, spontaneous and random-looking activity could be relevant in the creativity and behavioral flexibility that make human psychology so special. But some portion of the noise is also likely to be mess that interferes with the specific actions we want to plan.

When it comes to performing specific physical actions, the noise in our brain may be partly responsible for our variability and inconsistency. When researchers recorded the activity of individual neurons in motor areas of the brain while monkeys prepared to reach toward objects, they found that variability in noisy activity predicted how the arm actually moved. So we can blame the noise in our motor cortex next time we miss that basketball free throw or golf putt.

Elite athletes seem to have some awareness of this problem. Many of them engage in superstitious behaviors before a big game, or when preparing for an athletic burst of energy. Michael Jordan wore the shorts from his college basketball team under his Bulls uniform during every game, Turk Wendell brushed his teeth before baseball innings, and Serena Williams wears the same pair of socks throughout a tournament and bounces the ball five times before a first serve.

The best thing about these kinds of superstitions is that they seem to work. They can improve self-belief and confidence, leading to stronger persistence. They may also help athletes gain a greater sense of control over their environment. The last thing you want to do when you’re on a hot streak is introduce some irrelevant factor that might unintentionally change your behavior. So wearing the same clothes and performing particular action rituals may be an athlete’s way of reducing the levels of noise in their environment, and consequently their brains. Watch Hal’s bowling below for a great insight into the origins of superstitious beliefs.

* * *

“Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.“

— Adam Smith

Our superstitious styles of thinking are grounded in a long evolutionary history of problem-solving. They reflect the balance between our need for caution and our need to find answers. Sometimes, there are surprisingly rational benefits to functions that seem wholly irrational. By taking notice of them, we better understand the oddities of the human condition.

In modern developed countries — the safest and healthiest societies we’ve built so far — superstitions have a narrowing scope in which to operate. They thrive in dark rooms, where we clumsily stumble around trying to find answers without the support of strong evidence-based ideas and models that explain the world. The Enlightenment, and our continuing advancements in science and reason, shine a beaming light into that dark room, revealing the corners in which our superstitions used to hide. We can breathe a sigh of relief every time we visit a great doctor, knowing that she is unlikely to prescribe bloodletting or alchemy for our chesty cough.


We Are United in Our Shame


We Are United in Our Shame

Photo by  Caleb Woods  on  Unsplash

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

The only shame is to have none.

— Blaise Pascal

We’ve all done things in our past that we are not proud of. It’s part of growing up and learning about the human experience. Think of a time when you behaved in a way that you regret. You might have expressed unjustified anger, said something you didn’t mean, or perhaps cheated someone because it benefitted you. Unless you’re a true saint, I bet it doesn’t take you long to drag an old memory to the front of your mind, and let the feeling of shame roll over you in a large uncomfortable wave.

Shame is fantastic. It signals to us that we really messed up and pushes us to reach out and make amends for our mistakes. Of course, all too often, we never get the chance to apologize, and the feeling of shame and regret stays with us for the rest of time, haunting us whenever we struggle to sleep at 4am.

Most of us have never done anything so bad that we deserve eternal shame. Ideally, it’s a feeling that we should take seriously, fix whenever possible, and then get over when we feel as though we’ve done all that we can. Life is a difficult mess and we keep our learner permits forever.

* * *

What does shame look like in our brains? When we feel guilty or ashamed, brain scans reveal activity in several structures. One of these is the anterior insula, an area known to be involved in emotional feelings and interoceptive awareness — the ability to perceive and understand our own internal states. These functions are clearly relevant to what goes on when we feel shame. We focus our attention inward, on the insufferable pain associated with remembering our mistake, and we work through our feelings of regret.

Another area of our brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, also joins in during moments of shame and guilt. It is notably involved in experiences of social pain and distress, feelings that undoubtedly dominate our anxieties about shameful events in our life.

The images of our brain activity hint at the biological basis of shame, but don’t say much about its universality or foundation in our lives. For this, we need to look to a new study published in September 2018. Its findings have begun to unravel the experience of shame in its entirely explicit glory.

Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit.

— Lucius Annaeus Seneca

A large team of researchers from around the world got together to study shame in 15 small communities across a diverse set of countries including Nepal, Russia, Ecuador, and Japan. Do people in these remote communities see shame in the same way that we do?

899 participants in the experiment imagined 12 scenarios in which a person behaves or appears in a way that could be perceived negatively by people around them. Half of the group had to imagine themselves as the person depicted in the scenario, and indicate how much shame they would feel in that situation. The other half of the group instead had to report how negatively they viewed the person depicted in the scenario. So the first group positioned themselves as the shamed person, and the second group acted as the audience.

The scenarios varied in how much they were likely to elicit shame. For example, a scenario about a man who “steals from members of his community” would likely be perceived as high in shame, while a scenario about a man who “is ugly” would likely be perceived as low in shame. By understanding people’s perceptions across this spectrum, the researchers could begin to grasp the details of our sense of shame and compare it between cultures.

Overall, participants across the different communities responded similarly when it came to rating the levels of shame and judging the shamed person for each scenario. They agreed on the most and least shameful behaviors.

More interestingly, the researchers found that ratings of shame, from people who imagined themselves as the shamed person for each scenario, tightly correlated with negative perceptions from people who imagined themselves as the audience for each scenario. In the scenarios where people felt more shame as a perpetrator, they also judged more harshly as a critic. There is a strong link between how much shame we feel and how severely others judge us.

The pattern of results supports the idea that our levels of personal shame are determined by how much we are likely to be devalued by the rest of society. Shame is an emotion with social consequences. It evolved to protect us from doing things that lead to hatred and rejection from others in our community. When the reputational costs of an action outweigh the benefits we are likely to gain from it, we avoid acting. And when we do mess up, shame motivates us to seek forgiveness.

The universal features of shame, consistent across distant cultures who have never met, are a sign of its primitive origins. We are born with an impulse to be liked and appreciated. When people respect us, they help us in our times of need. When they don’t, we are likely to suffer. Most of us do our best to build reputations of popularity and decency. We seek the complementary experience to shame: pride. With healthy and sensible pride, we don’t need to hang our heads or beg for forgiveness. It is a sign that we are doing well in the eyes of others.

* * *

Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame.

— Benjamin Franklin

In the modern world, we have amazingly efficient systems for spreading social judgments and destroying reputations. Twitter mobs have both their advantages and disadvantages. They allow us to quickly and dramatically hold people accountable for their actions, but they also turn us into voracious hot-headed bullies who pounce upon the weakest rumors and misrepresentations. Unfortunately, there may be no real solutions to this; we simply have to accept the bad with the good. We can only try to be careful.

The same modernity that makes us efficient judges and bullies can also make us efficient angels. In our hyperconnected digital world, apologizing for the mistakes buried deep in our past may not be so impractical. In fact, right after clicking to publish this essay, I’m going to prepare a couple of apologetic messages to friends from my late teens, who unfortunately knew me when my idiocy was in full bloom. If you don’t get the chance to do the same, then I hope you can at least put aside any long-held excess pains and move on.

Shame is a feeling we can all respect rather than fear. It provides us with a powerful signal to judge right from wrong. Whether or not we believe in karma, we can psychologically compensate for yesterday’s shameful moments by being a friendlier person today. Let’s find some comfort in the fact that nobody is perfect, and everybody is human.


Physical Exercise Boosts Your Brain and Mind


Physical Exercise Boosts Your Brain and Mind

Photo by  CATHY PHAM  on  Unsplash

Photo by CATHY PHAM on Unsplash

The body “vs” the mind

For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.

— John F. Kennedy

Our bodies are pretty miraculous when you give them a second thought. They are a network of tissues and organs, all designed for specific jobs that keep you alive. Each part of our body can flow, pump, and process, in the same regular mechanical fashion for 100 years or more. And for whatever reason, it still blows me away to know our bodies can heal themselves.

The brain that sits inside our skull is no real exception within the context of our body. Like other organs, it continuously interacts with the rest of our biology. This interactive process creates the all-important experience that we call our mind.

What exactly do we mean by the mind? You’d think it should be easy to define, but no. People see it and study it in their own peculiar ways. When I say ‘mind’, I use it synonymously with conscious subjective experience; basically how you think and feel. When we think about an old romantic partner, feel melancholic about the loss of a friend, consider what our lives will look like in 20 years, and recall the cannons in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture (or the clapping in the Friends intro music), all of these experiences play out in our mind.

Physical bodily pains such as the discomfort of a broken finger are also experienced in the mind. But we are generally good at treating these by targeting the source of the pain (the broken finger), rather than its experience (the mind). It is more sensible to bandage a finger until it recovers and the experience of pain disappears, rather than keeping the finger broken and trying to remove the pain we experience in our mind. But with many of our other everyday emotional pains and bad thinking patterns, we rarely find a single finger to bandage.

The sources of our mental problems are more abstract and less easy to pinpoint than our physical problems. Why am I more anxious about my career today compared to yesterday, even though nothing has changed? Why aren’t my creative juices flowing on this project, even though they were fine in the shower this morning? Should I remain in this long and unhappy relationship? Why do I feel so lonely? Why can’t I keep my attention where I need it right now? These are the problems that plague the mind, but we usually have no idea what to do with them. So we ignore them, leaving them standing in the background of our mind like a herd of ruminating cows, and we cross our fingers hoping they go away on their own.

Despite the added complexity of our mental pains and strains, our minds are connected to our bodily functions just as much as our heartbeats are. This means that both psychological interventions and physical interventions can boost our mental health.

The inextricable link between physical and mental function

True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.

— Wilhelm von Humboldt

Our everyday actions impact the qualities of our mind. A famous study from almost 20 years ago analyzed the brains of taxi drivers to see how their regular experience with navigating the streets of London impacted their brain structure. The hippocampus is a critical brain area when it comes to our spatial memory and navigation abilities. When we damage it, we struggle to find our way around in the world.

The researchers measured the size of the hippocampus in individual taxi drivers using a brain scanner, and compared them to the brains of closely matched non-driver control participants. They found that a specific part of the hippocampus — the posterior section — was significantly larger in the taxi drivers, and its size positively correlated with the amount of time they had spent on the job. Their regular physical travel around London, and their mental memorizing of the locations during that travel, adapted the structure of their brain.

The drivers’ brains were moving their bodies, their moving bodies were influencing their minds, and their changing minds were adjusting their brains. This didn’t happen in a step-by-step sequence; it all occurred in one big iterative and interactive loop, where each part of us is simultaneously doing its job. There is no clean cut between our brains, bodies, and minds.

Photo by  MARK ADRIANE  on  Unsplash

How physical exercise benefits the mind

To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our mind strong and clear.

— Gautama Buddha

The scientific evidence consistently shows that physical exercise, especially aerobic fitness training, positively impacts our brains and minds. For school-children, regular physical activity is related to improvements in several aspects of mind including perceptual skills and IQ. It also directly benefits academic performance. Aerobic capacity is positively correlated with maths and reading performance, while body mass index shows the opposite effect. So it’s probably not a good idea to get rid of physical education and sports classes at school.

One of the major risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease is physical inactivity. If we don’t have a favorite sport or exercise to keep us moving regularly, we are more likely to experience declines in our cognitive ability as we age. We are still learning about the exact mechanisms and biological processes that make physical activity good for our minds. But it seems safe to say that physical exercise helps to protect us from some of the major mental problems associated with getting old.

Depression is a pervasive problem that we are paying serious and justified attention to. But it remains a tough issue to treat. A pernicious effect of the disorder is that most sufferers avoid seeking help, and those who do speak to their physicians won’t necessarily find a significant reprieve from their symptoms. As with most mental health problems, depression is a complicated issue with several biological, psychological, and social risk factors and precursors.

Recent experiments have systematically tested the possible benefits of physical exercise on depression symptoms. In one study, 317 patients in Sweden with mild to moderate depression were recruited for a 12-week intervention involving yoga, aerobics, and strength training classes. Compared to a control group who continued with the usual depression treatments from their physicians, the patients who engaged in the physical exercises showed a greater reduction in their depression scores after the treatment program. In fact, their symptom improvements were similar to those found for patients who had access to regular internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy, in which support programs were tailored to their personal mental health profiles.

In the most recent large-scale analysis of data from over 1 million Americans aged 18 and over, researchers compared signs of mental health between people who reported exercising and not exercising within the last month of their lives. After equalizing the effects of basic demographic variables, the researchers found that people who exercised suffered 43.2% fewer days of poor mental health. Consistent with previous evidence, the researchers found the greatest benefits from aerobic exercises, especially team sports and cycling.

The moral of the story so far

For any of us with the slightest concern about our mental health, a regular program of physical exercise is a good idea. It’s not likely to provide a cure-all, and it’s not the only part of the story. But the evidence on its benefits is clear. Finding friends to run around with, cycle with, and chase balls with, is a reliable way to take care of our minds.

The growing popularity of yoga classes and gym memberships is a good sign for our physical health. Concern about mental health has been lagging behind but, slowly and surely, we may be starting to treat our minds with the same respect that we treat our bodies. Mindfulness and meditation are becoming buzzwords, and general awareness around mental disorders is improving. But with this progress, we may also be losing track of what it means to be conscious. Rather than reinforcing the intuition of a valley between our bodies and minds, we need to grasp the insoluble connection between how we physically act, what we think, and how we feel.

The brain is our most complicated organ, and our mind the most complicated function, but they are biological organs and functions nonetheless. Those days at the gym, runs along the street, and competitive physical games with friends are doing more than building muscle and improving your heart efficiency. They are lifting your spirits and upgrading the part of you that recognizes how it feels to be alive.


Be Careful with Your Good Mood


Be Careful with Your Good Mood

Photo by  Mark Daynes  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash

Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.

— William S. Burroughs

Happiness is a blindfold. When we have a smile on our face and a skip in our step, we may be vulnerable to unhealthy behaviors that we would otherwise avoid. It may sound depressing to say that even happiness can be a harm. We already have to put up with the constant guilt-tripping and fear-mongering from the media and our friends about foods we shouldn’t eat and decisions we shouldn’t make. I certainly don’t want to add to those frustrations. But we can learn a lot about ourselves by taking a step back and looking at our own experiences with a fresh and neutral perspective.

I am specifically talking about happiness here, but in fact, all of our emotions have two sharp edges to the sword. Fear keeps us from doing stupid things like jumping off buildings, but can also hold us back from helpful activities like public speaking. Anger acts as a deterrent to people who want to take advantage of us, but can also make us feel unpleasant for days. We need a balanced emotional life and an awareness of the dangers that may come with each of our experiences.

So what exactly could the downsides of happiness be? Think about the last time you were joyful and you’ll probably recall a general positive feeling that took over your whole self. Our emotions are strange in that they rarely remain focused on a single object. When I’m happy because I’ve made a new friend or got a new job, I’m also happy about everything else around me. The emotion spreads. Even the pains that were previously on my mind achieve a strange new cheerful perspective.

* * *

The basis of optimism is sheer terror.

— Oscar Wilde

Our good moods may drive what has been called “the optimism bias” (you can watch a TED talk about this here). This refers to our general tendency to overestimate the chances of a positive future for our personal lives and underestimate the chances of a negative future. We are more likely to get cancer than we think, and less likely to secure that amazing job than we think.

Interestingly, patients with depression do not show this optimism bias. Their negative moods mean that they are neutral in their outlook, at least in the case of mild depression. And when people suffer from severe depression, they show the opposite of the optimism bias: a pessimism bias in which they overestimate the chances of a negative future for themselves. Our emotions take over our entire psychology and distort the way we see the world.

Optimism is often a good thing of course; it motivates us to take on new challenges and prevents us from giving up. But sometimes, excessive confidence can provide fertile ground for painful failures. If we can develop realistic expectations without harming our desire to enthusiastically chase new goals, we may end up with fewer disappointments and less devastating defeats in the future. It’s worth playing with our psychological balance of motivation vs expectation, to test what really works best for us.

* * *

Our overblown optimism extends into the world of sport. When fans of NFL football teams were asked how many games they believed their team would win in the current sports season, they consistently predicted that their favorite teams would win more games than average, and that teams they disliked would win fewer than average. This optimistic gap between liked and disliked teams was actually larger for the fans with better knowledge about NFL rules. Football fans, including ESPN experts who follow a specific team, overestimate the chances of their favorite teams winning. So our optimism biases don’t only apply to our own thoughts and behaviors, but also apply to other people or organizations that we feel affiliated with.

study in 2016 took the investigation of happiness contamination a little further. First, they collected data on major sports outcomes (wins/losses) for New York City teams in the NFL (football), NBA (basketball), MLB (baseball), and NHL (ice hockey). Then, they computed what are called prediction errorsfor those outcomes, because these are psychologically salient signals in the human brain. When a team is expected to perform poorly in a game, but the outcome is better than expected, that is a positive prediction error. When a team is expected to perform well but performs poorly, that is a negative prediction error.

The researchers decided to examine whether people’s gambling behavior had anything to do with these prediction errors in sports outcomes. So in addition to the sports data, they also collected data on lottery purchases in New York City at the times of the sports outcomes. They found a fascinating correlation between the sports outcomes and the lottery data. More positive prediction errors for sports outcomes (unexpected successes) led to more gambling the next day among city residents. More negative prediction errors (unexpected losses) led to less gambling.

The effects on gambling were specific to the performance of NYC teams. When the researchers looked for an association between NYC gambling and performance of teams in other areas of the US, they found none. Local jubilation is what seems to drive the uptick in gambling.

Photo by  Larry Bridges  on  Unsplash

To confirm whether the extra gambling was driven by good moods in the city, the researchers analyzed another happiness-related metric: the levels of sunshine in the city on the days that people gambled. They computed similar prediction error values for the weather as they did for the sports outcomes. When the sun came out following cloudy days, that was a positive prediction error. When there was surprisingly heavy cloud cover after a lot of sun, that was a negative prediction error.

Consistent with the effects of sports outcomes, surprisingly sunny days led to increased gambling activity, and surprisingly cloudy days led to decreased gambling activity. And once again, the weather in distant places like California had no effect on NYC people’s lottery purchases. On top of that, the effects of both sports and sunshine applied equally well to rich and poor neighborhoods.

* * *

Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.

— Dale Carnegie

If the data above convinces you of one thing, it should be that emotion has global effects on what we think and what we do. For good or for bad, it’s rare that we restrict our reactions to the events that cause them. Although it feels great when we are happy, we may be driven to take greater risks, and we may develop unrealistically positive expectations about the future that set us up for disappointment.

There is value in increasing our awareness of our emotional states and experiences. It’s easy for our emotions to push us toward unhealthy behaviors when we lose track of them. During our next moments of elation that come with a good night out or a surprising pay rise, we can try to maintain a realistic humility and calm appreciation. That’s not putting a cap on our positive experiences; it may actually increase how long we stay happy. When we can be happy while preserving sensible expectations for the future, we minimize the chances of knocking our joy off-track with the next minor challenge that we face. For most people, including me, that frustration occurs all too often, and it does not have to.

Successes and sunshine aren’t always good news. Like any experience, we can search for the good in the bad, and be wary of the bad in the good. Perhaps we’ll find the silver lining next time our favorite sports team loses on a cloudy day.


Take Control of Your Attention


Take Control of Your Attention

Photo by  Devin Avery  on  Unsplash

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

Success in life is founded upon attention to the small things rather than to the large things; to the everyday things nearest to us rather than to the things that are remote and uncommon.

— Booker T. Washington

Attention is both a marvel and a menace. Without it, we can’t focus our energy on finishing what we need to do. But with it, we are often blinded to obvious and important facts in our periphery. Attention is the brain’s filter on the world, giving targeted information privileged access to our mind so that we can be productive while minimizing distractions.

Our tunnel-vision can be used against us precisely because it is so effective. In fact, it is a magician’s primary weapon. Watch the British entertainer, Derren Brown, steal a man’s property right off his body as he talks to him here:

When attention is used poorly, like when it is scattered across the multiple forms of distracting media in our lives, we end up like a dog on a leash. We are dragged one way, then dragged another way, by companies who are fighting for our valuable mental space.

When we manage to take control of our attention, we can decide how best to use it. The first step in that process is always awareness. Mindfulness is a great tool for noticing the capricious antics of our minds, and ultimately developing a healthy mindset where attention is our servant rather than our master.

* * *

I’ve previously written in detail about mindfulness so won’t go into it again here. Instead, I’ll describe an experiment I ran back in the winter of 2014 in Hamburg, Germany. The aim of the study was to investigate the interaction between attention and uncontrollable actions in Tourette syndrome patients.

Patients with Tourette syndrome regularly perform involuntary body movements, which are called tics. Facial twitches and blinking are very common. Vocal tics are less common but can be very severe, especially when they feature coprolalia: the repeated involuntary impulse to use taboo words. Patients with the most severe vocal tics can get themselves into agonizing social situations including awkwardly calling out people’s names, and even shouting Nazi slogans in public.

Together with a group of Tourette syndrome patients, my colleagues and I wanted to understand whether shifting a patient’s attention could reduce their tics. To better understand what attention does in the brain, imagine an apple on the table in front of you.

When you look at the apple but daydream about what you’ll have for dinner, you’ll find visual cells in the brain firing as they process the image of the apple. But if you also focus your attention exclusively on the apple as you look at it, those same cells will fire more intensely. So, in some ways, attention acts as an amplifier in the brain, enhancing the signals that represent the object we are looking at. This made me wonder whether attention to tics might also make them worse by amplifying their signals in the brain.

I developed a simple game in which patients had to pinch their thumb and any other finger together once every 2 seconds. Each time they pinched, they saw a random colored circle appear on the computer screen. They were asked to remember one of three things as they did this: 1) Focus on and remember the colors of each circle in the order you see them, 2) Focus on and remember which finger you use each time you pinch, 3) Focus on and remember whether or not you tic each time you pinch your fingers. So we manipulated attention in 3 possible directions: toward the external world, toward voluntary body movements, or toward involuntary tics.

We found that patients suffered fewer tics when they focused their attention on the external world than when they focused on their tics. Surprisingly, they expressed the fewest tics overall when they kept their attention on their voluntary movements, perhaps because this is the most powerful way to capture attention and take it away from tic anxiety. Indeed, it is the mindset most closely related to mindfulness because it promotes attention to personal actions, thoughts, and feelings.

Overall, simple attention shifts had significant effects on the severity of patients’ symptoms. Focusing the mind on helpful rather than unhelpful information can improve our lives. For patients who suffer from overt disorders, it is often clear to see the advantages by measuring their symptoms. But with the rest of us, the benefits need to be experienced firsthand in our emotions and experiences.

Photo by  Keegan Houser  on  Unsplash

* * *

I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Much of the self-help world seems to scream obvious advice at us like “feel good!”, as if seeing the instruction is enough to fulfill it. We know that our lives are too complicated for these quick fixes. The first reasonable step to any self-improvement plan must surely be to know ourselves better. What are our minds doing when we feel bad? How about when we feel good? Where did those feelings come from?

These questions help to wrestle our attention toward an inward-looking mindset focused on the present moment. Instead of getting lost in our spiraling worries and pains when we consider a past mistake, we can bring ourselves down to earth by staying focused on how we actually feel now. One of the funniest things about the human condition has to be our frequent belief that we are feeling something unique or abnormal, when in fact, everyone else feels the same way. We get away with this lunacy because we distract ourselves with thoughts of should-have-been, could-be, and wish-it-were.

Once we, as conscious thinkers, regain some authority over our attention, we realize that many of our mental states are just misdirection. Our unconscious minds are the magician, and our conscious minds are the subjects of the trickery. With a little practice in monitoring and using our attention for our own good, our conscious minds can take over the magic wand. Or, at the very least, we can become the magician’s glamorous assistant.


What Our Faces Say About Us


What Our Faces Say About Us

Photo by  fer gomez  on  Unsplash

Photo by fer gomez on Unsplash

Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only

— Samuel Butler

The 19th century English author, Samuel Butler, was famously wrong about how evolution works. Instead of supporting Darwin’s accurate theory of natural selection, he was a Lamarckian, believing that evolutionary change is primarily driven by an animal’s behavior during its lifetime rather than the heritable advantages it is born with. Surprisingly, he may also be a little wrong in his charming quote about our mirror’s revelations.

The first thing we notice about any person we interact with is undoubtedly their face. It is the driving seat of verbal communication and emotional expressions. For that reason, we all make rapid judgments about people we meet based on the appearance of the frontal surface of their head. Could this basic impulse have any reasonable justification whatsoever?

To answer this question, we need to look to scientific evidence on the relationship between facial appearances and character traits. But before talking about any of that, we should exorcize a few demons.

* * *

I try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Any fair and rational person knows that Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are right when they tell us to judge people by the content of their character. Beliefs and ideas are what matter, not physical appearances.We should be very suspicious about anyone who denies this. Even if our appearance has an identifiable link to deeper facts about us, that central proposition remains true.

To make this idea clearer, let’s assume that people who wear glasses are smarter on average than people who do not wear glasses (there is evidence that this effect is real, and it may relate to reading experience). Knowing this does not mean that you should assume the next myopic person you meet is smarter than you. You will ideally treat them as the individual that they are; somebody that you do not know yet. Then, as you learn about them, you may find out that they fit the trend or buck the trend. With any group trait that covers a huge range of variability, it would be absurd to use group identity to judge somebody’s character. People with glasses, and people in practically any typical group defined by physical appearance, are too diverse to prejudge.

So we know that we need to judge individual people by the content of their character, but as our myopic genius overlords show, there may still be connections between appearance and behavior at a high level. Faces are central in our social cognition and behavior, so studying their relationship to our characters is an interesting exercise.

As we grow up and interact with people, their judgments about our appearance will undoubtedly affect how we react to them. Their behavior may differ depending on how we look, and that will affect how we behave around them in return. Growing up in a state school in East London, it was clear that similar-looking children would often choose to hang out with each other. The groupings of freaks and geeks were unlikely to be a coincidence (I’m referencing the amazing television series Freaks and Geeks, not using my own labels!). Appearances can impact behavior.

Photo by  Laird Madison  on  Unsplash

* * *

Politics is one clear arena where we need to judge people and form preferences to express at voting booths. When we see politicians’ faces on TV, we cannot help but form automatic opinions about them. Before we know what party they belong to or what their beliefs are, we can see what they look like. Within a single second of seeing political candidates’ faces, we make judgments about their competence, and those judgments predict the outcomes of elections and margins of victory.

As we learn about a candidate’s beliefs, we can of course overwrite prior misconceptions we may have held. But politicians understand the enormous value of looking and speaking a particular way. We elect leaders who we find physically charismatic. President Obama was a great example of that charisma.

Sitting alongside charisma is another political hot button: corruption. A study in September 2018 tested how we see corruption in faces, and examined whether those perceptions had any grounding in reality.

In their first experiment, the researchers presented 82 participants with headshots of unfamiliar federal or state officials in the United States (all officials were men to control for potential differences caused by sex). Of the 72 officials that participants saw, half were convicted of political corruption, while the other half had a clean record. Without knowing this information, participants had to rate each photo along scales of corruptibility, dishonesty, selfishness, trustworthiness, and generosity. Shockingly, for every one of these scales, participants were reading character significantly better than chance, correctly categorizing the corrupt officials around 60–70% of the time. Corrupt officials were judged as more corrupt, more dishonest, more selfish, less trustworthy, and less generous.

In a second experiment, the researchers re-tested this question with photos depicting a new set of 80 elected officials from local and state governments in California. This time, half of the politicians had violated campaign laws according to the California Political Reform Act, and half had a clean record. Once again, replicating the effect from the first experiment, participants were successful in picking out the bad guys purely based on their faces.

In a final couple of experiments, the researchers decided to investigate exactly what facial features were being associated with corruptibility. They found that participants’ negative impressions of corruptible officials were driven by higher facial width-to-height ratios. In other words, wider faces were a signal of potential corruptibility.

The researchers tested this idea more directly by taking the headshots from the first two experiments and photoshopping them to make the faces 7% wider or narrower. They then presented these manipulated photos to participants and asked for corruptibility ratings. The majority of participants failed to notice any differences between manipulated photos of the same politicians, and yet, they rated the same politician as more corruptible when his face was wider rather than narrower. Their judgments were coming from a place buried in their unconscious.

These findings raise important questions about why specific facial features could relate to a behavioral feature such as corruptibility. Unfortunately, those questions haven’t been adequately answered for now. It’s possible that the effects relate to how people treat us. If people believe we are likely to be dishonest or corruptible just because we look a particular way (e.g. a wider face), then they are likely to treat us with some level of contempt. The average person who lacks sainthood will mirror that contempt. Hatred breeds hatred, and corruption breeds corruption.

* * *

We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others

— John Wesley

We are quick to judge people when we first meet them, even though we only have physical appearances to go on. Our face perception abilities are an important biological function. Some evidence suggests that, before puberty, we are better at recognizing adult female faces than the faces of other children or adolescents. During puberty, that recognition advantage shifts toward peers who are at a similar level of development to us. Faces may be important for different reasons depending on our age, but we cannot doubt their immense importance throughout our life.

Unfortunately, much of the time, our face-driven judgments will be inaccurate and will prevent us from using more informative cues about people when meeting them. Labels and character reviews hold major sway in a social world. Social judgments affect social outcomes, including voting choices, legal sentencing, and dating choices. In extreme cases, those judgments can tip over into the worst kinds of overt discrimination, with disastrous consequences for prospective friends at parties and innocent defendants in court.

It may be naive to expect that people can regain control of their jumpy automaticity in social verdicts. Millions of years of evolution have instilled us with an instinct to quickly judge any living thing we see and adjust our behavior depending on our inferences of threat or likability. However, in an ideal world, we need to suppress those immediate urges to judge people based on first impressions. In modern life, they do more harm than good. The information we need about people is never far away. We just need to wait for it with a generous patience.


Why Other-Help Beats Self-Help

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Why Other-Help Beats Self-Help

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

We all value good advice, but we may be focused on the wrong side of the coin. Our social network feeds are filled with inspirational quotes and comments. At work, our bosses give us appraisals and motivational speeches. At school, our teachers do the same. The truth is, when it comes to all this advice-giving, the adviser may be benefitting more than the advisee.

Before explaining what on Earth I’m talking about, I should be explicit about what I’m not saying. Nobody should think that receiving advice is pointless. Some of our most important life decisions, from our health to our careers, have been influenced by the good advice of friends and mentors. We can get rid of the toughest bad habits when we receive advice from the right people: for example, a doctor’s advice can help us quit smoking.

However, the value of receiving advice does depend on several conditions, especially motivation. When we lack motivation, advice can be useless and potentially even destructive. If we feel as though we are incompetent or over-dependent on others in some way, hearing advice may chip away at our already suffering motivation.

Motivation is linked to several structures in the brain, including emotional learning centers such as the amygdala, reward processing and action planning areas such as the striatum, and areas involved in reinforcing behavior such as the orbitofrontal cortex. Good advice needs to tap into these kinds of networks and give us a motivational boost. Could there be a motivational advantage to giving rather than receiving advice?

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In my personal experience, I have previously suspected that there may be something odd and counterintuitive about giving advice. I enjoy getting advice, but the motivational effects often don’t last particularly long. A strong quote or message from someone I respect might give me a much-needed push, but the inspiration can fizzle out within a couple of days. When somebody needs my advice, I put careful thought into what may help them. If I give them advice that seems to be useful in that moment, I leave with my own unusually positive feeling. I feel inspired to do better myself. I end up working harder when I get to my desk, and I’m more responsive and confident in meetings.

Photo by  NESA by Makers  on  Unsplash

Although I’ve had this personal inkling that offering advice may be as good as receiving advice, I’ve never found any good evidence for it. That’s until a couple of weeks ago when I came across a new scientific publication from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Chicago. Their findings went beyond my inkling. In the right conditions, giving advice is not only as good as receiving advice, it may be significantly better.

The researchers ran three key studies. In the initial experiment, they visited a middle school. They recruited over 300 kids from sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and split them into two groups. The first group read letters from advice-seeking fourth graders, who asked about topics such as how to stay motivated when learning vocabulary. They then wrote a note back to the younger kids offering their best possible advice. Let’s call this first group the advisers. The second group instead read advice from their teacher about learning vocabulary, and wrote a brief response to that advice. Let’s call them the advisees.

Researchers compared motivation and study behaviors between the advice-giving and advice-receiving groups by recording how long students spent on an online vocabulary learning program after the advice. They found that the adviser kids spent significantly more time on the program in the weeks following the guidance they offered. And this is all despite the fact that the teacher’s advice for the advisees was, of course, much better than the comments that the child advisers gave to the fourth graders. So even though the advisees had access to higher quality advice, something about the act of offering advice to others left the advisers with a significant motivational advantage.

On to the second experiment. The researchers wanted to test the same idea among adults instead of children. In an online study, they recruited almost 700 participants, with an average age of 35 years old, to give their best advice to others and to receive advice in return. The advice could focus on one of four possible domains: financial, social, health, or work. Only 34% of people predicted that offering advice would be more motivating than receiving advice. And yet, when the experiment was over, regardless of which domain researchers looked at, approximately 72% of people were more motivated by giving advice.

The final experiment tried to understand why giving advice may be particularly productive. Could it be that giving advice to others instills a sense of confidence within ourselves that boosts our own motivation?

The researchers ran the same experiment above with participants who were overweight. After either giving or receiving health advice, they asked participants how confident they were in their ability to lose weight. This was in addition to their ratings of how motivated they felt following the advice. Replicating the previous results, most participants felt more motivated after giving advice than receiving advice. Interestingly, the same pattern held true for confidence: after giving advice, participants were more confident in their own ability to lose weight.

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Despite our common intuitions, we may be better off giving advice to other people when we lack our own motivation. It’s no use chasing down strangers and shoving our advice at them if they don’t want it. We need to wait for the right opportunity. When it looks as though someone may be seeking a helpful word or two from our own experiences, there is mutual benefit in taking the time to communicate the best possible guidance.

I’ve always been fond of finding and offering the optimal words of encouragement where they might be helpful. But I never quite understood why. It just felt like a fun social puzzle with immediate benefits for the person seeking advice. But now I know that there may be some slightly more selfish advantages too. Giving advice helps us to feel competent, confident, and motivated. For those reasons, as conceited as it sounds, our own humble words of support are often more self-inspiring than the best quotes we will ever read.

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