19 December 2012

For What Are We Designed by Evolution to Be Good At …

The more traditionalistic dogmatic views on human nature see the human being as a “near perfect” reasoning machine. Two of (western) society’s most prevalent mantras, namely religion and economics, create a framework of expectations that quite often are not met. Research in psychology and simple daily life observed under critical lenses challenge these assumptions.
One extreme interpretation of the psychology view on human nature would be that humans are completely irrational. As any extreme perspective it is, in my opinion, wrong. The “truth” is that we are neither perfect rational agents nor dumb mindless creatures.

In order to get a better understanding of human nature, my suggestion is to start from the beginning of human kind. If you have a creationist view, then you are free to stop reading. If you accept evolution theory, however, please keep reading.

Our (extremely) distant ancestors faced quite different problems than we face now. They have adapted from generation to generation to survive and successfully reproduce in a very different context than the one represented by the modern world.  

One of our distant ancestors’ main concerns was to get metabolic resources or in other words highly nutritious food. Evolution shaped the human brain to perceive sweet and fatty foods as tasty. The wide majority of people likes sweet stuff and (up to a point) fatty food. Eating as much sugar and fats was very useful for survival, especially because these nutrients were very scarce. In our world, however, sugar and fats are abundant (at least in some wide geographic areas). What was evolutionary useful for most of human kind existence is now detrimental.

One million years ago if one of our ancestors would eat all the sugar and fats she could get her hands on it would have increased her chances of survival and of having healthy children. Today if a lady (or a man) eats all the sugar and fats she can get her hands on it would make her more susceptible to diseases and it would make her fat and subsequently considerably less attractive for men (women), thus decreasing her chances of having healthy children.

In today’s world we have to exert self-control in order to NOT eat too much sugar and fats. This is completely opposite to our instincts and natural drive.

The sugar and fats example is only one of many mismatches between what humans have evolved to be and what humans should do in the modern world.
And… NO! I do not advocate in any way that we should return to the “stone age”.

Not everything that evolution has shaped us to be good at is outdated in the modern world. For example fear is still quite important to ensure survival. Most humans are “hard wired” to fear fire or in other words we are inherently afraid of fire. This was extremely useful for our distant ancestors’ survival and even in the XXI century it works quite the same way. If there’s a fire, RUN!

One particular thing that we are very good at is to detect “high quality” potential mates. What is generally accepted as (sexual) attractiveness features are in fact signs or cues of general and reproductive health. Finding an “as good as possible” (life) partner with whom to have children is still highly important even in the year 2012. Indeed, modern medicine increases the infant’s chances of survival, but good genes from healthy parents are still extremely important.  

Let’s take a step back and go to the “Dual-System” model of judgment. We have the “Bird brain” (system 1) and the “Computer brain” (system 2).

The “Bird brain” is older from an evolutionary perspective. My best guess is that thinking with the “bird brain” is reasonably effective in achieving the evolutionary macro-goals of survival and successful reproduction. These macro-goals lead to more detailed goals such as getting enough food, attracting potential mates and so on. My view is that overall System 1 can do all these things well enough.

If the “bird brain” works good enough to ensure the achievement of the fundamental goals of life, then a legitimate question arises, namely why do we have the “computer brain” (system 2).

Now, this question is very deep and complex. In no way I claim that I can give the complete answer to it, but I will try to give a reasonable explanation. Let’s take a look at the characteristics of judgment performed by the “computer brain”. When I described the “Computer brain” I wrote: “The “computer brain” is slow and analytical. It bases its judgments on rules acquired through culture or formal learning and tries to identify structures in the environment.”

From an evolutionary perspective the results of thought processes performed by system 2 would be advantageous, but not vital for achieving the Macro-Goals of survival and successful reproduction. Let’s leap in time about 2 million years ago. Our ancestors were living in small communities under the constant threat of predators and of hunger (lack of sufficient metabolic resources).    

Imagine that in a community some of the (pre)humans had some judgment capabilities specific for the “computer” brain. These (pre)humans would be able to defend their community slightly better than (pre)humans in other communities. Similarly, they might be able to hunt better or to get better fruits and vegetables. In evolutionary terms these slight advantages mean a lot.

Another view comes from the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (author of “The mating mind”). Miller claims that the human brain as we know it has evolved through sexual selection. In more simple words, the (pre)humans who showed signs of higher cognitive capacity would be perceived as more attractive by the opposite sex and thus would have better access to high quality mates and had more and better offspring. I really recommend reading Geoffrey Miller’s books for more details on this.

To summarize, the “Bird brain” is reasonably good at fulfilling the evolutionary macro-goals of survival and successful reproduction. The “computer brain” is useful at increasing the level of achievement of the aforementioned goals. In other words, if a person relies only on “Bird brain” judgment, then he or she has reasonable chances of survival and having children that will have children of their own. If in addition to the “bird brain” judgment a person uses (some) “computer brain” judgments the chances of surviving and having children that have children of their own will increase.

Taking this view, I believe that it is clear that human judgment doesn’t need to be fully rational. If what we were designed for – survival and successful reproduction – can be achieved without perfect rationality, why assume that people are fully rational? Making rational judgments increases the chances of achieving the evolutionary macro-goals, but it is not necessary.

From a (social) market perspective, making use of the “computer” brain can give a competitive advantage for acquiring resources and potential mates. At the same time, not using the “computer” brain does not necessarily lead to exclusion from the social market and subsequently from the evolution mechanism.

Who knows, maybe in a million years from now evolution will lead to an improved human kind that will naturally make more use of “computer” brain judgments.

As an ending thought, we are not designed by evolution to function perfectly when it comes to deciding on pension plans, financial investments and many other things we encounter in modern life.

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18 December 2012

Why We Do What Others Do

Social influences are a component of the four dimensional model of behavior. In order to better understand the influences of others on our own behavior, we have to first understand their origin.

If you agree with the general considerations of Darwin’s evolution theory, then you know that “pre-humans” and early humans were a social species. In fact even today’s primates (our evolutionary distant cousins) live in groups.

Our ancestors from a couple of millions years ago were living in small communities of a few tens of individuals. One very important feature of the human species is division of labor. In today’s world the division of labor is a given and it is widely diversified. In the early stages of human evolution, however, the division of labor was much less diversified (the types of work done were very few). In addition, early division of labor had a very strong gender component – women were gathering fruits and other plants while men were hunters. In a similar vein the parental responsibilities were divided between parents – mothers were care-givers while the men were providers.

Going back a bit to evolution theory, there are two major goals that an individual has. First is survival and the second is successful reproduction, in other words having children that survive and have children of their own.

These evolutionary goals are better achieved if an individual (human or pre-human) lives in a group. Taking this view it is in an individual’s best interest to belong to a community of (pre)humans than to live alone.

Both survival and successful reproduction are better achieved in a group. An individual has better chances of survival if the group organizes defenses against potential threats such as predators. Similarly, within a group an individual has better access to food and shelter. Successful reproduction is achieved better in a group for two major reasons. First, an individual has better chances of finding a mate in a group. Second, the very large amount of parental investment (taking care of an infant and of a small child) needed for a newborn to reach adulthood is easier to be provided if an individual lives in a group.

To summarize, an individual living within a social group had evolutionary benefits. Individuals who didn’t live in groups were most likely removed by the evolutionary mechanism – the individual would die without having children, thus the genes being lost.

Humans have an inherent need of belonging to groups. This is not to say that there are no asocial individuals among us, but at the same time most humans feel a very powerful negative emotion (very close to real physical pain) when they are rejected by a group.

Our evolutionary heritage makes us to have to fit in a social group. Fitting in includes conforming to the group’s norms with or without awareness. Although in today’s world there are countless social groups and by all means we have the liberty to choose from the huge variety, the ancestral need of belonging to a group accompanied by the miserable feeling of being rejected make us to conform to the rules of the group to which we belong or in which we are simply by chance.

Fitting in a group includes adopting and conforming to the group’s norms. Sometimes these norms have a positive influence on ourselves, other times they have a negative influence on our wellbeing. Let me give some examples.

A positive example is when a student spends one more hour studying because her (close) colleagues study 5 hours and not 4 each day. The student might simply imitate the “study group” behavior without any awareness, or might consciously decide that she doesn’t want to look less worthy and she spends an extra hour of studying not to fall behind the group.

At the other end of the continuum the same mechanism of following the group and or not wanting to look less worthy can make someone drink alcohol to the level of entering a coma.

To sum up, it is human nature to need to belong to a social group. The origins of this need are embedded in our evolutionary past. Conforming to a group’s norms can be done with or without awareness. Under awareness one simply imitates the behavior of others, while in the awareness condition, one wants to impress or not fall behind the group. The same conformity mechanisms can have both positive and negative influences on our own wellbeing. 

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17 December 2012

Power of Physical Environment – How Design and Characteristics of the Environment Influence Behavior

As I mentioned in the description of the 4D Behavior model the Environment influences significantly human behavior. In this post, I would like to address the role of the Physical Environment in determining behavior.

Let me start with an example. If you have ever went to an Ikea store you were heavily influenced by how the shop is arranged. Much of your behavior in an Ikea store is determined by the designer of the shop and not by your own will. Take a look at the picture below:


The store is designed in such a way that you will not miss any section of it and you will be exposed to most of Ikea’s products.

However, this is not entire goal of the design. Yes, you are much more likely to buy something if you see it as compared to not seeing it. Yes, you will find for sure a certain piece of furniture (if you can call Ikea stuff furniture) that you are looking for in a shop in which you don’t miss anything. But the design of the Ikea shop will do something more than just expose you to all pieces of furniture they have for sale. It will exhaust you. If to the complex journey in an Ikea store you add the congestion and hundreds of screaming children typical for a week-end day, your brain will be under assault. After you finish the “tour” on the upper floor, you will end up in the “accessories” hall downstairs.

Here you will find a lot a nice, cute stuff that is not particularly expensive in absolute value, although I believe that these are in fact the products with the highest margin. After your trip through the top floor maze invaded by screaming children, you are “ego-depleted and most likely you will make purchases out of impulse without giving too much thought. The result will be that you’ll get home with at least a bag full of stuff that is extremely cute but more or less useless.   

But, before getting home, there is a considerable chance that you will stop at the “fashionable” Ikea restaurant (if you can call it a restaurant) and get something to eat since you are tired, hungry and you have to drive home for at least 20 minutes.

This is only one example on how the physical environment strongly influences our behavior. Shop design is in itself almost a science. All (modern) stores are designed so that people who enter them will have a “lighter” wallet when they leave them. At the same time the physical environment influences behavior in many other contexts apart from shopping. Let me give you some more examples.

In the years when I was organizing trainings and conferences I have noticed a big difference in the level of interaction both among participants and with the lecturer depending on how the room was arranged.   

When the room was arranged as a “theater” or as a “classroom” (see pictures below) the level of interactivity was extremely low.

Theater arrangement:

Classroom arrangement:

When the room was arranged in a “U-shape”, however, the interaction boosted and reached levels so high that sometimes I (as a lecturer) found it hard to keep under control.

U-shape arrangement:

I don’t have a full proof scientific explanation for this effect, but I can make some assumptions. In a classroom or theater arrangement people do not see each-other face-to-face. The back of the head and the side of the face are all that one sees when a room is arranged in these manners. At the same time, when a room is arranged in a “U-shape” a lot of people can make eye contact.  Now, several things may happen: First, people can communicate non-verbally (face and body expression) and this may lead to more (verbal) interaction; Second, people are seen by others and may feel social pressure to engage in discussions; Third, the level of anonymity is severely diminished. Whereas in a theater or classroom arrangement one can “hide” in the crowd and stay anonymous, in a U-shape arrangement there can be very little anonymity.

My best guess is that all these three effect co-occur and interact. What is most important is that the way in which people behave in a conference room is highly influenced by how that room is arranged. I have to agree that there many more factors apart from how the furniture is arranged that influence behavior in a room. One such example is the presence of natural light, but I will not go further with the example since this is not an “event organizing course”.  

Another example of how the physical environment influences behavior is traffic. I guess most people who are drivers have encountered “speed bumps” and chicanes meant to make drivers slow down. There are many ways in which to influence how people drive and the city of Rotterdam (in which I live) is a fabulous example of traffic management or better yet, traffic nudging.

The speed bumps and chicanes are created with a clear intent, namely to make people slow down. At the same time, I have observed a feature that is fully unintentional and makes people drive faster.

Did you ever drive on a motorway made out of concrete and not asphalt? The concrete motorways are quite distinct when it comes to driving experience. They produce a certain vibration in the car while driving on them. Of course not all concrete motorways are identical and they produce different vibrations, but I have a clear memory of driving on such a road in the Czech Republic.

Coming from Slovakia into the Czech Republic most of the way to Prague is on a concrete motorway. The legal speed limit on the motorway in the Czech Republic is 130 Km/hour. When driving on that motorway I’ve realized that I was driving very close (and sometimes slightly above) this speed limit. I usually don’t do that, especially because our car is not exactly a “speeder”; usually I drive around 110-120 km/hour.

The reason why I was driving faster on the way to Prague was the nasty vibration produced by the concrete motorway. When I was driving in between my normal speed interval (110-120 km/hour) the noise and the vibration in the car were very annoying, but at 130km/hour both the vibration and the noise were bearable.

My guess is that the Czech authorities did not intent to make people drive faster on their motorways (although in some central and eastern European countries the traffic police looks for any opportunity to give fines for speeding).  I believe that the motorway made out of large concrete uneven tiles was either a cheap solution or a heritage from communist times when little attention was given to the “user friendly” factor. At the same time, the effect still exists and if there is an intention to increase traffic safety, it would be a good idea to change the surface of the motorway to asphalt.

Another environmental source of influence is the exposure to scent. There is something very interesting about scent processing in the brain, namely that the sense of smell has the shortest route to the area of the brain that processes emotions and (long term) memory. By the “shortest route” I refer to the number of synapses that the information from the sensors has to go through towards its destination. At the same time smell is the sense that adapts the fastest in the sense that we can perceive a scent only for a short period of time; after this interval we will not perceive the smell even if the source of it still exists.

One of the most widely known influences of scent on behavior is in fact a “professional secret” of bakers. All bakeries either have a door opened or somehow allow the smell of freshly baked bread to get out on the street. This “professional secret” works better (for small bakeries) than any marketing arsenal. Simply smelling freshly baked bread (or croissants) makes you feel a sudden need for bread or pastry.

Apart from this “professional secret” of bakers, scent has other influences on behavior. For example in a study by Holland, R. W., Hendriks, M. and Aarts, H. (2005) the three Dutch researchers found an effect of smell on how people behaved with regard to cleanness. Half of the participants were exposed to a “cleaning product like” smell, while the others were exposed to no smell. The people who were exposed to the smell cleaned up biscuit crumbs (resulted from eating biscuits) more than the people who were not exposed to the “cleaning product like” smell.

Cleaning biscuit crumbs might sound trivial, but if the effect holds, then it would be a good idea to use some “scent manipulation” in high traffic public spaces that need to kept clean such as cafeterias and public toilets.

One influence of the physical environment that I have discussed in a previous post is related to the evaluation of volume.

The main idea is that we don’t perceive volume in three dimensions, but rather in one dimension, namely the height. This has influences in how we judge containers and on hour drinking behavior. Similarly, the shape of a container influences drinking behavior. The one-dimensional perception of volume does not only influence judgment and behavior, it actually influences how satiated we feel.

Related to the perception of volume and drinking is our perception about food. The behavior (eating) and the feeling of satiety are influenced by the size of the plate from which we eat. If the same quantity of food is placed on a small plate people will eat less and feel more satiated as compared to placing the same food on a larger plate.  So if you are on a diet, eat from small plates. The rationale is that we perceive quantity in relationship with a reference and in the case of food the plate is the reference.

Another environmental influence on behavior comes from (background) music. A series of studies by Adrian North (and colleagues) have shown that the presence or absence of background music influences choice and behavior. Moreover, the type of music is in the background plays a role in choice and behavior.

In one study (NORTH A. C., HARGREAVES D. J., MCKENDRICK J. (1999)), the influence of background music on wine purchasing behavior was investigated.

The study concluded that when French music was playing in a supermarket the purchase ratio between French and German wines was 5:1. In other words when French music was playing the clients of the supermarket bought French wines five times more than they did German wines. When German music was playing in the background, the ratio of purchase between French and German was 2:1. In other words, when German music was playing the clients of the supermarket bought French wines (only) twice as often as they did German ones.

In a different study, Charles S. Areni and David Kim (1993) found that playing classical music (as opposed to Top-Forty music) in a wine store lead to an increase in sales but not in volume. The authors conclude that people when classical music was playing people went for more sophisticated (and subsequently expensive) wines.

One thing should be mentioned here. These influences work very well when an individual experiences ambiguity. In other words, if you would clearly prefer a wine from New Zeeland the effect of German or French music will be virtually zero. At the same time many of the situations in which we have to make choices are somehow ambiguous. Wine purchasing is one example, but there are many more such as buying presents for people whose preferences you don’t really know.

Another important thing concerning the influences of music and other environmental influences is the issue of congruity or in simpler words the issue of matching. One study by Guéguen N. and Jacob, C., (2010) the authors concluded that playing romantic music in a flower shop had an influence on sales, but playing pop music did not (compared to playing no music). The main idea here is that there is a match (congruency) between romance and flowers.

Similarly for the French versus German Music influencing wine purchases. Both France and Germany are easily associated with wine… though Germany has a stronger association with beer. I am not fully convinced that playing Russian music would have an effect on the sales of Russian wine; though it could have an effect on sales of Russian vodka.

In a similar line of thinking, the use of smells has to take into account the congruency between concepts. For example, even if the owners of a bakery would like to stimulate their customers to keep the shop floor cleaner, I think it is not the best idea to make the bakery smell like a cleaning product.  

Before ending this post, I would like to make a warm recommendation. A few months ago I’ve stumbled upon this website http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/. This gentleman has a very nice collection of example on how to influence behavior through design. Check out the design with intent toolkit (right hand side of the page).

Areni, C. S. and Kim, D. (1993) ,"The Influence of Background Music on Shopping Behavior: Classical Versus Top-Forty Music in A Wine Store", in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 336-340.
Guéguen N. and Jacob, C., (2010) Music Congruency and Consumer Behaviour: An Experimental Field Study International Bulletin of Business Administration Issue 9 p.56-63
Holland, R. W., Hendriks, M. and Aarts, H. (2005) Smells like clean spirit. Nonconscious effects of scent on cognition and behavior Psychology  Science 16(9):689-93.
NORTH A. C., HARGREAVES D. J., MCKENDRICK J. (1999) The influence of in-store music on wine selections   Journal of applied psychology vol. 84, no2, pp. 271-276

14 December 2012

The Power of Primes, Prototypes and Uniforms

Environment influences are one of the four major sources of human behavior. Most of these influences are completely unconscious. In my view, these environment influences can be categorized into three broad groups: (1) influences of actual physical environments (such as music, interior and exterior design etc.), (2) influences of primes, prototypes and uniforms and (3) choice architecture (manipulations of the choice set out of which an option is chosen).  

In this post I will present the second category, namely influences of primes, prototypes and uniforms.

Priming is a method of influencing thinking processes. It works like this: a person is exposed to a piece of information which can be a word, an image, a story etc. The exposure can be either supraliminal (the person is aware of the exposure) or subliminal (the person is unaware of the exposure). 

The mere exposure to the information influences thinking in the sense that it makes certain mental associations easier to make.  

Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine that you are playing “hangman” and you have a word to complete:

Think for a second of a cafeteria or restaurant…. What is your answer for the missing letter to complete the word?


Most likely it is “U” and the resulting word is “SOUP”.

Let’s take a deep breath and imagine the same word from the “hangman” game:

Now, think of dirty hands for a second…. What is your answer for the missing letter to complete the word?


Most likely it is “A” and the resulting word is “SOAP”.

I guess you can see the difference. When thinking about a restaurant it is much easier to envision the word “soup” and a lot harder to think about “soap”. Similarly, when thinking of dirty hands it is simply more natural to think about “soap” and not about “soup”.

A skeptic will say that this is not important and that it is normal to think of soap and not soup when someone has been thinking of dirty hands. The skeptic is right when saying that it is simply normal to make the association with “soap”. At the same time it is in no way unimportant.

Going back a bit to how people make judgments, namely to the dual-system model (“bird” and “computer” brains) we have to acknowledge two things.

First, a lot of human judgment is made in “bird brain mode” which is associative. This means that exposing people to a piece of information that triggers some associations and not others will lead to certain “bird brain” judgment and not to another. The “soap” – “soup” example is a good illustration of this influence on thinking.  

Second, we know that the “computer” brain interacts with the “bird” brain and one way of interacting is that the “computer” brain works using the inputs provided by the “bird” brain. This means that exposing people to a piece of information that triggers some associations will lead to subsequent judgments made by the “computer” brain based on the associations provided by the “bird” brain. 

For example on your way to work you are passing by a restaurant and this makes your “bird” brain think of soup. When going for lunch with your colleagues your “computer” brain will try to make a decision on what to have for lunch. It is likely that you will have soup and not salad because the “computer” brain will think based on the input of the “bird” brain which in this case is soup. The reason that you will give for your choice could be that you realized that you haven’t had soup for lunch in a long time. However, this is the explanation that your “computer” brain gives in order for your choice to make sense to you and to others.

Now, let’s get away a bit from the “soUp” – “soAp” example. Priming has a considerable history in academic research and there are literally thousands of studies that have investigated the effects of priming. Some studies have investigated how priming alone influences choice and or behavior; other studies have investigated how priming interacts with various personality traits.

Some examples of interactions between priming and personal traits come from Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J.M., Delton, A.W., Robertson, T. E. (2010, 2011). In their studies these authors have demonstrated that exposure to mortality cues led some people to want to have children earlier in life and other people to have children later in life. Similarly, the same exposure to mortality cues made some people more willing to take risks while others less willing to take risks.

Other better known effects of priming concern money. According to the research of Kathleen D. Vohs, exposing people to money (images of money, actual money and money substitutes – Monopoly money) leads to the exhibiting more individualistic behavior. In a bit more detail, people who were primed with money (compared with people who were not) were less likely to ask for help and to help others; they were less inclined to come in contact with other people; when coming in contact with other people they were keeping a larger distance from them. People who were primed with money were more perseverant in difficult tasks.

A very popular example of priming is the study conducted by Brargh, J.A., Chen, M. and Burrows, L. (1996). In this study the researchers asked participants (students) to solve some word puzzles. One group had to solve puzzles that included neutral words, while the second group had to solve puzzles that included words related to old age such as “gray”, “wrinkle”, “bald” etc. The word “old” was never included or mentioned.

The very interesting result of the study was that the (young) people who solved puzzles that included words related to “old” walked slower than the people who solved puzzles that included neutral words. Participants were completely unaware of the influence the words had on their behavior (speed of walking).

A similar example comes from the master thesis of a former colleague from RSM. People who saw on supermarket’s floor small footprints walked faster than people who saw large footprints.

The “old related words” priming example has a more profound meaning. When exposed to words that are related to “old” people started behaving as a “prototype” of an old person would. Very interestingly, when influenced to exhibit a prototypical behavior, people will do so only if they have a positive or neutral attitude towards the prototype. In other words, people who hate “old people” will not walk slower if they are primed with information related to “old-age”; in fact they will walk faster than normal.

Another very nice example of the influences that prototypes have on our behavior is the direct instruction to act like a prototypical character. For example several studies have found that loss aversion is diminished when people are asked to “think like a trader”.

In more “real life” situations we are asked to act like prototypical characters all the time. On very simple example is “Act like a man” or “act like a grown up”.

Uniforms are another element that influences behavior in a similar way with primes. Uniforms have several psychological influences such as group belonging and (sometimes) anonymity. At the same time uniforms have the role of inducing behavior specific to a prototypical character. For example dressing a regular person in a military uniform will make that person act in a more “militaristic” way.

One very important element of prototypical behavior is the information stored in memory with regard to the prototype. In other words, if someone is dressed up like an astronaut that person will behave more like she thinks (knows) an astronaut behaves. At the same time there can be a considerable distance between what a person knows about a prototype and the actual prototype.

One very good example is the behavior of spies. People who are not spies and haven’t gone to “spy school” get their information about spies and their behavior from movies and literature. Actual spies do not necessarily behave as “movie spies”. Now, if we would ask a person to “act like a spy”, most likely she will behave as the spies in the movies do and not as the actual spies do.

Before summing up the topics discussed here, I would like to make a note. Priming effects and influences of prototypes on behavior have two characteristics. First, they are real and robust. Although it is hard to believe that mere exposure to a piece of information or to a prototype changes our behavior, it is nonetheless true. YES! This applies to you too!

Second, these effects on behavior are not necessarily large. Most studies on priming use the experimental methodology which means the comparison between groups exposed to different treatments. When the results of a study say that “people primed with X compared to people who were not primed exhibited more of a certain behavior” it does not mean that the group who was not primed did not exhibit the behavior at all. It means that there was a “statistically significant” difference between the means of the two groups. In more simple language this is “there is a difference that can’t be ignored”.

What we tend to ignore is that even small differences can matter. For example, does priming with X make people spend more money at the mall really matter? What if the average difference between priming and not priming with X is only 50 cents per person? The answer is two folded: first, 50 cents might not matter for an individual; second, 50 cents multiplied by the number of people visiting the mall in a year could be a very considerable amount. Another example is voting. In elections even a few hundred votes may shift the balance.  

To sum up, exposure to primes has the effect that certain mental associations are made more easily. This leads to changes in judgment and behavior and usually the effects of primes are not conscious. People tend to behave in accordance with what they think as being the behavior of a prototypical character. This occurs when one is primed with information that brings to mind the prototype, when one is told to act as the prototype and when one is dressed up in a uniform specific to the prototype. Priming effects are real and robust, but not necessarily large; they are, however, significant.

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Note: this post is partly documented from: Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow Chapter 4. London: Allen Lane. 

13 December 2012

What Makes the “Computer Brain” Impaired?

In an earlier post (A Bird and aComputer in the Brain (Two Systems of Thinking)) I’ve described the generally accepted view on how people make judgments. In scientific terms it is called the “dual-system” view on judgment. I have used the metaphor of “Bird” and “Computer” brains.

One key learning of this dual-system theory is that the default way of thinking is the “Bird brain” (or system 1). Another key learning is that the “Computer brain” sometimes switches on and interacts with the “Bird brain”.

A lot of research has been done on how System 1 or “The Bird Brain” makes judgments and in order to make sure that the “computer brain” (system 2) does not switch on, several manipulations have been used. In this post I will review what makes the “computer brain” not switch on.

For the more critical readers I will mention that these manipulations do not necessarily lead to a complete impairment of the “computer brain”, but rather they make it much more likely that the “computer brain” does not switch on.
Firs we have Ego Depletion which represents a state of lack of self-control resources. Ego Depletion occurs when a person has performed an activity that comes somehow “unnatural” to the individual and that has required self-control. I have addressed Ego Depletion in Don't Spend the Rent Money onShoes - Self-Control and Ego-Depletion 

Second we have Cognitive Overload which represents a state in which a person’s working memory is overloaded or blocked. As you may know working memory plays a big role in judgment, but has a limited capacity. If the working memory is occupied then judgment is affected by a switch off of the computer brain.  In academic research experiments the overloading of working memory is done by asking participants to remember a 7-9 digits number for the duration of the experiment. Apparently this manipulation has little to do with real life, but it is not exactly so. Indeed the instances in which a person does something while at the same time remembering a 9 digits number are very unlikely. At the same time, our working memory is flooded with information such as remembering meetings, remembering to pick up groceries on the way, an abundance of advertising messages and so on. My opinion is that the experimental manipulation used in research is a simplified version of what is happening in the real world.

Third we have Fatigue which I assume you all know what it meas. Fatigue is in many ways similar to Ego Depletion in the sense that the human body and brain lack metabolic energy resources which leads to a switching off of the “Computer brain”.

Fourth we have Visceral Influences or Hot states which have been described in Would you pay 1000 Euros for a Kebab? – Visceral influences. In essence a visceral influence represents an acute state of a basic need. For example extreme hunger, thirst and severe pain are visceral states. Another kind of visceral influence is the deprivation of a substance to which one is addicted. Extreme fatigue and sexual arousal are also included in this category, but I treat them somehow separately. A person that is in a “Hot state” will focus on satisfying the visceral need and the person’s “computer brain” will very likely not switch on.

Fifth, there is Time pressure which implies that a person has to make a judgment or choice in a very short time interval. Since the “computer brain” is inherently slow, time pressure leads to judgments being made using primarily the “bird brain” which is inherently fast. A relatively reliable “rule of thumb” is that the more severe the time pressure the less likely it is that the “computer brain” will switch on.

Sixth, we have Sexual priming. Sexual arousal is considered to be a visceral influence or a hot state. Sexual priming means the conscious or unconscious exposure to sex related cues. Several studies have shown that exposure to objects or information related to sex leads to judgment and decisions more related with “Bird brain” reasoning than with “computer brain” reasoning. Since mating is a basic need and evolution has shaped us to satisfy it, it is reasonable to say that once exposed to a sexual cue a person is more likely to function mostly on the “bird brain” mode and that the “computer brain” will be less likely to switch on.

Seventh, we have Alcohol intoxication. I assume that everyone knows what alcohol intoxication means and I think it would be a safe assumption to say that (almost) all of my readers have experienced it… In essence alcohol intoxication diminishes self-control and depending on the extent of intoxication diminishes or event impairs the “computer brain”.  

Eighth, we have Positive mood. Again I assume that everyone knows what positive mood means. What is in my view very interesting is that a positive mood induces what is called in scientific terms “cognitive ease”. In more simple language this state of “cognitive ease” would be called mental laziness. In essence “cognitive ease” leads to a lack of critical thinking which is by its nature a mental process associated with the “computer brain”. To put this in other words, when we are in a positive mood we tend to think less critically and analytically.

To sum up, there are certain states or elements that lead to a decreased likelihood that the “computer brain” will switch on. These are: (1) ego depletion; (2) Cognitive Overload; (3) Fatigue; (4) Visceral Influences or Hot states; (5) Time pressure; (6) Sexual priming; (7) Alcohol intoxication; (8) Positive mood. The list is open for suggestions or reminders…

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12 December 2012

Rules of Choice and Goals of Choosing

Throughout several posts I have presented psychological effects that occur while people make choices. Some of them are the compromise effect or Not too…. But not too… , the default option effect or Just leave it like that  and the attraction effect or This One is Clearly Better than That One. These effects are robust and they play major roles in how people make choices. At the same time they are not the only “rules” that people use to make choices. In this post, I present other “rules of choice” and their underlying psychological mechanisms.

First, let’s think about thecompromise effect or Not too…. But not too… . In all the studies in which it was investigated the choice set is composed out of three options. In real life, however, there are situations in which a person has to make a choice out of a larger set of options. One thing that might happen is that the person will focus on only some options thus restricting her consideration set of options. Another thing that might happen is an altered version of the compromise effect.

In this altered version of the compromised effect the person ignores the extreme options. One very good example is a wine list ordered by price. Imagine a gentleman who is picking a wine at a restaurant to enjoy with his date or just friend. For sure he will not choose the cheapest wine. Nor will he choose the most expensive wine. At the same time the wine list has more than three options. 

What happens here is that the gentleman in our story ignores the top and bottom 10% of wines and the choice will be made out of the remainder of 80% of wines on the list.  The interesting thing is that the imaginary gentleman will also ignore the middle chunk of wines on the list. The reason for this is that he does not want to appear (feel) dull. If he chooses for example the fourth most expensive wine, he makes statement about himself regarding his wealth but at the same time he is not showing opulence. If the chooses the fifth cheapest wine, he makes a different statement about himself showing moderation but at the same time not looking cheap.

In case you are selling wine, guess where you should be on the menu…

Another choice rule that people might use is to avoid extremes. The rationale behind avoiding extremes (or extremeness aversion in more scientific terms) is that all options come with advantages or disadvantages. We know that losses are perceived stronger than gains (loss aversion), thus the emphasis falls on disadvantages because they are perceived as potential losses. Extreme options are perceived as risky options in the sense that big advantages might come along with big disadvantages and disadvantages are perceived as more important. The response to this risk is to go more for the middle options which have smaller advantages and subsequently less potential disadvantages (perceived as losses).

One example of choosing a less risky option is the rule “buy the second cheapest”. People who allocate little money for some purchases such as floor detergent or kitchen paper towels might apply a rule such as “buy the second cheapest” because they want to spend little on these products and at the same time they don’t want to be disappointed by what they buy. At the other end of the continuum is a rule on buying the second most expensive. In this case a consumer might simply want a good quality but does not necessarily want to pay for opulence, thus applies a rule that reduces the risk of paying for something that she does not need nor want.

In some particular cases people might apply rules that in fact go for the extreme options. Let’s call these rules “take the best”. When it comes to “take the best” rules, there is an indissoluble link with a specific attribute of the option. For example “Take the best” might mean choosing the most expensive or the cheapest. It can also mean choose the option which scores best on another attribute such as number of washing programs for a washing machine (by the way… you will not use more than 2-3 programs anyway).

In order to have a better understanding of choice rules used by people we must know that when making a decision a person has (unconsciously) four goals, namely: (1) maximizing accuracy, (2) minimizing cognitive effort, (3) minimizing experiencing negative emotions, (4) maximize the ease of justifying the decision.

In the classical view of rational choice theory only the first goal – maximizing accuracy is taken into account. At the same time, in human decision making the other three goals play a huge role. People engage in reasoning and at the same time want to think as little as possible. People want to avoid or minimize negative emotions related to choice such as regret. Moreover, people are social creatures and we have an inherent need to justify our actions to others and most importantly to ourselves. Our actions must make sense to ourselves and for this we need to be able to come up with reasons.   

To conclude this post I would like to point out two things. First, apart from established psychological effects in making choices, people use other “rules of thumb” when choosing from a set of options. These rules of thumb are almost always dependent on the composition of the choice set. For example “take the second cheapest” is a reasonable rule, but my question is “who decides which is the second cheapest option?”.

Second, when choosing, people have goals that have to be achieved and balanced among themselves.

Note: This post is partly documented from: Bettman, J. R., Luce, M. F., & Payne, J. W. (1998). "Constructive consumer choice processes." Journal of Consumer Research, 25, 187-217.

Would You Work for Free to Save the Norwegian Foxes? Why We Like or Dislike Things - Coherent Arbitrariness

One of the fundamental assumptions of normative economics is that what people prefer (like) is their business, but once we know what they like we can consider the preference stable. Throughout a series of posts, I have given examples of violations of this assumption. Now it is time to ask a more fundamental question, namely: “Why we like what we like?”.

Let’s imagine the following scenario: you have some unexpected time off and you want to do something fulfilling for yourself. You decide that doing some work in a different area is a good idea. You search on-line and find that there is an organization that has a program to “save the foxes in Norway” (I have no idea if there are foxes in Norway). The organization asks you to pay 200 Euros for the privilege of saving Norwegian foxes. Would you pay 200 Euros for this privilege? If you are like most people, you will say “NO”. Now, assume that you go on that organization’s web-site the following day and you see that there is a “limited opportunity” to save the Norwegian foxes for free. Would you do it now? If you are like most people you would say “Yes”.

Now, imagine that your best friend in the world is in a similar situation. She finds a different but very similar organization that saves the foxes in Norway. She goes on the organization’s website and sees that the organization pays 200 Euros for her participation in the project of saving the Norwegian foxes. Do you think she will say about enrolling in the project? If your friend is a normal person she will say “Yes”. Before she gets to sing in the program, however, the doorbell rings and some friends come over. The next day your friend goes on the organization’s website and finds an announcement that says that for a limited time they can’t pay the people who enroll in the saving Norwegian foxes program, but they are happy to welcome people who would do the work for free. Do you think your friend will enroll? The answer is most likely “No”.

If we look at the two scenarios we see that they are very similar. The only difference is that in the first scenario the organizations usually asks people to pay for the privilege of saving Norwegian foxes, while in the second scenario the (second) organization usually pays for people to save the Norwegian foxes. This difference has a huge impact on the willingness to save the Norwegian foxes for free. When people are initially asked to pay for saving the Norwegian foxes they are more than happy to do it for free, whereas when people are initially offered a payment for saving the Norwegian foxes they are unwilling to do it for free.

The source of the difference is the lack of knowledge on how the experience of saving Norwegian foxes will be. The simple hint of either paying or being paid for saving the Norwegian foxes makes a huge difference in people’s preferences towards this experience.

Now, let’s imagine two slightly different scenarios. Let’s assume that the two programs of saving Norwegian foxes offered by the two organizations last for two weeks each.

The organization asks for 200 Euros for the privilege of saving Norwegian foxes for two weeks. On this organization’s website there is a poll asking:

“How much would you pay for saving the Norwegian foxes for: 1 week/ 3 weeks/ 4 weeks?”

What do you think your answers will be? For sure if you are assumed to pay 200 euros for two weeks of saving Norwegian foxes, then you will be willing to hypothetically pay less than 200 for one week, more than 200 for three weeks and a bit more than for three weeks for saving the Norwegian foxes for four weeks.

Now, let’s go the organization that is willing to pay 200 euros for two weeks for you enrolling in the saving the Norwegian foxes.  On this organization’s website there is a poll asking:  

“How much would you want to be paid for saving the Norwegian foxes for: 1 week/ 3 weeks/ 4 weeks?”

What do you think your answers will be? For sure if you are paid 200 euros for two weeks of saving Norwegian foxes, then you will ask to hypothetically be paid less than 200 for one week, more than 200 for three weeks and a bit more than for three weeks for saving the Norwegian foxes for four weeks.

As you can see the patterns are quite similar. However there is a fundamental difference, namely that in the first scenario you are willing to pay, whereas in the second you ask to be paid. Regardless of this, we can see that there is coherence in the payments (willing to be made or demanded), namely that for one week you asked to pay/be paid less than for two week and so on.

Coherent arbitrariness is a very good example of the interaction between the “Bird Brain” and the “Computer Brain” (System 1 and System 2). In one type of interaction the “computer brain” will work using inputs from the “bird brain”. In the case of Coherent arbitrariness the starting point is arbitrary (suggested by system 1) while the subsequent judgments and behavior are coherent (actions of system 2) with the starting point.

Another implication of Coherent arbitrariness is that choices made at an earlier point in time will influence related choices that take place at a later time. In other words, a choice made on a topic (such as saving the Norwegian foxes) will influence the subsequent choices with regard to the same topic. Moreover, people will chose (behave) in a manner consistent with the first choice (behavior).

A note has to be made on two aspects of Coherent arbitrariness. First, there is a considerable dose of ambiguity regarding how the experience of “saving Norwegian foxes” will be like. For sure in real life we encounter many events or products that are clearly good or bad. At the same time we are often faced with situations that abound in ambiguity.

Second, the degree of coherence is dependent on the extent to which a person will be able to detect inconsistencies in her own behavior. The easier is for someone to detect inconsistencies in her own behavior, the more likely is that she will act coherently with her initial decision or behavior.

To sum up, when faced with decisions that involve ambiguity it is very likely that people’s choices have a consistent dose of arbitrariness. Subsequent decisions and behavior regarding the same topic will be coherent with the initial (arbitrary) decision or behavior. The degree of arbitrariness depends on the level of ambiguity, while the degree of coherence depends on the ease of detecting inconsistencies in one’s own behavior.
This post is documented from: Ariely, Dan, George Loewenstein, and Drazen Prelec (2006), "Tom Sawyer and the Construction of Value." Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 60 (1), 1-10.