Get over your fear of making a mistake

Get over your fear of making a mistake

Remember making a mistake at work or at home and the feeling attached with it. The word ‘mistake’ itself scares most of us. And that’s because unfortunately right from our childhood our focus has been on being smart, rather than putting our best effort. As a result we’ve learned to see mistakes as stupidity rather than building blocks of knowledge. However reality is just the opposite.

In her famous experiment in New York city schools, Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, gave more than four hundred 5th standard students a relatively easy nonverbal puzzle. Post test, researchers revealed the scores to the students and praised them. Half the students were praised for their intelligence. The researcher said, “You must be smart at this”. Other half were praised for their effort. “You must have worked really hard.”

Then the students were allowed to choose from two different subsequent tests. The first one was described as more difficult. The students were told that they would learn a lot from it. The other option was easy, like the previous test. Of the group that were praised for effort, 90% chose the harder test. Amongst the group that was praised for intelligence, most chose the easy test.

This fear of failing actually inhibits learning, as seen by his next set of experiments. She gave all the students an even harder test, originally written for 8th standard students. Kids praised for effort, got very involved. Many remarked, “This is my favorite test.” Kids praised for intelligence, were easily discouraged. Mistakes were seen as a sign of failure. After the test, students had to choose between looking at the papers of those who did worse than them or better than them. Kids praised for intelligence, almost always chose to bolster their self-esteem by comparing themselves to those who did worse. Kids praised for effort were more interested in those who scored more than them. They wanted to understand their mistakes, learn from their errors and figure how to do better.

In the third final round of testing with the same level of ease as the initial test, kids praised for effort raised their average score by 30%, while the smart group’s average score dropped by 20%. Praised for effort kids were willing to challenge themselves, even it meant failing at first, ending up performing at a much higher level. While for praised for intelligence kids, the experience of failure was discouraging that they regressed.

Jonah Lehrer, editor, blogger and author says, “This doesn’t apply to only 5th standard students, but to everyone. Unless you experience unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeated fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.”

We believe that’s how intuition gets developed amongst experts. Hours and hours of practice and lots of mistakes corrected. Any guess who in the Indian cricket team spends more time in the nets than the rest?

The middle path to getting picked up

The middle path to getting picked up

There a lot of biases that affect the way we make choices. We of course go about our daily routine completely unaware of them. Here’s one such interesting example, called the ‘Centre Stage effect’ – our preferential bias towards items located in the middle.

Paul Rodway, Experimental Psychologist from University of Chester and his colleagues showed 100 participants a questionnaire consisting of 17 questions, wherein each question featured five different pictures of the same type of item (e.g. five scenic views). Each set of five pictures was arranged in a horizontal row and the task for participants, depending on the question, was either to pick their most preferred or least preferred item. Central items were selected approximately 23 per cent of the time. The selection rate for items in other locations averaged below 20 per cent. By contrast, no position bias was found when selecting their least favoured items.

A second study was similar to the first, but this time each array of five items was arranged vertically – once again there was a bias for the central item. A third study used real objects – five pairs of identical white socks – pinned in a vertical array on a large piece of cardboard. Again, participants were asked to pick out their preferred option and again they showed a bias for the middle choice.

These findings build on past researches showing that observers tended to overestimate the performance of quiz show contestants located in central positions.

I wonder whether this phenomenon has to do with our beliefs linking importance or prestige with being centrally located. If we look at sports podiums on which winners get facilitated, Gold being the most prestigious award, is placed in the middle. In office meetings you are most likely to find the top boss sitting in the middle of the boardroom table. The bride and groom at wedding receptions always sit in the middle overlooking the hall.

This ‘middle’ bias has implications on consumer’s shopping behaviour. If a brand has 5 variants, with the same MRP, the one with the maximum margin should be placed in the middle. If your brand competes with others on retail shelves, ensure its placed bang in the middle, as long as consumers can view all options at one go. But no guarantee about you getting picked up if you stand in the middle of your friends at the night club. Well, you could try.

Brainstorms actually stifle creativity

Brainstorms actually stifle creativity

Back in 1940s, advertising executive Alex Osborn argued that it was possible to enhance creativity by putting a group of people in a room and have them follow a simple set of rules, like coming up with as many thoughts as possible, encouraging wild and exaggerated ideas, not criticizing or evaluating anyone’s comments. Not surprisingly it became a hit. Over the years, organizations around the world have encouraged their employees to tackle key problems using this approach, commonly known as brainstorming.

But the scientists aren’t convinced. (Nor am I). Brian Mullen from the University of Kent at Canterbury and his colleagues analyzed twenty studies that tested efficacy of group brainstorming and discovered that in the vast majority of experiments, participants working on their own produced a higher quantity and quality of ideas than those working in groups.

The reason, group brainstorming fails, is because of a phenomenon called ‘social loafing’. Simply put it is diffusion of responsibility. When people work on their own, their success or failure is entirely due to their own abilities and hard work. If they do well, the glory is theirs. If they fail, they carry the can. However, add people to the situation and everyone stops trying so hard, safe in the knowledge that, though they will not receive personal praise if the group does well, they can always blame others if it performs badly.

Years of brainstorming may have inadvertently been stifling, not stimulating, creative juices. So have faith in yourself, work alone, regroup to discuss your ideas with your team and kick ass.

Self-portrait by Mayur Tekchandaney

The surprising psychology of waiting in queues

The surprising psychology of waiting in queues

Waiting in queues can elicit powerful emotions in us. Stress. Boredom. The nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. And of course we believe that the other line moves faster. While losing to the line at our left, drives us to despair, winning the race against the one to our right, does little to lift our spirits. We almost always fixate on the line we’re losing to and rarely the one we’re beating.

All of this makes for a lasting impression on your customers’ perception about your brand if you’re a hypermarket or a bank or an airline or any business whose business it is to serve people. So how does one tackle it?

Some years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero!

Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” says, M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines.

Our expectations further affect how we feel about lines. Beating expectations buoys our mood. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated, leave happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides, so that its guests (never customers, always guests) are pleasantly surprised when they ascend ‘Space Mountain’ ahead of schedule.

This is a powerful ploy because our memories of a queuing experience, are strongly influenced by the final moments, according to research conducted by Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at the business school Insead and the nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. When a long wait ends on a happy note, we tend to look back on it positively, even if we were miserable much of the time. Conversely, if negative emotions dominate in the final minutes, our retrospective audit of the process will skew toward cynicism, even if the experience as a whole was relatively painless.

But the biggest influence on our perception of queues has got to be ‘fairness’: what you feel when someone jumps the queue. If you haven’t faced a situation like this yet in India, where jumping the queue is a survival skill, you must be a celebrity. Ranbir Kapoor did it when I was first in line for the application of an international driving license. He assumed it was ok for celebrities to break queues. So he simply smiled, said sorry but guess what, it worked!

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Does porn increase or decrease rape?

Does porn increase or decrease rape?

Pornography is illegal in India and is seen by most as something that is detrimental to society. Many people outside our country, like in the US (where pornography is legal) too believe it is detrimental to social order, contributing to the degradation of women and leading to rape and sexual assault or other sex related crimes. But there are others who argue the other way, saying that pornography is an expression of fantasy that provides pleasure and can act as a positive displacement activity for sexual aggression.

This debate as well as the increasing coverage of rapes in Indian media got us to research whether or not pornography led to sex related crimes and rapes. Here’s what we found:

Tons of research has been done on this. Quoting few of them here. Findings of Goldstein and Kant, 1973 found that rapists were more likely than non-rapists US prisoners, to have been punished for looking at pornography while a youngster. These two also found that strict, religious upbringing to be highly correlated with sexual offences. A 1984 Canadian study by McKay & Dolff for the Department of Justice of Canada reported, “There is no systematic evidence that suggests that increases in specific forms of deviant behaviour, reflected in crime tend statistics, eg. rape, are causally related to pornography.” Diamond and Uchiyama, 1999, studied the situation in Japan  – as explicit materials were readily available, the incidence of rape had dramatically decreased over the past few decades. Studies from Croatia by Landripet, Stulhofer & Diamond done in 2006 and of US and China done by Diamond also showed significant decreases in rape as pornography became increasingly available.

Reason sighted for this ‘Porn up, Rape down’ phenomenon is that, erotic inclinations to rape, flash, other sexually offensive behaviour, etc might have been used in real life encounters as a means of resolving a lustful inclination. The ready availability of pornography in contrast, may have facilitated a more convenient and more socially tolerable solution of masturbation.

Whether you agree to the above or not, here’s something to think about – when we express our opinion on pornography we think about its effect on others, not on ourselves. While we may not think that pornography is harmful or capable of inciting sexual offenses, we think it might have such an effect on others.

Source: Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: A review by Milton Diamond in International Journal of Law and Psychiatry

Illustration hidden by Mayur Tekchandaney

Words can work like drugs

Words can work like drugs

Words have been known to have the power to affect behaviour change when used appropriately. As Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Here’s an interesting case that illustrates this point. Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author wanted to find out if it was possible to increase donations by creating the perfect charity box. He created four charity boxes. Each identical in shape and size, and all advertised the same charity – National Literacy Trust. He placed each box at one of the four randomly selected tills at the Borders bookstore, UK. Each carried a message that psychologists believed would be effective:

‘Please give generously’

‘Every penny helps’

‘Every pound helps’

‘You can make a difference’

Which one do you think collected the most amount of cash?

‘Every penny helps’ worked best, containing 62% of all contributions. ‘You can make a difference’ was at second place, ‘Please give generously’ at third and ‘Every pound helps’ was last at fourth place.

Why did this happen? According to work done by psychologist Robert Cialdini from Arizona State University, many people are concerned that putting a very small amount of money will make them look mean, so end up giving nothing at all. ‘Every penny helps’ legitimizes, and therefore encourages, the smallest of contributions. In contrast ‘Every pound helps’ had the reverse effect.

Meanwhile I thought I’d end the year with a tweet I read recently – ‘Do not worry about the past & the future. This moment needs your attention, this is where your life exists.’

Wish you Merry Christmas and a rocking 2013.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Should playgrounds be made more child-friendly?

Should playgrounds be made more child friendly?Dr. Sandster and her co-researcher Leif Kennair from Norwegian University of Science and Technology think that offering children opportunities for thrilling experiences through ‘risky play’ helps to ensure they grow up as normal, well-balanced adults. ‘Risky play’ provides kids with a safer situation to learn about dangers than real life. For example, playing at heights can provide kids with the motor skills and perceptual competencies to better navigate heights as they mature. Instead of short climbing walls, there should be towering monkey bars. Instead of plastic crawl tubes, there should be tall, steep slides. And balance beams. And rope swings.

They say the rationale is that the more we shield children from potential scrapes and sprained ankles, the more unprepared they’ll be for real risk as adults, and the less aware they’ll be of their surroundings.

Kids need places to work out their fears, they say, and challenging playgrounds can provide the perfect opportunity for such growth. They argue that modern society has an exaggerated focus on child safety, at the expense of kids’ needs to figure out their personal limits. (You can read the original article here.)

We’re all for children being exposed to a controlled degree of risk, not for the sake of being risky, but because its fun, challenging and makes them learn and grow. But at the same time we must ensure that our playgrounds don’t become risky because of being designed and maintained poorly.

Illustration by Mayur Teckchandaney

If you’re good at math, consider yourself blessed

if you're good at math, consider yourself blessed

I struggled all my studying years with MATH (Mental Abuse to Humans). I was so bad at math that I had even developed a method of memorizing patterns to solve problems, so that I could apply them in case a similar question came up in the exam paper. If you were and are good at math, I have very high regards for you, because most of the human race is simply bad at it.

Consider these two promotions. One is a flat ‘33% off’ on the MRP. The other is 33% more quantity of the product free. In short – ‘33% extra free’. Are both similar? Which one seems more attractive to you?

If both are similar in terms of a proposition to you, but you still prefer ‘33% extra free’, you’re in the majority. In a study, Akshay Rao, the General Mills Chair in Marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, asked undergraduate students to evaluate two deals on loose coffee beans — one with 33% more beans for free, the other at 33% off the price. All the participants chose ‘33% extra free’, inspite of ‘33% off’ being a quantitatively bigger and better offer favouring the customer. (33% off = 50% extra free)

The reason why we opt for ‘33% extra free’ is not just that we suck at math, but we are also infatuated with the idea of getting something for free. It seems as if the power of ‘free’ makes us worse at math.

Now, how you take advantage of this will depend on whether you are a consumer or a marketer.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

My ideas are better than yours

My idea is better than yours

Lets be honest, each one of us believes that our ideas are the best. We fall in love with our own ideas so deeply that most of the times we’re open to any solution, as long as it’s ours. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality calls it ‘The Not-Invented-Here bias’.

‘The Not-Invented-Here Bias’ is basically this: ‘If I (or we) didn’t invent it, then it’s not worth much.’

One may argue that it is good to be attached to our ideas as it could motivate us and create a higher level of commitment. But it comes with its side effects. One example is of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb. He fell hard for direct current (DC) electricity. At that point in time Nikola Tesla developed alternating current (AC) electricity under the supervision of Edison, but Edison dismissed Tesla’s ideas as ‘splendid, but utterly impractical’.  Despite all of Edison’s efforts to foil it, AC eventually prevailed.

Sony is another example. Sony invented the transistor radio, the Walkman, the Trinitron Tube and many other successful inventions. But after a series of successful ones, Sony engineers began suffering from ‘The Not-Invented-Here Bias’. If something wasn’t invented at Sony, the engineers wanted nothing to do with it. iPod and Xbox were ‘outside’ ideas and therefore not considered as good as Sony’s ideas. We all know the consequences.

Acronyms (OAT, ECT, BCT, etc) that blossom inside companies are another example. Dan Ariely says ‘though they are a shorthand to talk about an idea, they confer a kind of secret insider knowledge. They tend to increase the perceived importance of the idea, and at the same time they keep other ideas from entering the inner circle.’

But like many findings in behavioural economics, this too, can be made useful. One example of its usefulness can be demonstrated in how Pillsbury made its instant cake mixes. When instant mixes were introduced in the US years back, housewives had to simply add water to make the cake. The mixes didn’t go down too well with housewives. So Pillsbury left out the dried eggs and required women to add fresh ones, along with milk and oil, to the mix and the sales took off. For housewives, adding eggs and other ingredients, gave a sense of ownership and pride and made them feel it was made by them. I’m sure each one also felt that their cake was better than the ones made by others.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

You will never lose your mobile again

You will never lose your mobile againLet me tell you how. Here’s an interesting story of an experiment conducted by my favorite guy – Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist, author and magician.

Sometime ago, he bought 240 wallets and filled them with the same set of cash, fake credit card, address of the owner, etc. In the first batch of 40 wallets he put the photograph of a smiling baby. In the next 40, the photograph of a cute puppy. Next 40, a happy family. Next 40, a happy elderly couple. Next 40, had a card which indicated that the owner had made a contribution to charity. In the last batch of 40 wallets, nothing additional was added. These were secretly dropped on the streets of Edinburgh away from post-boxes and dustbins.

Within one week, 52% of the total 240 wallets were returned. The percentages of wallets returned as per each batch were as follows: 6% of those that contained no additional element, 8% of those containing the charity card, 11% of those containing the photograph of elderly couple, 19% of those containing the photograph of cute puppy, 21% of those containing the photograph of happy-looking family and the winner with a huge margin – 35% of those containing the photograph of the smiling baby.

Why did that happen? Brain scanning scientists at the University of Oxford say that activity in the section of the brain directly behind the eyes (medial orbitofrontal cortex) kicked in, in 1/7th of a second after seeing the baby’s face and that it happened as an automatic response to the image of big eyes, forehead and button nose. This part of the brain is associated with people receiving a nice reward, like a chocolate or lottery. Scientists say that this ‘baby-aww’ linkage is a deep seated mechanism, evolved over thousands of years, that causes us to get in touch with our inner parent, become happier and caring, and thus increase the likelihood of returning the wallet.

So if you want to increase the chances of your mobile being returned if lost, go click the happiest cutest baby and set its picture as your mobile wallpaper.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney. Say hi to little Ettan in the illus-photo (Mayur’s elder son).

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