Keeping an open mind is not easy

Keeping an open mind is not easy

At some point in life we all have been advised to keep an open mind. Though we’re aware of its benefits, we often find ourselves having to make a conscious effort in doing so. We were wondering if we were the only ones who had to make such conscious efforts. So we got digging on it and chanced upon this interesting story.

During the last week of September 1973, Egyptian and Syrian armies began massing near the Israeli border. Artillery had been moved into offensive positions. Syrians concentrated their ant-aircraft missiles at the border. From the hills of Jerusalem, people could see black exhaust generated by thousands of tanks and the smoke was getting closer. Anwar Sadat, then the president of Egypt boldly declared that the destruction of Israel was worth the sacrifice of one million Egyptian soldiers.

Meanwhile in Israel, major general Eli Zeira, director of Aman, the Israeli military intelligence agency, dismissed the possibility of an Egyptian invasion. He believed that the Egyptian military build-up was a bluff, intended to shore up Sadat’s domestic support. On the morning of October 6, when Gold Meir, the prime minister of Israel convened a meeting with top military officials to assess the situation. Zeira told her they would not dare to attack, of that he was certain.

In the early afternoon of October 6, Egyptian and Syrian armies launched the attack on Israeli positions in the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. Israeli army was taken by ‘surprise’. Egyptians tanks steamed across Sinai and captured key locations. Situation was direr in the Golan Heights. Israelis suffered heavy casualties. But the tide shifted by October 8 with newly arrived Israeli reinforcements. After intense fighting for days, the invasion was repelled. But it turned out that Israel’s military superiority was not a guarantee of safety as the country had almost been destroyed by an intelligence failure.

Why was the intelligence community so resistant to the idea of an attack? The answer pointed to Mossad and Aman’s influential theory of Arab strategy that they called ha-Konseptzia (the Concept). The Concept held that Egypt and Syria wouldn’t consider attacking Israel until 1975, at which point they would have an adequate number of fighter planes and pilots. The Concept also placed great faith in the Bar-Lev line, a series of defensive positions along the Suez Canal.

The Concept turned out to be completely wrong, because Egyptians were relied on their surface-to-air missiles to counter Israeli air forces, they didn’t need air planes. The Bar-lev line positions were mostly piled desert sand, moved by Egyptian military with pressured water cannons. But the Concept was deeply ingrained in the thinking of the Israeli intelligence.

As the psychologist Uri Bar-Joseph noted in his study of the Israeli intelligence failure, “The need for cognitive closure prompted leading analysts, especially Eli Zeira, to freeze on conventional wisdom that an attack was unlikely and to be impervious to information suggesting that it was actually imminent.”

It feels good to be certain. Confidence is comforting. The brain can analyze a problem from different angles, but that makes us insecure. Says Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust was a Neuroscientist and How we Decide, “When we analyze, we get into a indecisive disagreement within ourselves. Certainty imposes consensus on this inner cacophony. That’s why being sure is such a relief.”

But the way to counteract this bias for certainty is to encourage inner dissonance. We can take steps to prevent ourselves from shutting down our minds’ arguments too soon. Or we can create decision-making environments that help us better entertain competing hypotheses and keep our mind open atleast for sometime.

How Michael Phelps’ coach trained him

How Michael Phelps’ coach trained him

We know how Phelps long torso and relatively short legs gave him an edge over others. But here’s perhaps a not-so-well-known insight into how Bill Bowman, Michael Phelps coach, created a habit in Phelps that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.

Ever since Phelps was a teenager, Bowman would tell him to go home and watch the videotape before going to sleep and when waking up. The videotape, however, wasn’t a real one. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off, swimming flawlessly, visualizing his strokes, the walls of the pool, his turns, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, the finish and what it would be like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed and watch the race and the smallest details until he knew each second by heart.

During practices, Bowman would shout, “Put in the videotape!” and Phelps would push harder and it worked. “We figured it was best to concentrate on these tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers”, says Bowman. “If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before the competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits had taken over. The actual race was just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and was nothing but victories. Winning became a natural extension.”

On the morning of 13th August 2008, at Beijing four minutes before the start of the race, as he always did, Phelps stood behind his starting block, bounced slightly on his toes, came on the block when his name was announced, stepped off, swung his arms three times, got into stance and leapt off when the gun sounded. But as soon as he hit the water, he knew something was wrong. There was moisture in his goggles. As he approached the third turn the cups of his goggles were completely filled and he couldn’t see anything.

But Phelps swam calmly. Bowman had made Phelps swim in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Phelps had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. Phelps began counting his strokes in the last lap. Midway he increased his effort for his final eruption. He began anticipating the wall and the number of strokes he needed. Nineteen strokes, then twenty. He felt he needed one more. He made the twenty-first huge stroke and glided with his arms and touched the wall. Ripped off the goggles and looked at the scoreboard. It said World Record next to his name. When asked how it felt like to swim blind, Phelps said, “Like I imagined it would.”

One study on this topic by Sanders et al. was carried out on medical students. On top of their usual training—which included physical practice—half were trained in mental imagery techniques, while the other half studied their textbooks. When the students carried out live surgery, those who’d used mental imagery performed better, on average, than those assigned the book learning.

What’s playing in your tape?

Source: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

How we get fooled by a feeling

How we get fooled by a feeling

 

The debate is always on what’s better: to rely on intuition (feeling) or rely on deliberate thinking while making decisions. Fact is in some cases its better to rely on feeling and in some on deliberate thinking and the trick is to know which to choose when. This post is about learning how not to get fooled by a feeling from an experiment conducted by neuroscientist Read Montague, which demonstrates how our dopamine system leads us to lose money in the stock market.

In the simulated experiment, subjects were given $100 at the start. Players were to invest their money for twenty rounds and got to keep their earnings, if any. Interesting twist of the experiment was that Read Montague had people ‘play’ the Dow of 1929, Nasdaq of 1998, Nikkei of 1986 and S&P 500 of 1987 – what had been once real-life bubbles and crashes.

What the scientists observed from brain mapping, were signals emanating from dopamine rich areas of the brain, like ventral caudate, which was encoding the ability to learn from what-if scenarios. For example, the situation in which a player invested 10% of his total money – relatively small bet. Then he saw the market rise dramatically. What happened was his ungrateful dopamine neurons got fixated on the profits he missed. In such a situation, when the market was booming, like before the Nasdaq bubble of 1998, the players kept increasing their investments. Not to invest was to drown in the feeling of regret. The greedy brains were convinced that they’ve solved the stock market, but just when they are most convinced that it isn’t a bubble, the bubble burst. The Dow sank, the Nasdaq imploded and Nikkei collapsed. All of a sudden, those who regretted not investing more and subsequently invested more were now despairing their plummeting net worth. “When the markets head down,” says Montague, “you get the exact opposite effect. People just can’t wait to get out, because the brain doesn’t want the feeling of regret staying in. Investors dump any stock that’s declining. Panic.”

Jonah Lehrer, author of ‘How we decide’, says, “Our dopamine neurons that release the feel-good chemical, weren’t designed to deal with random oscillations of the stock market. The brain is so eager to maximize rewards that it ends up pushing its owner off a cliff. Casinos have learned to exploit this flaw of the human brain. So don’t try to perceive patterns when they don’t exist. The world is more random than you think it is. Don’t fixate on what might have been or obsess over someone else’s profits. But that’s what our emotions can’t understand.”

Now if you don’t get fooled in such circumstances, tell us how.

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

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