Could you watch my laptop?

“Would you mind keeping an eye on my computer?” I asked, wanting to get a refill for my coffee.

“Yeah, sure” responds the stranger sitting next to me.

This conversation might sound familiar to those of you who frequent coffee shops and cafés alone and stay there for hours on end. At some point, you’ll need to go to the bathroom, want another cup of coffee, or maybe a chocolate croissant as well.

When I came back to my computer, said stranger asks, “Why would you trust me with your computer?”

Caught off guard, I pause for a second and said, “I don’t have a reason to, but Psychology research suggests….”

Yes, yes, I quoted research to a complete stranger at a coffee shop (don’t judge). In all seriousness, here is what research said about asking strangers to watch your stuff for you –

Beach Blanket Study

In the summer of 1972, Psychologist Tom Moriarty set up 56 fake thefts to happen at Jones Beach in New York. They were interested in seeing whether people witnessing the theft would intervene and stop the crime from happening.

Here is how the experiment went – a “confederate” (probably was a research assistant like myself) would lay a beach blanket somewhere close to where an individual, a couple, or a family might have set up their beach blanket and basking in the sunshine. Then, for half the time, the confederate would listen to the portable radio for 2 minutes, and then say to the people in the next blanket, “excuse me, I’m going out for a swim, would you watch my things?” For the other half of the time, the confederate would listen to the radio for 2 minutes, then engage in some unrelated conversation and leave for his or her swim.

While the beach blanket and the portable radio were unattended, another research assistant would come and pretend to steal the radio. The question is: would those people in the beach blanket next to them witnessing the crime stop the stealer?

In the condition where the strangers agreed to watch the portable radio, the strangers stopped the thief 95% of the time! Comparatively, those who engaged the stranger in some unrelated conversation, saw only 20% of thefts being interrupted. That’s a huge effect from just kindly asking your neighbor to watch out for your things. 1 short second to save your portable radio! (well, I think that would be equivalent to your macbook in 2015 terms right?)

Even though I ask my neighbor to watch my things every time I leave the table, I question this experiment for several reasons. This experiment set-up confounds another famous marketing experiment, where people are more likely to allow you to cut the line if you provide them with a reason (any reason) [Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978]. In the blanket study, in addition to asking the stranger to watch the radio and blanket, the confederate also provided a reason “I’m going out for a swim”, which might have exaggerated the percentage of people who would agree to watching things for you. (Do I have to explain that I’m going to the bathroom?) Which leads to another question, is it necessary that the person says yes to your request? Or would they still chase after the thief for you even if they said no?

Before I read about more studies that addresses my coffee shop habits and self-control issues at the dessert shelf (see previously: compromise effect at sbux, and choice overload problem) I would suggest you ask the person next to you to watch your things before leaving the table. It might just save your laptop and backpack while you wait for your latte.

Love,

S (back in asia in t-3 days!)

Sources:

Moriarty, Thomas. “Crime, commitment, and the responsive bystander: Two field experiments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31.2 (1975): 370.

Langer, Ellen J., Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz. “The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of” placebic” information in interpersonal interaction.” Journal of personality and social psychology 36.6 (1978): 635.

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Fruit Salad or Chocolate?

We are approaching the end of the year and counting down the days to the holidays! I spent this past week mostly reading academic papers from Psychology and Consumer Research journals on a topic that would be relevant to all of us as we step into the holiday season. This study is widely cited in popular books, such as How We Decide and probably in social psych or marketing course. It is about self-control.

It’s one of the many experiments out there that try to study self-control in a lab setting. Before we begin, I should be cautious and should warn you about the danger of juggling words such as self-control, willpower, cognitive load, processing power around. Though they might sound like the same thing to us (e.g. basically you’re saying I shopped online today and shouldn’t have?), the mechanism underlying each of these words might be very different. In this experiment, researchers Shiv and Fedorikhin called it “Processing Resources”.

Heart and Mind in Conflict

Imagine this: you’re taking a psych course and are required to register for these lab studies in order to get credit for the course. You walk in to the lab and the experimenter tells you a 7-digit number that you have to memorize, a number that you have to repeat to the experimenter in another room. You get a map of where you’re supposed to go. Before you go though, go over to the cart and choose a dessert you want! yum. these studies aren’t so bad, are they? You get to pick between chocolate and fruit salad. After you make your choice, you walk over to the second room according to the map, and then recall the 7-digit number you were asked to memorize. You think you’ll still remember the 7-digits?

You do? Good for you! The bad news is that your memorization skills wasn’t what they’re interested in. Instead, what they wanted to know is whether you picked the chocolate or the fruit salad from the dessert cart. They manipulated something else too; they didn’t give everyone 7 digits to remember, some of your classmates only had to remember 2 digits! In a classic cognitive load manipulation study, remembering 7 digits is called “high load”, while remembering 2 digits is called “low load”. (They can also vary the digit-length, ask you to remember words instead of numbers, do math problems, etc.)

As you can imagine, it wasn’t very difficult to remember these digits so most people recalled them perfectly. However, they did find effects on the dessert choices. Those who had to memorize 7 digits were significantly more likely to choose the chocolate than those who memorized 2 digits only. (This is all assuming that chocolate is less healthy than fruit salad; which could very well be another debate for another time). The researchers claim that those in the 7 digit condition used their limited processing resources to memorize the string of numbers, leaving them with less willpower to resist the chocolate temptation. Those in the 2 digit condition, had more willpower left to make the healthier decision by choosing the fruit salad.

More generally, self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted over time. If you need to do something that requires a lot of self-control, conserve your willpower by focusing on that one task. It’s not likely that you would be memorizing some meaningless 7-digit number in your everyday life, but you might have your mind on the news or a family dispute or what to eat for dinner. Know that these concurrent thoughts will be pulling your processing ability away. This might be something to keep in mind as you go christmas shopping: you’re more likely to impulse buy that thing you shouldn’t buy if your mind is loaded with other busy thoughts!

Happy weekend everybody.

love,
Steph

 

Source: Shiv, B.; Fedorikhin, A. “Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 26 (1999). 

Pumpkin Pie

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One of my proudest moments in the past 2 months was getting my mom hooked on pumpkin…foods. No nudging was needed, when she caved to the temptation of those pumpkin spice cakes at Trader Joe’s (yes, they are amazing). After that, the list went on – pumpkin muffin, pumpkin spice latte, pumpkin bread…do they sell pumpkin puree in HK? ah, I hope they do.

So when Thanksgiving rolled around, I naturally had to incorporate some sort of pumpkin food into the meal. In fact, it was the only item I made for Thanksgiving: the glorious Pumpkin Pie.

pie

I cannot pinpoint when it started; when I would say “pumpkin [something]” and my friends would roll their eyes and mumble “of course”. Well, here it is again my dear friends! But let me tell you, its not a normal pumpkin pie, it is made with a gingersnap cookie crust, a significant life upgrade from the packaged frozen crust I sometimes use.

This recipe was taken from Fork Knife Swoon, a new food blog I found that has recipes simple enough for amateur cooks to follow. At least it seems more manageable to me. If you’ve experienced cooking paralysis from reading fancy food blogs with a list of ingredients you couldn’t pronounce and seven too many steps you know you couldn’t follow, I think Fork Knife Swoon might be a good bet. I’ll have to let you know.

I have also decided to make pumpkin pie my perfected dessert. I am impressed at how other bloggers have the patience to experiment with different ingredients/cooking times/mixing methods and make the same dish a dozen times before posting. I want to try to do that, so lets start with the pumpkin pie. This might even become my new years resolution for 2016 (note to self)!

thanksgivingdinner

Hope everyone had a restful Thanksgiving break. Christmas in a few weeks – let the countdown begin again!

Recipe again is here: Fork Knife Swoon – Gingersnap Pumpkin Pie

Love,
Steph

HK Sleep and Lifestyle Study

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always surrounded by distractions: activities to go to, friends to meet up with, tutoring sessions to attend etc…I even used to watch TV 😉 HK just always seemed like a busy place, with the MTR (the subway system) bustling, bright and safe, until 2am. It was a paradise for shoppers, eaters, and movie go-ers. Nonetheless, I left HK five years ago for college in the US while some my friends continued with university there. How different were our college lives? Here are some statistics from a survey study that was done at the Polytechnic University in Hung Hom.

 

1) People were asked about their health:

  • 38.3% of males and 25.7% of females take part in leisure time recreational activity such as swimming, dancing, cycling
  • 62.6% males and 55.7% females eat breakfast

Only 60%? This has always confused me. Don’t you get hungry when you wake up? I have to admit I’m an early bird, so I tend to opt for a big breakfast (french toast, eggs benedict style) than a late-night snack. I also guiltily admit that food is probably the first thought that comes to mind after turning off the alarm; no snoozing please, my stomach will say.

 

2) People were asked about their sleep schedules:

  • 73.8% males and 74.3% females don’t get enough sleep!

Granted, these are college students who are nervous about their midterms and problem sets, so the results are predictable. However, from the past few weeks of reading about sleep and happiness research, the one and probably the only one overarching agreement that researchers have is, plainly, you need to sleep. People never adapt to the feeling of tiredness and you can’t even train yourself to get less sleep. So, if you feel like you’re not getting enough sleep, it won’t get any better unless you sleep more!

 

3) There were some encouraging results when people were asked about their interpersonal relationships:

  • 68.2% males and 78.6% females maintain meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others
  • 67.2% males and 73.6% females spend time with close friends
  • 50.5% males and 63.6% females get support from a network of caring people

Friends, family, and loved ones are important people who will support you throughout your life. So, it’s good to know that this Hong Kong survey shows positive results. It is difficult, especially with everyone’s busy schedules, to find the time to build those meaningful relationships, but it is crucial as it gives us meaning in life. Equally as important, we need to know when to reach out to this network of people. The survey also shows that majority of Polytech students get support from their friends and family.

 

Though this study was done in Hong Kong with university students, I suspect that a lot of these results will replicate outside of the university setting and outside of Hong Kong. It also leads me to believe that people’s experiences are not all that different no matter where we are or what we do. So, to all of you, remember to sleep 7-8 hours, eat breakfast, and spend time with those you love and care about!

On the topic of HK, I’ll be home for break in December (Dec 28-Jan 10) so hit me up! Can’t wait to catch up.

Love,
Steph

Why do we Sleep?

We all know that sleeping is important, but the reasons why it is important has been a topic of research for many many years. In fact, it’s also a topic I’m researching into right now, specifically looking at the relationship between Sleep and Happiness.

Here’s a neat poster that compares a well-rested brain to a sleepy brain. The chart covers what happens to your brain cells, consequences on work and driving, and your relationship with others. All important aspects of our lives I would say!

This is a spoiler for next week as I’ll share with you a study about Hong Kong students and their sleep patterns! I’m excited (or not, because I bet it says HK people never sleep…) to read the paper. Stay tuned for this!

sleep

Infographic thanks to: https://www.bollandbranch.com/sleep-and-happiness

Please sleep more!

With Love,
S

I Love Cali (Guest Post)

– By Michael Tu

I hate Chicago! I can’t wait to move back to Cali. I must have heard my Californian friends senselessly bash Chicago at least 100 times the past 6 years here. They claim they would be significantly happier if they escaped Chicago’s frigid hell (paradox?) and returned to their paradisal motherland. I have always found this line of thought to be quite superficial, the outcome of an insufficiently examined life. If the limitless wonders of California do indeed make you much happier, then Californians must be the happiest people on Earth. Sure. I’m skeptical that the weather is a central determinant of life satisfaction. Far more crucial are factors such as whether you are surrounding yourself with people who and engaging in work that bring you meaning. You can achieve this almost regardless of location.

It turns out that this notion of Californian superiority in life satisfaction has also bothered leading behavioral scientists David Schkade of UCSD and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University (who also won a Nobel Prize in Economics). They performed a study called “Does Living in California Make People Happy? A Focusing Illusion in Judgments of Life Satisfaction”. While the title makes the study seem silly at first glance, I assure you that it is a legitimate one that has been cited 627 times. The researchers surveyed ~2000 undergraduates from the University of Michigan (UM), Ohio State University (OSU), the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, Irvine (UCI) about their own overall level of life satisfaction and their own level of satisfaction with specific factors such as the regional climate. Moreover, the researchers surveyed the students about what they perceive to be the overall life satisfaction of their similar other (someone else similar to themselves) in the Midwest and in California, and their similar other’s level of satisfaction with specific factors such as the regional climate.

 

The study yielded many interesting results. I will only cover a subset of them:

  1. The students in the Midwest and in California had a similar level of overall life satisfaction.
  2. The Californian students were more satisfied with their own climate than students in the Midwest were satisfied with their own climate.
  3. Both geographical sets of students predicted that their similar other would have a higher level of overall life satisfaction in California than in the Midwest.
    1. The higher life satisfaction prediction for California occurred because the students believed their similar other would be more satisfied with the climate and cultural opportunities in California.
  4. Both geographical sets of students placed higher importance on the climate’s effect on well-being for their similar other living in another region than for themselves.

 

The professors interpreted the results as follows:

  1. The climate is not an important factor when a person assesses her own overall life satisfaction. That person focuses on more central aspects of life in her evaluation.
  2. Objectively speaking, there is a difference in hedonic experience between the climate in California and the Midwest’s climate. A person tends to over-focus on the salient Californian “advantage” of climate when imagining his similar other’s life in another region.
    1. Note: I inserted the apostrophe around ‘advantage.’
  3. Hence, a focusing illusion occurs that causes the person to exaggerate the impact of climate on his similar other’s overall life satisfaction in another region. He fails to realize that his focus shifts to more central aspects of life when evaluating his own overall life satisfaction.

 

To be fair, this study has a limitation. UM, UCLA, UCI, and OSU are mostly comprised of local, regional students, so the surveyed Californians probably have lived in California their entire life, and the surveyed Midwesterners most likely have lived in the Midwest their entire life. At most, you can solidly conclude that lifetime Midwesterners and Californians have similar life satisfaction despite California’s salient “advantages.” You cannot definitely say that a person who moves to the Midwest from California will not have lower life satisfaction, ceteris paribus (excluding the climate and cultural opportunities). Conversely, you cannot definitely say that a person who moves to California from the Midwest will not have higher life satisfaction, ceteris paribus (excluding the climate and cultural opportunities).

Yet, in the face of imperfect information, I strongly believe there is beneficial value in assuming that the authors’ conclusion is a close approximation of the truth:

“In the context of life satisfaction, the present discussion suggests that people may not be good judges of the effect of changing circumstances on their own life satisfaction, or on that of others. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.”

If you are a Californian struggling to adapt to life in Chicago, realize that it is wholly possible to achieve a similar level of life satisfaction here that you enjoyed in California. Instead of focusing your energy on trivial elements of life such as the weather, seek and be present to the crucial and wholesome gifts of life: the people around you who bring you meaning and the work that you find meaningful.

Nudge in Chief: Choice Architecture and Public Policy (Guest Post)

President Obama’s recent executive order encourages federal agencies to utilize behavioral science insights in the development of their policies and program.

Read what my friend, Diana, has to say about it and follow her posts on LinkedIn Pulse!


On September 15, 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order titled,“Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.”  Behavioral science – an amalgamation of behavioral economics, psychology, and cognitive science – aims to uncover the intricacies of the human decision making process, and its utility in improving the public sphere has finally been acknowledged at the highest level.

The research findings regarding human behavior have already been applied to a number of areas, most notably marketing and advertising. However, as Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein assert in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” behavioral science can and should be applied to a number of spheres not just to influence, but to improve  the choices that individuals make.

Choices aren’t made in a vacuum. You may think that you are in control of your choices, but a large portion of your response is determined by the environment around you – the choice architecture. Thaler and Sunstein argue that there is a technique to how choices can be presented in order to help people select options that will improve their lives. This technique called “nudging” involves subtly changing the structure of the environment without limiting choice. For example, Google redesigned their cafeteria to make healthy choice more visible, with the result of employees’ fat consumption from candy dropping an impressive 11 percent. In addition, according to Thaler and Sunstein, “for reasons of laziness, fear, and distraction, many people will take whatever option requires the least effort” – meaning the default option. For example, in countries where the organ donation form is set as “opt-out” (check this box if you don’t want to participate), people do not check the box and are automatically enrolled to donate their organs. If the organ donation form is set as “opt-in,” people do not check the box and are automatically not enrolled to donate. In both cases, large proportions of people simply adopt the default option.

This executive order signed by President Obama specifically addresses the concept of choice architecture and highlights the power of the default option, as it pertains to public policy. Executive departments and agencies are mandated to consider how the presentation of choices can promote public welfare, giving particular consideration to the selection of the default option. The goal is to create federal programs that reflect how people engage with and respond to choices. For example, the executive order cites automatic enrollment and automatic escalation in retirement savings plans, default options that have made it easier to save for the future and accumulate billions of dollars in additional retirement savings.

Working in management consulting has solidified my deep appreciation for and trust in evidence-based thinking. Solid data provides me with the foundation upon which I can build sound recommendations for clients. Unfortunately, in my eyes, the political sphere is one where voters make decisions based on emotions and politicians make decisions based on the desire to be re-elected to power. But shouldn’t our leaders adhere to data-driven practices? According to President Obama, the answer is yes. This executive order marks a tremendous step forward towards bringing evidence-based practices into the public sphere.

(Dis)Honest: Do you Lie?

Of course you do. Everyone lies. Everyone openly admits to lying. Yet, we still think of ourselves as perfectly good, lovely people. Hm. This topic has intrigued Dan Ariely, a behavioral economists and psychologist to study it in depth and to subsequently write a book, direct a documentary, and create an online project about it.

The book, called Dishonesty: The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty attempts to explain how people cheat. One of the main findings is that few people in society cheat a lot (think: WSJ front page), but a lot of people cheat a little (think: you, me, him, her, etc). The economic cost of everyone cheating a little bit actually adds up to be so much greater than the cost of those few individuals who make it to jail cheating a lot at once.

In his studies, Dan Ariely and his team at Duke’s Center for Advanced Insights tried many different ways to get people to cheat. For example, they asked people to solve a set of math questions and told them that they would be paid for how many questions they got correct. After time is up, subjects were instructed to count how many questions they got right, walk to the front of the room, SHRED their answer sheet, and then verbally report how many they got correct. The researchers did not and will not know what their real score was – did they cheat?

What they found was that 90% of people cheated. 90%!!! Almost everyone was okay with cheating on that math test. I’m sure if you and I were in that experiment, we would have cheated too. They tested this effect across gender, cultures, age, and found universally the same result.

There are many other interesting things that Dan Ariely has done and I’ll outline a few here:

  • The documentary with the same title as his book. I personally really liked it. It’s a little long (~1 hour 45 mins), but it was filled with story after story of interesting people who started a small lie, and then it over time snowballed into these HUGE lies that went out of control. They ended up going to jail and/or losing everything. If anything, it served to scare me about the consequences of lying.IMG_4353
  • He spoke at several Ted Talks (this link is for the dishonesty one) that you might want to check out. I’ve had the fortune of listening to Dan speak several times now, including last week at Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy and he’s a great speaker. He has a knack for holding his audiences’ attention through his stories and jokes, and engaging his audience while revealing stunning facts (e.g. the one about 90% people lying). Highly recommend it!
  • Irrational Card Game is on Kickstarter now. His lab is full of creative people and this is one of the products they came up with. It’ll be a fun way to learn about behavioral economics in general and looks super fun! pb ordered me a set and I cannot wait to play it! 🙂
  • Phone apps to help you. This is news to me as I was researching about this blog post. They made several phone apps with fun surveys like “what is the best pick up line you know”; there’s another one that looks like it targets procrastinators. Excited to check these out!

I’ll be in Chicago next weekend for Halloween 🙂 and move-out 😦

Have a great week ahead,

xx Steph

TSNY Trapeeeeeze

How did I move from Chicago to somewhere even colder? Apparently there were signs of first snow in Boston a few hours ago, ekk! After the freezing morning run along Charles River, I’ve strategically planned to stay at a coffee shop all day. It’s nice and toasty in here, so I had to double-check….first snow on Oct 18?

Only three weeks ago, I was still in Chicago waiting to try my first Trapeze class in nice, warmish weather. Trapeze, for those unfamiliar, is where you hold onto a horizontal bar (think monkey bar) and swing in the air, just like Cirque du Soleil. Terrified by the idea? I was too! Convinced that I wouldn’t be able to hold onto the bar and embarrassingly fall off in a split second, I walked up to write my name on the chalkboard and hear the instructions for first timers.

The basic instruction is to hold on tight to the bar and then follow the rest of the instructions being called out to you when you’re on the bar. READY? um….not really….?

Ignoring my shaking legs, up I climbed on the thin ladder, which was wobbling in the Lake Michigan breeze. Here’s a video of what I could do by the end of class:

I think I’m ready to audition for Cirque! Okay, maybe not, but it wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be. I know you skeptics out there will not believe me when I say that. The truth is all the movements relied on momentum, especially when I had to put my leg up onto the bar, it was much easier than it looked because it used the force you get when you jump off the board. In fact, the hardest part was probably getting your legs off the board, which took me an entire minute, along with ample convincing from the instructor, the first time around (the video became too long to upload…) Otherwise, it’s not bad!

I would definitely encourage you to try if you’re even slightly intrigued. Full disclosure – my muscles did hurt for about 2 weeks after because it used muscles that I never knew I had (possibly similar to the ones used in yoga?) Great experience and great crew!

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For those of you who might want to give it a try, they have rigs in Chicago, NYC, Boston, DC, LA. Check it out at TSNY.

Stay Warm! xx

Gains and Losses

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind. I moved to Boston to start a new role as a research assistant and am also taking classes along the way. One of the classes that I’m taking is Behavioral Economics. One of the readings (and there are so many!) is an interesting paper by Richard Thaler called Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice.

In particular, he builds on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s model of loss aversion, which says that people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. We feel a loss approximately twice as badly as we feel a gain, so the magnitude from losing $2 is as strong as gaining $1.

Thaler took this model and said, okay, so is it better to combine the losses/gains together in one go or separate them? You can go through the different thought experiments: would you want to pay a fine a little at a time, or a lump-sum? Would you want to get a small piece of chocolate at a time, or a whole bar?

He found that people are happier (“get more utility”) by separating the gains, and aggregating the losses. You see plenty of examples in businesses where they’ll “separate the gain” by selling you items one-by-one and telling you all the benefits of each item so that you feel the happiness little by little. Or “aggregate the losses” when you pay for an insurance package that is all-inclusive instead of having to feel pain for an additional item you pick.

In the spirit of this blog, here are some examples of how you can apply it to your ever day life –

  1. Increase in gain should be separated – if you’re giving someone a gift, it’s better to buy many small gifts, than to have one big gift, given the same amount of budget.
  2. Increase in loss should be combined – if you’re telling your boss you didn’t complete a few tasks, you should deliver it all at once because separating it is just prolonging the torture.
  3. Gain and then losses – if you’re going to deliver bad news after establishing good news, do it at once. This is when you set the expectation high, and then cannot deliver. In this situation, it is better to tell them the disappointment in one sitting.

Hope you’ll be able to find ways to use this in your day-to-day! I’m thinking that purchasing one item at 10 stores will make me happier than purchasing 10 items in one store! 😉

Happy weekend xx
Steph