Saturday, October 24, 2015

Inception Is Real

(Cue theme music)

Benjamin Franklin was possibly the Greatest Diplomat Ever. He convinced the French to help the fledgling American colonies fight the British - just 13 years after the colonies had fought against the French!

What did Ben have to say about his tactics? "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." In other words, external pressure does not convince someone. In fact, it often does the opposite. If you truly want someone to be convinced, you must let him convince himself.

But it is not easy to engineer a mechanism to let someone convince himself. Leonardo DiCaprio almost died in his attempt.

There is, however, a way it can be done. Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. Looking at it a different way, once someone has taken some action that shifts his self-image, he is likely to continue to act in accordance with that self-image. This occurs because we value consistency. Nobody wants to be viewed as a flake.

So what we need is a catalyst. That catalyst causes someone to take some action or make some decision. Then out of a desire for consistency (or simply to feel good about his decision), he will create his own internal reasons for taking that action or making that decision. Then he will continue down that path, even if the catalyst is removed.

And here's the data. An experiment was done in Iowa to test this theory in the domain of energy conservation. An interviewer gave residents some energy-saving tips and asked them to try to conserve energy in the future. Nobody did.

For another group, the interviewer said that residents who agreed to conserve would have their names publicized in the newspaper as public-spirited, fuel-conserving citizens. A month later, they had reduced their energy usage by 12%.

Here comes the rub. After one month, each family that had been promised their name in the paper got a letter saying that that would no longer be possible. Did they stop conserving? For the remaining winter months, they reduced usage by 15% - more than they had during the month they were promised their name in the paper!

The newspaper promise was a catalyst. Of course, nobody wants to admit (not even to themselves) that they conserve energy simply because their name would be in the paper. So they start making up other reasons: to save the Earth, to save money, to reduce America's dependence on foreign fuel. Those reasons make them feel good... and they came up with them on their own. So even when the catalyst reason was removed, they continued in that course.


Disclaimer: I'm not smart enough to have figured this out on my own. This is discussed thoroughly in Robert Cialdini's book, Influence.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How to Read a Mind

There are two types of discussions: useful and useless. Useless ones are also known as arguments. And you can't win an argument.

But the distinction can be subtle. How do you know which is which?

Simple: Is the other party trying to understand your thought before refuting it?

Thoughts are complicated. If they weren't, there would be no need to discuss them. So you probably need some back and forth before the other party truly grasps the idea. This can take the form of questions, summarization, or other some other type of clarification.

If, however, the other party doesn't pursue that understanding but jumps directly into a rebuttal, you are now in a useless discussion. Congratulations!

But why is it useless? Your points make sense, right? In an argument, the other party has already made up their mind. Everything you say can and will be used against you.

In other words, this technique can tell you what is in the other party's mind. It can thus help you avoid wasting your time. You can't win an argument.

Of course, it goes both ways. If you find yourself refuting something without first pursing an understanding of it, you can tell that your mind is already made up.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Having Opinions Considered Harmful

A rational person would like to have the most accurate worldview possible. And, by that, I mean having the most objective, informed stance on issues. I think it's safe to say we all want that.

But we are not as rational as we may like to think.

The problem is: we have egos. We don't like to be wrong.

Another problem is: we have all sorts of cognitive biases. Our own brain is often working against us.

When you combine these two problems, you get a society in which people generally do not have the most accurate worldview possible.

For example, a currently controversial issue is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Proponents of GMOs say they will dramatically increase crop yields and reduce world hunger. Opponents say that they are unnatural and make the food chain more fragile.

Other such issues could be abortion, vaccinations, or global warming.

So, what's your opinion?

Did you feel that? Did you feel that emotional response to simply the mention of the topic?

That is what is working against us.

If we have an opinion on an issue, protecting it becomes more important than having the most accurate stance. We would hate to admit that we were wrong about something. So we use confirmation bias to trick ourselves into thinking that the best available information supports our opinion.

It gets even worse when we have stated our opinion publicly, such as in a research paper or newspaper article. Now we are much more vested in protecting our public image.

It gets even worse when our livelihood is based on our opinion. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect that people will just stop having opinions. I still have them, despite knowing all of this.

But I really enjoy when I can say "I don't know" or "I don't have an opinion on that." It's a very freeing experience. I can feel that I am more open to new information when I'm in that mode of thinking.

(And yes, I appreciate the irony that this blog post is my opinion.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Endowment Effect (Or: Why Nobody Cares About Your Baby Pictures)

Experiment participants were shown a mug. They were asked how much they would be willing to pay for that mug. Let's say they said $5.

Then they were given the mug (for free).

Then they were offered the chance to sell it.

How much do you think they asked for when they had the chance to sell their mug?


Another experiment showed a similar result: participants won basketball tickets. They were only willing to sell them for 14 times more than the price they were willing to pay for the same tickets.

Another experiment showed that employees worked harder to maintain a bonus they already had than they did to acquire a new bonus.

Interestingly, this same behavior is observed in children, apes, and monkeys.

This is the endowment effect. It is "the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them."

This is why people share baby pictures on Facebook. They think those pictures are the greatest things in the world. They ascribe more value to them because it's their own child.

Of course, the rest of the world doesn't see them the same way.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Medicine Is from the Stone Age

When I was in grade school, I went on a field trip to a pharmaceutical company. We toured the plant and learned how new drugs are discovered.

To me, the process was very surprising. They basically just try random chemical compounds and see what they do. Seriously. They find a new compound, check if it will kill you, and if not, see if it has any useful function.

This reminds me of watching movies about cavemen. They would stumble upon something in their environment and see if it could be useful for some task. For example, when hunting a wildebeest, maybe they would find a rock on the ground and use it to attack their prey.

One might say that a turning point in human history was the transition from stumbling upon tools to crafting them.

It probably started with hammers and knives. Then there were farming tools. Then engines. Now we can access the world's information from a $30 tool in our pocket.

So here's what I'm getting at: our current state of drug discovery is from the stone age. Finding a new medicine is like finding a - well, stone - that happens to be helpful.

Now compare a rock to your smartphone. What kind of chasm exists between the two? That's the kind of leap we can expect when drug discovery moves out if the stone age.

But can that happen? Can we actually design drugs the way we design tools?

We can craft tools because we understand the relevant laws of physics and have the manufacturing processes to fabricate the tools. Given the exponential rate of technology growth (discussed last time) we will soon have both the biological understanding and fabrication methods to actually craft medicine.

Then what we will be capable of crafting will make penicillin and ibuprofen look like rocks by comparison.