Tali Sharot: The optimism bias

Speaker

Tali Sharot is an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London.

Summary

Optimism bias is a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of good things happening to you, and underestimating bad things. For example 40% of people divorce, but people marrying assume the probability for them is zero. Even people marrying for a second time don’t see it: “Remarrying is the triumph of hope over experience”. People tend to be optimistic about themselves and their family, while at the same time predicting a bad future for the world in general.

Optimism about your own traits gives you a confidence and sets you up for success. But are low expectations the secret to happiness? This will mean you will be happy with success in love and career, but are not disappointed if it doesn’t happen. Tali argues the opposite, that optimistic people are happier because:

  • optimists interpret things differently. Whether they win or lose, they interpret successes as due to their own traits and failures as poor luck or biases.
  • anticipation makes people happy – something pleasant (a kiss from a celebrity) immediately isn’t as enjoyable as one in 3 days time – which lets you look forward to it
  • optimism acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy – it makes you try harder to achieve your goals. Optimism leads to success.

So how do we maintain optimism in the face of reality? That is: stay optimistic despite evidence to the contrary. Tali did a study – asking people to estimate their cancer risk (for example), then giving the population rate (30%) and asking them again their likelihood. People did change their estimate, but they changed it a lot more if their first estimate was high (ie changing their estimate from 50% to 35%) rather than when it was low (going from 10% to 11%). Tali found that there were 2 regions of the brain: one responsible for receiving good news and one that processes bad news. The ‘bad news region’ did not trigger in optimistic people: they kept the rose tinted spectacles on.

She went a step further – passing a magnetic pulse through these regions of the brain to temporarily disable them, and found that she could switch off or increase the optimism bias. This led to the question: Given the benefits would you switch off the optimism bias if you could? Optimism can lead to risky decisions: for example firefighters being surprised by the movement of a fire despite the hints being obvious, or underestimating the cost to implement a city project.

Tali thinks we can gain the benefits of optimism while staying realistic about risk, just by better understanding the bias. Knowing about the bias doesn’t prevent optimism in general life, but it does make people aware when making risky decisions. You need to be able to imagine a better world before you can make it happen.

My Thoughts

The biggest surprise for me from this talk is that you can switch off parts of the brain. Whoa!

Aside from that it is important to acknowledge the points that optimism bias can be beneficial, despite being called a bias. People often oppose anything labelled a bias or fallacy, and while that is fair in pure economics or logic, it might not apply in general life.

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Ýmir Vigfússon: Why I teach people how to hack

Speaker

Ýmir Vigfússon is an Icelandic hacker and a computer security expert.

Summary

The hacking community is one that values only knowledge, rather than social class, money, looks, background. They feel a thrill when they discover an exploit or serious bug after hours of searching, for example one of Ýmir’s friends was playing with his online banking app and discovered he could transfer negative amounts (effectively taking money from other people’s accounts). As a youngster, Ýmir was hacking into a server when his parents used the phone. This disconnected him, and left the server broken so that even Ýmir couldn’t get back in. He owned up to the system administrator and thankfully found the admin an amateur hacker, quite accepting and interested in Ýmir’s indiscretions.

There is an attitude that security can be bought in a big expensive box – that a single piece of equipment like a firewall or a server will protect people. Ýmir sees it differently – like a house with a massively secure front door but all the windows wide open. Hackers think about the system as a whole, asking “how would I break in”, and so can build a much more secure system by constantly challenging it. Defending against a cyberattack is difficult, since you need to set up a defense against every possible attack, while the attacker needs to find only a single vulnerability.

Ýmir wanted to transfer this mindset to others.

  • He has set up a university course to teach students the techniques to hack, with 30 graduates per year.
  • Formed a consulting firm to simulate cyber-attacks on big businesses, and lead them through the process to improve their security.
  • Set up hacking competitions. He starts by asking people to hack a server on the internet, then selects finalists to hack each other on stage. This gets a lot of public excitement, and lets him reach out to ‘lay’ audiences & media with his methods.

Ethically, people could be concerned about Ýmir arming a wider audience to hack. But he has to put his faith in students to act ethically: as does a martial arts or chemistry teacher. Ethics is a part of his course, and he believes his methods have swayed young hackers into a more useful career than destructive hacking. He thinks of himself similarly to the sysadmin who encouraged him when he made a mistake as a delinquent hacker.

My Thoughts

An important reminder that having a ‘dangerous’ skill does not necessarily make someone dangerous.

Kevin Allocca: Why videos go viral

Speaker

Kevin Allocca is YouTube’s trends manager.

Summary

Over 48hrs of video are uploaded every minute, and only a tiny fraction of a percent get more than 1 million views. Going viral requires 3 things

  1. Tastemakers: influential people enjoying the video and reposting it
  2. Unexpectedness: With so much video out there, the viral videos have to be different.
  3. Participation: Others want to be a part of this, create parodies and meta-references.

He talks through examples of videos with these features:

  • Double-Rainbow’s views spiked massively when it was retweeted by Jimmy Kimmel (tastemaker)
  • Rebecca Black’s Friday went big when a few people (tastemakers) started posting about it. From there plenty more people referenced it or parodied it – within days there was a parody for every other day of the week (participation).
  • Nyan Cat is extremely strange (unexpected), but also very easy to remix with different background music, set it in a different place, or post meta-references such as a cat watching a cat watching nyan cat (participation).
  • A cyclist riding on the street protesting a ticket for not riding in the bike lane Because his funny video had an unexpected twist, 5 million people (at time of TED talk, now 13 million) saw his protest.

We’re building a new type of culture where everyone has access and the audience decides popularity. This will define the entertainment of the future.

My Thoughts

Entertaining and light, but with an interesting perspective on Youtube.

Dan Pallotta: The way we think about charity is dead wrong

Speaker

Daniel Pallotta is an American entrepreneur, author, and humanitarian activist

Summary

People question the role of charities compared to business. Business will definitely lift the standards in the developing world, but will always leave gaps – people that it can’t support. Some mentally disabled people just want compassion or love, and that can’t be monetised by a business. However, there are perceptions working against the non-profit sector that make it hard to ‘compete’ against businesses

  • Compensation: People react viscerally against charity workers being well paid. However some are extremely well qualified: a CEO of a hunger charity is paid ~$86k/yr and has similar qualifications to a Stanford MBA graduate with an average $400k/yr. Someone on $400k /yr can donate $100k/yr, reduce his tax bill by $50k, be seen as a philanthropist and still be $260k better off than the high-paid ‘parasite’ running the charity.
  • Advertising: Similarly, people do not like the idea of their money being spent on advertising. However, the percentage of people’s wage being given to charity has stayed at 2% for 40 yrs – the only way to gain ‘market share’ in the charity sector is to actually do marketing against the ‘for profit’ sector.
  • Risk: If a charity invests in a fundraising drive and it flops, it ruins their reputation. But if people cannot accept failure, there will be no innovation or improvement.
  • Time: Companies can take years to develop market share before they gain revenue. However donators will not accept a 6yr wait before any funds reached the needy.
  • Profit: For-profit companies can use the promise of future profits to attract capital investment. Charities are locked out of this capital stream.

These disadvantages add up – since 1970 only 144 charities have passed $50million revenue, compared to 46,136 for-profits.

People hold the above perceptions, and it is typified in asking “How much of a donation goes to overheads compared to ‘the cause’?” This question has some problems in it:

  • It implies ‘the cause’ is not helped by overheads. This is not the case, especially if the overheads are spent on ‘growth’.
  • It prevents charities from growing or investing in fundraising. However if fundraising actually raises funds, then it should be encouraged, giving them more money to push towards the cause.

As examples of successful fundraising, Dan describes how $50,000 investment in an AIDs Ride resulted in $108,000,000 extra revenue for research, or $350k investment in breast cancer fundraising multiplied to $194,000,000. However, one year he netted $71 million for breast cancer research and was put immediately out of business. The media and his sponsors turned on him because 40% of his revenue was spent on overheads – in growth, customer service and recruitment.

The focus should not be on overheads, but on the scale of the operation. A company with 40% overheads netting $71,000,000 should be seen as superior to one with 5% overheads netting $71. We need to rethink how charities should work, and focus on whether they are achieving their goals rather than their investment to get there.

My Thoughts

Dan speaks very passionately and puts forward a new perspective, however I can’t help but disagree with him. His focus is entirely from an individual charity’s point of view – where of course it is a no-brainer to invest more in recruitment and marketing. However some of these efforts will not be ‘poaching’ resources from the for-profit sector, but from other charities. This gets worse as charities get bigger, and will generate an arms race between them. The money is coming from outside the charity: donators do not expect that their money is taken and 40% of it used to beg someone else to donate, or convince others to pick this charity over another. This is not an efficient use of money – pure growth implies an ego that ignores what the donators expected.

When someone buys a can of coke, they accept that (made up numbers) 20% goes to the cost of ingredients, 10% to the employees, 10% in packaging / transport, 30% to retailers, 20% in advertising and 10% profits. Dan’s argument is that the same sorts of ratios should be accepted in charities: that if a fraction of the money we give him goes to what he said it would, we should accept it because the rest was used to generate money at similarly poor efficiency from someone else.

I’m also slightly disturbed by the focus of the speech: which was from the point of view of the charity while ignoring results of the fundraising or opinions of the people donating. It is nice that he raised $71million, but what did that money achieve?

I appreciate what he is saying about scale of an organisation, and compensation or risk. But like it or not, people do want a sense of frugality rather than massive structures designed to just support the business.

Anyway, it was a good talk to make you think about your own viewpoints. My reaction above is not because I disagreed with every point in his speech, and not because I didn’t appreciate it.

Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work

Speaker

Shawn Achor is the CEO of Good Think Inc., where he researches and teaches about positive psychology.

Summary

As a child, while playing a game with his little sister she fell from a bunk bed and landed on all fours. Shawn made her better by telling her she looked just like a unicorn – instead of crying she immediately got back on the bunk bed happy.

When studying people, we tend to look for excuses to discard ‘outliers’, and focus only on the average to find a line of best fit. This is the cult of the average – we look only at the baseline. Instead we should look more at the positive outliers: what makes them different? If we study outliers, we can move the ‘average’ upwards.

Shawn is an advocate of ‘positive psychology’: studying the positive side rather than focussing on the negative. For example studying happy people on why they are happy, rather than on how to make depressed people happier. “The absence of disease is not health”: you can’t talk about wellness by only focussing on alcoholism, risky sex, bullying.

Looking at someone’s surroundings only explains 10% of their happiness levels. 90% is based on how your brain sees the world around it. Only 25% of job performance is based on intelligence, with 75% based on support networks, positivity, and ability to perceive stress as a challenge.

Currently most people believe that if they are successful they will become happy. This is flawed because:

  1. When you achieve success, you immediately shift the goal posts further. If you get good grades, you need to get better grades next time. So you will never achieve success and always push it over the horizon into the future.
  2. Happiness makes someone more successful. “The Happiness Advantage” means you are better at getting a job, 31% more productive, more resilient.

In 21 days you can rewire your brain to see things more positively. Shawn suggests writing down 3 things you are grateful for, perform random acts of kindness, meditate to clear your mind.

My Thoughts

Shawn speaks well, with plenty of clever stories. However this is a talk that makes me a little wary: it often sounded a lot like a sales pitch rather than purely informative. There’s a few numbers mixed in, but they are vague percentages without a clear source. Some of the ideas are well established: Happiness does make people more successful and people never really see themselves as ‘successful’. However the rest feels like an eclectic mix of ideas to help sell his books or consulting.

It is worth watching, I’m curious if others got the same vibe I did…

Avi Reichental: What’s next in 3D printing

Speaker

Avi Reichental is the CEO of 3D Systems, which has been a major force in the field of rapid prototyping, turning a design from a CAD file into a solid object.

Summary

3D printing is going to enable a craftsmanship and local manufacture that was killed by the industrial revolution. It will allow personalised medical objects, such as

  • glasses that fit perfectly to you without hinges
  • a more feminine robot leg for a paralysed woman
  • hearing aids are being 3D printed to correct size
  • ventilated sclerosis splints
  • knee replacements.

Industrially

  • GE is designing the next generation of engine, which uses 15% less fuel
  • a small startup is designing space probes using 3D printing – they weigh less, are cheaper, and quick to manufacture.

In food, we can ‘print’ food to embed the correct flavours, nutrients and structure.

The power of 3D printing is that complexity is free: it is as simple to make a complicated object as a simple one. It puts this power in the hands of anyone – and to help this there are tools that assist on the 3D modelling side to make it more intuitive.

Avi’s grandfather was a cobbler, and Avi can now design hybrid leather-plastic shoes that honour the craftsmanship and quality of his ancestors.

My Thoughts

This was a quick flick through a lot of examples.

Barbara Oakley: Learning how to learn

Speaker

Barbara Oakley is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University. She is involved in multiple areas of research, ranging from STEM education, to Engineering education, to learning practices.

Summary

Barbara is now a professor of engineering, but at a young age she was terrible at maths: preferring languages. A student asked her how she rewired her brain: after years as a Russian translator how did she learn engineering when she previously struggled. She looked into the issue from a neuroscience perspective.

The brain is in 2 different ‘modes’: a focussed or a diffused mode. In focussed mode you think tightly through familiar problems you have solved before. However, the diffuse thought is needed to search for new ideas – you can’t solve problems, but it is needed to find the answer if you haven’t seen it before. You need to activate this diffuse mode to think through a problem creatively: to do this Salvador Dali and Edison both sat comfortably with keys or a steel ball in their hands and started to drift off to sleep while thinking about it. When they dropped the object it woke them up and they could harvest thoughts from the diffuse thought, and start to focus on them. They found a way to get the benefits of both.

A problem in learning is procrastination: it is a natural response in the brain which feels pain at the idea of doing something you don’t want to do. One reaction is to delay – or do other more pleasant things. However if you force yourself to do it, the ‘pain’ feeling fades quickly. The ‘Pomodoro method’ is to set a timer (traditionally 25minutes on an old fashioned timer) and really focus on your task, then to take a 5minute reward break. Don’t expect to finish the task, just work on it. You are training your brain to focus on a task, and to reward yourself frequently.

People can also trick themselves into thinking they understand with poor study habits – they are just ‘spinning their wheels’ for a long time. For example simply reading or highlighting texts doesn’t make you understand, better to read a section then look away and recall the key messages. People who learn slower can gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Also, it is important to do a few problems before you can claim mastery – reading alone will not help you learn.

Learning is an amazing skill, and Barbara implores us all not to just follow our passions, but to broaden them.

My Thoughts

Barbara is an amazing presenter, and I really wish I had seen her presentations while I was at uni. I am currently doing her MOOC (starting yesterday), and the first module is relatively similar to this talk (strongly recommended here https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/). While doing this I am questioning how much I have really ‘thought’ about something – I tend to be so task focussed that I don’t take a step back and activate diffuse thinking.

The pomodoro method is a new name to me, but is similar to other time management strategies: to break your time into modules with rests. I’ve heard 45 mins then 15mins break, as opposed to 25mins work, 5mins break. Personally I’m not sure the length of time matters (though I wouldn’t go longer than 45mins), so much as breaking your day into work and rest sessions.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this talk and the MOOC enough. I challenge everyone to think about how often they really think or learn something, as opposed to just ‘completing’ it.