Ben Ambridge: 10 myths about psychology: Debunked

Speaker

Ben Ambridge researches children’s language development at the University of Liverpool, and writes popular science books and articles about Psychology.

Summary

Ben discusses 10 myths about psychology. He finds that:

  1. Men and women are not that different. The 2 largest differences are that men are better at spacial awareness and women are better at language. In both cases there is a difference, but it is so small that the normal distributions mostly overlap.
  2. Rorschach inkblot tests have no validity. They are not used in modern psychology, and were so bad they diagnosed schizophrenia in 1/6 of all normal people.
  3. People do not have different learning styles (eg learning by listening, reading or doing). Studies showed no difference in people learning a task in their preferred way. Instead learning should be matched to the task being learned.
  4. High school results are 58% driven by genetics. By comparing identical twins (with identical genes and environment) against non-identical twins (with identical environment but only 50% shared genes), it showed GCSE results were 58% driven by genes.
  5. Left Brain vs Right Brain thinking is a myth – since any task involves all parts of the brain firing. However, handedness has some validity: in that ambidextrous people have better creativity than single-handed people.
  6. We use much more than 10% of our brain in most tasks. People think we can boost this with the Mozart effect: that listening to Mozart increases our IQ. There seems to be some short term effect, but equal to listening to stories you enjoy. Before an IQ test – do something you enjoy to perk you up and give you a small boost.
  7. Choosing a sexual partner is not driven by culture. Across all races and countries, men favour attractiveness and women favour ambition or wealth. Both sexes prefer the man to be 3yrs older than the woman.
  8. Sportsmen on a winning streak are not necessarily in ‘good form’. Statistical analysis shows they are in normal bounds, but our brains like to ascribe patterns to randomness. We prefer the story that they are on a hot streak.
  9. We are told the Milgram study convinced students to deliver fatal electric shocks to a victim because a scientist told them to punish the victim for being wrong. In truth the students were told the shocks were non-fatal, and when interviewed they believed the science of punishing the victim, and this outweighed the discomfort of a short term non-fatal shock.
  10. People are not very good at detecting liars from body or speech patterns. The only exception is on TV appeals for missing persons – where when the appealer murdered the missing person they tend to look away and use more brutal language.

Psychology is seen as a collection of ideas that all offer something useful. Instead, all proposals should be tested empirically to find the truth.

My Thoughts

Personally I think some of these claims are a bit weak – discrediting things that have long had limited validity. His summary implied psychology has no basis, and this is definitely true of the older pop-culture ideas (including left brainedness, Rorschach etc). However more modern psychology is much more empirical and statistically driven.

His criticism of the Milgram study doesn’t really counter the common view: that people were convinced to inflict pain on others because they were convinced it was for the greater good. The role of authority figures (scientists) reinforced that it was for the greater good. It is also possible people’s interviews after the test didn’t match how they felt during it.

I would have been keen to see more on the variation within the sexual partner story. He stated averages, but more interesting would be if some cultures had small variations in preferences.

Regarding his idea of sportsmen on hot streaks: It would be good to know if there is a feedback effect: that when on a (initially random) streak they get more confident and will do better.

The talk was interesting to debunk some of the ridiculous old ideas of psychology, but I am skeptical that he has cherry picked some points to make more interesting headline myths.

Emily Balcetis: Why some people find exercise harder than others

Speaker

Emily Balcetis is a social psychologist from NYU.

Summary

People perceive the world differently. A softball player sees the ball as tiny compared to one on a good streak, and a dieter sees an apple as bigger than it is. In political views, people looked at a picture of Obama that had been artificially lightened or darkened, and asked which looked closer to reality. His supporters preferred the lightened picture, while opponents thought the dark picture was closer to reality. Why is this?

Our eyes actually see very little. The amount of vision actually in clear focus is the size of our thumb at arms length. The rest is ambiguous, and filled in by our mind. So people’s perceptions are different, but what influences people to literally see the world differently? Emily focussed on people’s health & fitness- how their perception changes their views towards it.

Some people might see exercise as easier or more difficult. She looked at people’s hip-to-waist circumference ratio – an objective assessment of people’s fitness. She then tested them in a race to a finish line while carrying weights, and beforehand each participant was asked to estimate how far away the finish line was. The results supported her idea: people who were fitter perceived the race as shorter than those who weren’t.

She followed up with a similar test on people’s motivation: those who had few fitness goals (unmotivated) vs those who were still striving. For those who were unmotivated, the results were similar to before; the fittest people saw the distance as shorter than the unfit. For the motivated group, they saw the opposite: fitter people saw the distance as further. People’s motivation and fitness were both influencing their perception of the difficulty of a physical challenge.

Emily wanted to see if we can learn anything from this – to improve our motivation or fitness by perceiving things differently. The strategy she suggests is “Keep your eye on the prize”. People have to stay focussed on the finish line, look at it in the centre of their vision and avoid looking elsewhere. When she retested, people adopting this strategy saw the finish as 30% closer than those who didn’t. She made the challenge more difficult by adding more weights (15% of their body weight), and afterwards the “eye on prize” people reported it was 17% easier than the control group. They also moved 23% faster. This is a simple, free strategy that makes exercise easier, and makes people perform better.

We see the world through our mind’s eye, but can train ourselves to see it differently. Sometimes days look worse than they are – you can see only negative expressions on everyone else’s faces. But you need to remind yourself that this may not be true. Some days are full of insurmountable challenges, but we can teach ourselves to see it differently. If we see the world differently, it might actually become so.

My Thoughts

The general topic about people’s perceptions changing their vision (and vice versa) was interesting and thought-provoking. Having said that, I’d find it difficult to apply “Keep your eyes on the prize” in situations to improve my fitness. The race she was testing was only 20-30ft away (or at least that’s the range people were perceiving it), so the goal would be clearly in sight throughout. For a marathon this is more difficult. Or for a less tangible exercise goal, such as 50 pushups or weightlifting or injury rehabilitation I’m not sure how you could apply this. The principle of focussing yourself only on the goal and ignoring other thoughts and doubts might help, but the talk and experiment was focussed on vision.

 

In trying to see if others had this concern, I read into the Youtube comments for the video. Must remind myself to not do that; especially for a young female speaker, the nutjobs seem to come out of the woodwork and attack everything about personality, looks, speaking style. Although I must admit, the example of darkening Obama and implicitly calling people racists was a little distracting from her point.

Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil

Speaker

Philip George Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He became known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment and has since authored various introductory psychology books, textbooks for college students, and other notable works, including The Lucifer Effect

Summary

People like to believe the line between good and evil is clear – with them on one side, others always evil. Philip shows that this line is far more permeable – good can go bad, and ‘evil’ people can be redeemed. He defines evil as exercising power to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically), destroy, or commit crimes against humanity. Philip was part of the trial of US army reservists accused of evil acts within Iraq war, who tortured and humiliated prisoners. He became an expert witness to represent one of these guards, and was given access to the reports, photos, and the guard himself. His hypothesis was that the people themselves weren’t evil, but were put in a system where they were compelled to exercise their power in an evil way. The accused men were military police holding the prisoners in the ‘Intimidation hold’- to soften them up for interrogators to get information later. Interrogators gave them permission to “take the gloves off”.

Philip shows a 1minute montage of graphic & sadistic photos – of prisoners often naked, stacked in strange piles or sexual positions, soldiers posing happily with the prisoners. Some prisoners are covered in wounds, some with faeces. All these photos were taken by the soldiers themselves. TED has apparently edited this video to remove some of the worst.

Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld asked “Who are the bad apples”, but Philip suggests he should have been asking a broader question in terms of ‘The Lucifer effect’ – what causes people to go evil? The issue could be:

  • Bad apples: a few isolated people committing evil
  • Bad Barrel: the system surrounding the people compelled them to commit evil
  • Bad Barrel-makers: the politicians, economic and legal system creating a system that corrupts people.

Philip illustrates that most people do not see themselves as evil, but could be compelled to do evil in a situation. Most people wouldn’t electrocute a helpless person, but an experiment was devised where a ‘teacher’ was ordered to electrocute a ‘learner’ by the technician – this is the “Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures”. The experiment started at 15Volts (which the learner didn’t feel), and increases at 15V intervals up to 450V (which causes intense pain). The dial was labelled to show how dangerous the highest Voltages were. Importantly, the technician running the experiment said he would take full responsibility for consequences. In the first experiment 2/3s of people went all the way up to 450V shocks – despite psychiatrists predicting only 1% would do it (since only 1% of the population shows ‘sadistic behaviour’). Other experiments show up to 90% of people went all the way to 450V.

Philip contrasts this with a pastor who ‘killed’ 912 people by convincing followers to murder their families and commit suicide. This shows the danger of blind obedience, in forcing people to commit evil. He also talks of his own study – where 24 normal college boys were divided arbitrarily in 2. Some were designated guards, some prisoners. The prisoners were dehumanised and degraded, while the guards had symbols of authority to make them more important. The guards forced prisoners to simulate sodomy, and do degrading tasks like cleaning toilets with their bare hands. It quickly got out of control, and Philip cancelled the experiment early due to 5 psychological breakdowns of previously healthy people.

Anonymity is a factor – anthropologists studied warrior cultures – those who go to battle as themselves as opposed to those who wear masks, paint, uniforms to change their appearance. Of 23 cultures, those who changed their appearance were far more likely to maim, torture or mutilate their enemies. This is one of the 7 slopes to evil in new situations.

  1. mindlessly taking the first small step
  2. dehumanizing others
  3. de-individualize self (anonymity)
  4. diffusion of personal responsibility
  5. blind obedience of authority
  6. uncritical conformity to group norms
  7. passive tolerance of evil through indifference.

Most of these are systemic issues, and should be treated with more of a public health model. But they can still be broken by a ‘hero’ – people who refuse to conform to the evils. Children can be trained to think of themselves as heroes waiting or the right situation to rescue. We just need to reframe heroes away from people with supernatural powers and make it clear that ordinary people can be heroes. He talked of the private who blew the whistle on the Abu Ghraib jail, and the woman who convinced him to cancel his own experiment on prisoners and guards (who he then married a year later).

My Thoughts

Fascinating look at how evil works. Nothing more to be said – if you can stomach the shocking photos, this is a very worthwhile talk.

Some additional reading on the two experiments mentioned

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Speaker

As an undergrad, Killingsworth studied economics and engineering, and worked for a few years as a software product manager. He now studies happiness.

Summary

Most people want to be happier, and will seek better jobs, cars, houses because they believe it will make them happier. The paradox of happiness is that once these things are achieved, people do not feel any happier. Scientific studies recently have focussed on happiness itself. While they found education and income can have an effect, it tends to be small. Happiness seems to be about the moment-to-moment interactions rather than lifetime achievements, so Matt devised an iPhone app that would survey people about their happiness at random points of the day. By tracking people’s instantaneous happiness over the day, and asking what they’re doing, who they’re with at the time, we can understand what causes happiness. This gave 650,000 surveys from 15,000 people, from a wide variety of countries, occupations, marital statuses, ages, and incomes.

People possess the ability for their mind to wander – to think about something other than what they are currently doing. This is good for planning and thinking during menial tasks – but is it good for happiness? Perhaps if you think about something pleasant while doing something unpleasant your happiness should increase? To answer this, one of Matt’s survey questions was “are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”, and whether they were thinking about something pleasant or unpleasant. The data showed that when people’s minds wandered, they were significantly less happy. This was true regardless of what they were doing – even during a less enjoyable activity (commuting). As for what they were thinking about, people thinking pleasantly were slightly less happy than people focussed on the moment. People thinking about unpleasant things were 24 percentage points less than those who weren’t mind wandering. So mind-wanderers are less happy. He also saw that people mind-wandered before being unhappy, showing it is causative.

How often do we mind-wander? About 47% of the time – it is very frequent. So it is a frequently occurring variable in people’s unhappiness.

My Thoughts

Focus focus focus. I enjoy scientific studies, and appreciate the detail Matt went to to draw his conclusions. He argues convincingly that mind-wandering makes people unhappy, regardless of what they are doing or thinking about. However, are these thoughts nonetheless important? Especially when stressing or thinking about unhappy things, is it better to think about and resolve the issues? My thoughts are probably not – usually a mind-wander is unlikely to solve a serious problem, though there are ‘Eureka’ moments littered throughout history (where a new theory comes while taking a bath, or drinking).

After seeing this talk, I will try to focus on the moment more. It has benefits for time management as well – to do a single task rather than trying to conquer multiples at once.

Joachim de Posada: Don’t eat the marshmallow!

Speaker

Joachim de Posada is a motivational speaker, best known as co-author of the book Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet.

Summary

In this experiment, a 4 year old child is presented with a marshmallow. If they can stay in the same room as the marshmallow for 15 minutes without eating it, they get a second marshmallow. 2/3 of children ate the marshmallow, while the remaining third were rewarded for delaying gratification. This experiment can be used as a predictor of future success – all of the children who delayed eating the marshmallow were successful at the age of 18. The others were less successful, with lower grades, poorer relationships, and less had plans for future or entry to university.

Joachim repeated the marshmallow test in Columbia. He wanted to see if Hispanic children acted the same way and also found 2/3 of children ate the marshmallow. One girl was interesting – she hollowed out the inside of the marshmallow and ate that, but still left the outside intact (so it looked like she hadn’t eaten it).

My Thoughts

Not the greatest talk – about Joachim taking an experiment and repeating it in a different country. I was also not left convinced that such a simple experiment would predict success – it seems like there would be too many variables. Rather than delayed gratification, it may show the child’s ability to comprehend that 2 marshmallows is more than 1, and understanding of the experiment. Again, the ones who understand the experiment at a younger age are probably more likely to be successful but they would also learn more about delayed gratification as they get older.

Paul Piff: Does money make you mean?

Speaker

Paul Piff studies how social hierarchy, inequality and emotion shape relations between individuals and groups.

Summary

Paul shows us footage of a psychological experiment – a rigged 2 player monopoly game where they randomly pick one player to be more wealthy. The wealthy player starts with more money, gets double the income for passing GO, and moves more often. As they inevitably started winning, they’d act more aggressive, eat more snacks, mock their opponent, keep talking about their money. After the game they were asked why they won – and they’d talk about their own actions & strategy, rather than reflecting on the advantages given at the start.

The results from this can be extended to society as a whole – wealthier people are often less compassionate or empathetic, and more self interested. They also believe more in the ‘greed is good’ mentality. Some other experiments looked at this

  • Inviting people with high and low incomes and giving them $10 with the option to donate some of it to a stranger. The Poor (<$20k/yr) donated 44% more of their money than the rich (earn more than $150k/yr).
  • They also played dice games, and saw the wealthy were more likely to cheat to win a prize.
  • Another study had a jar of candy, specifically reserved for children, and monitored how much was stolen. Again, wealthy people took double the candy of the poor.
  • Study on traffic – a pedestrian approaches an intersection and cars are legally required to stop to let him cross. They looked at who stopped and who didn’t, finding that more expensive cars were more likely to break the law – with nearly half of the most expensive cars not stopping, and all of the cheaper cars stopping for the pedestrian.

These studies are not saying the only wealthy people are self-interested, or that they are like that all the time. Everyone at moments in life will need to put someone else’s  interests below their own, but wealthy people seem more comfortable with advancing themselves to the detriment of others.

Economic inequality has widened over the past 20 years. This should be a concern for everyone, not just those at the bottom. As inequality gets worse, social mobility, life expectancy, physical health, education all get worse too.

How do we combat these pernicious feelings of the wealthy? Small nudges can change a person’s values to be more egalitarian – to remind them of the importance of cooperation. A short video could make someone more willing to donate their time.

However, there are a number of movements and pledges among the wealthy – to donate their own money to those less fortunate. For example Bill Gates’ pledge to donate half his money, or ‘We are the 1%’ and other grassroots movements to donate their money to advocate social values. It may diminish their own interests but restore society.

My Thoughts

Interesting studies and results. It’s a talk that I’d usually be wary of, in being overly political, but the first half is about experiments proving the hypothesis that wealthy people are more self-interested. Makes me think that we should never get ungrateful for what we have – a stroke of luck may have turned your life into the rigged monopoly game, so we should stay respectful of those around us.

Michael Norton: How to buy happiness

Speaker

Michael Norton is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harbard business school.

Summary

If you believe “Money Can’t buy happiness”, then you’re not spending it correctly. When people think about winning the lottery – they think it will make them happy. However they spend it all, go into debt, and all their friends ask for money – their instinct is to get more antisocial and closed off. Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives – but is this because they only spend it on themselves?

Michael ran a test at university of British Columbia – giving students either $5 or $20 and asking them to spend it on either themselves or someone else by the end of the day. The ones who gave their money away were happier, but those who spent on themselves felt the same. Also, the amount of money spent or given away didn’t make a difference. A similar experiment showed the same result in Uganda – a completely different culture to Canada. The magnitude of the gift wasn’t too significant – a girl who bought a gift for her mother felt as happy as a Ugandan who bought life-saving malaria treatment for a stranger.

Michael extended this to the workplace – giving a team $15 each to spend on themselves or an experience for the team. The team ‘pro-social’ events were sometimes silly bonding exercises – like buying a pinata and smashing it together. However, the company got a 72c return in productivity on every 15c spent on team bonding. The productivity return for people spending on themselves is far less – only 4.2c per 15c spent.

The same experiment was carried out with dodgeball teams – and the ones who spent on each other became much better teams. They dominated the league. The teams that spent on themselves stayed the same.

To make yourself happier, don’t think about which product to buy. Find a way to spend it on someone else, or to charity.

 

Ruth Chang: How to make hard choices

Speaker

Ruth Chang is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. She is known for her research on the incommensurability of values and on practical reason and normativity.

Summary

Ruth discusses how to make hard choices – between 2 jobs or partners, or whether to have children. In an easy choice one is better than the other. In a hard choice each choice has better qualities, but neither is clearly better. We think of them as big choices, but the same dilemma can happen when choosing breakfast – do you want healthy food or tasty food? By realising that even these small choices are hard, we can make the big ones easier: if I managed to eat breakfast I should be able to choose a new job. We also shouldn’t think of ourselves as stupid for being unable to pick a best option – they may genuinely be equally good options.

When choosing between being a philosopher and a lawyer Ruth tried writing the pros and cons, agonised over her decision, wished she could see a DVD of her life after taking each option. She settled on lawyer out of fear – she didn’t think she could get a job as a philosopher, and lawyering seemed the safe route. Later she switched back, becoming a philosopher.

Looking at a hypothetical job choice between banking and artistry, you can list all the advantages of each but still be unable to choose one over the other. You can then start to imagine what it would take to make one better than the other – eg if you added an additional $500/month to the banker’s salary, is it suddenly clearly better than the artist? Not necessarily, and this may show that the 2 original options were not equal. If the original jobs were equal, then adding more salary to one should have made it clearly better.

Choices are difficult because they cannot be easily broken down into numbers. In comparing the weight of 2 suitcases, one could be heavier, lighter or equal in weight. All questions involving numbers can be broken down in this way. It is a mistake to think that these simple numerical comparisons have the same structure as the decisions between your future life. We need to make a 4th alternative – that things can be better, worse, equal, or ‘on a par’. When decisions are on a par, neither is better or worse than the other, and your lifestyle after the decision is not exactly the same, but you see both future lives as having a similar value.

We need to see hard choices as empowering. If life only consisted of easy choices, we would always pick the clearly better route. We would then be slaves to our own reason. It is the ‘on a par’ decisions where we get to create our own reasons for picking one over the other, and define who we are. We become the authors of our own lives. People who don’t exercise their own reasons on hard choices become drifters. They allow the world around them to dictate their lives – they follow the obvious rewards, punishments, and fears to define them. Ruth was drifting when she chose to be a lawyer and later regretted it.

When the ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ choices disappear, we have the power to create reasons for ourselves, and become the distinctive people we are. That is why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.

Dan Gilbert: The psychology of your future self

Speaker

Dan Gilbert is a Harvard psychologist and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”

Summary

Why do people look back at decisions that they regret – that the ideas they embraced 10 years ago they would now rush to reject? Dan looks at a misconception of time – that we have turned into the person we are over time, but will stay as we are now into the future.

People change less as time goes on – the older the person is, the less they change. Dan asks people to predict how much they will change over the next decade and compare it to people of the same age who say how much they changed over the last decade. The finding was that people greatly underestimate how much they will change in the future.

This same pattern can be seen in a number of things – their best friend, favourite vacation, favourite band, their personality traits, their level of success in life. People expect their values right now will persist into the future, while in truth they will change.

Dan suggest this is because it is much easier to remember who we were, rather than imagine or predict what they will become. So because it is difficult, we assume it will not happen.

This leaves us with an illusion that right now is a special moment where we become the person we will always be. Human Beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation

Speaker

Dan Pink is the author of five books about business, work, and management that have sold two million copies worldwide

Summary

Dan Pink introduces ‘The Candle Problem’ – attaching a candle to a wall with a box of thumbtacks and matches to that it doesn’t drip. 2 groups try to solve the problem – one is told they are timing to discover norms, while the other is given money if they are in the top 25%. This test consistently shows that the group being given money is 3minutes slower than the other. Other research over 40 years backs up the idea that for most tasks you can’t incentivize people to perform better with money. This is one of the most robust findings from social science, but also the most ignored. There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

Extrinsic motivators do however work well for ’20th century tasks’ – with manual work and simple solutions. The reward narrows their focus towards the answer, and pushes them to solve it quicker. But most modern professionals don’t do this kind of work, they do much more complicated tasks with no easy answer. An MIT study found a similar result – for simple mechanistic tasks a reward improved their performance, but if they required ANY kind of cognitive function the higher reward decreased performance.

Modern psychology is leaning more towards intrinsic motivators – the desire to do more for personal reasons. In the business setting it revolves around

  • autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives
  • mastery – the urge to get better, or develop skills
  • and purpose – the need to do what we do for reasons bigger than ourselves.

Dan’s talk focuses on autonomy. Management is an example that improves compliance, but decreases autonomy for most workers. Modern approaches can increase autonomy – giving people a personal project. Atlassian for example is a software company that makes engineers take a day off their normal work to develop whatever they want – as long as it is unrelated to their normal work and they deliver something by the end of the day. This approach was so successful that they adopted Google’s famous approach, which lets people allocate 20% of their time to personal projects. Around half of Google’s new products come from engineer’s personal projects.

A more extreme approach is ROWE – Results Only Work Environment. People can work whatever hours they want as long as they do the work. This increases autonomy and productivity, and decreases staff turnover.

Dan’s ultimate example was Microsoft Encarta vs Wikipedia. Encarta was build by well paid professionals and managers, incentivized with standard extrinsic motivators. Wikipedia was built by unpaid (autonomous) volunteers for fun, and because they believed in the project. In 1999 no economist would have tipped that Encarta’s model would be overtaken by Wikipedia’s, but it has.

If we get past the simplistic ‘carrots vs sticks’ ideology, and allow people to be more motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose, we can make our businesses stronger and maybe change the world.