Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Critiquing the Stanford Prison Experiment (and Research In General)

This critique of Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment is really fascinating. Basically the author, who writes intro to psychology textbooks, suggests that the experiment was flawed because it urged students to act in the way they thought typical guards and prisoners would act. Here’s an excerpt that captures it pretty well:

In a nutshell, here’s the criticism, somewhat simplified.  Twenty-one boys (OK, young men) are asked to play a game of prisoners and guards.  It’s 1971.  There have recently been many news reports about prison riots and the brutality of guards.  So, in this game, what are these young men supposed to do?  Are they supposed to sit around talking pleasantly with one another about sports, girlfriends, movies, and such?  No, of course not.  This is a study of prisoners and guards, so their job clearly is to act like prisoners and guards—or, more accurately, to act out their stereotyped views of what prisoners and guards do.  Surely, Professor Zimbardo, who is right there watching them (as the Prison Superintendent) would be disappointed if, instead, they had just sat around chatting pleasantly and having tea.  Much research has shown that participants in psychological experiments are highly motivated to do what they believe the researchers want them to do.  Any characteristics of an experiment that let research participants guess how the experimenters expect or want them to behave are referred to as demand characteristics. In any valid experiment it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics.  In this experiment, the demands were everywhere.

I find stuff like this really interesting. I think most research is flawed in that it asks people questions they aren’t really prepared to answer and in turn forces them to come up with a conclusion. I thought about this a lot when I made Brand Tags and people were asking me to put up logos that no one had seen before so they could get feedback. I would always argue that this was measuring brand perception and if no one knew your brand they would just comment on your logo, which isn’t particularly helpful. Brands, ultimately, are the sum total of all the experiences one has and no one ever experiences one by just seeing a logo on a blank page. They hear about it, see it on a shelf next to another product, or any number of other contextual clues. Obviously this situation is pretty different, but I think it’s part of a very broad mistake research makes in not controlling for context (or lack thereof).

November 3, 2013 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Limited Willpower

More on decisions, this time about how our ability to make them is actually a finite resource:

Willpower—the popular idea is that it’s something that you use to resist temptation and to make yourself work. But they’ve also found that this same energy is used in making decisions, simply deciding what to have for lunch, what to do at a meeting; all these things deplete the same resource. After a while, when you’ve depleted this resource, it’s a state called ego depletion. You’ve got less self-control, you’re more prone to give in to temptation, it’s harder for you to work, and you tend to make worse decisions. 

January 3, 2013 // This post is about: ,

Focus on the road not the wall

I was recently rereading Ben Horowitz’s advice for managing your own psychology as a CEO and I especially liked this nugget:

When they train racecar drivers, one of the first lessons is when you are going around a curve at 200 MPH, do not focus on the wall; focus on the road. If you focus on the wall, you will drive right into it. If you focus on the road, you will follow the road. Running a company is like that. There are always a thousand things that can go wrong and sink the ship. If you focus too much on them, you will drive yourself nuts and likely capsize your company. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.

September 24, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Muppet Typing

Slate offers up one of the most important advances in psychology in recent memory: Muppet typing. Essentially, the theory says that everyone is either a chaos Muppet (Cookie, Animal, etc.) or an order Muppet (Bert, Kermit, Sam the Eagle, etc.). It’s genius. An excerpt:

Think about your basic Muppet workplaces: Be it “Pigs in Space,” Oscar’s garbage can, or producing a hit Broadway show in 19 hours, it’s always crucial to get the ratio of Order-to-Chaos exactly right. One possible explanation for the blossoming dysfunctionality of the current Supreme Court is that the Order Muppets have all but taken over. With exception of Justices Breyer and Antonin Scalia, the Order Muppets are running the show completely. (The jury is still out on whether Elena Kagan may prove a Chaos Muppet.) Remember the old rule of thumb: Too many Order Muppets means no cookies for anyone.

[Via @Hannahmiet]

June 12, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Bad Psychology

Hardly shocking, but it turns out people are much better at predicting the behavior of others than themselves:

Psychologists have identified an important reason why our insight into our own psyches is so poor. Emily Balcetis and David Dunning found that when predicting our own behaviour, we fail to take the influence of the situation into account. By contrast, when predicting the behaviour of others, we correctly factor in the influence of the circumstances. This means that we’re instinctually good social psychologists but at the same time we’re poor self-psychologists.

It’s interesting to think about what puts us in social-psychologist mode and whether we can switch that on for ourselves. Obviously it’s not natural, but it’s got to be possible, right?

[Via Barking Up The Wrong Tree]

January 9, 2012 // This post is about: , ,