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).
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.
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.
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.
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]
Clive Thompson, who I usually really dig, has an unexpected (for me at least) take on Instagram. He likes it (which I also do), but specifically he thinks the filters encourage people to look at things with a more critical/artistic eye. Makes me think about a few things: 1) I think Thompson’s point is true of photography generally. When people have a camera they look at everything as a possible photo and that changes the way things look. 2) It makes me think of Daniel Kahneman’s research around remembering self versus experiencing self and how Instagram encourages optimization around memory instead of experience and 3) My favorite comment about Instagram was from someone (can’t remember whom), who said that the app makes everyone seem like they’re living in this weird depressed state. I agree.
With all that said, I do like Instagram … So take it all with a grain of salt.
Yesterday I posted a link to the Michael Lewis profile/review of Daniel Kahneman’s new book. Since yesterday I’ve repeated this little nugget on how Kahneman discovered behavioral economics three times and thought it was worth sharing:
I can still recite its [a 1970s paper on the psychological assumptions of economic theory] first sentence: “The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change.”
I was astonished. My economic colleagues worked in the building next door, but I had not appreciated the profound difference between our intellectual worlds. To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable.
It’s a nice way to think about the difference between psychology and economics.
Michael Lewis profiles Daniel Kahneman, one of the father’s of behavioral economics. Kahneman has a new book coming out: “The story he tells has two characters—he names them ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’—that stand in for our two different mental operations. System 1 (fast thinking) is the mental state in which you probably drive a car or buy groceries. It relies heavily on intuition and is amazingly capable of misleading and also of being misled. The slow-thinking System 2 is the mental state that understands how System 1 might be misled and steps in to try to prevent it from happening. The most important quality of System 2 is that it is lazy; the most important quality of System 1 is that it can’t be turned off. We pass through this life on the receiving end of a steady signal of partially reliable information that we only occasionally, and under duress, evaluate thoroughly. Through these two characters the author describes the mistakes your mind is prone to make and then explores the reasons for its errors.”
Of course, in his own Michael Lewis way he brings it back to baseball, finding a letter from baseball statistician Bill James to Kahneman’s biggest collaborator:
“Baseball men, living from day to day in the clutch of carefully metered chance occurrences, have developed an entire bestiary of imagined causes to tie together and thus make sense of patterns that are in truth entirely accidental,” James wrote. “They have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings. It includes ‘momentum,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘seeing the ball well,’ ‘slumps,’ ‘guts,’ ‘clutch ability,’ being ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ ‘not being aggressive’ and my all time favorite the ‘intangibles.’ By such concepts, the baseball man gains a feeling of control over a universe that swings him up and down and tosses him from side to side like a yoyo in a high wind.” It wasn’t just baseball he was writing about, James continued. “I think that the randomness of fate applies to all of us as much as baseball men, though it might be exacerbated by the orderliness of their successes and failures.”
As an aside, Kahneman is also the guy behind remembering self versus experiencing self.
Experiments show that the shape of the human ear canal is to blame for the reaction we have to fingernails on a chalkboard. With that said, the more interesting part of the research is this:
A powerful psychological component was identified. If the listeners knew that the sound was fingernails on the chalkboard, they rated it as more unpleasant than if they were told it was from a musical composition. Even when they thought it was from music, however, their skin conductivity still changed consistently, suggesting that the physical part of the response remained.
Sounds sort of like the research around the effect of knowing the price of wine on its taste.