What a Beautiful Idea
Image source: Nord West Drift Boats
Last week I posted the first video in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows' web series, and now I'm posting the second one. I fear that with every video's release, I will simply repost here, but how beautiful is the observation that we are like a rower, going through life facing backwards? And even more beautiful, the thought of what it would be like if we instead faced forward, slowly moving into our memories instead of away from them.
"You'd become nothing other than yourself, reveling in your own weirdness. "
Behavioral Research on Primetime
Image source: 123RF
Daniel Pink has a new show that aired on National Geographic last night. The show, called Crowd Control, is described on its home page as what you "get when you cross hidden cameras, the BIG Piano, 50,000 commuters and a team of behavioral scientists, builders and engineers? Answer: National Geographic Channel's new fun and fact packed undercover science intervention show, Crowd Control." That's quite the pitch: in each episode viewers should learn something new, see how behavioral science can be used to make people make better decisions, and be entertained. It will be interesting to see if the appeal of behavioral economics, which has made the jump from journal articles to best-selling books, can now be translated across the air waves.
Looking at Diversity (Tech Version)
Image source: Convention on Biological Diversity
Information is Beautiful posted an infographic for the data on diversity released by a bevy of technology companies recently. The infographic makes the comparison across industries, within industries, and to the baseline (general population) easy. As the chart shows, the major tech companies are pretty similar in their representation of women, whites, and minorities, though they are behind some of their non-tech counterparts when it comes to employing women (compare to "Top 50 U.S. Companies"), Latinos, and African-Americans (especially the socially-oriented tech companies). Further, most tech companies also have a higher percentage of Asian employees, so, while some groups may be underrepresented within their employee pool, they are employing a relatively higher percentage of other minorities. To be clear, this comparison is just descriptive - it's not clear from the infographic or the accompanying write-up whether there are statistically significant differences in tech vs. non-tech companies and employee profiles. I also have no comment on whether this employee makeup is "right" or "wrong," though I do applaud these companies for releasing the data and information necessary to compile this visualization and for making an effort to be more transparent.
Image source: Information is Beautiful
Did Someone Say "Risk"?
Image source: http://www.besthealthdegrees.com/health-risks/
Anyone who has read my "research" tab knows I'm a little obsessed with risk-taking behavior (okay, a lot obsessed). I find the decision to take a chance, to play out the roll of a dice, to let yourself succumb to an uncontrollable outcome, absolutely fascinating. I also am amazed by the differences that exist between personal assessments of risk (risk perception) and absolute or actuarial assessments. So, when I saw an article in the NY Times today about Clif Bar dropping five well-known and accomplished climbers due to uncomfortable feelings about the level of risks they were taking, I saw the collision of all of my general research interests.
So, here's the story: Clif Bar, a well-known maker of energy/protein bars sponsors several athletes, including five professional rock-climbers who are featured in a new documentary making the rounds called Valley Uprising. Clif was one of the major financial contributors to that film, but has since pulled their sponsorship of many of the climbers featured in the film (but not of the film itself). So what changed? According to a statement made by the company, "We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go." The company adds, “We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefiting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net.” In some ways, Clif is saying that it sees the risk that the climbers are no longer able to see, and for the athletes' sake, maybe taking away the monetary incentive to take on more and more risk is a good thing. But, what the company doesn't address is how this risk affects them: Clif isn't willing to have a sponsored athlete die, and the probability of death or grave injury that these athletes are now facing has passed some threshold that Clif no longer feels safe with. In other words, there is no safety net for their corporate image. Despite Clif's motives, it's still an interesting marketing dilemma: here is a company that builds its brand on chasing adventure, and inherent in those adventurous activities is a level of risk that other sports or activities don't entail. So to suddenly decide that they are no longer comfortable with this greater risk as a company policy seems like a weird about-face that could erode their brand. At what point does risk go from reward to liability?
Ultimately, I agree with Clif's decision because, though I have no empirical data to support it, I do believe that financial sponsorships can significantly affect risk preferences and encourage additional risk-taking because it's no longer about the thrill or the adventure, there is now a large monetary reward for pushing the limits as well. And for a population whose risk perceptions are already skewed by illusions of control and selective processing, maybe these limits need to be enforced by someone else.
Avoiding Social Jetlag
Image source: Marc Johns (he has some great stuff!)
Just in time for the weekend, an article on Vox explains why we are all so tired on Mondays: social jetlag. Basically, anyone who goes to bed later (and wakes up later) on the weekends than they do on the weekend is creating a physical response similar to jetlag come Monday morning. Researchers call it social jetlag because presumably people change their sleep patterns on the weekends to appease social obligations (rather than because they feel that childlike thrill of being able to stay up as late as they want). And this phenomenon points to the rather recent finding that when you sleep is just as important as the quantity of sleep you get. In other words, not all eight hours are created equal. Thus, going to sleep and waking up at approximately the same times every day, can help you feel better and stay healthier.
Of course, when a person naturally wants to go to sleep varies. Another recent article, discussed in The Atlantic, talks about a new study that identifies two new sleep pattern types. So, in addition to night owls, who feel most energetic at night, and morning larks, who feel the most energetic in the morning, there are people who feel energetic both in the mid-to-late morning and early evening, and people who feel lethargic all day. These new types don't have cute bird names yet, and the article doesn't point out how difficult coming up with appropriate names for these new sleep patterns may be (what bird sleeps all the time? A quick google search suggests a sick bird is the only bird that sleeps all the time).
Given the health implications of sleep deprivation and erratic sleep schedules, these two studies combined suggest that people should be determining when is the best time they should go to sleep (cue bird sleep types) and then try to go to sleep at that time every day. Of course, no research has suggested what to do if you get social jetlag because you are a night owl with a normal work schedule, but maybe the future of work scheduling involves around the clock productivity fueled by capitalizing on the different sleep patterns of employees.
We've All Been Here Before
Source: Elizabeth C. Webb (my totally original Adirondacks pictures)
I've been a fan of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows for a few years now, and the creator, John Koenig, recently started a web series that posts a new video every other Sunday. The post for this Sunday was for the word vemödalen.
vemödalen n. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.
This seemed especially relevant having just returned from a trip to Adirondacks where I took several photographs that have already been taken before (and as my hiking buddy told me several times when I lamented missing some key picture,"just look it up on the Internet"). Despite the knowledge that several such photos exist, I still steadfastly hold on to the belief that I saw something unique, that my perspective contributes to the vast collection of images in an invaluable way, and that my one photograph is special in a way no photograph before it has been. We all want our experiences to be unique, yet it's the commonality in those experiences that ties us together, so why does the idea of being the same as someone else, as having taken the same photo or the same thought as someone else, often feel so aversive?
The video itself is beautiful, and nearly every frame is a photo taken by a different photographer.
The Assumption of Gender
Image source: BSA-30 (here)
An op-ed piece on CityLab (The Atlantic) proclaiming that Bansky (the acclaimed street artist) is probably a female is getting quite a bit of attention. What's interesting about this is that the piece is probably mostly getting attention for the headline alone, which the article doesn't address at all: why is "Why Banksy is (Probably) a Woman" such an attention-grabbing headline? Instead, the article relies on further gender stereotyping and caricature to argue that it's more likely that Banksy is female (or, rather, a group of artists headed by a female). The author sees the assumption that Banksy is male as an affront to women, but then makes the counter-argument by (mostly) denigrating male artwork and approach. It's unfortunate that this article is garnering so much attention by employing the same tactics it eschews.
I wait for the day when a headline or an op-ed piece doesn't make a splash by suggesting a famous artist, creator, entrepreneur, CEO, or other figure is a woman! or a man! The very fact that suggesting Banksy is a female gets so much attention is a tragedy: this means we still have sharply defined gender stereotypes that people operate on when thinking about what defines "art" or "creativity" or "success." Unfortunately, there is no winner in the great gender reveal of Banksy (should it ever happen): if Banksy is male or female, no one will cherish or celebrate the points that distinguish Banksy from all other street artists, regardless of gender.
Image source: Elizabeth C. Webb
Yesterday, NPR published an article by Linda Holmes titled, "The Luxury of Solitude." The article is more personal musings and introspective thoughts, than scientific findings touting the value of being alone, but that's what makes it so beautiful - beautiful in a way that scientific research rarely can be inside its peer-reviewed, careful packaging. Which, isn't to say that scientific publications are not profound or elegant, but there's something in the messy details of personal observation that can never be replicated within the confines of science.
Holmes states in the article, "We have a certain cultural mistrust of solitude, I think. It is for weirdos and lost souls, spinsters and misfits. But in truth, I can't tell you what a luxury I think it is to be entitled to it." And without pushing anyone to agree with her she makes a very simple point: not everyone can be alone, isolated from the stressors of everyday life, and we don't appreciate this small gift when it is available to us. "What would I do if I could do anything — in this micro-environment, in this moment, at the point of this particular pause, what is my wish?" How often do we think like that? Holmes' idea being that we cannot think like this without being completely alone, isolated and unburdened from our daily grind. And what did Holmes discover during her luxurious solitude: the freedom of self-determination and the whimsy of answering only to her own desires.
In the November issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), authors Dittmar, Bond, Hurst, and Kaster have a meta-analysis on the effects of materialism on well-being. The existing literature has found a negative relationship between materialistic beliefs and well-being, but this is the first recent meta-analysis of the relationship, and provides direct evidence for the strength, consistency, and direction of the relationship. Materialism is defined as "individual differences in people's long-term endorsement of values, goals, and associated beliefs that center on the importance of acquiring money and possessions that convey status" (p.880). The meta-analysis looks at how materialism, as defined, affects four broad types of well-being: subjective well-being (a person's satisfaction with their life and feelings of overall happiness); self-appraisals (how positively or negatively individuals view themselves); mental health (the level of negative mental-health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and compulsive buying); and physical health (a measure of health symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, as well as the propensity to engage in risky health behaviors such as drinking and taking drugs). Finally, the authors investigated whether any variables, including age, gender, ethnicity, education, profession, income, and societal factors, could make the link between materialistic orientation and well-being stronger or weaker.
Overall, the authors confirm that there is indeed a significant negative relationship between materialism and well-being, such that individuals who are more materialistic are less happy/satisfied with their life. In fact, this negative relationship holds over all categories of well-being, but is especially strong for physical health and mental health outcomes (this means that people with materialistic goals are more likely to have negative health symptoms, are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors, and are more likely to consume compulsively).
Interestingly, the authors find that the relationship between materialism and well-being is not affected by demographic factors such as education or income, but is affected by others, such as gender, age, and profession. The relationship is stronger for women than men (meaning there is a larger effect of materialism on well-being for women), as well as for older people (compared to younger people). Another interesting finding: there is a weaker effect of materialism on well-being for people working in materialistically oriented professions such as economics, marketing, and business. This is believed to be true because these professions offer a match between the values of the individual and the priorities of the profession, which leads to greater validation, an easier time conforming, and less conflict between internal and external goals. Despite these changes in the relationship by some characteristics, it's more interesting that the negative relationship broadly holds across most demographic, economic, and cultural factors. Thus, everyone is made worse off by being materialistic or having materialistic goals. It's important to note that since this is a meta-analysis, the authors are not evaluating whether some of these cultural or societal factors can affect how materialistic an individual is, they are only saying that controlling for a level of materialism, its effect on well-being holds across these different demographic characteristics.
Ultimately, the meta-analysis confirms that any way you cut it, being materialistic hurts you. And, yes, some factors can reduce the level of that hurt, but nothing the authors looked at found a positive or even neutral relationship between materialism and well-being (i.e., under no circumstances did being materialistic lead to more happiness). Now, if only they had a recommendation on how to change how materialistic a person is.
"Pick 'em Cuter by Computer"
Image source: Gemma Correll
Yesterday the NYTimes ran a piece about Tinder, the online dating app. In many ways, Tinder changed the online dating landscape: instead of having elaborate profiles or algorithms that turn dating into a numbers game, Tinder relies mostly on instataneous reactions to pictures and other visual cues. If a person finds someone attractive, they can swipe right; if they find someone unattractive, they can swipe left. The interesting part about the article, however, is a discussion on what determines "attractive" when it comes to looking at pictures. The author of the article discusses this with an employee at Tinder who's sole job is to determine what about pictures makes someone swipe left or right. Turns out, people make a lot of inferences about others based on what they see in pictures. It seems that people are scrutinizing the pictures they see to try to determine a level of compatibility and acceptability. In this sense, the settings of the pictures are just as important as the main target. As one of the co-founders of the app points out: "'A photo of a guy at a bar with friends around him sends a very different message than a photo of a guy with a dog on the beach.'”
It's also important that attractiveness is not universal: "'There isn’t a consensus about who is attractive and who isn’t,' Mr. Eastwick [an assistant professor in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, Austin] said in an interview. 'Someone that you think is especially attractive might not be to me. That’s true with photos, too.' Tinder’s data team echoed this, noting that there isn’t...one group of users [who] get the share of “like” swipes." In this way, Tinder is still a numbers game: with enough users, variation in what is deemed attractive will be great enough to ensure that many users get right swipes.
And what happens after you pick someone to date? A new article at Pacific Standard suggests that even if you discover a fatal flaw or incompatibility, you will still pursue that person if you are currently on a date with them (or more generally, if they are nearby versus just online). This is based on a new article in Psychological Science by Joel, Teper, and MacDonald which shows in several lab studies that people are almost twice as willing to go on a date with an unattractive or incompatible person if they think that person is nearby (in the lab setting, they were told the person was in the lab and ready to meet up). This effect was mediated by a concern for hurting the target's feelings, which was stronger if participants thought the other was nearby.
Ultimately, the PS article and the Psych Science paper discusses our inability to accurately predict how good we will be at rejecting romantic interests (or, in other words, hurting someone else's feelings). Turns out, humans don't generally like being mean to other humans (I would like to argue this point having lived in NYC for a couple months now). The problem is, "[w]e tend to be more satisfied in relationships with people who come closer to our ideals, and focusing on others’ feelings could keep us from seeking what we truly want." This can have consequences down the line, "As flaws become more grating over time, one partner may finally call it quits, causing more hurt than if they’d never gone out in the first place. Alternatively, a desire not to hurt a boyfriend or girlfriend could lead them to stay in a strained relationship longer despite the incompatibility." Ironically, our inability to hurt someone else's feelings can lead to greater hurt down the line (in addition to wasting everyone's time).
Sharing my thoughts on things that interest me.