An interesting and enlightening talk by Daniel Kahneman about the differences between “experiencing selves” and “remembering selves” and the way happiness is perceivend differently by both.
Obesity, specially among children, is one of the most pressing health issues on western society. Improving eating habits in school has been the goal of numerous research programs that build on behavioral economics principles. The idea behind these programas is to develop simple nudges that guide (rather than force) people’s behavior towards the desired outcome without cohercing them to act in a manner they don’t want to. Simple tweaks on the environment/context are able to change behaviors without limiting a person ability to make a free choice between any given options.
One of the problems that these programs were called to study, was how to improve fruit consumption on a given school cafetaria. An analysis of the cafetaria display showed that the fruits were placed on a metal bin next to a bin of packaged snacks. So when students reached the point where the fruits were placed they had to make a choice between a more healthy but less appealing food, and the colorful and calorie rich and ego boosting snacks. No wonder fruits lost most of the battles.
The solution: remove the snacks to other location (one that’s not so easy on the eye) and place the fruits on colorful bowls, improving its presentation. Simple and inexpensive. With the introduction of this new display fruit consumption on the school cafetaria improved 104%.
While this kind of nudges won’t solve any major issue, even regarding childhood obesity, they may become powerful weapons that can help people make better choices and improve the quality of their lives.
I’ve pointed before to a serie of articles written by Daniel Kahneman where he identifies the optimistic bias as “the most significant bias”. Kahneman conveys this vision of the optimistic bias because in his opinion people who are optimists tend to shape the lives of everyone as they are the ones who take more risks or are more entrepreneurial. In the first of these articles, Kahneman goes so far as to state:
If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person – you already feel fortunate.
While there isn’t – so far as I know – any study that tried to unlock an “optimistic gene”, a recent research as uncovered interesting insights about the brain mechanisms behind optimistic behavior as quoted on the BPS Research Digest:
Now Tali Sharot (author of the forthcoming book The Optimism Bias) and her colleagues have investigated the brain mechanisms underlying this rosy outlook. Sharot had participants estimate their likelihood of experiencing 80 adverse life events from developing Alzheimer’s to being robbed. After they gave each estimate, the participants were given the correct average probability for a person in their socio-economic circumstances. In a subsequent testing session, participants had a second chance to forecast their risk of experiencing the same 80 misfortunes. Throughout this process, Sharot scanned the activity of the participants’ brains.
One key finding is that the participants showed a bias in the way that they updated their estimates, being much more likely to revise an original estimate that was overly pessimistic than to revise an original estimate that was unduly optimistic (79 per cent of participants showed this pattern). The researchers checked and this difference wasn’t to do with the positive feedback being remembered better, but purely to do with it being taken account of more than negative feedback.
There were some intriguing neural insights. Discovering that an initial estimate was unduly pessimistic was associated with increased activity across the frontal lobes, in left inferior frontal gyrus, left and right medial frontal cortex/superior frontal gyrus, and also in the right cerebellum – and this increased activity correlated with the participants’ subsequent updating of their estimate in the second round of predictions. By contrast, discovering that they’d been overly optimistic was associated with reduced activity in the inferior frontal gyrus extending into precentral gyrus and insula, and again this activity change was related to the likelihood that the participants would revise their estimate in the second round of predictions.
As the researchers point, a possible evolutionary explanation for this is linked to the necessity of early humans to have an enhanced exploratory behavior, which may have been essential to finding new food resources or better habitats. However, without a realistic assessment of probabilities, an unrestrained optimistic view of the world can lead to dire consequences; for the optimists, but also for all those whose lives are influenced by them.
You can read the BPS Research Digest here.
We all like to think that we are independent, responsible for our decisions and behaviors and not prone to be influenced by others. Unlike others, we aren’t moved by what others think or do. We are our own masters.
This, however, is no more than an illusion; everyday we are influenced by what others think and do, looking for clues on how to behave in ambiguous situations or changing our behavior in order it to be tuned to how others behave. That much was proved in the 1950’s by social psychologist Solomon Asch in the attempt to study conformity.
The conformity studies designed by Asch were cleverly simple: experimental subjects were show a card with a line drawn on it, then they were shown another card with three lines being their task to identify which of those three lines was similar to the line shown on the first card. A simple, unambiguous task that shouldn’t create many errors. However, there was a simple experimental manipulation: the subjects had to perform their task in the company of 6 other fellows given their comparison estimates one at the time. What wasn’t known to the subjects was that these fellows wera actually confederates that were instructed to give blatantly wrong answers on some trials and cause the illusion of consensus leaving the real subject as the outsider.
What Asch was trying to measure with this was the amount of subjects that would conform with the confederate’s wrong answers. The results were clear: 75% of the subjects conformed at least once, while 5% conformed with the group on every trial!
What this study as shown is that, although we like to think we aren’t influenced by others behavior, when we are unsure about what to do, how to behave or when what we believe is the right choice clashes with a consensus from everyone around us we tend to conform, to change the way we think and behave in order to be more in line with the rest.
You can see this happening all the time in marketing with people buying the same brands the their friends bought, not because they’re the best but because we want to fit in, to be part of the group, to conform with the “norms”. Peer pressure is one of the most powerful weapons of marketers.
If you’re in doubt of the power of peer pressure just check this video of a “Candid Camera” episode that clearly shows conformity works:
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, along with the late Amos Tversky, is probably one of the most important thinkers of our time. His work on decision making and the biases that pervade our thinking patterns, help to shed light on the inconsistencies of human behavior with the rational model of decision that is the basis of modern economical theory.
We are not as rational as we think we are. We usually make the same mistakes over and over without even realizing that we are mistaken or the origin of those errors. Behavioral economics, that is getting a lot of attention lately, owes much of its core assumptions to the work of Kahneman and Tversky.
One of the most interesting and important biases uncovered by their work is the Optimistic bias that makes people assume a more probable brighter future for themselves and their endevors, over-estimating the probability of positive outcomes and under-estimating the likelihood of negative outcomes. In a recent article for Bloomberg, Kahneman calls it “the most significant bias”:
Because optimistic bias is both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic.
Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person — you already feel fortunate.
Optimistic people play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are inventors, entrepreneurs, political and military leaders — not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks. They are talented and they have been lucky, almost certainly luckier than they acknowledge.
A survey of founders of small businesses concluded that entrepreneurs are more sanguine than midlevel managers about life in general. Their experiences of success have confirmed their faith in their judgment and in their ability to control events. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: The people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.
This excerpt is part of 4 articles that Kahneman wrote for Bloomberg that are a highly recommended reading. We can read the four part article on “Bias, Blindness and How We Truly Think” over the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.
For more of Kahneman thoughts and experiments, you shoul read is recently published book Thinking Fast & Slow that already has been considered one of the most important books of the year.