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.
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.
I’ve wrote here before how tactile sensations can shape how we feel about objects. In “Fooled by a Carpet” I reported that a recent study showed that stores’ flooring can affect costumers’ perception of couches: hard flooring make the couches seem more comfortable, while soft flooring “turns” the same couch less appealing.
A recent paper covering six experiments led by Joshua Ackerman (MIT), Christopher Nocera (Harvard Uni.) and John Bargh (Yale Uni.), shows that it’s not only flooring that can have an effect on our perceptions on other objects: what we touch, hold or sit on can shape our thoughts and decisions. What’s more, not only our perceptions of objects are affected: judgments over a person suitability for a job and the way we approach a negotiation are also affected by our tactile sensations. The article abstract:
Touch is both the first sense to develop and a critical means of information acquisition and environmental manipulation. Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge, as well as a springboard for the application of this knowledge. In six experiments, holding heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects nonconsciously influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations. Among other effects, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations. Basic tactile sensations are thus shown to influence higher social cognitive processing in dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.
According to the authors, this effect happens because our physical experiences shape our understanding of abstract concepts. We are, from an early age, trained to attribute more importance to weighty objects and to perceive rough objects as stronger. Our physical contact with objects creates an anchor point in our perception that leads subsequent perceptive evaluation of other social objects. So if you’re trying to sell a car and are open to negotiation, you would do well to provide comfortable chairs to your prospective customers in order to decrease their rigidity in negotiations.
You can access the abstract of the study here.