· Social Denim jeans have a pager-sized device embedded in a pocket that allows wearers to press a button and send one of 8 preset emotional messages to their FB/Twitter feeds and/or their GPS location. It works via Bluetooth through their phone. I am a big fan of ubicomp, but this is just silly. What could we embed in clothing that would be 10 times better? Even a simple social media notification could be better thought through, at least IMHO.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
You probably all have heard something about the famous marshmallow study. To recap, kids were given a marshmallow and told they could either eat it or wait for 15 minutes and get 2 marshmallows. The assumption was that all of the kids would prefer getting a second one, but might not be able to wait 15 minutes to get it.
The average wait time was 6 minutes before kids succumbed to temptation and ate the one marshmallow. This was attributed to a lack of self-control and inability to delay gratification. But it was the long term results that made the study famous. Looking at these kids 20 years later, the ones that were able to wait longer showed incredible differences from the ones that weren't. This self-control led to higher interpersonal skills, higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, higher salaries, lower incarceration rates, and many others. Amazing.
A new study investigated some of the details behind this finding. What they found is that it also has to do with trust. You can imagine that kids who grow up in environments where future rewards sometimes never appear are smarter to take the immediate reward. This isn’t a foolish failure of self-control but rather taking advantage of the bird in hand rather than hoping for the two in the bush. Specifically, they ran a pre-test before the marshmallow where the kids were asked to work on an art project with some old crayons and just one sticker. The experimenter promised to get them new crayons and more stickers in a few minutes. In one case they came through. In the other case they apologized and said they didn’t have any new supplies after all. Then the marshmallow test was done. The kids who got the promised art supplies waited an average of 12 minutes for the second marshmallow. The ones that didn't get any new art supplies waited on only 3 minutes.
What does this mean? Kids have more self-control than we thought. It is just a question of whether they think it is worth using. In the original study, the kids don’t know the experimenter from a hole in the wall. Are they really going to show up with a second marshmallow? If not, why bother to wait? So the 6 minute average wait is between the 12 and 3 minute range. Apparently, they had a medium trust for the unknown dependability of the experimenter.
Here is a key takeaway that I can pull out of the results. It still remains that kids who have better self-control and can delay gratification do better in the long term. What this study suggests is that if we teach our kids to have some confidence in the future, they develop a stronger ability to delay gratification. Since this increases their chances of being successful in the future, it should be an easy sell to parents. Teach your kids that the future is bright. They will develop more self control and their future really will turn out bright.
How do we teach kids to have confidence in the future? It is all about experience. It seems pretty easy for parents to get into a habit of telling their kids to expect some reward in the future and then delivering it. From what I know about learning, they should do this with different sized rewards and different length delays. Just be consistent in delivering whatever is promised. Obviously real life doesn’t allow us to be 100% reliable, but at least be as careful and reliable as you can.
I would imagine that this is also good workplace advice. If you want workers to keep the long term interests of the company top of mind, it would help to be reliable in delivering on promises. Common wisdom in change management tells us that when change proposals are perceived as the latest flavor of the day that the company either will fail to put long term resources behind or that will not have any benefits for the employee, they will fail to take hold in company processes or culture. So let’s add the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” to the “Bird in Hand” adage.
Final word: The more you cry wolf, the more employees/kids/partners/friends/etc will take the bird in hand in the future. To add one last adage, "you reap what you sow."
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently retracted a press release regarding a new study on the link between drinking diet soda with aspartame and blood cancer. This is a great illustration of the crazy state of health-related journalism, science publications, and manipulation.
What should BWH have expected when a press release stating this link was released? A couple of things are obvious:
- Any media coverage would be overly simplistic. It would omit important details that don’t fit into a short headline. It would omit important details that aren’t as good at increasing media ratings. It would omit important details that might be over the heads of the readership, even if they are important to the applicability of the study.
- Once the mainstream media gets it, it moves to the media’s social channels. Even reputable and well-meaning journalists are limited to 140 characters in their tweeted headlines. Many of them use a blog strategy that uses a short format so they can get out several per day and serve their readers with broad news coverage.
- Then the general public gets their hands on it and reblogs, retweets, and otherwise circulates it. Their headlines are shorter, omitting more details, unrepentantly inciteful rather than insightful.
- Soon the meme is viral and the intentional manipulation comes in. How hard is it to take a scary medical finding or a promising health link and create the “New Alaska Diet” plan, blog, eBook, and then bestseller? Or the snake oil to ward off blah blah mutations for only five easy payments of $29.99?
What was really the finding?
- The finding was only found for men. The researchers don’t know how aspartame can affect one gender over another. Without a scientific explanation, the statistical association is questionable.
- There are lots of ingredients in diet sodas. Any other one of them could also be the cause. Or it could be a combination of several ingredients that are all required to elicit the effect. There is no way to know. Each one has different implications for what should be done about it. Aspartame might be fine as a sweetener if you take out some other chemical that is not necessary.
- The size of the increase was lost in communication. What if your risk of blood cancer (non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to be exact) goes from 1 in a million to 2 in a million? Would you care?
- There are other possible effects of switching sodas. What if you switch to regular soda as a result and your risk of Type II Diabetes goes up to 10 in a million and complications of Diabetes to 3 in a million? On net, you made yourself worse.
A company in India has come up with some great ways to leverage behavioral science to improve public health and safety. The company is called FinalMile. This is a great analogy for their strategy because they intervene at the proverbial sharp end of decision making, just when the person is about to make an unsafe choice. Here are a few examples that I find particular imaginative.
To keep people from walking on train tracks they changed the way train horns are designed and used. There used to be the usual long slow constant booming tone. This is easy to hear and pretty clear what it means. Train operators blew it from far away to give people plenty of time to get off the tracks. But these things violate what we know about behavioral psychology. If I know I have a long time to get off the tracks, I can keep walking along them because they are more convenient – which is why I was there in the first place. The long slow tone was also not very visceral. So they changed it to a series of changing, sharp quick bursts. This creates a cacophony that is instinctively scary, even if your conscious brain knows what it is. They also reduced the lead time, so when you hear it, it is louder. And you know you have too little time to think about it, so you get off.
They also replaced the danger signs along the tracks with a photo of a real person running screaming in terror from an oncoming train. It still tells you what you are supposed to do, but is much more visceral.
They also recognized that a lot of people stop taking medication when their symptoms go away, even when they are still sick. We have heard of this frequently with antibiotics, but there are other diseases as well, including highly infectious ones. So these patients don’t get better, spread the disease to others, and develop drug resistance in themselves and drug-resistant disease strains in the population. Not good. So they used digital printing and personalization – adding a photo of the patient him or herself looking sick. It reminds you that you are not really better yet. I think they could add a second photo (not in the same photo because you don’t want to reduce the clarity of its single focus) that shows you getting other people sick as well. This exploits our social bonding instincts – none of us want to feel guilty or be blamed by our friends and family (or boss) for getting everyone else sick.
To improve the use of public trashcans, they used photos of pleasant-looking neighbors throwing trash in the public cans and bad-looking strangers throwing it in street. This leverages our self-identity resonance (I blogged about this recently here or a technical psych definition here), our social bonding instincts (we want to be as good as our in-group), and our competitive juices (if they can do it, I sure as hell can!!).
Monday, October 15, 2012
I went Gleaning on Saturday. If you are looking for a great way to volunteer in your community, it is an amazing way to go. Gleaning comes from the biblical idea that farmers should refrain from harvesting the last 10% of their crops and let the poor come and eat. Today, that is infeasible because the needy are in the inner city, not the farmland. Boston Area Gleaners is a volunteer-driven organization that asks local farmers to donate this last 10% and we go and harvest it and deliver it to food pantries. It is especially important these days because many of the needy are in food deserts and have no access to fresh produce. We went and harvested 1100 pound of carrots, turnips, and mustard greens. We filled up the truck and had a few bunches of mustard greens left over so we got to bring a few home (nice perk !!). Not only a great cause, but also great camaraderie among the volunteers who got all muddy and sweaty working our butts off to dig up and box the vegetables.
So now that I have made my plug for gleaning, here is my Human Factors perspective. The carrots that we dug up were all crazy shapes and irregular sizes. I was shocked, considering the dozens of straight and equally sized carrots you get in the stores. Some of these could have been right out of a “mutant aliens take over the Earth” movie. They had four heads, six legs, and crooked tails. Out of the 500 or so carrots I pulled out myself, perhaps 10 would have made it to a grocery store. They rest would have been plowed under.
Is the American consumer really so picky about the shape? I understand that taste is a major concern, but I tried some of the bizarre ones and they tasted amazing. Just as sweet as the straight ones. Have we been trained to like only pretty carrots? I have heard that tomatoes are bred to be as perfectly circular as possible, even at the expense of good taste. I never believed it was that big a deal until this weekend when I discovered it was 90/10, not 10/90.
How should we define the user experience of buying and eating produce? Is size and shape even close to as important as nutrition and flavor? We have more food than we need as a nation, so we can afford to plow under the ugly ones. As a nation. But that is the problem with looking at averages. For the needy or those who have little to no access to fresh produce, I suspect their priorities are flipped.
As HF professionals, how do we balance what our users tell us they want versus what we know is best for them? I am not trying to be paternalistic here, but there are dozens of published cases where users think one version of an interface is better, faster, easier, or whatever but the objective data says the opposite. Or when users focus on short term benefits and select one interface when we know that their long term happiness and performance will be better if they choose another one.
What is our role here? I am not sure how to make these tough decisions and I suspect it depends on the context. With enterprise IT, perhaps it is the profitability of the company that matters the most, and we should discount what the employee says. For healthcare IT, perhaps the patient’s safety and health should matter the most. For gaming systems, perhaps it is customers’ subjective satisfaction and enjoyment that should matter the most.
My agriculture example creates a broader challenge. In this context, two different sets of customer needs are in conflict and the larger and more profitable group is making satisfying the other group impossible. Yet it is that other group that needs our help more. And the metrics that the large group is using seem kind of superficial. But if wealthier consumers don’t purchase the ugly produce, farmers don’t make enough profit to donate some to the underserved.