Monday, October 31, 2011

Attention blink, emotion, and productivity

When we are multi-tasking, we aren't really doing two things at once.  We are really working on one activity, pausing it while keeping the current status in working memory, and then switching to the second activity.  And then the same thing when we switch back. 

So this depends on two abilities.  You have to have good working memory to keep all of the first activity stored while you are working on the second.  Otherwise, you have to review what you have forgotten every time you switch. This is no longer multi-tasking.  

The second ability you need is attention switching.  The attention blink is the delay that occurs when you switch from one activity to the other.   Your brain can't do it instantly.  There is some amount of time that your brain needs to refocus on the second activity.  This is just lost time.  It makes multi-tasking, even when you have good working memory, inefficient. 

So people with big working memory capacity and quick attention switching ability better at multi-tasking than people who have less.

Interestingly, a new study in the journal Neuropsychology reports that psychopaths have great attention switching ability.  Apparently, their brains are perfectly happy to put aside one activity and move to the next one.  I'm not sure why, but I thought this would be a fun fact to add.

The study I want to talk about in a little more detail is the effect of emotion.  A new study by Helen Tibboel  in Cognition and Emotion found that when the activity we are switching to is an emotional/arousing activity, we can switch faster.  This is related to the fight or flight instinct.  It also helps switch from texting to braking when someone cuts in front of you on the highway (assuming you notice it).  Our brains have somehow learned that emotional/arousing things are very important and worth dropping the previous task, even if it means forgetting more of it.  So it will take longer to go back to the original activity because we will have to review more of it to get back to where we left it.  

This has good points and bad points.  It means in the workplace, when there is a safety issue (which is usually high arousal) we can switch to it quickly and protect ourselves.  But it means that every time this happens, it takes longer to get back to work, so productivity takes a big hit.  It is well worth it for companies to invest in eliminating safety risks, even if no one is getting injured, just because of this impact on productivity. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Loss Aversion

Here is a really interesting example of loss aversion.  I listen to a game show on NPR called Says You.  In one of the rounds, they give one team an obscure word, they come up with three definitions, and the other team has to guess which one is correct.  After listening to the show 100 times, I have realized that the way they decide is not based on the once most likely to be correct, but rather the one that would be most embarrassing if it turns out to be wrong.  So sometimes they think the silliest sounding answer is the correct one, but are afraid to guess that one, so they guess their second choice instead.  You can tell this is what they are doing because they discuss the answers out loud as a team.  And this is often what it sounds like they are doing.  

Interesting that they would rather be wrong than look foolish.  But not surprising.  

Friday, October 28, 2011


An interesting debate on On Point tonight regarding taking vitamin and mineral supplements.  They had two scientists (both legitimate experts on nutrition) but one was in favor and one was against taking them.  Unfortunately, because of what we know about behavioral science, they are both right. 

It is true that many of our diets are crap.  And even if they are decent, there is good chance they are short of something important.  Who knows what has phosphorous or manganese?  So a multivitamin is a good insurance policy. 

But here is where behavioral science comes in.  As soon as you take your multivitamin, you feel overconfident that you have enough of everything.  So for the rest of the day, you are going to put less attention on eating a good diet.  So ironically taking a multivitamin increases the likelihood that you will need one.  And because of the way our bodies digest food, it is better to get vitamins and minerals from food than from pills.  So we are not doing ourselves any favors relying on our insurance policy.

It would be like someone with good car insurance driving faster and riskier because they are not worried about the crashes.  Or someone with good health insurance refusing to quit smoking because the insurance will pay for any cancer treatment they might need.  Why bother eating right when I can pop a multivitamin and go to BK? 

So it is better NOT to take a multivitamin and concentrate on eating a good diet.  If your diet sucks, it is better to take a multivitamin.  But taking a multi-vitamin might make your diet suck rather than the other way around.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Flashrobs v Google Image

This is an interesting arms race between two technologies.  I often blog about the freedoms that I wish we didn’t give up after 9/11, as embodied in the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, et al.

But here is one perhaps where I lean in the other direction.  I am sure you all are familiar with flashmobs.  In advance, a bunch of people prearrange (often on some social network or another) to meet in the middle of a public place and do something in synch.  On TV, they show dancing flashmobs, but really it can be anything. 

So in comes the idea of a flashrob.  This is where the group prearranges to all be in a store at a prearranged time and on a signal they all grab something and walk out the door (without paying).  If you have 40 people all shoplifting at the same time, there is not much the store can do.  Even if they have a security guard, he can grab maybe one or two people.  And to prevent any violence, injury, or lawsuits, the salespeople are instructed not to interfere. 

So in comes technology to the rescue.  A security guard may be able to grab one or two and perhaps recognize the faces of one or two more, but a couple of well placed video cameras can catch all their faces.  Then you run it through an Internet-based facial recognition to find a photo of them somewhere online.  Up pops a photo of them on Flickr or Facebook and they are busted.  Google has developed the facial recognition app already.  You put the security photo in the search box and the Google Image Search looks for close matches based on an algorithm that works the same way as the ones you see on CSI. 

In this case, I am rooting for the tech to win. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What kind of fish are you really eating ???

I want to present an alternative perspective on the big Boston fish scandal.  For anyone who hasn’t been following it, some investigative reporters did DNA tests on 200 orders of fish from Boston restaurants and grocery stores to see if the fish that was being sold was really what was being advertised.  Of course, they found that about half were a cheaper alternative.  The restaurant’s had various excuses.  One said he just didn’t like the look of the snapper that morning, so he got something else (which was of course cheaper).  One said that they intentionally used cheaper ingredients to avoid raising prices (but of course didn’t change the menu).  One said it wasn’t his deception, the distributor he bought the fish from must have lied to him.  The excuse I like the best is that one said the actual fish they use has a terrible name, so they use the name of a fish that sounds better (i.e. it wasn’t the price of the fish). 

So, customers are getting cheated at some of Boston’s best restaurants.  Everything from Legal Seafood to neighborhood sushi bars.  The honest ones were Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and The 99 (low end sit down place).  The fish most likely to be fake was Red Snapper (which was often Tilapia), White Tuna (which was often Escolar), and Cod (which was often Hake).   Customers are paying for $5/lb fish (red snapper) and being told they are getting $5/lb fish and are really getting $2/lb fish (tilapia).  Or $10 fish (white tuna) v $5 fish (escolar).   

And it is true, the restaurants are cheating.  But it is also true that it isn’t as bad as it seems.  There is a lot of behavioral science research which shows that if you really think you are eating a $10/lb fish, it will taste like it.  You will enjoy it just as much.  And most of the value in the entrĂ©e is really in the recipe, cooking and preparation skill, presentation, and atmosphere.  If you were asked to try two dishes of the same recipe and chef, both labeled as red snapper but one really tilapia (or white tuna and escolar or cod and hake), you probably wouldn’t notice any difference.  You might even like the cheaper one better. 

I haven’t seen studies that focused on fish, but they have found this result with wines, colas, and other products.  There is enough top down processing that if you think you are drinking a $50 /bottle wine, it really does taste like it.  Even if it is really $10 wine.  Even wine experts often couldn’t tell the difference.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why we buy into simplistic plans

Bloomberg had an excellent, scathing editorial about Herman Cain this week.  I blogged about the politics of it on my political blog.   But there is a major human factors implication too.

Why do people buy into crap like this?  It is because it seems so simple. Our brains are wired to prefer simple to complicated.  Through 200,000 years of evolution, simple plans usually worked out better.  So we evolved to prefer them.  Unfortunately, our world is much more complicated than it used to be.  We need people willing to put together 100 page plans.  I agree that much of our tax code and other regs are too complicated and need simplification.  But tax reform is one thing, 9-9-9 is something completely different.

How is Cain going to solve the conflict in Afghanistan?  He will consult with the generals and "wish" a victory.  That enough will take care of everything.  When people hear this, are they justifiably skeptical?  Nope.  We have become so despondent and unconfident about our ability to solve any of the world's problems, we just want them to go away in some simple plan.  9-9-9.  Drill drill drill will solve the energy problems.  Global warming?  It must be some kind of conspiracy theory. 

Humans are very good at motivated reasoning.  Instead of looking at facts and coming to a logical conclusion based on them, we pick the answer we want and then focus only on the facts (or rumors) that support it.  It is a combination of emotion, anchoring, and confirmation bias. It explains many things, from battered spouse syndrome to Chicago Cubs fans.  Unfortunately, it also helps us decide who to vote for President.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spoiler Alert

I read a study recently that looked at media spoilers. They wanted to know if giving away the ending of a movie/book/TV show ruined it for the person watching.  What they found was really fascinating, but now that I have watched a few movies since reading the paper, it makes total sense.

What they expected was that knowing the ending would ruin the movie.  We all probably think this intuitively.  But what they found is that the movies that we like the best are the ones that follow enough of a typical formula that we can predict pretty closely how it will end, but the specifics about how it goes from the beginning to the end are not clear.  So for example, we know that eventually the guy from the bad side of the tracks will fall in love with the girl from the good side of the tracks.  But how will he do it?  That makes it a good movie.  Or in the case of a tragedy, we know that everything is going to go wrong eventually, we just don’t know quite how.

The two movies I saw this weekend illustrate this point.  I didn’t enjoy either one very much, even though one was Jimmy Stewart and one was Hitchcock.  I thought these were no-brainers as great movies.  But in the Jimmy Stewart movie, I had no clue how it would end, and I found that I didn’t really enjoy the watching it unfold.  I realized it was at least partly because I didn’t have a clue where it would end up, so I couldn't guess how it would get there and anticipate if I was right. 

In the Hitchcock movie, I knew how it would end, but then it followed to formula so exactly that it was boring.  What we really enjoy, is when we know the ending but not the process.   The research I cited above found this among a large population (of college student volunteers) and it seems like it is true for me as well.

So why am I putting this on my HF blog?  What does this have to do with system design and user experience (other than movie viewer experience)?  Well, here is my take on it:

Remember several of my previous blogs about natural decision making.  We used to think that our brain weighed the available evidence and then used logic to come to a conclusion.  But what research has recently discovered is that we make an intuitive, emotional prediction about a scenario in an inaccessible, unconscious part of our brain and then our conscious cognitive processes in a totally different part of the brain try to explain if what we guessed was true.  So the process is one of evaluating a variety of mechanisms that could result in a gut prediction rather than one of evaluating many possibilities to see which end result is the most likely. 

This explains the movie results quite well.  We want our gut instinct about how the movie will end to be correct, and we want our cognitive processes to enjoy watching the process to see how it happens.  We predict what will happen next, and then see if we are right.  We do that for the movie as a whole (the butler did it), and scene by scene.  We want to be right about the ending, because that is a big prediction, but it's OK to be wrong about the scene by scene predictions as long as it still fits into the formula.  Otherwise, we have no place in the brain to process the story and we get lost or bored.

This explains so many instances of confirmation bias.  When we expect one brand to better than another, we focus on the attributes for which that brand is better and downplay the ones where it is worse.  When doctors make a diagnosis, they look specifically for symptoms and conduct tests that will confirm their diagnosis rather than test it.  When we instinctively like someone, we focus on the things they do that are positive and overlook their negative qualities.  These same findings are found over and over again in context after context.

The fact that this is not optimal in the modern world, or not the way we would like cognition to work is really irrelevant.  We have a lot of evidence that whether we like it or not, this is what happens.  So why don't we start exploiting this knowledge to make better products, better systems, better user experiences? 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to become a popular extremist.

How to become a popular extremist.

Start with a statement that is extreme but people WANT to believe.  Like "Don't worry about global warming.  It's all a conspiracy by researchers who want government funding."  This sets an anchor in the publics mind that this opinion exists.
Let a week go by with extremists on the other side calling you crazy.  The people most interested in believing your extreme statement will reject the opponents opinions because of who they are (the disliked side). This will create cognitive dissonance that will make them WANT to believe you and will general some confirmation bias FOR the original idea. If there is any evidence whatsoever, such as 3 scientists out of 100000 who agree with you, they will latch on to it.
After a week, you can admit that your original statement was “not quite accurate.”  But anchoring bias will keep the original believers believing and they can attribute the admission to pressure from the bad guys rather than a true error.

Try this once or twice among your friends just to practice.  You will see how easily and effectively it works.  Then you can pull one on the general public and become the next Glenn Beck.