Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Cheating Culture

There are four factors that affect how likely someone is to obey or break a rule, according to a book by David Callahan called “The Cheating Culture.”  It came out in 2004, but these things are even more true today.

  1. Risk/reward:  If the perceived reward is greater than the perceived risk of getting caught, you are more likely to break the rule.
  2. Social norms: We might be sensitive to what other people think of the behavior.  If we care, we are less likely to break a rule.
  3. Personal Morality:  You are more likely to break a rule that doesn’t break any of your personal moral beliefs.  Less likely if it does.
  4. Legitimacy: If the authority that enforces the rule is perceive as inconsistent or corrupt, we are more likely to break a law. 
There are several reasons why he says it is getting worse, also more true today than in 2004.
  • There is less enforcement of white collar crimes.  There are fewer SEC agents, IRS auditors, etc.
  • There is less social aversion because there is a general impression that “everyone does it.”
  • It is easy for us to create our own morality.  Who really believed “music should be free” before Napster? 
  • Many of us see the system as being “rigged” so there is less legitimacy to the law.  The CEOs get away with crimes, banks get bailed out, and it’s only you and me that get prosecuted.  It’s not fair, so getting away with crime is understandable.

The Source Code

The movie Source Code played on my flight to Germany.  There were some great human factors implications from the basic plot line.

The plot revolved around the idea that when you die, your brain activity is stable for a few seconds and can be recorded.  They download this pattern of activation and are able to replay the last eight  minutes of the person’s life.  Like most movies, they take this way too far.  They upload the pattern into someone else’s brain and have that person relive the eight minutes.  That person can even change what the dead person did in those eight minutes (that’s the WAY overboard part).  But there are a few other smaller things that are more fundamental scientific falsities:
  • Memory is not like a camera.  It is more like an impressionist (think Picasso).  Looking at someone else’s Picasso wouldn’t be nearly as informative.  And it’s only what you are focused on, not your peripheral vision and not even what is in your direct view but unattended.
  • Knowing the pattern of activation in someone’s head is not the same as recording their episodic memory.  Everyone’s brain has different patterns and they are only mildly connected to the actual events that occurred in someone’s life.
  • The activation would last just a few seconds and cover just a few seconds of activation.  So if you are close enough to record the activation, you probably already saw the same thing(s) that the dead person saw.
 But I was thinking about what part(s) of this would/could be possible with some advances in technology. 
  • If you could download the person’s sensory cortex activity, and had previously used fMRI to map out what neurons correspond to what sensations, it may be possible to reproduce the person’s last sensations.  It would be completely uninterpreted though.  You would know green and red and square and salty were active, but not how they fit together.
  • If you could download the person’s amygdala activity and again had previously mapped it using fMRI, you could estimate approximately what emotions the person was feeling at the time of death.
But I think that’s about the best you could do.

Smart Defaults

Oh, one more story about my flights. This mom was flying with her four little kids. Incredibly well behaved. They had just spend 3 months in Jordan with the dad's family (he had already flown home to work).

Anyway, here is the point:
She wanted to switch seats with another passenger so she could sit on the aisle in between her kids. So rather than ask first, she sat in his seat before he got there and when he came by she pointed to her assigned seat and said "That's my seat. I would like to sit next to my kids, if that's OK."  Notice there is no question mark on the sentence. She didn't exactly ask.

Then when he was out of earshot she explained to her 10 year old daughter that this is how you get ahead in life. You don't ask permission you just tell people what you want and make them force the issue if they disagree. Most people are relatively passive and won't do it, even if they want to. If you ask, they may say no, but this way they can't do it.

She is absolutely right that this works.  This is a way to use people's tendencies to leave defaults as they are to your advantage.  You can get what you want a lot this way.  But is it polite?  Is it civil?  Is it the way we want to teach our kids?   I always joke with my students that Human Factors can be used for good and for evil.  I think teaching this lesson to a ten-year old is an example of the latter.

Human factors can make playgrounds safe and fun.

This research is a great example of how human factors can be applied in a "fun" context.  What they did was study what factors of playground equipment is associated with injury risk and which factors are associated with fun.  Of course some things are both (high climbing bars) and some things are neither.  But they also found some things that are fun, but not dangerous.  So they created playground-design guidelines that are fun and safe at the same time.

Pretty cool stuff.

Is this optimism or pessimism?

The latest in a series of studies by EP Espejo has found something that I find interesting and I think you will too.  Apparently, there is a strong connection between how you perceive life events as a 15 year old on future anxiety and depressive disorders.

Basically, consider two 15-year-olds having the same negative experience.  But one perceives it more negatively than the other does.  The one with the more negative perceptions is more likely to develop anxiety disorders and depression later in life.  At first, I thought of this as pessimists having more risk of these disorders than optimists.  But then I thought it could the opposite as well.  Optimism and pessimism is really about expectations of future events, not perceptions of past events.  There is also evidence (that I have blogged about recently),  that bracing yourself for negative results helps you to deal with them.  So what if pessimists are more braced, and therefore are not as surprised when bad things happen.  On the other hand, optimists expect good things, so would be more surprised by bad things.  They would therefore be more disappointed and perhaps perceive it more negatively.  So maybe it is optimists that are more at risk for anxiety and depression.