Saturday, September 29, 2012

Is our intelligence improving?

An article in the September Scientific American discusses the longitudinal increase in intelligence we have been experiencing over the past 100 years (we don’t have much research for the periods before that).  One of the findings that I find most intriguing is that many of our capabilities haven’t gotten better.  The improvement over time is really narrow.  Our abstract reasoning is what has improved.  How are things related (remember those analogy questions on the SAT?)?  And geometric pattern recognition. 

Why these?  I suspect that these capabilities are much more important now than they were 100 years ago when manual labor was what 99% of us did for a living (and to live).  Now that we grow up in a world that involves lots of abstract reasoning, it is important to be able to do it well.  And we need to see lots of 3-D shapes in 2-D artifacts like paper and computer screens.  But basic skills, like working memory capacity, aren’t in much higher demand now than they were a century ago.  Maybe even less necessary now that we have so many electronic toys to help us. 

So the good news is that as the world changes around us, our brains have the capability to adapt and improve.  But the bad news is that if the environment doesn’t push us to get better, we won’t. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

consipracy theorists make sense after all.

There was a great Skeptic column in the September ScientificAmerican.  Michael Shermer talks about people who believe in two conspiracy theories that are directly contradictory, but don’t seem bothered by it.  For example, there are people who believe Princess Diana faked her own death and also believe that it was an MI6 conspiracy.  There are people who believe that UFOs are secret DARPA projects and also that aliens are visiting earth.  

How can anyone believe in contradictory conspiracy theories?  Are they just stupid?  Or brain damaged?  Or have their brain wires crossed?  Nope.  There is actually a more logical explanation that has received evidence in a recent study by some psych researchers at the University of Kent (that Shermer cites). 

Here is how it works.  These individuals have a global schema such as “there are powerful people behind the scenes who are pulling the strings of these important events.”  This is their conspiracy theory.  Then each of these specific events could be true.  Maybe not all of them.  But since the conspiracy theorist doesn’t have specific evidence he/she can be sure that at least some of them are true.  Maybe Diana couldn’t have faked her own death and be killed by MI6, but one of those is true.  They are just using an OR operator rather than an AND. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Important predictor of life-long success

I usually stay away from the touchy-feely positive psych literature because a lot of it is based on what people want to hear rather than solid research and effective principles.  But this one is really excellent.  

It talks about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion and how they each have different impacts on your behavior.  What makes this particularly relevant to me is that I have always been a proponent (and exemplar) of the high self-esteem population.  There is a good deal of solid research showing the confident people get ahead, in part because you try harder when you expect to succeed and in part because when other people see you as confident they are more likely to help you and have higher perceptions of your performance (even when it is not justified).

But one of the perils of high self-esteem is that you set yourself up to fail.  Esteem is not quite the same as confidence.  Esteem is about what you “are” rather than what you can “do.”   When you are confident you believe you can do.  So if you fail, confidence allows you to get back up and try again.  But with esteem if you fail, you may question whether you are really as good as you think you are.  My favorite quote from the article is

“And of course you must be perfectly awesome in order to keep believing that you are – so you live in quiet terror of making mistakes, and feel devastated when you do.”

 This questioning is not a problem in the short term. But over time it can lead to an insidious buildup of doubt.  And when the doubt is unconscious (which it usually is because of motivated reasoning and loss aversion), you just go about your business as usual. At some point – CRASH.  The crash could manifest as chronic depression, anxiety, paranoia – any number of disordering thinking pathways.  Sometimes it doesn’t reach a level that requires professional help, but it does impact your life negatively.

Contrast this with self-compassion.  Self-compassion is NOT “letting yourself off the hook.”  But it IS cutting yourself some slack when you don’t live up to your own high self expectations.  The key to effective self-compassion is that it is “non-evaluative”.  Realism absolves you from kicking your ego in the gut when you fail.  I will try my damnedest to succeed in everything that matters to me. And if I fail, that’s OK.  I will get up and try again or find another way to reach the same goal.  As long as I am always trying, and have goals I can live with, then it’s all good.

Too touchy-feely, or good advice?  Let me know.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bricolage leadership for wicked problems

Is anyone familiar with Keith Grint’s model of leadership?  Apparently he has been developing it for a while, but I just read his paper from 2010 on wicked problems, clumsy solutions, and the ways different kinds of leaders deal with them.  I was really impressed with his take.  I am proud to say that I have been espousing the same basic ideas for even longer than his papers have been around.  But he got them published, so hats off to Keith J.

He creates a 2-dimensional matrix of leadership characteristics. 

  • If there is no need to collaborate among the team and there is no uncertainty about the solution, a command and control leadership style is called for.
  • If there is a large need to collaborate among the team and a lot of uncertainty about how to proceed, a Jim Collins Level-5 leadership style is called for.
  • In the middle (on both dimensions) calls for a process manager. 

But what I like the most is that he talks about using a bricolage strategy to implement your leadership.  On your team there are going to be people who prefer different ways of being managed.  Some team members will respond to a hierarchical, high power (in the Hofstede sense) leader.  Others will thrive in a free-market where they are empowered to experiment and pursue their own directions.  Still others will gravitate towards group decision making and consensus building.  Instead of picking one, the best leaders will create lots of small initiatives that mix and match among them.  This is what he terms “clumsy” solutions and strongly recommends them for the “wicked” problems that have high uncertainty and require collaboration. 

He has a whole stream of papers on this topic so I am sure I have oversimplified and missed lots of good insights.  Good reads.  I recommend them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Do you prefer tailgating or buying your beer in the stadium?

One of my favorite behavior economics thought leaders, Steve Dubner of Freakonomics fame, was on Marketplace this week (see podcasthere).  The topic was also one of my favorites – beer.  Specifically, it was on the counterintuitive notion that selling more beer inside a sports stadium decreases problems from alcohol misuse.

The common assumption we make is that the easier it is to buy alcohol inside the stadium, the more people will drink and the more problems that will occur.  But that is ignoring the behavioral science. 

First, we need to think about the alternative.  What are people doing now?  They hang out in the parking lot before the game and drink.  Because this is alcohol that is purchased earlier, there is less of a cost-consciousness limiting the volume imbibed.  Also, because of the perceived time pressure, fans were chugging rather than drinking – making it more likely that they would drink a greater volume than they planned.  Then they might also sneak some alcohol into the game (or sneak back to the parking lot during halftime) to drink more.  Again, the cost and time pressures lead to greater volumes.

But, if it is cheaper and easier and faster to tailgate and sneak in alcohol, why would having alcohol available inside make any difference?  Wouldn’t fans just ignore it and keep doing what they are doing?  Nope.  It turns out that making it a little easier to drink inside can activate our laziness tendency.  Tailgating and sneaking both require some advance planning.  This employs a part of the brain that has a high relative mental workload and that we try to avoid behaviorally.  So we jump at any excuse not to plan.  Then once we are in the stadium, the long lines and expensive prices act as real time barriers to over-consuming. 

This is based on very little real data.  West Virginia tried it for football games.  Alcohol related security calls went down 34%.  The athletic director (who happens to be first round draft pick Andrew Luck’s dad) is advising other schools so more data is coming.  But I can predict that the benefits will depend on the balance between the perceived time, money, and workload of buying beer inside the stadium and the perceived time, money, and workload of tailgating and sneaking alcohol in.