Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Little White Lies - should we stop telling them?

I just finished reading Sam Harris’ book Lying.  It is one of the “Things that make you go hmmmmm” kinds of reads.  He makes the case that it is almost universally a bad idea to lie, even little white lies.  His claims fall into several categories:

·         Lying decreases interpersonal trust.  When you lie, anyone who knows you lied this time, whether they are involved or not, are going to wonder if you are lying to them later.  This is particularly harmful when it is a child that hears you lie, because they might not understand the concept of a little white lie.  And the person you lied to, if they find out (which they often do), will really trust you less.
·         Lying decreases the opportunity for the person you lied to to make improvements.  If you are honest that someone really isn’t as funny, pretty, good dresser, smart, or whatever, they have a chance to work on it and get better.  But if you falsely convince them that they are already good, them may not.
·         Lies reduce the opportunity for friends to learn about each other.  If you tell someone you don’t like the birthday present they got for you, they may get a better one next time because they learn more about you.  Same thing if you are honest that you don’t like chicken, don’t want to see that movie, or whatever.
·         Being brutally honest can bring friends closer because it can increase explicit trust.  Since it is so rare, the person might start looked to you for the one sure thing for an honest opinion or advice.
·         There is a slippery slope to the “Big Lie.”  The more you lie, the more likely you are to lie in the future.  This actually has research behind it.  When you lie, you have to replenish your ego to keep from feeling guilty.  So we rationalize it.  This rationalization process spreads a little bit mentally – we tell ourselves perhaps a little too  strongly that the lie was for the best.
·         Lying decreases societal trust.  How many of us have lost trust in important institutions like politicians, financial advisors, corporations, medical professionals in many cases, lawyers, priests. . .
·         Telling the truth when it would have been easier to lie feels good.  It can lead to spiritual growth.  And if you surprise the person you are honest to, you may uplift them as well.
·         It takes mental workload to remember your lies.  The more you lie, the more you have to remember.  The complex web of lies adds up.  Keeping your brain active in this way decreases your ability to perform other cognitive tasks, decreases your willpower, your ability to think long term, and increases the risk of chronic stress.

But he does identify three conditions where it is OK to lie:
·         When there is a clear subtext that you would be telling the truth to by lying.  So for example when your aging spouse asks if she still looks beautiful and she is really asking if you still love her.  “Yes” is the correct answer here.
·         In contexts where lying is part of the game.  When playing poker for example, you can bluff. 
·         In self-defense, such as telling a lie to a mugger to save yourself from assault.

This was interesting to me because I really bought into most of it and I think I will try to follow his lead.  I am not a big fraud in general, but his ideas about not telling little white lies is something I would like to try, at least some of the time. 

But where I will continue to disagree is the kinds of little white lies that are discussed in the Talmud.  If memory serves from my high school Talmud class, there is a passage that says “Every bride is beautiful.”  The meaning is that if a bride asks you if she looks beautiful, you should assume that she does to the groom and that is all that matters.  So if you don’t think so, it is irrelevant.  The correct answer here is that the bride is beautiful.  The debate in the Talmud expands the context a little by thinking about what is in the best interest of the person asking.  If there is nothing they can do about it or if lying might give them a little self-confidence (such as before going into a job interview) then again the correct answer is the positive one, not the brutally honest one.  But if the brutal honest answer will allow them to self-improve, then that is the correct answer, even if it makes you feel bad to say it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Human-Centered Price-Bundling Innovation

I only read a very short article on this, so I am adding a little of my own ideation to enhance this as an example of human-centered price-bundling, but hopefully Germanwings (the budget airline of Lufthansa) really does have this in mind.

I am going to use as my target market for this thought exercise the budget business traveler, but many of these also apply to others.

The reality of selecting flights is that we search according to the constraints of the date/time we need to travel and then purchase the one with the lowest cost, perhaps with a little flexibility to avoid 6am flights, multiple layovers, or flying through Chicago to get from Boston to NY. 

So the business reality is that airlines have stripped out every possible amenity (meals, checking luggage, pillows, movies) so that they can appear at the top of the search engine results page sorted by price from low to high.  Then if you want any of these amenities, you pay for them separately, often at the airport or on the plane.

What are the customer pain points? 
  • "I often have very little time before and after flights because I am rushing between meetings, trying to get work done, getting picked up by a retail shuttle service that won't wait for me.  So I don't always have time to grab a meal, pack carefully, etc. I show up at the Gate tired, frazzled, and without any of my own amenities. I have to buy the airline's overpriced items."
  • "But I am working on a minimalist reimbursement from a grant (academic), client (consultant), or work project (corporate) that doesn't reimburse me for any extras I buy in the terminal or on the plane."
  •  "When searching for flights, whether it is me or the corporate travel department, the primary objective is searching for the cheapest flight.  So I have to pick one of the stripped down quoted fares."
 So Germanwings has these bundles that you can add on to your ticket during purchase.  I am assuming for this thought experiment that they appear as part of the ticket price rather than as added on amenities.  Otherwise, it doesn't satisfy pain point two.

So instead of buying a meal (well, "sandwich box") and a pillow on the plane and being stuck with a $15 unreimbursed bill, you add a "medium bundle" to your ticket at the time of purchase, which gives you two free amenities.  Or perhaps a "full bundle", which gives you a checked bag, meal, pillow, headphones, and one alcoholic drink.  And your receipt just says $375, not $300 plus $50 checked bag, $7 meal, $6 beer, $2 headphones, $10 pillow.  But when you did your search on Kayak, it originally showed up as $300 because the bundle is optional. 

This is not just good for the traveler, but also the narrow minded company because the amenities will probably make you at least an hour more productive in the long run - paying for themselves. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

What do you feed your dog???

A recent study out of Harvard and published by the American Association of Wine Economists gave 18 volunteers a blind taste test of duck liver pate, pork liver pate, spam, liverwurst, and dog food.  The volunteers were asked to rate the taste and to guess which one was dog food.

The dog food was rated the lowest.  I guess we should expect much less attention to flavor would be put into a product for an eater who doesn't have much choice in the selection and can't articulate their displeasure (at least not by posting a bad review on Yelp).

The volunteers were not good at all at guessing which one was the dog food.  Almost half thought the liverwurst was dog food.  Only three out of the eighteen correctly guessed which one it was. 

Here is what I found interesting though.  If you compare the ratings and the dog food guesses, many of the volunteers guessed that their second or third favorite was the dog food.  Only three of them guessed that their least favorite was the dog food.  What this means is that we expect dog food to taste reasonably good, at least compared to spam, liverwurst, and pate.

Friday, June 21, 2013


I just read a great 2008 paper on happiness research that somehow I missed.  The basic idea of the paper is to make a distinction between

Economic Decision Making: maximizing wealth from a fixed set of resources
Hedonomic Decision Making: maximizing happiness from a fixed amount of wealth.

They limit the scope of this paper to one kind of happiness: The short term, general positive experience evoked by a particular event or choice.  But a lot of their insight can be applied to other combinations as well. 

They go into a lot of great ideas, based on solid research in the peer-reviewed literature.  The basic purpose is to show how many different ways (and there are a lot of them) that people make choices that do NOT maximize their happiness.  Many of these are similar to the traditional cognitive heuristics that we talk about in economic decision making.  They add a lot as well.

One study they cite was so fascinating I had to share it with you.  The researchers recruited two sets of participants.  One set was asked to predict which of two choices would make them happier, a sad story and a large piece of chocolate or a happy story and a small piece of chocolate.  In general, the participants felt the chocolate was more relevant for happiness than the story, so they went with the large chocolate and sad story. 

The second group was given either the large chocolate and sad story or the small chocolate and the happy story and asked to rate their happiness.  It turns out that the small chocolate happy story combo made them happier.

The reason that they speculate led to this difference is counterintuitive but simple.  Chocolate is something that makes you happy, but the amount of chocolate is only relevant when you have a tangible reference to compare it to.  So when you get a small piece of chocolate, unless you see the larger piece of chocolate you missed out on, it makes you just as happy as if you got the large piece without seeing the small one.  But the story is different.  You can judge how happy or sad a story is without having a comparison.  So there was a real difference in the participants' resulting happiness from the story, even without seeing the alternative they didn't get.  The chocolate provided the same amount of happiness whether it was big or small.  But the happy story provided a significantly greater amount of happiness to the participants than the sad story.

What I like most about the study is that in addition to teaching us something about happiness (more of an item may not make you more happy if you don't have a reference), but it also demonstrates one of my favorite secondary findings - that what people think is true is often not what is really true.  What we think will make us happy isn't what really makes us happy.  Just like user interfaces that we think will be easier to use than another one might not really be easier.  Etc. Etc.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Imagining an emotional event makes it seem more likely

It seems intuitive that the more you imagine a possible event happening, the more likely you will think it is to really happen - even though imagining it doesn't really make it more likely.  Our imaginations are powerful things. 

But a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found a nuance to this.  It turns out that this only happens when there is a valence tag on the imagination.  Positive and negative events seem more likely just because you imagined it.  But neutral events don't. 

It seems to be the arousal of the emotion you put into the imagined event that increases the salience of the memory and thus the perceived likelihood that it will really happen.  It isn't like rote learning where you memorize something through pure repetition.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Power of Dialectic Reasoning: A Case Study of Self-Affirmations

I just read two papers that both resonated with my model of human thought even though on the surface they tell opposite, contradictory stories.  In the process of figuring out how they can both be true, I learned a lot.  The process of taking two contradictory ideas and merging them into a coherent model is dialectic reasoning.  Dialectic reasoning is one of the highest levels of thought and one of the most powerful.  It is also one of the hardest.  The absence of this ability is one of the things that leads to major disputes in politics, religion, personal relationships, and more.  So in the interest of sharing and spreading at least an idea of what dialectic reasoning is, I thought I would share my story.

The papers were about self-affirmations.  These are the positive self-talk mantras that are supposed to make you feel good.  There is an old SNL routine that used to make fun of them, but they are incredibly popular in the positive psychology discipline.  When I was at TEDx in May, it was amazing how many of the speakers were promoting self-affirmation.  “I am a good person.”  “I can do anything I put my mind to.”  “I can be successful in my job.”  “I can make her (him) love me.”  Full disclosure: I have never been a believer in these. 

The first one you may remember I blogged about recently: Oliver Burkeman’s recent book “The Antidote  .  The book debunks positive thinking and self-affirmations pretty powerfully.  His main point is that if you achieve the goals, hedonic adaptation reduces the pleasure you get from them over time.  Or you fail to achieve the goals and feel like a failure.  Either way, there is no good result in the long term.

The second one I just found.  It is called “The Science of Self-Affirmations.”  The “science” label attracted me to it, so I read it even though I started with doubts.  He cites some real research (published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) showing that self-affirmations can increase willpower by reducing ego depletion.  How can this be true and Oliver Burkeman’s book be true at the same time? 

But dialectic reasoning came to the rescue.  I looked a little more carefully at the self-affirmations that were used in the study that supports them.  They were pretty non-specific.  They were things like “I have the power in me to make good things happen” and “I deserve positive relationships in my life.”  These are not outcomes so much as immeasurable statements that you can believe or not at your own pleasure.  The research also included statements like “I take small steps every day to improve” and “Obstacles show me where to go next.”  These are process recommendations that you can follow without having any outcome in mind.  And therefore no way to prove that you failed.  You can happily believe that you succeeded.  Hedonic adaptation may reduce the benefit, but at least there is no risk of the negative consequences of failure.

In fact, these affirmations kind of fit the recommendations made by Burkeman in his book, especially the process affirmations.  He recommends thinking about all of the possible actions you can take in a given moment given the existing circumstances and taking the one most likely to have a good outcome.  Then whatever happens, it is the best thing that was possible in that circumstance.  No matter what, you can feel good about the outcome, experience a positive self-identity resonance, and have reduced ego-depletion. 

So what I learned through this experience is that you can get the best of both worlds.  You can follow the process-focused model espoused by Burkeman, create positive self-affirmations that combine a process-description with a metric-less outcome that you can achieve by default, get more self-identity resonance, less ego-depletion . . . . win-win all the way around.