Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Is this creepy social stalking or a good customer experience?

I have in my Twitter profile that I am a Red Sox fan.  Imagine that one day I go to McDonalds and get an unsatisfying burger.  I tweet over a complaint @McDonalds.  The next day, I get a tweet from Burger King with a response suggesting I try the Whopper instead and “by the way did you catch the Red Sox game last night?”.  They butted in on my conversation AND they read my profile.  Is this invasive?  Is it great personalized customer service?

Something similar happened to a blogger I follow.  You can read her real life example here.  I am curious about your thoughts.  This is becoming more and more common practice, especially with startups.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Free Will - another post on the edge of physics and philosophy

Hmm.  I guess there is free will after all.  And in a way that could satisfy both determinists and spiritualists. 

I have always been torn because I am both.  I believe in the reductionist view that our minds, consciousness, etc all are emergent properties of our neural circuitry.  I will spare you the biochemical explanations for now.  But what this means is that every decision we make is at its core a function of chemical and electrical reactions.  Because these signals are a function of the reactions that preceded them, every decision we make is basically a function of the physical construction of our brains, bodies, and environments.  There is no mystical piece needed to make this work.

But as a deeply spiritual person, I don't stop here.  Just because no mystical piece is needed to explain how consciousness works and that all decisions emerge from a physical reality doesn't mean that we can't also have free will if we define "free will" as the ability of our physical mind/body to consider multiple options and choose one.  Just because this is done by biological brain cells and chemical neurotransmitters doesn't mean it is not "us" and that it is not "free."  My biochemistry is freely choosing an option by freely implementing the physics and chemistry that defines the world. 

But now it turns out there may be an even more satisfying explanation.  Some new research finds that there are quantum effects that adds a bit of randomness to our brain chemistry.  Peter Tse has found that a particular chemical receptor on the neuron is sensitive to a single atom of magnesium.  And if it is blocked, it can change the flow of electrical activity - and therefore change your thought.  And a single atom is a quantum entity.  So even in a reductionist, deterministic world there is a 50/50 chance your thoughts will go or not go in a particular direction.  It may not be consciously directed free will in the way some spiritualists think of it, but it is also not predetermined by physics.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Protesting to feel good rather than to cause a change.

I find it typical that Americans would boycott Stoli vodka in protest of the new anti-LGBT law in Russia.  In case you haven't been following, Russia has this law that prevents LGBT "propaganda."  You can't talk about it because it might corrupt the impressionable youth of Russia.

BUT, here is the problem.  The Stoli sold in the US is made in Latvia, which actually has very strong LGBT equal rights.  So this protest is exactly backwards.  The protestors are protesting the good guys.

Now here is why I think it is "typical."  When told about the error, the protesters didn't seem to care.  It made them feel good to take a stand.  They were making a statement, so they kept it up.  They were happy to live in reassuring denial.  They weren't really protesting to force any changes.  They were just doing it because it made them feel good.

Friday, August 09, 2013

What type of networking do you prefer?

There was a fascinating study out of INSEAD Singapore (although he collected data from Indian entrepreneurs in Bangalore and Hyderabad) from 2012 that I finally got around to reading about entrepreneurs and the networking strategies they used to grow their businesses – finding investors and finding new customers and suppliers.

He hypothesized that there are two basic strategies that entrepreneurs can use.  One strategy is when the entrepreneur goes through their existing business ties to get referrals.  The benefit of using referrals is that you leverage the mutual trust relationship and the referred relationship tends to be more stable.   He lists the costs that you owe the referring connection a favor and that you also might need to suck up your ego when asking the favor.  I disagree with these costs because there is a lot of evidence that asking and giving favors can strengthen a relationship.  Perhaps this is a cultural artifact in Bangalore?  I don’t know.

The other strategy is to go to strangers.  The benefit of this method is that you have a wider population to approach – more people and more variety of people.  You also don’t owe any favors. 

But here is what I found interesting. The study discovered that a lot of the entrepreneurs fell into the two extremes of the distributions – either using referrals almost exclusively or going to strangers almost exclusively.  People who used referrals tending to have smaller total networks because they didn’t branch out as often.  They also had more homogeneous investors and suppliers.  On the other hand, entrepreneurs on the other extreme got used to approaching strangers, did this more often, and had much wider and more diverse social networks, investors, and suppliers. 

Do you fall into one of these categories?  I spent most of my career in the second category.  Part of this was my interest in so many different areas – I had my human factors network, my industrial engineering network, my dotcom startup network, chamber of commerce networks – and few of these groups knew each other.  It might also be that I never wanted to ask for a referral because I had a fear of rejection. If a stranger rejected my request it was just that they didn’t know me very well.  But if a colleague said no – well, that was too big a risk to take. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

neuroscience just changed its mind.

I studied a bit of neuroscience in grad school as a way to understand human thought - particularly why it is not easily explained and definitely not similar to the way computers work.  Even when computers seem to think like people (e.g. Watson on Jeopardy), it is usually just an illusion of anthropomorphism.  In grad school, we used a basic Hebbian model of the way the brain works.  I was always amazed that a theory developed in the 1940s worked better than anything that had been proposed since.  

Of course, he didn't have the fMRI and other scanning technology so his models were all conceptual.  Now that we have sciences of neurobiology, neurochemistry, and neurophysiology, we have a lot more insights into the details.

I am in the middle of reading Ray Kurzweil's new book "How to Create a Mind" and he talks about how the cortical column creates a hierarchical structure that is very familiar to him.  He has spent his lifetime in AI and his pattern recognition model of the mind fits this perfectly.  Except perhaps it doesn't.  The latest research suggests that it is not so simple.  Even a brilliant thought leader like Kurzweil can be wrong.  I guess there is hope for the rest of us.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Suppression of empathy.

Empathy is a mental phenomenon that I have studied a lot recently in my work on mirror neurons.  The origin of empathy is quite direct and physical.  When you are interacting with someone, you r brain automatically models their physical, emotional, and cognitive signals. The links between these models and your own behavior are pretty strong.  This is why yawns are contagious.  Your brain models the yawn and this model is connected to the motor neurons in your own brain that control the yawning reaction.  When they get activated, you yawn too.  I am sure you have all seen this YouTube video and couldn’t help but smile.   

At a broader scale, the feeling of empathy emerges when you model a person’s emotional experience.  The same links to your own emotional brain areas get lit up and you literally feel the emotion.  Different people have different abilities to perceive and model the emotional experience of others, which is why some people are more empathic than others. Then of course what we choose to do about this feeling is where empathy can lead to acts of selflessness and altruism (or not).

There are many examples of spontaneous empathy.   But there are also examples of suppression.  Have you ever seen a homeless person with their hand out and averted your eyes?  You could look forward just as you normally would and just not give the person any money.  So why do we look away?  It turns out to be an unconscious defense mechanism.  If we don’t look at them, we don’t see their emotion.  If we don’t see the emotion, our mirror neurons don’t model it (or at least not as much).  If our mirror neurons don’t model it, then the links to our own emotional areas don’t get lit up as much, as we literally don’t feel their pain.  So it makes it easier to walk on by.

There are two ways you can respond to this insight.  I hope that you will choose not to look away next time.  Just looking will increase your mirror modeling and thereby increase the chance that your empathic impulse will kick in and you will do the right thing. 

Of course, you can also use this insight to become better at suppression.  If you prepare ahead of time you can become very good at suppressing your empathy.  In another study, people who were warned in advance that they would be asked for a donation felt less empathy when told about some needy children.  Apparently, they were able to suppress their emotional response when warned in advance that it would cost them.