Friday, March 28, 2014

Do you take a chance on someone you don't know, or assume the worst? Ask your striatum.

When and why do we cooperate?

Now that many of our systems and designs involve a social dimension, it is becoming important to understand the hows and whys of user-user interaction.  I can think of dozens of use cases for this.  Think about the social aspects of a product like FitBit. If users are going to compete or compare their times against complete strangers, some level of cooperation is needed.  If we are designing multi-player online games, players often team up to achieve quests or other in-game goals ((e.g. in World of Warcraft).  Or they might trade virtual goods in some form on on-line virtual economy (e.g. on Farmville). 

We also see user-user cooperation emerge in more basic services like commenting sections on a company’s content article (e.g. a web site’s customer support FAQs) or a news site’s article (perhaps CNN).  Or on a company’s social media page (how about this blog?).

Other use cases might include full models of crowdsourcing user-generated content (e.g. Wikipedia entries) or crowd-voting for company or user submitted materials (e.g. Threadless, Kickstarter).

Clearly, the more we know about user-user cooperation the better.  So of course I was grateful to read this article on Brain Blogger that summarizes some recent research on cooperation.  In a Prisoner’s Dilemma environment, it doesn’t make much sense to cooperate unless you think that you might develop a long term relationship with the other player and learn to mutually cooperate.  This is called direct reciprocity.  But in cases where you are only interacting with each person once, the best choice is to defect.

And yet many people don’t.  We are not utility optimizers.   Sometimes we act nice. We cooperate with this person, even though they have every incentive to defect.  But why?  That is what the research reviewed on Brainblogger was investigating.  It is called indirect reciprocity and is defined sort of like having  the notion that what goes around comes around.  They identity two kinds:

Reputation-based indirect reciprocity makes immediate sense.  If the other person has a reputation for cooperating, we can assume that they will cooperate with us, even on this first and only transaction.  So we cooperate too.  Their previous cooperation now comes around to benefit them, and our current cooperation might build us a good reputation that will come around to benefit us later.  But this only works when there are reputation signals built into the system.  This would include reviews and recommendations that are built into social media where you can report on whether your Uber driver was nice or whether your EBay seller shipped the promised product on time.

But they also found a “pay-it-forward” reciprocity.  Even if the person there are no reputation signals built in to the system, I might choose to take a shot and cooperate.  But why?  There is no possible benefit?  The other person might defect and screw me over.  And I don’t get any reputation boost from cooperating.  Why would I take this chance?  Probabilistically, this move might be good for society (if cooperation gets built into our DNA), but as an individual it is more likely to be negative.  So my economic utility maximizer (my selfish gene) should be telling me to defect.  I will win this round, and no one will ever know.

The cited research was a neuroscience study.  They used brain scans to try to figure out what parts of the brain led to this altruistic cooperative behavior.  And it turned out to emanate from the striatum.  The striatum in general is the part of the brain that processes value and executes voluntary behavior.  So reputation-based reciprocity involves the striatum asking the cognitive areas of the brain if we are maximizing economic utility by cooperating with a reputable person.  And cognitively the answer is yes, so the striatum decides to cooperate.

But when no reputation information is available, the striatum can ask the cognitive areas what to do, but gets no answer.  So instead, it asks the emotional and empathic areas.  Since we can’t go by economic utility, we have to go with what will make us feel good.  And luckily, lots of us feel good when we take a chance on somebody.  We have faith in their good behavior.  We cooperate on the hopes that they will too. 

The researchers don’t attribute it to feeling good and having faith in our fellow human.  They say it is simply a shortcut the brain is taking.  If cooperating probabilistically works (because usually we have reputational information) then we can assume that the other person will cooperate unless we have evidence otherwise.  So it isn’t faith, it is a simple overgeneralization bias of a rational utility maximizing rule. 

But I am going to attribute it to faith, hope, and charitable instincts.  I will believe in you, unless and until you give me a reason not to.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dance walking exercise program gamification

I am trying to find the best way to model this in a gamification framework.  There is definitely a wide set of motivations, intrinsic and extrinsic:
  • social in-group: joining in with the group makes you feel part of a desirable social group.
  • fun: at least it looks like it
  • self-expression: each person danced differently.  
  • autonomy: there were no rules about the way you participated.  You could even just walk
  • real meaning: exercise is intrinsically good for you
  • disruption:  it is a little edgy and makes the people around think your crazy.  But it doesn't harm anyone, so it is white hat disruption.
What elements are needed to make it work?
  • You need to have a meeting starting time and place.  This is only needed for the in-group motivation, but I suspect this is critical just because not enough people have the disruption motivation to go alone.  
  • You need to have music.  How can you get each person equipped with the same song?  Or is that even necessary?  They are not dancing in coordination, so they could all have their own.  They don't even really need to have a player.  One person could have a speaker to help out anyone who doesn't have a player.  Or people could dance to the music in their head. But then there is less of an in-group motivation.
  • You need a route.  Some people might be afraid of getting lost if they need to break off early.  So it should be a preset distance that is reasonable for everyone.  Or perhaps a short route that continues into a long route.

  • Meeting start place.  A central location, with easy access to public transportation and parking.  Or a university if you are targeting students.  Or a workplace if this is a lunchtime employee bonding system.  
  • Each group has different implications for time. The work group should be lunchtime or closing time.  The student group would be a common time for classes to end.  For a public group, perhaps a weekend at noon.
  • Music.  I think the best mechanic would be to have one playlist pre-announced so that it would be available for people who want the strongest social-connectedness.  Common enough songs that people would have them available for streaming or preloaded.  And common enough that enough people would like them.  And of course, danceable.  But it must also be clear that it is not a requirement (that playlist or having a song at all).
  • Route: You'd want to find a pleasant route.  But unlike jogging trails, traffic lights wouldn't be a problem.  Dancing in place could add extra moves like circles (see dynamics).  I'm not sure what distances I would recommend - perhaps have that determined by the members.
  • The route and music should change regularly. I'd think crowdvoting for the songs and crowdsourcing for the route.  The more group participation the more perception of autonomy.
  • There are advantages and disadvantages of changing the starting time and place.  It would be harder to remember.  It could include more people.  But some people who can make one place (or time) would drop out for other places (or times).  Again, crowdsourcing might be the best solution.  
  • Keeping it intrinsic would mean focusing on the deeper meaning and social aspects.  No prizes or tangible rewards.  But some recognition rewards could be motivating for people who need something.  They should be something many people can get (so no winners for most miles or most appearances).  Maybe a badge for three in a row or five in a month.  Or for help coordinating the playlists and crowdsourcing resolution.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Defense of Reason

Anyone reading this blog knows that I am fascinated by the “defense lawyer” model of consciousness.  This is the model that attributes 95% of what we perceive, decide, and do is largely governed by unconscious and semi-conscious processes.  The 5% that is conscious acts more like a defense lawyer than a manager or executive function.  It doesn’t control what we do; but rather it examines what we do, comes up with the best possible justification for why these actions make sense and how they fit with our model of who we are. 

But this analogy only goes so far and a recent article in The Atlantic is an incredibly insightful editorial on why.  Paul Bloom calls to task the researchers who try to absolve everything bad we do because it is not “our” fault – it is the fault of that unconscious other person lurking inside.  How can you prosecute someone for a crime who only did it because his genetics caused the underdevelopment of his neural circuitry? How can you blame someone for overeating when they are at the mercy of an evolutionary adaptation that draws us to sugar?

He makes two arguments.  One I agree with wholeheartedly.  The unconscious parts of your brain are still “you.”  If those are the parts that led you to commit a crime, it is still “you” who is to blame.  If the purpose of our justice system is rehabilitation then prison might not be the best solution, but whatever the punishment is, it is still “you” who should get it. 

The second one I think is more ambiguous.  He astutely notes that a statistically significant impulse towards sugar is not The Manchurian Candidate or Total Recall level mind control.  Even if you feel the need for the chocolate cake after dinner, doesn’t mean you can’t exert some willpower and resist the urge.  But where I differ from Paul on this part is that the willpower muscle is also largely governed by unconscious processes.  First, a lot of our behavior is triggered and largely completed before our conscious attention even notices.  And second, the processes for directing attention, inhibiting the unconscious response, and then executing a different response are also largely governed by unconscious processes, even as they seem totally under our conscious control.  We still don’t know enough about exactly how the neural processes and interactions play out to know for sure, but we at least know that there really is no such thing as a purely consciously directed action.  That would require direct links from the default network to the muscles.  Instead, the DN tell the FPCN (executive control) to inhibit the salience network (unconscious response) and to activate the DAN (response control), which then is linked to the muscles.  And none of these other areas are conscious so they can get waylaid in process. 

But even in this second discussion, all of these networks are the same person.  So no matter what you do, it is still “you” doing it.  The way to use these insights is in design.  We can design environments, products, workplaces, marketing, public service announcements, health care systems, etc to maximize the user experience and/or the benefits to society.  But to get back to Paul Bloom’s main message, we shouldn’t be using them to excuse bad behavior.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Using behavioral techniques in K-12 education

A new report by the RSA Action and Research Center investigated the socioeconomic attainment gap in K-12 education, using the PISA exams (those international standardized tests you heard about in the news about a month ago) as a general benchmark. 

This particular report stood out to me because they looked at behavioral science as a possible source of interventions.  But then after reading it, I had a scary thought.  Nothing that they recommend is new in behavioral science, but apparently few people in K-12 education are doing much of it.  How disappointing!!!

Here are the main findings:

  • Teachers should help students develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.  For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, it basically is about locus of control.  If students think their intelligence, ability, and grades are determined by their genes and factors outside their control, they won’t be as interested in their studies, they won’t try as hard, they won’t persist through difficulty.  Teachers can promote growth mindsets by praising students for their “effort” rather than their “talent” or “intelligence.”  Push the notion that anyone can learn.  Poor past performance is no indication that they can’t do well in the future.
  • Teachers should exploit decision making heuristics to enhance learning rather than let them harm learning.  Use the anchoring and adjustment heuristic to get students to consider themselves smart right from the beginning.  Use feedback to create a confirmation bias that hard work pays off.  Use loss aversion to get students to fear not working hard rather than to fear looking bad.  Prime students with cues of intelligence and high performance. 
I don’t know whether to be happy that they finally got around to implementing what we have known for 40 years or happy that they are finally doing it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Snowball effect on behavior

I’ve read about the snowball effect on behavior, but I was wondering if there was a grand unified theory of it somewhere. 

Here is my personal example from last night.  I bought a six-pack of Lagunitas IPA.  This goes against at least five heuristics I usually use when purchasing.

  1.  I like IPAs a lot.  But I am a price-optimizing beer drinker.  I generally stick to IPAs when I am out and all beers are expensive.  At the liquor store, I go with something inexpensive. If I go with an IPA, it would probably be a less expensive brand.  
  2. There other IPAs that I know I like. Since I drink beer for the taste, sticking to brands that I know I like makes sense.  Buying an unfamiliar brand only makes sense when it is the only one available of it is less expensive and activates heuristic number one.  
  3. Lagunitas sponsors “This American Life”, an NPR show that I listen to on the weekends.  I generally don’t let sponsorships impact my purchasing – seeing this as information that has nothing to do with the quality of the product.  Therefore, being influenced by a sponsorship makes you a sucker.  In fact I often overcompensate for my anti-sponsorship self-identity by intentionally avoiding products that I see using sponsorships for their marketing.  
  4. Lagunitas has a funny slogan for their “This American Life” sponsorship – “Putting the pub back in public radio.  Similar to my anti-sponsorship self-identity, I also have an anti-slogan self-identity because this is another marketing gimmick that has nothing to do with the quality of the product.  Again, it makes you a sucker.  And again, I overcompensate by avoiding brands with funny slogans.
  5. Lagunitas is currently a trendy brand.  Although trends can get started because of legitimate quality-based features of a product, they often are not. And when they do, it is often a characteristic of the product that I am not interested in.  So I also avoid trendy brands.

I tend to be a very meta-cognitively aware person.  So when I purchased the Lagunitas yesterday, I could feel myself breaking each and every one of these heuristics. But it didn’t feel like breaking five.  Once I broke the first one, it made it really easy to break the other four.  “In for a dime, in for a dollar.”

I see examples of this all around me.  “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” really means that when you are there you can break all of your personal values.  When your diet gives you a “binge” day, you don’t just eat one rich food item, you go all in.  When people cheat on something, they don’t go back to their honest self immediately after, they take on a new norm and/or start down the proverbial slippery slope. 

So I call this generalization the snowball effect because in each case, breaking one rule/ethic/heuristic or whatever gives you the allowance to break all related ones.  At least in that scenario at that time.  You don’t throw in the towel and become a new person, but at least for that one activity you can ignore all of your typical constraints as easily as you can ignore one.

My research on neuroscience explains this to some extent.  It is like transferring control from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala.  You can’t just have them distribute the constraints where the PFC takes a few and the amygdala takes a few.  It is a discrete process – all or nothing.

Thoughts?  Counterexamples?  Counter-theories?