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The Things We Do

The things we do: What happened when the London Underground challenged social norms

Roxanne Bauer's picture

London  Underground stationGlobally, 157 cities around the world now have a metro system in operation.  These underground trains shuttle people back and forth from work, make weekend escapes possible, and allow tourists to get around without the hassle of human communication. 

The sheer number of people using metro systems has inspired quite a few rules of etiquette. In Japan it’s considered polite to switch your phone to “Manner Mode” (also known as “silent” mode) when using the metro so that other passengers aren’t subjected to ringtones as they travel. Eating durian, considered the world’s smelliest fruit, is not permitted on Singapore’s MRT, and “No durian” signs have been posted around the network. It’s also considered bad manners to sit in priority seats in Seoul subway cars at any time, regardless of whether there’s anyone around who needs them. 

But perhaps the stickiest, most sincerely held rule of etiquette is that when using an escalator to enter or exit a metro station, one should stand on the right and walk on the left. This way, those who want to climb the stairs can do so on the left, without having the say “excuse me” every 5 seconds.  This rule is especially important to follow at rush hour if you want to avoid grumpy remarks.  Those who have forgotten to follow it can probably speak to how sanctimonious some people feel about it.

On 4 December last year, the London Underground carried 4,821,000 passengers— setting a new record for a single day. However, something else was also afoot that day.

On that particular Friday, 11,000 passengers got off at Holborn Station between 8.30 and 9.30am and faced an unusually upsetting provocation. As they turned into the concourse and looked up to the station’s escalators, they saw something truly horrifying: dozens of people were standing on the left.

The things we do: Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Don't Think sign, LondonA colleague of mine recently told me a story about a friend of hers with a very long beard who was asked one day, “How do you sleep with all that hair?”  The man, who had never given it much thought, shrugged at the question. However, he later confessed to my colleague that since the question was posed he was losing a lot of sleep.
 
This man has fallen into a common mental trap: once a thought occurs to you, it’s very difficult to suppress it, and trying to suppress it may make the thought stronger.
 
This mental trap has a long-running history in our social consciousness.  Leo Tolstoy once said he tried to play a game in which he would, “get into a corner and endeavor, but could not possibly manage, not to think of the white bear.”  This was later echoed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky who lamented that “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. So how is it to be done?  There is no way it can be done…"
 
These observations would later inspire social psychologist Daniel Wegner, PhD at Harvard University. Wegner is considered to be the founding father of thought suppression research, and was inspired to look into thought suppression after reading Dostoyevsky's quote more than 25 years ago.

The things we do: Why (some) women are less competitive than men

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Students arriving for first classes of the day at a high-school, CasablancaWhy do women tend to make less money and occupy fewer management positions than men? Do social influences affect the competitive spirits – or lack thereof – women?  Or could it be that women are simply less competitive than men?

With support from the National Science Foundation, Uri Gneezy Kenneth L. Leonard, and John A. List, set out to test assumptions about biologically based competitiveness in two of the most culturally different places on the planet: the ultra-patriarchal Masai tribe of Tanzania and the matrilineal Khasi people of northeast India.  The researchers conducted experiments in both environments to see what they could unearth regarding the competitive spirit of women across extremely different societies that held women in diametrically opposite roles.  

The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

The things we do: The high price of cheating a little

Roxanne Bauer's picture

"A Fool and His Money" by David Goehring Dishonesty is usually something we think about at the individual level.  Lies are errant, definite actions that individuals perform at specific moments. 

But lies are also important in aggregate because the effect of many small lies taken together can be devastating.

Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and his collaborators, starting in 2002, conducted a series of studies called “The Matrix Experiments”. In this experiment, the team gave participants, men and women from different age groups, 20 simple math questions. They asked them to solve as many questions as they can in five minutes and promised to reward the participants $1 for each problem solved. After five minutes, the participants are instructed to count how many problems they solved, insert their answer sheets into paper shredder machines, and report their results to one of the test supervisors to receive their cash. They did not need to show their answers as a proof. What the test takers did not know was that Ariely’s team programmed the shredders in such a way that they only shredded the margins of the papers while the main body of the page remained intact.

In the end, Ariely and his colleagues found that very few people lie a lot, but almost everyone lies a little.  They tested over 40,000 people and found that only a few dozen were “big cheaters” who claimed to have completed many more problems than they did.  Conversely, more than 28,000 people, or nearly 70 percent, were “small cheaters” who, on average, solved four problems but reported to have solved six.

What is interesting to note is that the sum of the team’s losses to so-called big cheaters was a total of $400.  Compare this to the few dollars each that “small cheaters” stole. Together, these small transgressions added up to a whopping $50,000, causing a much higher impact than the few bad apples.

The things we do: The economic, social, and personal costs of optimism

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Construction worker for the Panama Canal expansion projectIt is now the second week of 2016 and many people are working (or struggling) to follow through on their New Year’s resolutions. Whether they have decided to run a marathon, travel more, or save money, many people endeavor to create positive, new habits while shedding existing habits they think are less positive.  These resolutions, though, tend to last one or two months, fading into the backgrounds of their consciousness as spring arrives. 
 
It’s a typical combination of the planning fallacy, unrealistic optimism, and a bit of self-regulatory failure.
 
And this sort of challenge is not specific to New Year’s resolutions or even to issues pertaining to individuals.  City councils frequently draw up budgets that are too lean, road construction frequently lasts much longer than expected, and advances in technology often require much more investment than planners expect. So what’s at work here?  Why is it that people have a hard time judging the amount of time, energy, and resources that a project will take?

#2 from 2015: The things we do: Nudging people to give

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on April 7, 2015.
 

Man delivers gas cylinders in IndiaIn an appeal to civic duty, the Government of India is asking citizens to forgo a gas subsidy they receive so that gas cylinders can be transferred to the less fortunate. To encourage Indians to "Give It Up," the government called on business leaders to set an example and made the procedure extremely easy.

India recently launched an ambitious cash transfer program to help small businesses and households buy fuel.  Under the plan, consumers of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), commonly referred to as propane or butane, receive a cash subsidy in their bank accounts to buy gas cylinders at market price.

Once joining the scheme, the subsidy, which is equal to the difference between the current subsidized rate and the market price, is transferred to the consumer’s bank account when he/she orders a cylinder.  Another transfer is then provided at the time of delivery of the cylinder. 

Last November, the Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme for LPG was rolled out across 54 districts, with the rest of the country participating by January 1 of this year. 

The scheme was launched by India’s previous UPA government in June 2013, but it was abruptly stopped earlier this year following court orders.  It has since been modified to exclude the requirement of providing a unique identification number (Aadhaar) to avail the cash subsidy.

The idea behind the direct benefit transfer is that it can ensure that the subsidy meant for the genuine domestic customer reaches them directly and is not diverted. The Government of India hoped to save millions each year by curbing diversions and leakages in the system but also to ensure efficient delivery of subsidies to the target beneficiaries— the consumers.

#5 from 2015: The things we do: How a simple text message is the difference between success and failure

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was  originally posted on April 21, 2015.
 

A woman and her child get the anti-malaria drugs distributed in Freetown.Mobile phones are increasingly prevalent throughout the world, and researchers have found that sending text message reminders can help people follow-through with their intentions, significantly increasing the success of development interventions.

“People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

These are the wise words of Samuel Johnson, an English author, critic, and lexicographer. Even though he lived more than 200 years ago, international development interventions are proving him correct today. 
 
Reminders for Malaria
 
It’s widely known that failure to adhere to a full course of antibiotic treatment leads to treatment failure and encourages bacterial resistance to antibiotics, threatening the sustainability of current medications. This is extremely important for malaria, which, according to the World Health Organization, results in 198 million cases each year and around 584,000 deaths.  The burden is particularly heavy in Africa, where around 90% of malaria deaths occur, and in children under 5 years of age, who account for 78% of all deaths. Moreover, low rates of adherence to artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) treatments has led to a prevalence of antibiotic-resistant Malaria in many parts of the world, particularly Africa. One of the biggest and simplest  reasons why people fail to complete the full treatment for Malaria is that they forget.

#8 from 2015: The things we do: How money can buy you happiness

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on September 22, 2015.

People have been arguing for centuries about whether or not money can buy happiness. New research provides a fuller understanding of the relationship between what we earn and how we feel.

Cambodian farmer, Khout Sorn, stands in front of his banana trees in Aphiwat Village, CambodiaIt may seem a bit obvious: people with higher incomes are, generally speaking, happier than those who struggle. They worry less about paying their bills, they have greater choice in where they live or how they work, and they can provide creature comforts for themselves and their loved ones.  However, wealth alone is not a golden ticket. Indeed, what kind of money one has and how they spend it matters a lot more than a large income. 

The basics on happiness
When looking at all of these research results, it’s important to understand what is meant by the term ‘happiness’. Those in the field of happiness research divide it into two components, and individuals need both to be truly happy. But only one of those components keeps improving the more you earn. The other tops out after a certain point.

The things we do: How your mobile phone records can predict your creditworthiness

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Jinotega, NicaraguaRisk is a financial term that can mean life or death for a budding entrepreneur.  Many entrepreneurs need to take out loans from banks in order to have enough money to start their businesses.  Banks, though, need to be able to reliably determine which of these potential entrepreneurs will repay the loans and which will default. In developed countries this is usually accomplished through credit reports, which contain an individual’s credit history as reported to a credit bureau by lenders. This system, however, can be problematic in developing countries where many people do not have bank accounts, don’t interact frequently with formal institutions, or are paid informally in cash.  As a result, banks often lack verifiable information on the probability that a loan applicant will be successful. 

Interestingly, one set of data that is available in most countries is mobile phone records.  By the end of 2015, there will be more than 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions, with a penetration rate of 97%, up from 738 million in 2000.  Due to the incredible market saturation of mobile phones and the ability of mobile phone operators to keep records of call activity (even with prepaid plans), operator records can provide rich information about individual behavior and social networks.  For example, phone records indicate whether or not an individual keeps their balance top-upped so that they can make calls in case of an emergency, how many people they call during the day, how long their calls last, and so on.

Daniel Björkegren, an economist at Brown University and Darrell Grissen of the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab (EFL) wondered whether these phone records could reveal insights into an individual’s behaviors that could be applied elsewhere- specifically whether this information could determine an individual’s creditworthiness.


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