The observable examined

Archive for the ‘behavior modification’ Category

attitudes, learning, and motivation

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As a parent of a teenager, one of my major concerns has to do with equipping my child with the right set of tools to navigate Life and be “successful”.  The yardstick of success, for most parents, is for their child to attend a prestigious or Ivy league school leading to a well paying industry or academic job. If it comes with tremendous fame and fortune, all the better. Nothing wrong with that per se.  But the hyper competitive environment prevalent in high schools today, chasing that yardstick, creates tremendous pressure on the kids. The situation is further exacerbated by Tiger moms and dads (everyone of whom uniformly believes their kid is a child prodigy or at the very least, super smart) orchestrating their child’s every experience and resume, with the purported goal of gaining them entry into the “top notch” colleges.

There is a bigger problem lurking with this game plan. Because parents think their children are prodigies, they think success is automatic. They do not anticipate that there could be setbacks. And when they happen, the parents, and more importantly, the kids, are not setup to deal with the situation. If they are not careful, it could lead to a download spiral of lost confidence, lowering of self esteem, and self doubt on the child’s part.

Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of Mathematics (supposedly identified as a “genius” at an young age) in a recent commentary wrote “This can be a hard lesson for the prodigies themselves. It is natural to believe that the just-pubescent children on the mathletic podium next to you are the best, the ones who really matter. And for the most part, my fellow child stars and I have done very well. But the older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren’t Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn’t shine in Math Olympiad; didn’t go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you’re the best, you start to believe you’re the best.” His overall point is that geniuses are not the only successful people in the world. Hard work, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck are important ingredients for success.

Which brings me to the part about tools for navigating Life.

The first is about finding an internal compass that is directed by intrinsic motivation and not just about coming out ahead in the rat race. That this sets you up for success much better than goals that are externally motivated was made evident in a recent study of of West point graduates. The researchers found that cadets motivated by internal drives fared a lot better than those seeking external rewards. They write  ” ….The implications of this finding are significant. Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.

Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success. “

The second is about enjoying what you do. Attitude – how you think and approach the task on hand is hugely important for success, one of the key messages in Pirsig’s  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Third, recognize that education is more than academic schooling. Allison Gopnik illustrates this with a nice anecdote of  her interactions with her grandson. Finally, know that the path to success is not a straight line but is going to be potentially fraught with missed expectations and setbacks deriving from a variety of factors. When that happens, having a strong internal compass, is absolutely critical to staying motivated and maintaining focus on reaching goals.

Written by asterix98

July 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Cliff’s Notes for compassionate behavior

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Social psychologist David DeSteno and his colleagues have figured out the secret sauce for everyday compassionate behavior.  Based on insights derived from some clever experiments, DeSteno writes in Compassion Made Easy “…effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. …Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity….”

To put it differently, we should constantly strive to find ways to include our fellow human beings in our in-group. I think this is a nice little message. But, I disagree with DeSteno’s phrasing ” .. something as easy as…” . For the general populace, practicing this may be more difficult than the moral prescriptions he labels as “effortful adherence” simply because realigning your compassion compass by thinking differently about others also requires cognitive effort.

Written by asterix98

July 16, 2012 at 2:26 am

The animal-industrial complex

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My friend, Namit Arora, recently published an excellent article – Eating Animals – in 3quarksdaily.com. I also recommend his blog – Shunya.net . It has great content and excellent photos from his many travels to different corners of the world.

Inspired by his article, I wrote a comment . I am reproducing it here.


As I write this, I am watching a KQED program called Orangutang Diary. The lengths to which the baby sitters and veterinarians go, to rescue an individual animal, is truly amazing. This is indeed testimony to the remarkable heights of compassion humans can achieve, for their fellow beings.

Stark is the contrast between this idyllic scenario and the dark realities of the animal-industrial complex Namit has painted for us. Even more interesting is the psychology of the individuals involved in either of these enterprises. In the Orangutan case, the employees are fully invested emotionally, while in the slaughterhouse the workers are fully divested.

I will venture that in either group, a significant portion of the individuals are meat eaters. Namit wonders why one can be both an animal lover and a meat eater, which cognitively smacks of engaging in double standards. That the brain is pretty adept at suppressing cognitive dissonance by responding with rationalizations and compartmentalization is fairly well documented in the psychological literature. Pertinent to the topic, I found this interesting article (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/carnism-why-eating-animals-is-a-social-justice-issue/) by a social psychologist Melanie Joy. In fact, she has written a book called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (I have not read it so cannot attest to its contents).

She writes “….Widespread ambivalent, illogical attitudes toward a group of others are almost always a hallmark of an oppressive ideology. Oppressive ideologies require rational, humane people to participate in irrational, inhumane practices and to remain unaware of such contradictions. And they frame the choices of those who refuse to participate in the ideology as “personal preferences” rather than conscientious objections.”

In the same article, she says “….Yet most of us have no idea that when we eat animals we are in fact making a choice. When we are growing up, forming our identity and values, nobody asks us whether we want to eat animals, how we feel about eating animals, whether we believe in eating animals. We are never asked to reflect upon this daily practice that has such profound ethical dimensions and personal implications. Eating animals is just a given; it’s just the way things are. Because carnism operates outside of our awareness, it robs us of our ability to make our choices freely—because without awareness, there is no free choice….”

The general consensus on the comment thread is we all more or less agree with Namit’s position and sense of outrage. But how do we effect change in the general population? The few converts, from meat eating to vegetarianism, have engaged in critical thinking (which by the way requires cognitive effort) to shift their perspective. What about the others (there are some example comments here)? I want to share a personal experience. I grew up in a vegetarian household (thankfully!) but briefly experimented with meat eating in my 20s . Funnily, meat never felt like a meal and cognitively I seemed to be asking where is the real food? I quit. Contrast this with a Hungarian lab mate I had, who was incredulous that I was vegetarian and perhaps wondered how I had even made it. My point is : we may have to catch them young, so it becomes part of your DNA. Of course, this means the parents have to be on board. Here Jonathan Safran Foer -author of Eating Animals offers some help (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/magazine/11foer-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1).

Lastly, Namit talks about us having lost touch with animals. If anybody doubts that animals have a lot more in common with humans, I suggest you point your browser to this article (a perspective on animals by a cardiologist who has worked with veterinarians)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/our-animal-natures.html?pagewanted=all .

As I pondered the article, I thought it highlighted another important bias – one of size. I was thinking of live lobsters and crawfish, that get thrown to their deaths in boiling water.

In essence, we are trying to motivate a change in a fundamental human behavior, what biologists would refer to as one of the four Fs (Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting and Sex).

Thanks Namit, for a thought provoking article.


Written by asterix98

June 20, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Are we all cheaters?

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We are all cheaters and liars: to a degree. At least, that is what Ariely would have us believe. The relevant article appeared a little over a week ago in the WSJ and is pompously titled – Why we lie? Ironically, the title itself is a bit of lie because Ariely makes no attempt to really settle the issue, as the title would lead us to believe. But the hook surely served the editor’s or Ariely’s purpose of attracting eyeballs.

That there is cheating among the populace is not entirely news. It runs the whole gamut from “very minor” to Wall Street style mega embezzlement. Collectively, corporations lose Millions (I think it is more like Billions) when employees help themselves to office supplies for personal use. There are others who misuse customer service provisions, such as the 30-day return policy, when the requirements for a particular item are short term. Such egregious behavior among the lay folk is rampant and the list of situations is pretty long.  This behavior cuts across socioeconomic and educational boundaries.

What is novel in Ariely’s research is that he and his collaborators have systematically catalogued how and to what extent people cheat. While the research is fascinating, the explanations provided for the underlying causes are, in my opinion, superficial or weak. For example, in the studies cited in the article, the basic task assigned to the subjects is to complete as many Math matrices as possible in a finite time. Reporting of number of matrices completed is based on an honor system. The amount of money offered is 50 cents per completed matrix. In this case, subjects cheat by over-reporting number of matrices completed. When the stakes are raised to $10 per matrix, cheating is reduced. The explanation offered is that the participant sense of integrity balances out his/her instinct to cheat. Alternatively, we could argue that a smaller prize may have been suggesting that the task is easy and so fewer solved matrices must imply poor cognitive ability – a blow to self esteem, higher monies must mean a difficult task and solving fewer means self-esteem intact. Tversky and Kahneman (fantastic research on judgment and decision making), I suspect, would have preferred to explain this as at least in part, a framing bias: the setup of the problem and instructions biases the subjects. I wonder what the behavior would be if subjects are paid a fixed amount no matter how many matrices they complete.

The answer to why we lie is unlikely to be a simple one. It must surely involve our sense of morality (already we are on a slippery slope here), sense of entitlement, situational demands (such as hiding uncomfortable truths from the dying), sense of fairness, cultural sensibilities, to name a few. I am pretty sure, the morality line for every individual, lies just to the right of her (meaning it moves with his/her own actions).  But ultimately the explanation must come from the underlying biology and evolutionary pressures and adaptations.  Paul Zak has written about the “moral molecule” –oxytocin and its central importance in building trusting relationships. A second book by Christopher Boehm tackles morality from a anthropologist’s viewpoint. An excellent review of both books can be found here – Kin and kindness. Both of these books are a step in that direction.

Update [07/09/12] – There is a very interesting review of Jay Magill’s book Sincerity in today’s WSJ. For those interested, I think this will complement the discussion here. The review also mentions Dan Ariely’s new book – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Written by asterix98

June 11, 2012 at 4:10 am

auto analytics in the workplace

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I read an article titled – Employees, Measure Yourselves -in the Wall Street Journal. The article discusses, auto-analytics, a new set of technologies, that can monitor your activities and provide feedback. One class of auto-analytics software allows tracking of screen time. That is, how many windows you have open, how much time you spend on each one and so on. Supposedly the intent is to enable you to be more productive at the workplace. In other words, it is a slack-o-meter. It has a lot of creep factor built in. But as I was reading this article, I was thinking about Jonah Lehrer’s interview on Fresh Air. The topic was creativity.  The bottom line is: for innovation and creativity to do its magic, you have to allow yourself slack time, even daydream. So there is a bit of schizophrenia out there on this topic. More importantly, auto-analytics of this type is probably useful only to certain types of jobs where productivity is directly quantifiable.

The second type of auto-analytic technology uses cognitive mapping techniques. The idea is to facilitate the organization of your ideas over time so that you can potentially make associations that you may not have otherwise made, and have an “aha” moment. I can readily see the benefits of this technology (beacuse you could search for keywords and such which a paper based catalog would not allow). Your personal Watson?

To me, auto-analytics applied to health is the most interesting. Wellness programs are gaining in popularity among employers. After salaries, one of the biggest overheads for employers is health insurance. Employees in poor health, also cost them, in terms of lost productivity. So HR departments are going for Team Wellness Challenges, gym reimbursements, and the like to promote employee wellness. This is a great start. But I am very excited because we are working on some monitoring technologies and analytics that could change the way medicine is practiced today. Our first stop is women’s health in general and mothers to be, in particular. More on this when the time is appropriate.

Written by asterix98

April 5, 2012 at 4:16 am

Five minute shower

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I have to admit I was prone to taking longer showers.  Not any more. Thanks to an effective behavior modification tool my daughter brought home from school.  As part of their education, the kids were made aware that water is a very precious resource.  They were given a pamphlet with water facts and a shower timer, to bring home.

I tried the five minute shower the next day and it was very clear that five minutes is a long (read ample) time in the shower to thoroughly cleanse yourself. I have been using it ever since. In addition to feeling fresh, I now take pride in the fact that this small behavior modification on my part is saving as much as 20 gallons of water per day. 

I urge each one of you who may chance upon this blog to do the same. In our water district, they are offering free conservation devices. I am sure they do the same wherever you live. This small behavioral change, individually, can collectively make a huge difference!! Try it, adopt it, spread the word.

Written by asterix98

May 18, 2011 at 4:16 am

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