Author Archive

Self-Deception, with Dr. Cortney Warren

April 6, 2014 1 comment

Dr. Cortney Warren

The Eagan High School class of ’96 has produced its share of accomplished and articulate alumni, one pride-inspiring example of which is Dr. Cortney Warren. Warren is a clinical psychologist and researcher in the field of eating disorders and body image. She has recently published her first book, Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception. She will shortly be giving a TEDx talk on the subject.

[Classic] self-deception is a belief that we maintain, usually unconsciously, despite logical reasoning and/or a wealth of evidence to the contrary. We’ve spoken on this topic in a previous article on “Shadow Beliefs.”

These beliefs tend to result in irrational behavior. This can be as benign as a research subject performing better on endurance test because he was told that he had a “medically superior class of heart.” Or it can be as destructive as staying in an abusive relationship because we have secretly convinced ourselves that the abuser is “not really a bad person.” It is the culprit behind a lot of destructiveness in relationships and in self-image.

Warren bravely begins her narrative by speaking openly and honestly about the ways in which she has exhibited self-deceptive traits in the past. She has made dramatic changes to her lifestyle and career as a result of her reflections on personal honesty. One gets the sense that the very writing of this book may have been an important part of the author’s own development. It’s a hard topic to write about without immediately reflecting on one’s own self-deceptive habits. I can’t help but admit that I have my own checkered history with acting out based on beliefs like these. I get the sense that many people might.

Self-deception is a psychological topic that attracts a lot of interest, but about which there is surprisingly little new research done. Many of the ideas on self-deception still come from the ego-defense ideas of Freud. Much of the current literature on the topic comes either from philosophy (e.g. Alfred Mele, Florida State University), or self-help (e.g. Daniel Goleman, Tony Robbins, etc.).

One of the great outstanding questions about self-deception is why we do it, or why we keep doing it once we become aware of the underlying belief. Not just the immediate contextual goal (e.g. upholding social appropriateness, allowing ourselves to indulge when we know we shouldn’t, etc.), but the evolutionary source of the tendency. Warren seems to indicate that the need springs from false beliefs that we learned in childhood that may have helped us avoid certain emotional outcomes. She gives examples like:

  • Editing yourself from talking about your step-family in front of your birth parent
  • Presenting a Stepford-like family image to the public
  • Learned self-devaluing thinking based on physical appearance
  • Glossing-over others’ bad behavior to avoid confrontation

Our brains value precedent, so we tend to squeeze observed evidence into our preexisting models rather than challenging our models in the face of compelling new evidence. This is called Confirmation Bias. the effects of this bias would be even strong if we have created concrete emotion-laden beliefs about the world in our childhood or adolescence.

Warren goes on to discuss the consequences of self-deception. One of her most jarring quotes from the book reads, “Never forget that there are people in the world trying to get over what you did to them, just as you are trying to get over what they did to you.” That’s a splash of ice-water to the face. She’s not saying that there’s someone out there who took your break-up too hard and can’t get over it. She’s saying that we need to wake up to the damage we are constantly causing, no matter how inadvertently, by lack of cognizance and/or maturity in this area.

How do we start achieving clarity about beliefs that we may not even know exist? Warren encourages us to ask questions of ourselves, particularly in areas of our lives where we feel frustrated or disjointed. The process begins with increased awareness of our own emotions, behaviors and thoughts. If we act towards others irrationally or without integrity, we have to be very honest with ourselves about what that kind of reaction says about us. Finally, as our beliefs evolve and we see where we have placed ourselves in damaging or frustrating situations, we must resolve either to change the situation or accept it without negativity.

Dr. Warren’s book is available from iTunes, or from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. Her TEDx Talk will be on April 11, 2014 from UNLV. Link to the live stream of TEDx UNLV here. If you enjoy TED talks, please share Ms. Warren’s link with your friends.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Understanding and Mastering Willpower

March 30, 2014 3 comments

Willpower, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

There is a growing community of psychologists and neurologists who are shedding new light on the concept of willpower. If you’re interested in the topic, a great place to start is a book by Dr. Roy Baumeister, a leader in this field, called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister’s lab at Florida State specializes in the psychology of willpower. Other prominent scientists in this community have studied or commented on this phenomenon, including Daniel Kahneman, Baba Shiv, Sasha Fedorikhin, and Dan Ariely. It was recently popularized in a TED Talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal.

Baumeister calls it a “rediscovery” because willpower is a concept that has been understood with varying degrees of accuracy through the years. Since ancient times, it was cursorily understood as a “power” unto itself; something to be harnessed and exercised. This is called the “energy model” of willpower. The energy model was incorporated by Freud into the “superego”.

The energy model fell out of fashion when Freud did, until very recently when psychologists started comparing notes with biologists. They noticed patterns in body rhythms and nutrition that corresponded with the psychological ability to self-regulate. It turns out that our ancient understanding of willpower as an energy unto itself was closer to the truth than we thought.

Willpower 101: How It Works

Here’s a synopsis of what scientists know so far: Read more…

How to Know Your Customer’s Mind Before They Do

February 26, 2014 2 comments

A couple months ago I was at an American Marketing Association event on analytics. One of the sponsors was demonstrating the powerful capabilities of their prediction software in a creative way: the set up a fortune-telling booth. I gave them my name and zip code, and the fortune-teller accurately predicted, amongst other things, that I had just bought or was about to buy a new car.

It’s stunning the extent to which our behavior as consumers is utterly predictable, and many marketing companies and retailers are becoming much more efficient in grouping us not only by who we are and what we like, but by what we’re about to do. This is how they do it. Read more…

Should I Be Doing This? – Unraveling Passion, Talent and Practice

January 24, 2014 4 comments

TalentI show you three groups of recent college graduates. The first group has been identified as intrinsically talented at a certain discipline. The second group identifies themselves as very passionate about a certain discipline. The third group engages in tough, technique-oriented practice for an hour a day, but otherwise has no extraordinary talent or passion for any particular discipline. You are asked to bet $100 on which group will yield the highest average level of success in ten years. On which group do you bet?

When I was in drama school, I had to take some design courses. We had a particularly excellent artist named Curt who headed our design department, and the school routinely produced beautiful production sets and lighting. I remember during a fundamentals class asking if I (or anyone) could teach myself to draw like he could, given enough practice. His understandable if disappointing response was, “I could always just draw.”


I had a lot of professional doubts during that time which were never fully answered, even to this day. I liked many aspects of theatre–such as acting, lighting design, music composition and direction–none of which I executed with particular distinction back then. Advisors told me that I needed to figure out who I was, and they were glad when I told them that my strategy involved hedging an acting career with some slightly more lucrative technical disciplines. Of all those disciplines I tended to like acting the best, but I don’t think they saw in me any real signs of promise. I couldn’t “just act” the way Curt could “just draw”. Knowing how daunting it would be to try and “make it” as an actor, I spent a lot of time asking myself, “Should I be doing this?”

My father–who very graciously supported me in a theatrical education–gave me very practical career advice: “Find what you love to do, and then find a way to make money at it.” He had a very progressive attitude about professional success: that fulfillment should be the primary consideration. My roommate’s father also had some sage advice, quoting Stephen Covey: “Begin with the end in mind.” He was trying to emphasize the importance of goal orientation and focus.

What was confusing to me–and I later learned confusing to a lot of people–is that I had a very hard time at that age isolating what I loved to do, and therefore had no real vision of “the end” to keep in mind. When I was feeling good about myself, every discipline seemed exciting. When I was feeling unaccomplished or low, every discipline seemed like a different flavor of drudgery.

I developed anxiety about not following the “right” path, the path that was supposed to best leverage my talents. I didn’t really even have a sense of what those talents really might be, and personally and strength-finder testing never gave much direction. I was hungry for a concrete calling; something I could settle into with the assurance that I was mastering the best thing for me to master, and therefore I could engage it with full conviction rather than always having one foot out.

Then I read a very interesting book by Cal Newport called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport turns the idea of preexisting passion on its head. Rather than trying to match a professional end goal to a preexisting passion, it’s actually the mastery of a discipline that brings about the passion. We already know that accomplishment and excellence within a discipline is intrinsically motivating. We’ve discussed this in a previous article about Daniel Pink’s book Drive. Read more…

Was “Black Thursday” a Stupid, Stupid Idea?

December 29, 2013 1 comment
Black Friday Lines

Black Friday Lines

This year many major retailers, spurred by competition and disappointing sales, decided to start their usual Black Friday deals a day early. Their reasoning was twofold: 1) an earlier start would help them get a jump on any competitors who waited until Friday morning to lower prices, and 2) a larger time window for their discounts would allow more potential shoppers to take advantage of discounts.

This brilliant idea may have resulted in the worst Black Friday sales results in years.

Not long afterwords, many U.S. news outlets started running articles like this and this. While the concept of Black Friday has been eroding for years (Kmart and many online retailers had started their deals early in years past), this was the first year where the customary effect of Black Friday was truly upset. Local news stations reported by and large that the Black Friday crowds lacked the intensity of previous years. Retailers had more empty parking spaces. In water cooler conversations, people commented that they simply wouldn’t bother getting up at 5am this year.

The 2013 post-Thanksgiving weekend sales were successful only from a very specific viewpoint: public safety.

Traditionally, the Black Friday concept makes very good use of one of Robert Cialdini’s “Weapons of Influence”: Scarcity. In this case, it’s not the purchased item that’s scarce, but the deal itself. In the past, Black Friday discounts have been available only for a couple hours, or until stock runs out. This creates an insane, in some cases dangerous amount of urgency. There is nothing so motivating as a perceived dwindling supply of something you perceive to be valuable. In this case, the opportunity to buy a $400 item for $150.

So how come, when retailers started these sales on Thursday, we didn’t see the same chaos happen a day earlier?

It’s because they left the window open through Friday. By increasing the amount of time that the discounts are available, retailers destroyed the perception of scarcity. No doubt they thought that there would be some disruption to scarcity, but that expected this to be offset by increases in the over number of patrons. Instead, it looks in retrospect as if scarcity has a tipping point. When the window was only a few hours wide, consumers would plan their whole day around getting into the store to get the deal. Now, with over 24 hours at their disposal, maybe they’ll pick up the item they wanted on their way to doing something else. It’s okay; there’s time enough to go grab the thing.

Imagine the horror of U.S. retail executives when our Black Friday ended up being a busy but fundamentally civil experience rather than the bloody, hair-pulling, bystander-trampling reality show they were hoping for.

As we mentioned before, it’s the availability of a certain deal that’s scarce, not the item itself. The concept of supply and demand tells us that demand increases when there’s not enough of a certain item to satisfy all potential consumers. But in this case, there is enough of that item. Retailers create artificial shortages with limited-time offers to stir up demand that would be otherwise placid. Sometimes it’s in the form of a limited time price. Other times it’s a seasonal offering like the famous McDonalds McRib or Shamrock Shake. If these items were available year round, people would certainly have more opportunity to buy them. But by limiting their availability, the resulting demand increase creates more overall sales than would the year-round availability of the product.

One final point on economics. Classical economic theory holds that you can increase or decrease demand through changes in price, although some goods and services are more elastic in this regard than others. But here we see an anomaly: the same price level creates two different levels of demand. Last year, price-drop x created a certain level of demand. This year, the same price drop created less demand than last year. That’s not supposed to happen in classical economic theory. If people are always acting in their rational self-interest, the demand created by price-drop x should have been similar in both years. It wasn’t until Behavioral Economics was introduced by Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler that irrational decision-making factors became a part of economics. Consumers under classical economic theory cannot be “stirred-up,” even though we know in practice that they can.

Consumer Choice as Self-expression

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Dr. Michail D. Kokkoris

This month we travel all the way to Bremen, Germany to look at a fascinating doctoral dissertation published in this month’s Psychology & Marketing. Michail Kokkoris, a newly-minted PhD in psychology, brings us insight into the nature of individual choice and how our choices and preferences are affected when we voice our opinions about those choices. I would also like to acknowledge his academic supervisor and co-author, Dr. Ulrich Kühnen.

About nine years ago, I went shopping for a new car and selected the Ford Mustang. I had never really talked much about Mustangs before, but was always interested in them. From the time I bought the car, I loved it. There were no features of the car that made it grossly superior to other cars out there, but I felt a sentimental connection with it. I had to give up that car recently, and it was surprisingly hard to do.

What is choice? recent research suggests what we already knew in our hearts: more than the mere selection of a preference, choice is a method of self-expression. We see this overtly in countries with the most individualistic cultures, like the U.S. However, this same research suggests that even within more collectivist cultures, choice is still self-expressive.

When I purchased my Mustang, something happened to me that happens to some degree with all choices: I rationalized it. I started to idealize the car. The fact that my choice was self-expressive made the car more than just a heap of steal and fuel that moves me down the road. It was something that was associated with me; an extension of my voice in this world.

English: A picture of a black 2011 Ford Mustan...

English: A picture of a black 2011 Ford Mustang v6 Coupe with the optional Performance package. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what would happen if, right before I purchased the car, I was given the opportunity to express my opinion about it in some other way? Let’s say I wrote a Yelp review for it, or provided a testimonial. It turns out that expressing such opinions before making a purchase relieves the impulse for self expression. Since you got the expression impulse out of your system before the purchase, the purchase becomes less of an exercise in self-expression, and you will not feel as strong a connection to the product as you would have otherwise.

There is a fundamental truth lurking within this insight that marketers understand but rarely articulate: rationalization is part of the desired product experience.

This insight is a very big deal to marketers who work their entire careers trying to make consumers feel that special connection; that sense that you are a slightly different, slightly better, slightly more satisfied person now that you have made this purchase. Opinion expression in the smartphone age is inescapable. You don’t have to write a review. We express our opinions without even realizing it. You could be having a text message argument with someone about the merits of a Ford Mustang while you’re in the dealership, and that would be enough to mess with the subsequent decision rationalization experience and the resulting bond with the product. Digital marketers will have to re-examine their user experiences to make sure they are not unwittingly allowing their consumers to express themselves in any way other than making the purchase decision. Otherwise it might interfere with the pre-purchase state-of-mind, and therefore the whole product experience.

Congratulations on your degree and your publication, Dr. Kokkoris. We look forward to reading your future research!

A Happy Life or a Meaningful Life?

October 31, 2013 1 comment

HappinessA majority of people generally say they want a happy life. A majority of people also say they want to become parents at some point. The trouble is, according to nearly every study ever performed on the matter, becoming a parent reduces happiness and marital satisfaction. So why do people become parents? Sociologists call this the “parenthood paradox.”

The best answer so far comes from Roy Baumeister, a pioneering and prolific sociologist from Florida State University. His research suggests that people do not just pursue happiness. People have a separate instinct to pursue meaning – a sense of coherent life narrative that gives one a sense that they’ve significantly contributed to others’ experience. What’s more, people will tend to delay or defer happiness to make choices that bring meaning.

Now, thank God these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, they generally correlate. People who report having a meaningful life generally also report being happy, and vice versa. And certain characteristics, like stong social connections, positively influence both happiness and meaning. But it’s important to note that there are important differences between these two concepts, with starkly different implications, and it is absolutely possible have one without the other. Not infrequently, people live at the extremes: having a happy, shallow life (hedonism) or a miserable but self-satisfactorily meaningful one (martyrdom).

In a recently published article in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Baumeister reveals the results of a large survey that detail the important psychological distinctions between happiness and meaning. Read more…

Does Advertising Content Work? Let’s Find Out…

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment
English: Portrait of Milton Friedman

English: Portrait of Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the great advances in economics to emerge in recent decades is the field of behavioral economics. The preceding generation of economists, including Milton Friedman and others, believed that humans were entirely rational consumers. When they made a purchase decision, it was as a result of a neat mental weighing of opportunities costs verses actual costs and other factors.

Now we are starting to understand the enormous hubris of our own assumed rationality. First Kahneman and Tversky came along and pointed out that human cognition is effected by its own limitations, and that we are susceptible to errors in judgement based on these limitations. Dan Airely noted that human irrationality follows predictable patterns. Then Richard Thaler famously pronounced that you could effect (“nudge”) social and economic outcomes by changing decision contexts. This acceptance and exploration of human irrationality and cognitive bias is giving us a richer understanding of the way we work.

So, let’s see this effect in a true marketing context. Professors Marianne Bertrand (Chicago Booth) and Dean Karlan (Yale), together with their team, designed a field experiment in South Africa. They partnered with a cash loan lender to send direct mail advertisements to potential loan customers. The customers were offered rates selected at random, but that were more favorable than the current market. Some of the mailings only represented the interest rate. Other mailings (randomly) included any of a number of psychological manipulations (in other words, “marketing”). These manipulations included elements like competitive comparisons, promotional giveaways, suggested loan uses, pictures of demographically similar people on the mailer, deadlines and other suggestive priming.

No surprise: these psychological factors, when considered as a whole, had a significant effect on loan take-up. The demand increased by as much as a 25% reduction in the interest rate. This effect should not be possible under traditional economic thought.

There were a few interesting subtleties to the results. First, the psychologically-loaded marketing was generally more effective when the interest rate is high (i.e. the loan is more expensive). In other words, as consumers were influenced more by price, they were influenced less by psychological factors.

Also, there were no subgroups of customers who were more or less susceptible to psychological factors than any other. Many have hypothesized that psychological marketing has a greater effect on the less educated and less wealthy. This does not seem to be the case.

Much of new classical research was conducted a...

The University of Chicago, home to Professors Richard Thaler and Marianne Bertrand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, the psychologically-loaded marketing did not seem to attract a poorer class of borrowers. Normally to increase demand for loans one lowers the interest rate, but in so doing one risks attracting borrowers who are less likely to repay. Therefore there is a certain market equilibrium that exists regardless of the present interest rate. Psychologically-loaded marketing increased demand for loans without changing the risk profile of the borrowing pool. That is, it changed the equilibrium of the market on its own. This means that psychological marketing could be seen as its own competitive dimension, particularly in areas of low price sensitivity.

Too Much Choice: The Jam Experiment

August 31, 2013 3 comments

Sheena Iyengar

A grocery store in Melno Park, California sets up a special display to sell jam. At certain times, the display had six flavors to choose from. At other times, the display had 24 choices. Each person who came by the sample booth was given a $1 coupon to purchase. The displays were up for a total of 10 hours. Here are the results:

The display with 24 choices

Number of people who stopped by: 145

Number of people who bought from the display (based on coupon redemption): 4

Percentage redemption: 4%

The display with six choices

Number of people who stopped by: 104

Number of people who bought from the display (based on coupon redemption): 31

Percentage redemption: 31%

What appeared to customer as a typical promotion was actually a sociological experiment. The attendants handing out samples were research assistants of one Dr. Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. She was studying the effect that the number of purchase choices has on the propensity to actually make a purchase.

This experiment seemingly proves that customers presented with fewer choices are 10 times more likely to purchase compared with those who are shown many choices. It has been help up as a crucial example of choice overload, the idea that presenting customers with too many choices actually inhibits customer purchases. The idea of choice overload is counterintuitive; classical economic thought maintains that more choices are always better for the customer.

Cover of

Cover of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Many economic polemicists have latched on to these results. Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, uses this as an example of the harm caused by the abundance of choice in a free market.

Interestingly, despite a seemingly tenfold improvement in purchasing propensity, you don’t see a lot of maodern stores limiting their selections. The trouble with all this is that the results from Iyengar’s experiment have never been satisfactorily replicated. At the same time, others have pointed out legitimate flaws in her methodology. While guest posting on the blog Retailing with Confidence, Guru Raj points out:

“The crucial issue for this experiment is that, in combination with this background variation, the two groups of jam buyers were not assigned randomly. Because the experiment was done for a total of ten hours in only one store, and shoppers were grouped in hourly chunks, there could be all kinds of reasons that those people who happened to show up during the five hours of limited assortment could have different propensity to respond to $1 off a specific line of jams than those who arrived in the other five hour period.”

It could be that the variety or complexity of choices does effect people’s willingness to buy. However, we do not currently have conclusive proof of what causes are significant, and why they work. More research is needed in this area before anyone can say with precision what is the best product choice array to show to customers.

Think Acting Is About Emotional Empathy? Science Says No.

July 29, 2013 5 comments
Cover of

Cover via Amazon

David Gergen was a staffer to four presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. In his book Eyewitness to Power, he said of Reagan that his previous acting experience gave him a coveted public speaking skill: controlled access to one’s own emotions.

Acting is understood, particularly by outsiders, as an emotional exercise. Presumably, you build a character by feeling the same emotions that a fictitious person would have felt under certain circumstances. It follows that acting requires a talent for empathy, the ability to feel another’s emotions. Those who are most predisposed to empathize with others could therefore summon the proper emotions when required, and portray characters most believably.

It turns out, no.

Thalia Goldstein is a social science researcher from Pace University who studies the relationship between acting and psychology. Her research has been used in the development of acting and role-playing therapies for emotional suppression. She recently published a fascinating article in Imagination, Cognition and Personality called “Actors are Skilled in Theory of Mind But Not Empathy“. This article gives us important insight into what actors actually do when they practice their craft.

Goldstein discusses a psychological concept called “Theory of Mind.” Theory of Mind is the understanding that “two people can hold different but equally valid interpretations of the same object or image,” and the term describes one person’s ability to understand someone else’s interpretation – their take – on the situation.

Theory of mind (the ability to understand another’s mental state and motivations) is very different from empathy (the ability to put oneself in someone else’s emotional place). How do we know this? We observe psychopaths and bullies. Psychopaths and bullies are extraordinarily socially attuned, and manipulate people based on this acuity, but have little or no empathy. This distinction is important.

Pace University

Pace University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Goldstein administered batteries of Theory of Mind and empathy tests to groups of actors and non-actors. Actors are ideal candidates for the study of these attributes because “Actors think deeply about the motivations, beliefs, and value systems of the characters they enact, and then must make these internal states come alive…” She hypothesized that training in acting was associated with both heightened social sensitivity and heightened empathy.

Goldstein conducted two separate studies to this effect and found similar results: acting training was significantly associated with heightened Theory of Mind (social perception) skills, but not heightened empathy skills. Her study could not give us an idea of causation for this effect: we do not know yet whether the practice of acting heightens social awareness, or whether the persuit of acting attracts those who are already highly socially aware.

One retrospective study supported this distinction:

…actors reported a separation between feeling empathy for someone and analyzing their mental state at the same time. One actor reported “I’m having a discussion with someone and they’re really having an emotional kind of experience and I’m listening and I’m being empathetic, but at the back of my mind I’m like, my God, that’s so interesting.”

We can, however, begin to better understand the practice of acting: not as a touchy-feely show of emotion on queue, but as an exercise of reading other people and cultivating authentic reaction. The lack of association between acting and empathy may cause us to rethink the techniques that we teach, as it may turn out that empathy-intensive techniques like Method Acting are less useful than previously assumed.

We need further study in this area to flush out more details, such as:

1. Whether heightened social perception is a cause of, or effect of, pursuits in acting

2. If the latter, whether the lack of heightened empathy is explained by the acting techniques commonly taught (method vs. non-method styles)

3. Whether either heightened social perception or heightened empathy corresponds with more believable portrayals

Institutions like high schools and magnet schools who teach young actors could easily set up experiments to this effect. I’m sure Dr. Goldstein would welcome contact from institutions in the New York area, and might have a chance to contribute to the science more directly. Understanding exactly what actors do when they practice their craft would not only help us improve the art (say, by developing more effective teaching methods and exercises), but would also help us better understand the psychology of putting oneself inside another’s head.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,009 other followers