Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Social Media Psychology: SM Is Worse For You Than You Thought

March 31, 2015 1 comment

For all the time we devote to social media, you would think that it would register some meaningful improvement to our lives. You would expect that social media would do something psychologically beneficial for us: elevate our mood, increase our energy, or help us get more out of the day.

But the more research that comes in, the more social media looks to be a wasteland of clickbait and sadness.

Social Media and Psychology: How to Kill Productivity and Happiness

According to a recent study in Computers in Human Behavior, personal social media use not only correlates inversely with productivity (we already knew this in our hearts), but correlates inversely with happiness as well. The correlation is true regardless of how good a multitasker you are, and regardless of how well you can focus your attention on a subject.

The study notes that to date, we have all kinds of research on how distraction can impede someone’s performance at a task. And though it seems obvious that personal social media use would be classified as a distraction, there is not a lot of present research on whether or not social media specifically impedes performance.

However, the psychology of social media is not just about efficiency. Maybe we are willing to give up some efficiency for something that makes us happy. We must, after all, be getting something out of all the time we spend on social media; if it’s not something tangible like efficiency, then it’s something intangible like happiness.

Except that’s wrong.

Social Media and Happiness: Less (of the Former) Is More (of the Latter)

The researchers also took happiness scale evaluations during their social media usage experiment. Social media lowers happiness, and it does so in two ways.

First, it lowers happiness directly. This largely has to do with self-comparison to one’s peers. As the report hypothesizes:

Many news stories published by popular media outlets are concerned with negative impacts on happiness from social media. One story in particular, entitled ‘‘Facebook: The Encyclopedia of Beauty?’’ discusses the rampant unhappiness that can be found in college-aged females living on campus. The story gives accounts of self-esteem issues and other negative effects from over-usage of social media.

Secondly, social media increases a sub-category of stressors that researchers our now labeling “technostress.” Technostress is defined by psychologists as “‘any negative impact on attitudes, thoughts, behaviors, or body physiology that is caused either directly or indirectly by technology.”

This is not something that’s only experienced by people who are uncomfortable with computers and devices. The article cites a University of Edinburgh study, which found that “the more Facebook friends a user has, the more likely you are to feel stressed out by the social media.” And there is already a very good foundation of research supporting the notion that increases in stress diminish happiness. So, if social media ads stress and stress diminishes happiness, then you can get the rest.

The study revealed that personal social media use lowered productivity by way of causing distraction. This finding is in line with what’s call Distraction-Conflict Theory, which says basically that distractions cause some of the information necessary for the primary task to fall out of short-term memory. This is no surprise to anyone who’s ever used social media.

What was a surprise was that the effect was just a dramatic among poor multitaskers as it was among people who rated themselves great multitaskers. As the report puts it, “This result lends support to the common rhetoric that people are not as good at multitasking as they think they are.”

In Summary

So, in three points, here’s what all this means for us:

1. Social media makes you less productive despite how good a multitasker you think you are.

2. Social media makes you unhappy in the long run, both directly and by adding stress.

3. We’re probably still going to spend all our time on Facebook and Twitter anyway…

That last point is not from the report, but we both know it’s true.



Marketing Psychology: Price Framing

January 30, 2015 2 comments

Price framing is one of those topics that everyone seems to have heard of, but every person you ask will give you a different definition of what it is and how it works. Yet if you’re managing a web store with thousands of products, for example, understanding how to present prices and products in the most optimal way can make an enormous revenue difference.

Let’s take a moment to talk about how price framing works and why it has an effect on consumers.

First of all, when we talk about price framing, we’re talking about changing the context of a price presentation – without substantially changing the price itself – in order to encourage more purchases. This is the reason you’re charged $39.99 rather than $40.00 for iPhone earbuds. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What Do You Mean I’m Not Being Rational?!

One of the most amazing things about how price framing works is that it shouldn’t work at all. Up until a few decades ago, economic theory took utilitarianism as a given. When making a choice whether or not to buy an iPhone, both economists and psychologists assumed that you made a rational calculation of the pros and cons of the choice, and selected the outcome that, to the best of your knowledge, would be most useful or advantageous to you.

So it shouldn’t matter at all how a price is presented to you. The price is the price, and you should make the same calculation of advantages regardless of context.

Except that the rational action theory of economics turns out to be mostly bullshit.

If rational action theory were true, your tendency to purchase a $39.99 item (when you would not have purchased a $40 item) would be based solely on the utility of the one-cent savings. I think we can all agree that something else is at work here. This is an example of how marketers have always been decades ahead of economists.

The first people who noticed that people don’t make explicitly rational outcome choices were psychologists Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. They are the grandfathers of what’s now called behavioral economics. They discovered through controlled experiments that people use cognitive shortcuts, called biases, to help make choices. These shortcuts don’t always produce rational decisions.

For example, Kahneman and Tversky discovered that, when people are given a choice of losing $10 for sure, or having a 50-50 chance of losing $25, they tend to avoid the certain loss even though rationally speaking it’s the worse choice.

Other pioneers have significantly advanced the study of these cognitive shortcuts. Two of the most prominent are Richard Thaler (author of Nudge), and Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational).

So, what affect can these biases have on consumer behavior (and specific to us, on price presentation)?

Here are three major principles that may be helpful:

1. People evaluate prices relative to a reference point

Up until recently we believed that, when evaluating a potential purchase, people made comparisons to absolutes. Is this iPhone worth the 400 units of currency that I will part with?

Well, it turns out that we evaluate purchases on relative terms. We’re looking for the value that’s reasonable. But what’s reasonable can be determined by many things.

In a Psychology Today article called “Pricing and Framing: When Are We Likely to Pay More For Products,” Dr. Gizem Saka gives us the scenario of the bread maker:

…You have two options. A standard quality break maker is for sale for $80; and a higher quality bread maker is sold at $120. You compare and contrast the two machines. You tell yourself you are not an expert maker, and you go with the $80 one.


Now when you go to the shop, you have 3 options. You can spend $80, or $120 or $475. Rationally speaking, adding an irrelevant option should not change your decision between the $80 and the $120 ones. The pros and cons did not change; quality of the bread makers remained the same, and you are making the same salary. You know that you are never going to spend $475 on a break maker…

But the thing is, now you do would feel more comfortable buying the $120 one. After all, you are not buying the most expensive alternative. You have found the middle ground, and you are probably happier, compared to someone who buys the cheaper version with only two options.

This is a form of psychological anchoring that Saka describes is widely known as the irrelevant third option, or in business terms, the loss leader. It is a super-premium product that may not be profitable in its own right but makes the next option down seem more attractive.

This is the most famous use of the principle that the attractiveness of an option will change depending on what’s presented with it. But this is only one example of the effect one can have by introducing or removing options.

2. People evaluate price differences relative to the level of the initial price.

The scientific name for this is the Weber-Fechner Law, if you want to Google it.

You will tend to be more motivated if a $20 price is lowered to $10, than if a $120 price were lowered to $110. Again, there’s no good reason for this. The economic advantage to you is the same in both scenarios.

Ernst Weber was a 19th century scientists who discovered that the stronger a stimulus is, the more change you have to make to it before we can perceive the change. If you’re carrying three pounds of stuff and I add a pound, you will notice the change much more easily than if you’re carrying 30 lbs and I add one.

Fechner improved on this idea by figuring out the mathematical relationship between intensity and perceived change (it’s a simple logarithm, if you care).

The Weber-Fechner law is why you have a hard time paying $5.00 for a Starbucks Sugar-coma Mocha, but you have an easier time coming down $5,000 on the asking price for the house you’re selling. This is especially important when studying price elasticity – the variation in dollar amount that people are willing to pay for the same item.

3. Losses hurt more than gains give pleasure.

This is part of what’s called the Endowment Effect, for you Googlers. People tend to ascribe more value to that which they own. Therefore people try to avoid losses more than achieve gains. People want to avoid late fees more than they care to take advantage of early-bird discounts, even if the value is the same.

One working paper from a USM student described how this effect was studied on the “discount for cash” gasoline consumers in the 80’s.

It’s illegal to do so now, but it used to be that gas stations would charge you a special surcharge if you wanted to pay with a credit card (trying to recoup their extra processing fees). The credit card companies, fearing backlash insisted that any such price difference had to be termed a “cash discount” rather than a “credit surcharge.”

It turns out they were right to fear: those paying for gas by credit card had a significantly more negative reaction to the transaction if they “paid a surcharge” rather than simply missing out on a “discount.”

Further Research

Research is still young in this field, fleshing out the details of principles like these. The results are fascinating. For example, one working paper from the Harvard Business School found that it makes a big difference in preference depending on whether a price is “all-inclusive” or “partitioned.”

If you split out a price into line items, the way budget airlines are more prone to do, people will tend to prefer the deal if the secondary item is top-notch for the price (incredible in-flight service, full-service meal, etc), and oppose the deal if the secondary item is lackluster (one movie option, snackbox, etc.).

Why is this? because the secondary item is easier to evaluate compared to its price than the primary item (the plane trip itself). It’s easier to see if you’re getting a deal or not. So if your secondary items aren’t that high-quality for the money, all-inclusive is the way to go.

I’m excited to see what new principles we’ll be able to add to these three as research develops. If you have some to add (and can cite your source), please use the comments to let people know!


PeopleTriggers Wants to Hear from You!

September 28, 2014 3 comments

Just a short solicitation this month.

Most of the past articles on PeopleTriggers came from whatever fascinating quirk of human nature had my attention in that moment. Many are inspired by books or articles that I was reading at the time. Now, I’d like to put more thought into the topics, lists or how-tos that might be most helpful or valuable to you. I don’t yet do the greatest job of actually asking people what they would like to read, or framing that knowledge in the form of solving a specific problem. I want to get better at that.

As a first step, I’d like to take a few requests.

Are you fascinated by any one particular aspect of psychology, like developmental or educational? Do you want to see articles that are simple explorations (like most that I do now), or do you like the Top 10’s and the 5 Things You Can Do Right Now?

You’ve paid me a lot of kindness, viewing and following this blog. I’d like to see how I can make this experience even more valuable for you. If you’ve been curious about any element of psychology, sociology, motivation, performance or acting, please let me know your thoughts.

Let’s light up the comments field below! Looking forward to hearing from you!

The Five “People-triggers” Discoveries That Most Changed My Life

August 29, 2014 1 comment

Screenshot 2014-08-29 15.31.58I’ve been writing the People-triggers blog since 2010.  After all that time, I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding why we do what we do, and why we get out of bed in the morning.

Psychology feels like it’s nipping around the edges of this question. Like the moment anyone gets close to an insight, they stop studying, write a book and start trying to teach everyone how to stay motivated and influence others. In the 70’s, we were sure that Transactional Analysis was a scientific approach to relationships. In the 80’s, we were sure that we needed to praise our children regardless of result because self-esteem correlates with success.

Think of what we’re sure about today. Working from home achieves higher productivity. No wait, it kills collaboration. Group brainstorming produces better outcomes than individual reflection. No wait, it shouts down the introverts and encourages rule-by-volume.

In psychology, today’s bestseller is tomorrow’s bullshit.

That all being said, I’ve looked back at the readings and writings I’ve done over the past four plus years and I’ve found five discoveries-five core principles-that I’m willing to bet will stand the test of time. More than that, they changed my life because I was able to 1) become more effective in producing output, and 2) stop wasting energy worrying about certain things. So, here they are: Read more…

The Psychology of Enron

June 29, 2014 2 comments

Cover of

“Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio. (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness.)” –Petrarch

One of the most striking scenes in Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s Enron expose The Smartest Guys in the Room details the courtroom testimony of Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling during their criminal trial. You would expect that the people responsible for scandal that defrauded thousands of stockholders and pension plan investors to do their fair share of finger pointing and legalistic arguing, but Lay and Skilling went further than that.

They seemed in a different reality altogether. It was though they actually still believed, even after the bankruptcy, that Enron was a fundamentally healthy company that was the victim of bad luck, a fickle press and the vindictiveness of Wall Street analysts. Far from trying to obfuscate and spin their criminal behavior, they seemed to believe — actually believe in their hearts — that they had done nothing wrong.

Now, Skilling and Lay never raised an insanity defense; they never contested the notion that they knew exactly what they were doing. They simply never saw any wrongfulness in their actions. Those actions involved hiding billions of dollars of debt from their balance sheet (The Enron SPE’s), personally profiting ownership stakes in Enron business partner companies (Again, the SPE’s), and lying  to stockholders about the very nature of their business (maintaining a facade as a “logistics” company while making most of its profits from energy future speculation).

Much of this denial of the belief of wrongdoing is reminiscent of the banking crash of 2008. Defendants seemed to believe in their hearts not only that they were following the law, but that they were in fact innovating new financial markets. The blindness to the big picture corruption of the sub-prime mortgage market and the disguising of bad debt is eerily reminiscent. In fact, some of the very vehicles that Enron used to hide its debt from shareholders (off-balance sheet SPE’s) factored heavily into the 2008 banking crisis.

I’m not interested in the moral question of what makes us elect unethical behavior. From this writer’s perspective, men are apes with iPhones. But I am interested in what goes on in our brain to make us believe we are acting ethically when in fact we are grossly transgressing boundaries that would be clear to any reasonable man. Read more…

Do We Become Smarter? – Entity vs Incremental Intelligence

May 28, 2014 5 comments
Dr. Carol Dweck, Stanford University

Dr. Carol Dweck, Stanford University

I’d like to introduce what is probably the most important concept I’ve every learned. In a way, I’m frustrated that I didn’t latch onto this insight until I was 35 years old, but by the same token, I’m relieved that I learned this in time to make better parenting decisions when the appropriate time comes.

Does Intelligence Remain Fixed?

Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist from Stanford University who has spent her life studying a key difference in the way people conceive of themselves and their respective abilities. Depending on a number of environmental factors, people tend to believe one of two distinct hypotheses about their own intelligence. Some people believe that intelligence is a fixed and uncontrollable trait (entity learning hypothesis). Other people believe that intelligence is a malleable, controllable ability to be cultivated (incremental learning hypothesis). This difference in mentality creates enormous performance, motivational and cognitive contrasts between the two groups.

In her research, Dweck tests grade school and middle school age children by evaluating their performance at tasks of increasing difficulty. The test groups feature a mix of kids who subscribe to either the entity (e.g. “People don’t generally become much smarter than they already are.”) or incremental (e.g. “I can make myself as smart as I want to be.”) hypotheses.

Before significant obstacles are introduced, both sets of children tend to perform equally well at tasks. In the face of obstacles, however, we start to see distinct behavioral changes. The entity hypothesis children (the ones who view intelligence as a fixed trait) will tend to back down from challenges. They tend to view task failures as personal limitations, and so running into an obstacle denotes a limit in their personal abilities. Faced with failure, the children adopt negative conditions, and blame their own personal inadequacy for the failure.

Interestingly, may of them take to diversionary and compensatory verbalizations about how much better they are in other areas, or the interesting things their family owns. Most notably, their problem-solving skills and strategies tend to crumble under initial failure. Future attempts to solve the difficult task regress to the strategies of younger age groups. Dweck calls this the “helpless” behavior pattern.

The incremental hypothesis children, on the other hand, (the ones who view intelligence as something they can improve) confront these same challenges head on and have a much higher success rate. They tend to attribute their success not to themselves but to their effort (e.g. “I will get this.” or “If you can do it once you can do it again.”). They have much more positive self-cognitions and their problem-solving abilities stay strong in the face of obstacles. Dweck calls this the “mastery-oriented” behavior pattern.

Intelligence Conception is Destiny

Helpless and mastery-oriented children develop different overarching goals that shape their development. Mastery-oriented children, who believe that their realm of mastery is expanded and improved through effort and stretching, develop learning-related goals. They seek to improve their competence. The children who exhibit helpless behaviors, on the other hand, develop validation-oriented goals. They would like to show their trait competence in its best light and receive a favorable judgement for it. One group becomes accomplishment-oriented, the other group becomes validation-oriented.

I remember reading about this research a year or two ago but it didn’t hit home until I read Josh Waitzkin‘s book The Art of Learning. Waitzkin is the chess prodigy on whom the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based. He talks about competing against grade school chess champions when he was starting out, and sensing an incredible difference between the kids who were praised for their effort and accomplishment and those who were praised for their innate talent and abilities. Those kids who felt like chess talent was a fixed, innate trait would buckle much more easily under pressure. When they encountered challenge, they perceived that challenge as a statement of their own personal deficiency, and would crumble.

Believing that intelligence is malleable, in addition to unlocking performance potential, might also actually be closer to the truth. We’ve all grown up believing that IQ tests measure our innate intelligence, but in fact the inventor of the IQ test, Alfred Binet, was an incremental theorist. He believed that an IQ measurement was a present snapshot of an evolving trait. It was society that then turned the instrument into a measurement of status and destiny.

Other Domains Beyond IQ

This insight couldn’t be more important to motivation, outlook, self-confidence, achievement, social intelligence, mentoring and parenting. Understanding the world in terms of growth as opposed to innate talent is like flipping an internal switch for achievement. The problem is that this hypothesis is so fundamental and developed so early in our childhood that it’s difficult to adjust when one becomes an adult.

Those of us who’ve learned incorrect theories of growth and achievement have to spend a lot of time rewiring out beliefs. We have to let go of the desire to show ourselves off and be recognized for our talent. We have to instead start with the assumption that accomplishment in anything is the fundamental result of massive, focused acquisition of skill. We then see that the chief virtues of success are discipline, persistence, objective evaluation, efficiency, deliberate goal-setting, and a fundamental understanding that obstacles are the gateway to mastery.

In the seventies, psychologists took notice of a correlation between self-esteem and achievement. Without understanding the causal relationship, they started encouraging parents to boost self-esteem however possible, believing that would lead to greater achievement in children. They invented the infamous “A for effort.” Everyone started receiving participation awards. Parents stopped keeping score at little league games. Kids were taught that they were special by virtue of their innate identity, and developed massive notions of entitlement as a result.

Dweck’s research helps us understand what we did wrong, and how to do better. Instead of self-esteem leading to accomplishment, it’s actually accomplishment that leads to self-esteem. Kids need to achieve. So it is harmful to remove the competition (the obstacles) and announce that “everyone is a winner.” We must instill competition, but we must attribute success and failure to the right things. When a child experiences an accomplishment, do we tell them how smart they are? How talented they are? How good-looking, charming, or funny they are?

Or rather, do we acknowledge how their hard work is paying off? How they worked effectively and grew as a result?

This is number one on my list of things that I wish I “would have known then.” I would have spent much less time asking whether or not I was talented enough to make my goals and pursuits worthwhile. I would have spent much more time asking myself how to most efficiently and effectively develop the skills and traits I needed in order to overcome the inevitable obstacles that came along. That seemingly slight change in mentality creates a night-and-day difference.

Self-Deception, with Dr. Cortney Warren

April 6, 2014 3 comments

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.

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