Category Archives: Psychology

The Upside of Stress – Kelly McGonigal

“The stress response is more than a basic survival instinct. It is built into how humans operate, how we relate to one another, and how we navigate our place in the world. When you understand this, the stress response is no longer something to be feared.”

When you speak in public, do you get nervous beforehand or excited? McGonigal points out the physiological response is identical: the difference is purely in our mindset and how we interpret it. That’s why college athletes get excited before games but nervous before exams. Our mindset then induces a different response to the stress, which affects our psychological and physiological state: a fear response, which is what most of us think of with stress, or a challenge response, where our performance improves to meet the challenge.

The point is that how we think about stress matters. If we think it’s bad, it will be. Shifting our mindset, though, is often enough to change stress from bad to good. In 2008, for example, telling bankers being stressed was good for them reduced anxiety and health problems and increased productivity and collaboration.

McGonigal acknowledges the research that shows anxiety or worry is bad. She certainly isn’t suggesting that struggling to find enough to eat is somehow an advantage. She points out, however, that much of that research is done with stressors that are paramount to torture: rats who get electric shocks, for example. Much of what we encounter in life, though unpleasant, is not clearly comparable. Instead, the evidence on mild stress is mixed; monkeys separated from their mothers for a day actually showed more curiosity and self-control later on.

The evidence is mixed, and it may well depend on the person. The next time you feel stressed, though, remind yourself it isn’t all bad, and can even be good. It can’t hurt, and it might help!

Working Minds – Beth Crandall, Gary Klein, and Robert Huffman

Cognitive Task Analysis “investigates what people know and how they think.” – Working Minds

Some people just seem to have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. Nurses who know whether a baby is sick before the lab tests are back: firefighters who know when a building is about to collapse: chess grandmasters who can see the right move without thinking about it.

Whether services or manufacturing, more and more of the modern world relies on the knowledge of experts. Nurses, AI specialists, consultants, and a myriad of other professions all require expertise, and it isn’t always clear what exactly that means or how it can be transferred to others.

Enter Cognitive Task Analysis. The goal is to take an expert task and break it into pieces that can be organized, understood, and replicated. Working Minds is a how-to guide to making that happen: the method draws on concept maps, interviews, and other methods of trying to see into the head of experts and write down what they know and the processes they use, even if they aren’t aware of them themselves.

The book is aimed almost exclusively at practitioners, but the method itself is still interesting. The first half introduces a number of useful tools and ideas, and though probably too specialist for most readers, if this is something you’re interested in cognitive task analysis may be a good place to start. Working Minds, though a bit heavy-going at times, serves as a useful introduction to how to conduct one.

Working Minds gets bogged down in the second half, where it tries to address the potential use of cognitive task analysis. When it spends a chapter explaining that this would be useful to teach others how to do the tasks, for example, it feels like largely a waste of space; the benefits were pretty much self-evident.

Winning the Brain Game – Matthew E. May

“I intended this book to be a mindful guide–complete with a super-curated set of battle-tested tools–for using our minds to win the games our brains are hardwired to play on us…this struggle of mind over matter is the brain game.”

When you’re confronted with a problem, is the first thing you do brainstorm solutions? That’s not a bad approach, but you might be able to do better. Winning the Brain Game suggests starting with ‘framestorming’ – before you generate solutions, try to generate as many different frames of the problem as possible, so that you don’t get trapped in one line of thinking.

Winning the Brain Game aims to identify the fatal mental flaws we are subject to, and ways we can overcome them. It is written very much from an applied perspective: May compares himself to a ‘jeweler trying to fix a broken wristwatch, not a philosopher pontificating on time’.

Reframing is May’s solution to the first flaw: leaping to the solution without understanding the problem. He identifies six others: overthinking things, getting fixed on specific ideas, satisficing, focusing on an easier but different problem, rejecting ideas that aren’t our own, and self-censoring. For each, he also presents a mindset that can help us overcome that flaw, giving the book a nice problem-solution structure.

Where the book loses steam is in categorizing the errors. He opens each chapter with a motivating story, and it isn’t always clear how the anecdote supports his point. It’s not a clear a marathon runner who doesn’t know their own limits, and so excels, is an example of someone who refuses to downgrade a problem to make it easier, for example. His categories also sometimes seem to overlap or contradict each other: overthinking is both a flaw and a solution in the sense of using system 2 instead of system 1.

Overall, some compelling examples and nice applied structure, but it could have done with a bit more care in setting out the flaws in thinking, and to catch a few small errors such as mistaken citations – he mistakenly suggests Schwartz conducted the famous jam study on choice, for example, instead of Iyengar and Lepper.

Disclosure: I read the book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Winning the Brain Game.

Influence – Robert Cialdini

“Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is characteristic of modern life…When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it…The problem comes when something causes the normally trustworthy cues to counsel us poorly, to lead us to erroneous actions and wrongheaded decisions…If, as seems true, the frequency of shortcut response is increasing with the pace and form of modern life, we can be sure that the frequency of this trickery is destined to increase as well.”

Attractive candidates in Canadian Federal elections have received 2.5 times as many votes as unattractive candidates, a fact that presumably makes Justin Trudeau rub his hands with glee. Better yet, despite such evidence, 73% of Canadians denied any possibility that physical attractiveness affects their votes. We don’t understand our own biases well, and they make a huge difference to our behaviour. That makes them fascinating and also extremely important.

Cialdini lists 6 factors that influence our behaviour: consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. These explain why we buy what we do, how we vote, how Chinese POW camps worked, why giving people electric shocks or hazing them to join a group makes them value the group more, how to fundraise, why we say we won, referring to a sports team, while they lost, why banning cleaning products containing phosphates increased how effect people believed them to be, and many, many, many other factors.

Influence has been on my list for a while, and I’ve only just gotten around to reading it. I shouldn’t have taken so long: I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s the best guide to behavioural economics I’ve read, written when behavioural economics wasn’t much more than a dream in the minds of people like Kahneman, Tversky, and Thaler. It’s fascinating and feels almost comprehensive in its discussion of the factors that influence our behaviour, and provides useful, insightful examples and commentary. My only complaint is that each section ends with a discussion of how to avoid the bias, and it does feel a bit out of date: using modern terminology, he basically just advises us to engage system 2 each time. Still, well worth the read, and definitely a classic.

Friend and Foe – Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer

“Whenever we use a hierarchy, we make a trade-off between coordination and voice. Hierarchy creates a fundamental tension between suppressing individuality to achieve synchrony and denying key insights from those below.”

Every recent American president has gotten a dog, even Obama, whose daughter is allergic. Basketball teams that are a point down at half-time are more likely to win than if they were a point ahead. Men gain weight when their wife is pregnant.

What do these three facts have in common? They stem from our existence as social animals, our innate tendency to compare ourselves to others and often to compete with them. Evolution suggests two different strategies for interacting with others: cooperation and competition. When we cooperate, we emphasize warmth and relatability, perhaps by getting a dog: when we compete, we try to outdo others and use them as a baseline for our own success, perhaps even judging whether we are overweight by comparing our weight to that of those closest to us. Which setting we believe we’re in can make a huge difference to our expectations and to how we behave.

The overall thesis of Friend and Foe, though they try for nuance, often seems to boil down to cooperating with your enemies until you have an advantage, then smiting them. Not exactly profound. It is in the details that the book gets fascinating, however. Chapters consider issues like bargaining, hierarchy, and corporate apologies, and how our experience of either competition or collaboration can push us in different directions. A company that cuts the CEO’s wage along with that of employees often sees much less strife, they suggest, because employees then experience the cut as a collaborative, not a competitive, situation.

The book is a fun read with a lot of great applications, and addresses an issue of core concern to all of us. Recommended.

Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy. You can read more copies, and pre-order a copy, on amazon: Friend and Foe. It is released September 29th.

What You Really Need to Lead – Robert Steven Kaplan

“Leadership is not about the position you hold; it’s about the actions you take. It’s about having an ownership mind set. Leadership is about what you do, rather than who you are.”

What is leadership? Many of us have some idea of what we mean by it, but we often have little idea at all of what others think. Should leaders be in front, clearing the way? Should they be behind, organizing? Should they drive themselves hard and act as a role model, or focus on bringing out the best in others? All of these can be useful in some situations, but as Kaplan points out, when we are discussing leadership, having different conceptions in mind can lead to confusion. The key factor for him, though, is that all leaders must act with an ownership mind-set, no matter their status or position in an organization.

Kaplan has just been appointed to head the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and has spent time as Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs, a professor of management practice at Harvard, and a philanthropist. There’s no question in my mind that he’s a capable, driven guy, and based on his stories of interaction with students in his book, I suspect he’s a compelling leader. His students return years afterwards to seek his advice, and clearly trust and value it.

Unfortunately, I found the book somewhat disappointing. He makes a number of interesting points that I would have liked to heard more about, such as the different conceptions of leadership or the isolation of millennials who, because they rely on technological communication, find it difficult to initiate deep or meaningful conversations, leading to a lot of weak ties but not many deep ones. His main thesis, though, I found a bit lacking. I wholeheartedly agree on the importance of an ownership mind-set, but for me that insight wasn’t enough to fill a book: I wanted to hear more, or have him develop the idea more deeply. I haven’t read his earlier books, but I wonder if they might feel a bit more fresh and rich with new ideas.

You can see more reviews, and order it on amazon, here: What You Really Need to Lead. Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy.

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

“The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

Most of us assume that thinking over a decision is better than making it immediately – that the first best option for choice is taking our time, gathering information, and being as rational as possible. Gladwell points out this isn’t always the case: that sometimes instinctive decisions can be as good or even potentially better than slow ones, helping us integrate information in a way we might struggle to do consciously. When we’re deciding whether to switch jobs or marry someone, we can certainly draw up a list of pros and cons, Ben Franklin–style, but our instinctive reaction to the choice might actually give us more information as to our true preferences. Though he doesn’t mention it, this is the reasoning that underlies the suggestion that to make a decision, flip a coin until you aren’t unhappy when it lands.

Blink is perhaps the best known pop-social science book out there, and Gladwell is well known for his cocktail-party-appropriate anecdotes and stories. This one follows the trend: some great research is included, from Gottman’s research on marriage durability (the four horsemen of divorce are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt, of which contempt is the true death knell) to American war games that pitted complex algorithmic strategy against a decentralized, rough and ready approach. As always, it’s also brilliantly written and tremendously engaging.

I’m not quite convinced, though. The problem with instinct, it seems to me, is it is hard to tell whether it’s right or not without deliberation. It may well be just as good in some cases, but without checking, how can we know? That suggests it’s useful only once we have justified its use with deliberation, which seems significantly more subtle than just claiming decisions made quickly can be as good as those made cautiously. That said, we all use instinct sometimes, and we can definitely do better at training and improving our thin-slicing abilities. Blink does a great job giving examples of thin-slicing, and also starts the conversation on how we can do better.

David & Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell

“David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants…from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression.”

The story of David and Goliath is well known, of course: a huge giant challenges any man of the Israeli army to single combat, all soldiers refuse in fear, young shepherd boy accepts and defeats giant with only a sling. The classic underdog story. Gladwell takes another perspective: the biblical tale matches the symptoms of acromegaly, a condition which leads to enormous growth, but also impairs vision. That explains why Goliath needed an attendant to lead him to battle, and why he did not respond to David having a sling: he couldn’t see! What gave the giant his great size, Gladwell argues, was also his greatest weakness.

The point, Gladwell argues, is a general one. We tend to assume that great strength will always win out, but in truth, underdogs can gain considerable strength from their underdog status, while giants can be severely disadvantaged by their size. The battle is much less one-sided than we might believe.

Gladwell applies this idea to issues ranging from dyslexia to class sizes and university choice. As usual, his examples are interesting and fun, which is what makes the book work. It’s less clear to me, though, what his thesis means. One concern is that perhaps adverse conditions just destroy the weak: though the idea of hardship as crucible is popular (and I find it personally appealing), it’s hard to disentangle that theory from the idea that hardship just destroys the weak and identifies the already strong as survivors.

Perhaps more significantly, however, he’s also vague on the concept of hardship. At one point, for example, he suggests that students would be better off going to a worse university, so they can be a big fish in a small pond: after all, the same number of students drop out of science at Harvard as at much lower ranked universities (which, by the way, if fascinating), but the worst students at Harvard are potentially stronger than the best at a weaker university. If one chooses a small pond, however, or equally chooses to hardship when it could have been avoided, is that still the same? It seems to me it is not: knowingly choosing to make things difficult for yourself, though potentially valuable, is likely not the same as being forced to undergo adversity. If adversity strengthens, too, one wonders what choosing a little pond does to your future potential.

All that said, I liked the book more that Outliers, and find his thesis appealing. We probably are too fixed in our conceptions of what is weak and what is strong, and we should realize that there is strength in overcoming and adapting to weakness, not just avoiding it.

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

First things first: I trust you are all following the landing of Philae with bated breath. Now, on to book review.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.”

I’m generally a little hesitant about Malcolm Gladwell. He presents a tasting menu of ideas: not enough to satisfy or in many cases even know what you really think, but enough to arouse curiosity or provoke thought. That can be a good thing, of course, but his reliance on stories and anecdotes – though entertaining – makes me nervous. Because I can’t tell if there is any factual basis to what he’s saying, I end up walking away from a book with some interesting stories, but no real insights to draw on because I can’t tell whether his stories generalize to anything larger. What I read from him I must look up elsewhere.

That said, two of his books that I hadn’t read happened to be in the library, so I thought I’d give them a try. The first, Outliers, focuses on the idea of success. Gladwell argues that we tend to see genius as a unique trait, something that sets the elite apart. That misses the point: success is not achieved in isolation, but rather requires opportunities. No matter how smart or how talented, without opportunities genius cannot bloom.

At the extreme, the thesis is somewhat trivial; if you get hit by a bus, genius won’t mean much. Gladwell has a point, though: we tend to neglect this fact in everyday conversation, ascribing enormous weight to individual action. I wonder, however, if this is just a question of definitions rather than the profound point Gladwell seeks to make. True genius may lie in making the most of the opportunities you are given, and so consist not just of IQ but also hard work, self-discipline, and other virtues – whether that’s saying anything revolutionary, I’m less sure. To take the Stoic line, we cannot control the opportunities we are presented with by the outside world: all we can control is how we respond to them, and that is where genius – and virtue – lies.

The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker

“The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.” – Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker “writes like an angel.” – The Economist

Cotton clothing is made from is grown in Egypt. Did that sentence make sense to you? Probably not. It’s what’s called a garden path: a sentence that lures the reader into interpreting a phrase in one sense (in this case, cotton clothing), when in truth it is meant in another, a fact that is made clear only at the end of the sentence. They are, unsurprisingly, a good thing to avoid in good writing.

The Sense of Style is not really a prescriptive, ‘this is how to rite good,’ sort of guide, though some sections do give concrete guidelines. Instead, it is a study of what it is to write well; an effort to understand the basic principles that can illuminate and expose ideas in text.

What makes us bad writers? Several factors. First is a reluctance to take responsibility for our opinions – academics in particular hedge their sentences so much to avoid being wrong that they lose all coherence and meaning. Many of us also fall into the trap of writing about abstractions: good writers, Pinker argues, write with nouns and verbs, not adverbs and adjectives, so that the reader can visualize what is going on. Worst of all, however, is the Curse of Knowledge. We do not realize that readers don’t know what we know, and as a result, writers fail to explain jargon, explain logic, or provide detail, making their writing obtuse and obscure.

All is not lost. The answer, Pinker argues, is to write in classic style; to write as if you were in conversation with the reader, directing their gaze to something in the world. Good writers ensure their readers don’t have to keep a lot of information in their memory as they read, share their drafts with others and read aloud while editing, and above all attempt to write clearly and coherently, presenting ideas in an order designed to make them clear to the reader, not in which they occurred to the author.

The book is good reading for anyone who spends their time writing, whether in academia, journalism, business, or anywhere else. Since I finished, I’ve found myself rereading many of my own sentences over with Steven Pinker’s principles in mind, and if my writing isn’t quite up to his standard yet, it’s improving.

A final comment: writing well is in many ways about thinking well, and in his parting comments Pinker gives advice that applies to both. Good writers, he suggests, look things up; make sure arguments are sound; don’t confuse a personal experience with the state of the world; avoid false dichotomies; and base arguments on reasons, not people. If you never write another word in your life, it’s still good advice.