Predictably Irrational

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We love to be told we’re smarter than we thought we were, but a surprise bestseller by an MIT professor has a less happy message: We’re consistently irrational much of the time. While there’s no cure, there’s hope – if we can learn to outsmart ourselves. Dan Ariely is an Israeli professor of behavioral economics. He teaches at Duke University and is head of the eRationality research group at the MIT Media Lab.

Despite our best efforts, bad or inexplicable decisions are as inevitable as death and taxes and the grocery store running out of your favorite flavor of ice cream. They’re also just as predictable. Why, for instance, are we convinced that “sizing up” at our favorite burger joint is a good idea, even when we’re not that hungry? Why are our phone lists cluttered with numbers we never call? Dan Ariely, behavioral economist, has based his career on figuring out the answers to these questions, and in his bestselling book Predictably Irrational (re-released in expanded form in May 2009), he describes many unorthodox and often downright odd experiments used in the quest to answer this question.

In his 2009 TED talk Dan explains why do we cheat. The experiments he conducted are amazingly simple but elegant. Here goes the Video:

From the transcript:

So, like we usually do, I decided to do a simple experiment. And here’s how it went. If you were in the experiment, I would pass you a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems that everybody could solve, but I wouldn’t give you enough time. When the five minutes were over, I would say, “Pass me the sheets of paper, and I’ll pay you a dollar per question.” People did this. I would pay people four dollars for their task — on average people would solve four problems. Other people I would tempt to cheat. I would pass their sheet of paper. When the five minutes were over, I would say, “Please shred the piece of paper. Put the little pieces in your pocket or in your backpack, and tell me how many questions you got correctly.” People now solved seven questions on average. Now, it wasn’t as if there was a few bad apples — a few people cheated a lot. Instead, what we saw is a lot of people who cheat a little bit.

Now, in economic theory, cheating is a very simple cost-benefit analysis. You say, what’s the probability of being caught? How much do I stand to gain from cheating? And how much punishment would I get if I get caught? And you weigh these options out — you do the simple cost-benefit analysis, and you decide whether it’s worthwhile to commit the crime or not. So, we try to test this. For some people. we varied how much money they could get away with — how much money they could steal. We paid them 10 cents per correct question, 50 cents, a dollar, five dollars, 10 dollars per correct question.

You would expect that as the amount of money on the table increases, people would cheat more, but in fact it wasn’t the case. We got a lot of people cheating by stealing by a little bit. What about the probability of being caught? Some people shredded half the sheet of paper, so there was some evidence left. Some people shredded the whole sheet of paper. Some people shredded everything, went out of the room, and paid themselves from the bowl of money that had over 100 dollars. You would expect that as the probability of being caught goes down, people would cheat more, but again, this was not the case. Again, a lot of people cheated by just by a little bit, and they were insensitive to these economic incentives.

So we said, “If people are not sensitive to the economic rational theory explanations, to these forces, what could be going on?” And we thought maybe what is happening is that there are two forces. At one hand, we all want to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves, so we don’t want to cheat. On the other hand, we can cheat a little bit, and still feel good about ourselves. So, maybe what is happening is that there’s a level of cheating we can’t go over, but we can still benefit from cheating at a low degree, as long as it doesn’t change our impressions about ourselves. We call this like a personal fudge factor.

Now, how would you test a personal fudge factor? Initially we said, what can we do to shrink the fudge factor? So, we got people to the lab, and we said, “We have two tasks for you today.” First, we asked half the people to recall either 10 books they read in high school, or to recall The Ten Commandments, and then we tempted them with cheating. Turns out the people who tried to recall The Ten Commandments — and in our sample nobody could recall all of The Ten Commandments — but those people who tried to recall The Ten Commandments, given the opportunity to cheat, did not cheat at all. It wasn’t that the more religious people — the people who remembered more of the Commandments — cheated less, and the less religious people — the people who couldn’t remember almost any Commandments — cheated more. The moment people thought about trying to recall The Ten Commandments, they stopped cheating. In fact, even when we gave self-declared atheists the task of swearing on the Bible and we give them a chance to cheat, they didn’t cheat at all. Now, Ten Commandments is something that is hard to bring into the education system, so we said, “Why don’t we get people to sign the honor code?” So, we got people to sign, “I understand that this short survey falls under the MIT Honor Code.” Then they shredded it. No cheating whatsoever. And this is particularly interesting, because MIT doesn’t have an honor code.

So, all this was about decreasing the fudge factor. What about increasing the fudge factor? The first experiment — I walked around MIT and I distributed six-packs of Cokes in the refrigerators — these were common refrigerators for the undergrads. And I came back to measure what we technically call the half-lifetime of Coke — how long does it last in the refrigerators? As you can expect it doesn’t last very long. People take it. In contrast, I took a plate with six one-dollar bills, and I left those plates in the same refrigerators. No bill ever disappeared.

Now, this is not a good social science experiment, so to do it better I did the same experiment as I described to you before. A third of the people we passed the sheet, they gave it back to us. A third of the people we passed it to, they shredded it, they came to us and said, “Mr. Experimenter, I solved X problems. Give me X dollars.” A third of the people, when they finished shredding the piece of paper, they came to us and said, “Mr Experimenter, I solved X problems. Give me X tokens.” We did not pay them with dollars. We paid them with something else. And then they took the something else, they walked 12 feet to the side, and exchanged it for dollars.

Think about the following intuition. How bad would you feel about taking a pencil from work home, compared to how bad would you feel about taking 10 cents from a petty cash box? These things feel very differently. Would being a step removed from cash for a few seconds by being paid by token make a difference?

Over at EG, Entertainment Gathering Dan spoke about some other facets of predictable irrationality of human nature.

One more example of this. People believe that when we deal with physical attraction, we see somebody, and we know immediately whether we like them or not. Attracted or not. Which is why we have these four-minute dates. So I decided to do this experiment with people. I’ll show you graphic images of people — not real people. The experiment was with people. I showed some people a picture of Tom, and a picture of Jerry. I said “Who do you want to date? Tom or Jerry?” But for half the people I added an ugly version of Jerry. I took Photoshop and I made Jerry slightly less attractive. The other people, I added an ugly version of Tom. And the question was, will ugly Jerry and ugly Tom help their respective, more attractive brothers? The answer was absolutely yes. When ugly Jerry was around, Jerry was popular. When ugly Tom was around, Tom was popular.

This of course has two very clear implications for life in general. If you ever go bar hopping who do you want to take with you? You want a slightly uglier version of yourself. Similar. Similar … but slightly uglier. The second point, or course, is that if somebody else invites you, you know how they think about you.

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Wonderful Presentation by Jill Bolte Taylor at TED 2008 : Stroke of insight

I was watching this presentation on my way home in my iPod and telling to myself – I have to blog this as soon as I reach home. It’s a fascinating presentation. If you are interested in theories of human cognitive behavior pattern; if you like to know about ‘how brain works’ – you will love this. if you have nothing to do with all that – I can guarantee, still you will love this presentation by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. This is one of the most beautiful presentation I have ever watched. While watching, I felt, it’s like a convergence point of philosophy, neuroscience and an enactment of Shakespearean tragedy!

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened — as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding — she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story about how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.

You can read the whole transcript here.

Decoding the future with genomics

Stumbled upon this interesting and persuading video of Juan Enriquez ‘s presentation at the TED conference from 2004 entitled “Decoding the future with genomics”. Juan talks about the need to utilize the Genomic data generated from the labs around the world and ended the presentation with views about knowledge-based economy determining the fate of nations. Here it goes:

Scientific discoveries, Juan Enriquez notes, demand a shift in code. The shift from cave paintings to hieroglyphics made possible the rise of Egyptian society, the pyramids, and the conquest of other peoples. The shift to binary code brought with it the era of computing and then the Internet, with vast implications for just about every area of human endeavor. Similarly, the rise of genomics has brought a shift in code toward the structure of life, with implications that are slowly revealing themselves. Enriquez argues that our ability to thrive in the culture created by this shift depends on our mastery of it, and companies whose futures lie with the intersecting fates of science, technology, and computing will do well to mind the knowledge gap — and not get swallowed up by it.

Juan is the author of the 2001 best seller “As the Future Catches You” and chairman and CEO of Biotechonomy, a life sciences research and investment firm.

The science of love

Helen Fisher is an anthropology professor and human behavior researcher at the Rutgers University and considered the world’s leading expert on the topic of love. Presently, Fisher is the most referenced scholar in the love research community. In 2005, she was hired by to help structure the pair-matching website using both hormonal-based and personality-based matching techniques. She was one of the main speakers at the 2006 TED (conference).

Helen Fisher’s courageous investigations of romantic love — its evolution, its biochemical foundations and its vital importance to human society — are informing and transforming the way we understand ourselves. Fisher describes love as a universal human drive (stronger than the sex drive; stronger than thirst or hunger; stronger perhaps than the will to live), and her many areas of inquiry shed light on timeless human mysteries, like why we choose one partner over another. Almost unique among scientists, Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance: Her work frequently invokes poetry, literature and art — along with scientific findings — helping us appreciate our love affair with love itself. In her research, and in books such as Anatomy of Love and 2004’s Why We Love, Fisher looks at questions with real impact on modern life. Her latest research raises serious concerns about the widespread, long-term use of antidepressants, which may undermine our natural process of attachment by tampering with hormone levels in the brain.

Neurons series

Making neurons in a dish to learn

This one caught my eyes while I was looking for some other science video on YouTube. A short video about an experiment at the University of Florida showing rat’s neurons in a culture dish teaching themselves how to fly an airplane. The neurons in a “brain soup” connected to a flight simulator, form networks and learn to fly gradually by trial and error. If you are wondering…No, this is not an experiment to replace human pilots with rats, but to know more about the how brain learns at cellular level.

Neurons basics

100 billion neurons with 50000 connections make you think! A good video to know the basics of how exactly neurons work.

Artficial neurons

Here’s another interesting animation about artificial neurons. One of the possible future applications of Nanotechnology – Nanorobots replacing human nerve cells with artificial nerve cells! Not likely to happen soon, nevertheless a cool concept.

Secret herd gives low-fat milk

moo1.jpgSkim milk naturally available and butter spreadable straight from the fridge!! Sounds convenient..isn’t?

Some cows in New Zealand yield milk with significantly lower fat content than that from other cows due to a particular genetic mutation. Scientists identified that these cows were bred from a single female cow, named Marge. They plan to breed herds of these low-fat milkers, which is likely to begin commercially by 2011. It also has high omega3 oils content, claimed to improve brain power.

Marge was discovered in 2001 when Fonterra’s researchers bought her from her owner for $330 and moved her to a secret location. (via)

An extra advantage of this milk is that butter obtained from it is spreadable straight from the fridge, like margarine. Low saturated fats content of this milk imparts this unique characteristic.

According to Komorowski, technical director at Dairy UK, (via)

“If you can genetically produce milk without fat then that may turn out to be a very good solution to what might later be a big disposal issue,”

Experts say that this new discovery has the potential to completely revolutionize the dairy industry.

For detailed reading:

Biocomputer, the molecular doctor

Imagine a “biocomputer” inside your body monitoring what’s going on inside, identifying the unhealthy cells, and even releasing treatment dose. Thanks to researchers at Harvard and Princeton Universities, one day this may come true!!

BiocomputerScientists have devised a tiny “biocomputer”, which can one day be implanted in human cells to monitor their activities and characteristics. Composed of only genetic materials, these “molecular doctors” hold the promise of revolutionizing medicine by targeting only diseased cells or tissues, leaving healthy ones completely unaffected.

These “biocomputers” are designed to detect anything from the presence of a mutated gene to the activity of genes within the cell using Boolean logic. To create a “molecular computer” capable of making decisions is a big challenge in itself and getting them to work in human cells is likely to be even trickier.

Primary goal involves injecting human cells with DNA to determine if a cell is cancerous or otherwise diseased. If disease is detected, the DNA might trigger an accurate treatment dose in response. As of now, researchers are in the testing stage of turning DNA into versatile computers (published online at Nature Biotechnology very recently).

Cells have short interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules which recognize corresponding DNA sequences in genes, causing them to shut down. This system is based on the process RNA interference (RNAi).