The Herd and Changing the World

I’m forced to listen to pop music almost everyday thanks to the predictable tastes of the 13 year old girl I live with. The thing about pop music is that it’s palatable in the same sense candy is palatable. Most people love candy because it stimulates our animal brains; I don’t like candy that much, but it’s difficult to find candy that’s actively disgusting.

That candy contains no nutritional value is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that you want people to like apples instead. Candy is palatable and gives them a jolt of good feeling, therefore it’s a huge industry.

Pop music is more insidious than candy, because it can stimulate our brain on at least two levels. The first level is the same as candy, the driving beats and catchy hooks stimulate our animal brain. But the real power of pop music is to give people a jolt of the warm and fuzzies by confirming what they already believe or desire.

The Secret of Popularity

It’s not a very good secret, to be honest. It’s obvious. If you want to be popular, make everyone around you right. If you want your products or art to be poplar, make it make everyone who sees it right.

Pop music is a case study in finding a market and catering to it. They sing to college kids about getting super drunk and blowing your rent money on drugs. They sing to 11 year old girls about everlasting love with a boy who is wealthy, cute, and malleable. They sing to insecure young men about how cool it is to be rich and tough and how many girls will fuck you if you are.

These aren’t revelations to anyone, they are deeply held beliefs and values that are simply being reflected back verbatim.

And it’s not just young, dumb kids who go for this, this is the human condition. Part of the reason I’m a fan of the band Tool is that they confirm my worldview that exploration of the mind and universe is worthwhile and that there’s more to experience than meets the eye. I like Alex Grey because his artwork reflects my experience of the world, verbatim, back to me.

Fox News faithfully parrots all the fear and certainty that their audience feels right back to them. MSNBC provides the same mirror for liberals.

Who’s right or wrong doesn’t matter. People buy what they want to be true.

The Anti-herd

On one hand, you’re weird because you’re reading a blog that consistently details the ways you are wrong. On the other hand, this is just another mirror. I’m just parroting your deeply held belief that that our lives could be more meaningful, and that society is flawed. I’m just supporting your value of curiosity, and perhaps your desire to feel aloof, intellectually superior to those chewing cud lost among the herd.

In what may be a feat of self congratulation, I believe there is a distinction between what we do here and pop music or Fox News. The difference is that we are capable of having this conversation.

Acknowledging this condition of perpetual confirmation would undermine the belief structures of Fox News viewers and pop music listeners, and therefore would disintegrate the whole enterprise (quickly giving way to new organizations that would gladly fill the void).

On the other hand, the same acknowledgement strengthens our worldview and method of being, much like science done correctly systemically and continuously exposes its own weaknesses, which keeps it strong. Our constant questions about what is truly real and valuable tends to fight against the entropy of human bias, even while it is driven by the very same bias.

Sales and Change

There are two lessons here. The first is never to let go of challenging yourself. If you have the inclination to join this anti-herd of introspection, grip it and don’t let go, because it can only make you stronger.

The other, more difficult, lesson is that your art, the product of your life’s work, will not be judged by you or by this tribe. It will be judged by the world. And the world wants what it wants, not what you wish it wanted.

The tastes and beliefs of the world don’t change all at once, much like an evolving species does’t change all at once. They make almost imperceptible shifts, and you can only see the effect over a long period.

If you want to be a strong person, question everything, and assume you’re not correct.

If you want to sell, confirm that your audience is correct, always.

If you want to change the world, sell, but subvert the message. Show them a mirror, but make it a funhouse mirror. Show them a reflection that’s recognizable but deliberately distorted.

Show them an apple, but make sure they see candy. You’ll sell the candy, and they’ll buy the apple.

Quality Problems vs Safe Problems

1.

An anonymous poster asked a question on reddit:

My GF has genital herpes and I don’t. I love her with all my heart, but I live day to day wondering if I should stay with her

So from the very beginning of the relationship she was honest about her condition. Her ex cheated on her and got it and then gave it to her. I was a little bit weirded out about it at first but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be her friend. Long story short I fell for her deeply and we started dating. It’s been a year and a half now and I’ve been using protection every single time we have sex but it’s just been coming to the point where it’s hard to move pass the fact that she will always have that. We’ve been talking about marriage and possibly having kids but it’s just so far fetched for me. Bottom line is, I don’t want to risk my health but I don’t want to lose the woman I’ve always wanted in my life. I don’t know where to go with this relationship. We are both 30 and yes I have brought it up to her. She says to do what’s best for me. She would understand. This woman is my other half, no doubt. It’s just that I know if I stay with her, I’ll continue to see her in a different light. I hate feeling like this.

Here is my response:

You’re full of shit.

Hear me out: I know you think you’re serious and sincere, but I’ve heard this story a billion times in my practice, and it’s never what you think it is.

You’ve been with your woman for 18 months, and you claim you are ambivalent about staying with her “because she has herpes,” but you’re full of shit. How do I know? You’ve been with her 18 months, yet a thread on reddit is shedding new light on the condition for you. All the information you could ever want about herpes is a google search away, and you don’t know jack about the disease that you claim is the central sticking point of your long term relationship. That tells me it’s an excuse.

And why wouldn’t it be? It’s a GREAT excuse! It’s nothing that anyone can solve, and it’s not really your woman’s fault, and certainly not your fault, and yet there it is, lingering forever.

She’s the woman you’ve always wanted–she’s your other half! If only it weren’t for this big, bad, unsolvable problem that you haven’t even begun researching in 18 months and that you have no responsibility for, you could commit to her fully and spend the rest of your life with her.

Total bullshit. And now that it’s in black and white like that, I think you’re man enough to realize you’ve been bullshitting yourself about this issue, and you’ve been acting like a pussy and hurting your woman unfairly.
I’m going to make a few guesses here, and they are speculation because I don’t know you, but I’m completing the pattern, so I bet I’m right:

  1. You’re afraid of commitment
  2. You’re afraid your youth is slipping away, as you move into your 30s
  3. You’re afraid she’s not really the one you spend the rest of your life with
  4. You’re afraid of telling her because you don’t want to hurt her
  5. You’re afraid of telling her because you’re afraid she’ll be mad at you
  6. The real reason you’re ambivalent is something you’re too ashamed to admit to her, and probably to yourself as well. Maybe she’s not physically attractive to you, maybe you’re questioning your sexuality, it could be anything

So you make a safe excuse, that you pretend is not really solvable. It’s safe because no one can blame you for being concerned about “your health” re: a disease that has stigma. If this were really the problem, you would’ve researched it to death and made a final decision within days of starting to fall for her, 18 months ago.
When your woman tells you that you need to make your own decision, and she wouldn’t blame you, she’s fucking dying inside. You are acting like too much of a pussy to just own your real thoughts and feelings and be real with her, and it’s tearing her up.

What can she say other than what she’s said? If she blames you, then you get to tell everyone what an unreasonable, diseased bitch she is when you leave her. If she begs you to stay, then you get to hold this over her head forever. And I think you sort of like that because it gives you power in the relationship: you have a free pass to leave her on a whim, guilt free. Who would give up a sweet deal like that?

I’ll tell you who: a real man. The man who deserves her will do right by her and make a fucking decision.

Get real about the reasons that you have cold feet, man up and be honest with your woman about those reasons, and stop pretending tiny, infrequent cold sores are the reason you can’t commit. Also, when you’re done, if your woman keeps you, apologize to her for being such a pussy and putting her through that bullshit. She deserves better.

2.

A lot of people took exception to my abrasive tone, my sexist language, and my presumption that I knew so much about this anonymous guy who had barely posted more than a paragraph.

My tone, and my words were all carefully chosen to drill into this man’s soul and change his life. I was confident I was right, but the proof is in the pudding:

The poster of the question responded within minutes, saying I’d hit the nail on the head, and he had a lot to think about. He followed up in another post thanking me again.

How did I know?

3.

You might have noticed a phrase in my response: “safe excuse.” That’s kind of a code word, the usual phrase is “safe problem.” A Safe Problem is the opposite of a Quality Problem.

A Quality Problem is a forward thinking decision that could have a significant impact on our identity, circumstances, or quality of our lives, so they feel risky.

Examples of Quality Problems:

  • Moving to a new area
  • Career Change
  • Committing to a Relationship
  • Leaving a Relationship
  • Starting a Family

A Safe Problem is an issue that lingers even though, strictly speaking, the solution is in our control.

Examples of Safe Problems:

  • Communication problems or bickering
  • Procrastination
  • Blaming Others
  • Addictions
  • Avoiding making decisions
  • Time management issues

When someone is terrified of the risk of solving a quality problem, they will often replace that quality problem with a smoke screen of safe problems, that they can use so they never have to face the real, underlying issue. They never have to take any risk or face their fear, because they make themselves powerless and paralyzed by “problems” that apparently have no solution.

4.

I knew Mr. Anonymous was full of shit, because everything about his “problem” reeked of safety, in all the ways I outlined in my response to him. All I had to do was ask myself: if this problem went away, what real problem would he have to face? And I gave him a bullet point list of the real issues that I had a strong inclination to believe were underlying his question.

That’s how I knew he was using herpes as a safe problem to avoid the real issues like fear of aging and commitment.

So I put it to him to him in a way that would interrupt his pattern of using the safe crutch (shocking and abrasive language), and that supported his essentially heterosexual, gender normative frame of the world. Luckily he was honest enough with himself to take that punch and say “You know what? It’s true, I’m afraid of something else.”

That insight, combined with his level of honesty means this guy has a fighting chance to grow and change and maybe have a long, happy marriage.

What safe problems are you hiding behind?

How to Draw

The Last Psychiatrist just released an article that beautifully articulates a point I’ve made weakly several times in my writing.

The point is essentially that we project so much of our own meaning onto the world that we forget to see what’s actually there.

… Edwards calls this the “tyranny of the symbol system” because it dictates to us, forces our hand to draw symbols rather than what we see.

But it isn’t simply that we draw using these symbols; we perceive using them as well. I don’t bother to see the actual shape of a head because it was never important to; in order to see it for what it really is, I need to practice my perception. It is easy for me to see a news story as a manufactured construct, but it never occurred to me I was seeing every day objects wrong. My tilted computer monitor isn’t a rectangle; it’s a trapezoid.

You’ll never make the huge breakthroughs you want in your life if you don’t teach yourself to see what’s really there.

How To Draw (This Is Not An Article About How To Draw) →

9 Ways to Change For Good

Achieving freedom means changing the way we interact with and experience the world. You don’t think yourself into freedom, only actions can take you there. You may think I’m telling you something you already know, but are you sure you know how to truly change your behaviors in the long term?

Most people don’t know how to motivate themselves to act toward their passion without any lunch bells, office hours, or stern authority figures. That’s why the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University shared the top 10 mistakes people make when they are trying to change their behavior. The presentation is insightful, but lacks actionable advice or concrete examples. The information is important enough to explain more fully, so read on for a full treatment.

Willpower Isn’t Enough

It’s a mistake to rely on willpower alone for long-term change. I know a brilliant girl named Jeanine who is also a chronic yoyo dieter, with dreams of a svelte figure and a perfect 22 BMI. When she’s on a diet, she scrapes by without her habitual Caramel Macchiato, without her Ton of Fun sized Luncherito, without her double chocolate Sara Lee cheesecake. Finally, after a long and stressful day of making her boss a lot of money, she succumbs to the open bag of Cheetos that her son left in the pantry.

Her heart is in the right place, but she was doomed from the start. I’ve already explained in detail why she cannot fight her urge to consume sweets over the long haul. But more than that, she hasn’t set herself up to succeed. She hasn’t asked herself a critical question:

How would I achieve my goal if will power simply didn’t exist?

Make the Change Easy by Default

Boulders don’t have will power, but they roll down hills because gravity compels them to. Girls who have packed a few too many ribeyes around the midriff won’t lose their wobble by hoping really hard. But Jeanine is a busy woman. She’s going to just grab whatever is available.

So she should make it easy for herself. When she shops for groceries, she should buy only healthy foods. Those cheetos should never have been in front of her. She can’t eat food she doesn’t have. That’s just one small example of making the good behavior (eating healthy food) the default behavior.

Think of yourself as that boulder. Don’t struggle to move, because you can’t. Ask yourself instead: How can I create a hill that I can’t help but roll down?

Change Your Context

The key lesson from the question of how to create a “hill” around yourself is that your environment shapes your behaviors. Sometimes “environment” refers to your social environment, as in the five people you spend the most time with. Other times it really is your physical environment, like an alcoholic bartender.

You’re surrounded by familiarity in both situations, so your brain will automatically try to act the way it’s been trained to act in that context. When I quit smoking a month before my 21st birthday (telling myself I could pick it back up when the big day came), the only difficult moments were when I was drinking with my friends. I learned to avoid that context while my addiction subsided because it triggered my addiction.

Harness the Power of Triggers

No behaviors happen without a trigger. Drinking and spending time with friends causes a cascade of chemicals that triggered my desire to smoke. A momentary lapse in stimulus in the context of unstructured access to the internet triggers my obsessive need to check e-mail.

But I got some benefit, however small, from smoking and checking your e-mail. Those actions met some primal need that I had. That’s why avoiding bars isn’t enough to make an alcoholic stop drinking. It’s not completely about convenience or opportunity. Maybe it’s about coping with emotional distress. Maybe it’s about relaxing after a stressful day at work.

To change behaviors in the long term you must address the underlying needs your reptile brain is trying to fulfill. When I’m triggered to check my e-mail, I acknowledge my urge, and fulfill it with a positive behavior. I do 10 pushups instead.

Create Positive Behaviors

Shift your focus from avoiding bad behaviors and triggers by creating positive behaviors that fulfill the same need. When triggered by a negative self image to down a gallon of ice cream, call your BFF instead, she’ll make you feel like a million bucks. Instead of smoking to relax, try breathing deeply. Instead of checking your e-mail to get that dopamine rush, try 10 pushups.

Whatever behavior you have and whatever triggers it, develop a plan for a better, alternative behavior, and stick to it when the time comes. It’s not that you’re trying to “quit smoking.” It’s that the very next time you’re tempted to smoke, you will choose to do something else instead. You’ll choose to spend 5 minutes on your exercise bike, maybe. It’s one trigger at a time that you’ll conquer until you’re behaving the way you’d like to.

Take Baby Steps

It’s one tiny success after another that adds up to big changes. Your goal isn’t to build a wildly successful blog, your goal is to write your next blog article and post it when you scheduled yourself to post it. Do that a few hundred times, then maybe you’ll be successful.

Building a profitable company is not about eight or nine figure paydays, it’s about showing up, building one more feature, providing one more service, solving one more problem, selling to one more customer.

No one knows how to “be successful.” Lots of people know how to show up and take one more step in the right direction.

Focus on Concrete Behaviors instead of Abstract Goals

The problem is that “be successful” sounds like something you can do, but it’s not really actionable. “Take one step” may not be a fast track to fame and fortune, but it’s something you can actually do.

We fail at goals like “get in shape” because they are contentless. You can’t “get in shape,” even though your brain thinks you can. What you can do is walk 15 minutes every day. You can do 50 pushups before bed. You can drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Translate goals like “have a successful business” to actions like “get one more customer today.” But be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking you need to read about how to get that customer.

Know When to Stop Thinking and Start Acting

We believe that if we have more information we can take action, but humans aren’t that rational. We normally use information gathering as an excuse not to start a business “yet” or not to chat up a cute girl “yet,” as if some esoteric insight is going to fundamentally change our approach to these situations.

You don’t need to research another fad diet, you know damn well that limiting portions and exercising will make you lose weight. You don’t need to research yet another online business model when you know damn well that you need to just create something, and iterate.

Don’t use information gathering as an excuse not to act.

There is a reason you’re trying to stall though. Change can be overwhelming, and in the same sense that tackling huge challenges is untenable whereas taking small steps is workable, changing forever could seem hopeless, but anyone can make a change for a little while.

Choose a Timeframe for the Change

Changing for a set period that you decide in advance takes the pressure off. Instead of imagining a dismal future, devoid of soda, you can tell yourself that you’re doing something good for your body and you can have soda again in a week. Or two weeks. Or whatever you decide.

Probably the most well-known application of this rule is Steve Pavlina’s “30 Day Trial” concept. His idea is to commit to a new action for only 30 days. At the end of the 30 days you can do whatever you want, but you promise yourself (and maybe others) that for those 30 days, you’ll stick to it.

This helps overcome the indomitable concept of “forever” by only committing to a little while, but it also keeps you going long enough to actually instill the action as a habit. That way you can make a conscious decision about whether to continue with the now-habitual action, or whether the action really doesn’t meet your needs and expectations.

Keep the Change

So now you know how to make a change and maintain it.
Willpower isn’t enough. You have to rearrange your life so that the behavior you want becomes the default behavior. You do that by changing your context to create new triggers and get rid of your old ones. When you can’t get rid of the triggers that lead to bad behavior, you replace those bad behaviors with positive ones that fulfill the same basic needs.

You take baby steps toward concrete actions, instead of fantasizing about abstract goals. You stop thinking and just do it. And finally, you choose a timeframe for whatever goals you may have.

Changing behavior doesn’t have to be difficult. Use these findings to set yourself up for success.

Akrasia, or How to Stop Checking E-mail

My calendar says I should write today from 8:00am until noon. I began thinking about possibly writing at 9:28, and I’ve been glancing back and forth between potential titles, hacker news, and my e-mail since then. It’s 10:31.

I like writing. I want to write. The moment I get stuck on a word or I’m not sure how to structure the essay, I “give myself a minute to think” … by checking my e-mail.

The good news is that I only have 10 e-mails left in my normally bulging inbox. I have my inbox configured to show 100 messages per page, and this is the first time I’ve seen a 1 page inbox in about 2 months.

The bad news I’ll never get any writing done at this pace, even though I know I should be writing, and I want to write.

I’m the only person in the world that this happens to. I’m lazy and unfocused, and if I were serious about success like all those serious writers out there, I wouldn’t be going through this.

Akrasia

Ancient Greek ἀκρασία, “lacking command (over oneself)”

The state of acting against one’s better judgment.

Ok, I’m the only one in the world aside from Socrates and Aristotle. And Plato. And sometimes Einstein. And I heard Feynman also. And Twain, and Douglas Adams.

Maybe this actually happens to everyone.

Why Akrasia?

Why do I check my e-mail when I know I should write and when I, in fact, want to write?

I just checked my e-mail again.

Here’s my theory about akrasia.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for cognition, voluntary movement, motivation, punishment and reward, lactation, sexual gratification, sleep, mood, attention, working memory, and learning. And some other stuff.

It’s a complex issue, but for our purposes know this: dopamine is a happy chemical, and your brain is a dopamine fiend.

You have receptors hungry for those delicious, microscopic squirts of happy juice, and there’s hardware deep in your brain that’s been there since your mom was a gila monster, that drives you to get more of that succulent dopamine at almost any cost.

But there’s will power right? You can bring to bear the mighty weight of your rational mind to overwhelm your animal urge to fight and fuck and check your e-mail for the 54th time today.

Glucose

It turns out that will power is mediated by another molecule you may have heard of called glucose, which is blood sugar. Glucose is the simplest sugar, and almost everything your cells do require a glucose molecule to make it possible.

Lots of researchers have found that you can’t stop yourself from doing things you kind of want to do if there’s not enough glucose in your brain.

Reptile Brain

The thing you have to understand about your brain is that it’s made of layers that were evolved at different times, and they are stacked one over the other, oldest on the bottom, newest on top.

Basic functions are controlled by the hindbrain, sometimes called the reptilian brain or the lizard brain. Much like Tom Selleck’s mustache, the hindbrain is nearly unstoppable. You can be legally dead, and still that lizard brain will pump your blood, and suck air into your lungs. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to hold your breath until you pass out: your conscious mind (which holds breath) cannot overwhelm the basic urge to breath.

A layer that sits above the hindbrain is the limbic system, sometimes called the Paleomammalian brain. The limbic system that controls emotions and long-term memory.

Remember the time you walked into a Chinese buffet and noticed the fish tank was a little skanky? But you ate the chunky shrimp and crusty rice anyway? Do you remember shitting your guts out and wishing for death a couple hours later?

And now your sphincter quivers a little when you see a Chinese place, even though you know the food probably won’t make you sick?

That’s the limbic system telling you that no, week-old-shimp is not your friend. Even if your conscious mind wants cheese wantons, your limbic system makes you feel like you just ate a dirty sock if you so much as think about going there again.

The final layer I’ll talk about is the frontal lobe, seat of the rational mind. It’s woefully underdeveloped by many, but even in the best case, its ancient cousins easily overwhelm it. It can’t be blamed, it’s only been evolving since a few million years ago, which is when monkeys figured out that lying and cheating was a great way to get laid.

It feels the most real since that’s where our sense of self sits, but it’s actually the least integrated and flimsiest part of the brain.

That’s why starving a child of oxygen at birth will render him unable to speak or do math, while he’s perfectly capable of feeling happy (limbic system) and certainly has no trouble keeping his heart beating (hindbrain).

Hence Akrasia

That anatomy lesson is my geeky way of telling you that even though:

  1. Your sense of self and conscious control of your actions is seated in your forebrain,
  2. and even though you want to write instead of checking your e-mail,
  3. the deeper portion of your brain had a couple billion years extra to make sure it will almost always win.

The end result is rationally wanting to run a mile a day because you know it will make you feel better in the long run, but stuffing your face with greasy potato chips to get that dopamine rush in the short term.

You’re a slob because evolution told you so, and there’s nothing your flimsy upstart forebrain can do about it! Essay over.

How to beat Akrasia

Actually, not so much. Like a woolly mammoth versus a cro-magnon man, the hindbrain will win in a fair fight against the frontal lobe. But mammoths don’t have strategies and sharp spears, and men don’t fight fair.

It’s possible to outsmart a mammoth, and it’s possible to outsmart your hindbrain.

It wants dopamine. You need glucose.

I just checked my e-mail again.

Give your Body Glucose

Glucose is easy: eat. If you’re one of those no breakfast and coke for lunch people, then knock it off.

Keeping your blood sugar up and even will make a huge difference in your ability to control your own behavior.

Pure glucose (called dextrose on food labels) takes 15 minutes to enter your bloodstream. Cheap carbs like white bread will take between 30 minutes and an hour. Better stuff like whole wheat will take between 1 and 2 hours, and up to 3 hours for a food like hard wheat pasta.

The food that takes longer to absorb will also take longer to break down, which means you won’t burn through your energy and feel like you’re starving again 15 minutes after eating (McDonalds).

Eat a solid meal with good, slow release energy about an hour before you plan to work. Don’t stuff your face until your stomach is distended, just eat until you’re not hungry.

The next step is to flood your system with happy juice.

Give Your Brain Dopamine

Much like sexual urges ebb and flow as you satisfy them, your need for dopamine can be stronger or weaker. You can time your productive periods during an ebb in your dopamine cycle.

Aside from vigorous coitus, by far the most effective method of flooding your brain with happy juice is exercise.

A run, a swim, a spin on a bike, anything to get your heart rate up. Keep your heart rate high for 20 minutes and you will feel like a million bucks because of the dopamine and other happy chemicals now swilling around in your brain.

Sweet Productivity

You’ve eaten enough good food to support your exercise and your brain power for the next few hours, and you’ve satiated the inner beast by giving it the dopamine it craves.

Now, sit down and enjoy the clarity of an amazing mood, and the will power to stay laser focused.


Before I let you go, let me also throw in that it’s important to move around and eat light snacks throughout the work day to maintain the effect. I have a system that I use to do exactly this (that I should’ve been using today). When I use it I am a well-oiled machine of productivity. I’ll share the system with you soon!


ps. There is some controversy about the glucose/willpower link. However, even the people who say there’s no link say that eating right and exercising produce marked improvements in willpower, so my advice stands even if my physiology lesson is wrong.

Loss Aversion Bias

Numerous studies have shown that people feel losses more deeply than gains of the same value (Kahneman and Tversky 1979, Tversky and Kahneman 1991).
Goldberg and von Nitzsch (1999) pages 97-98

A friend of mine, we’ll call him Joe so I can feel free to ridicule him publicly, complained to me the other day about a kit he bought called the “Robot Builder’s Bonanza”—it’s a beginning robotics kit. He bought it from some off brand electronics site for around $20. So he thought.

The kit arrived, but after checking his bank statements Joe noticed the charge had gone through for $31.02.

I asked him what he did about it. He e-mailed the company about the problem, and got a bullshit boilerplate response back. He did a few backflips, I guess by looking at the domain’s whois information to find a number, and eventually got on the line with someone at the company who, he reported, was rude and told him to piss off, in not so many words.

Joe is nothing if not tenacious. He called his credit card company to initiate a chargeback for the transaction. Since it wasn’t cut and dry—he had received the thing he bought, he was just charged the wrong price for it—he had to download a form, fill it out and fax in a signed copy.

After about three and a half weeks he got the difference of $11.14 refunded.

I know this because as Joe was relating this story I was totally fascinated, and I asked him for more and more detail. I knew this was a textbook case of the Loss Aversion Bias, and I wanted the full scoop to share with you.

He spent 4 hours to get an $11 refund

In all, Joe had gone through considerable effort to find an e-mail address, all the relevant transaction data, even more hassle to find a number and call it, waited on the phone with his credit card company for almost an hour, then printed, filled out, and faxed a form. All told, he had spent four hours or so over the course of a few days getting his refund. His $11 refund.

So I proposed a business deal for Joe. I said to him, listen, I have these bitchy customer service people I don’t want to deal with. You’ll have to do a little a sniffing to find the right people to contact. You’ll need to call them, figure out some paper work they’ll need, and send it all in. Shouldn’t take more than half a day’s work, I said. I’ll give you $11 to do it.

For some reason, Joe told me to fuck off.

Why Loss Aversion Bias is Dangerous

Loss aversion is a error in our brains that makes us fight like a rabid animal to avoid a small loss, while chewing our cud stupidly when it comes to getting what we want. Data from Kahneman and Tversky suggests we prefer avoiding loss about twice as much as acquiring gains.

That’s a trap.

It’s counter productive because it’s rare to find a slam dunk in life. You can find a job that’s a little better—in fact, getting better job often leads to getting an even better job. You can achieve “100% better.” The problem is that you’ll rarely achieve 100% better in one move. That’s why loss aversion tends to “stick” you exactly where you are unless you get a lucky break with a job that is twice as good.

Consider also that whatever you have, you’ll work twice as hard to keep it than you would to acquire it in the first place. If your husband is sort of a shit, you’ll fight to “make it work.” If you had just started dating him though, you’d only work half that hard to get the same guy. Again, loss aversion tends to “stick” you exactly where you are.

How to Short Circuit the Loss Aversion Bias

When you realize you’re choosing between something you’re attached to and something that’s potentially better, the easiest way to short circuit the loss aversion bias is to turn it on its head.

  • To Joe it made perfect sense to spend the time and energy to make sure he didn’t unfairly lose his $11.14, but when I reversed the question and asked him to spend equivalent time and energy in order to gain $11, he knew intuitively that it was a crappy deal.
  • If you’re working massive overtime to get a promotion, ask yourself: would I work a 40 hour week at a job paying what I make now, plus another 40 hours a week without pay for a whole year in order to make 10% more than I make now?
  • If you’re with someone who doesn’t make your heart sing, ask yourself: would I fight to acquire the companionship of a person who I know is dull and and kind of annoying?

Can you think of a situation where reversing your thinking would make it clear that you’re fighting tooth and nail for a crappy deal?

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Sunk Costs are costs which have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a mistake in reasoning in which you consider the sunk costs of an activity (instead of the future costs) when you decide whether you should continue the activity or not.

“I’ve put everything I have into this business. If I stop now all that time and money will be lost! I can’t stop now!”

The resources and effort are already lost, no matter what you do now. Therefore, the only thing you should worry about is what your goals are today, and most logical way to achieve them starting today.

Examples include:

  • “I’ve spent 5 long years at this crappy company, and I’m this close to getting a promotion, so I’m not giving up now.”
  • “I’m 3 years through my college career, and If accept this amazing job now, all that time will be lost.”
  • “I’ve spent a year renovating this drafty rat hole, if I sell before it’s done, all my effort will be wasted.”

The Danger of the Sunk Cost Fallacy

The danger comes in two flavors.

  1. By definition, anything you’ve tried in the past gets more weight than something you might try in the future:
    Resources and Effort Put in
    Stuff you’ve tried before Some
    Stuff you’ve never tried None

    You have always put “some” resources and effort into stuff you’ve already tried, and no resources or effort into stuff you haven’t tried yet. So if you fall for this trap, you will always favor the crap you’re doing now, over the changes you could make.

  2. The stuff you’re doing now, the stuff that isn’t working: that stuff is not going to start working. You think it will. I know you think the stuff you’re doing now (that isn’t working) will “maybe” start working because that’s the second flavor of the danger.

    The more resources a person pours into an activity, the more optimistic he is about it.

    Even if you ask yourself: “Would I accept a job at this company again, if I had just gotten the offer today?” you’ll probably answer yes, even if you really wouldn’t take it. Maybe the culture you expected didn’t pan out. Maybe you expected raises and promotions you never got, but always feel “close” to. Why will you think it’s still an okay deal? Because of the sunk cost fallacy: you’ve put so much time and effort into your employment that your puny psyche couldn’t stand the possibility that the time was a mistake.

How to Beat the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Bill Gracey @ Flickr

The calculation you need to make is whether the activity in question is worth what resources you haven’t put in yet, not what resources you already put in, which are gone forever no matter what you do.

Example of Ignoring a Sunk Cost

Imagine you’re planning a vacation to Florida since you can’t afford Hawaii. The vacation will cost $20,000 in total, and you have already paid a $10,000, non-refundable deposit. A week before the trip, your best friend calls you to tell you about a fantastic deal: if you go to Hawaii with him, you can go for only $10,000.

The cost of going to Florida to you is $10,000. The cost of going to Hawaii to you is also $10,000. You prefer Hawaii, so you should go there. The $10,000 Florida deposit is gone no matter what you do.

Techniques for Ignoring a Sunk Cost

Ongoing Activity

If you need to ignore the sunk costs of an ongoing activity like a relationship or job:

  1. Ask yourself: if I were just starting this today, would I think it was a good idea? Knowing what I know now about my job, would I accept an offer? If I met my wife today, would I be attracted to her? Knowing everything I know about her, would I marry her?

    This alone won’t work because of the dangers I talked about earlier. This is just to get you asking the right questions.

  2. Fictionalize the Situation. Instead of your wife Susan, imagine you’ve just met Betty. Imagine Betty with as much detail as you can: how tall is she, what color hair and eyes does she have, what does her voice sound like? Make her as real in your mind as possible. Make her as similar to your real wife Susan as you can.

    Now ask yourself the same question from above, but imagine it’s about Betty.

The idea is that you remove the sunk cost trap by first changing the context to one in which you have invested nothing (Susan is your wife, but Betty is a stranger), then considering the situation as it is now, not as it was when you began.

One Discrete Item

If you need to ignore the sunk costs of an item, like a college degree, then write down the cost of the item that you have yet to pay, then ask yourself: would I want this item if it cost me exactly what I have written down here?

You’re two years through a degree. It’ll cost you two or three years of effort, $50,000, and lost wages for those 2 years totaling perhaps $100,000. In exchange for your time and $150,000 you’ll receive certification which may help you find traditional employment in certain fields, and probably approval from your family. Will you take the deal?

Two Alternative Items

Often the question is about two alternatives. If you need to ignore the sunk costs of an item among alternatives, like the vacation from the example above, then:

  1. Write down the cost that you have yet to pay for each of the items.
  2. Write down the benefits from each of those items that you have yet to receive.
  3. For each alternative, follow the directions from above for one item to eliminate any alternatives that just aren’t appealing. Maybe something that sounded good in your head isn’t that great once you look at the costs and benefits in black and white.
  4. If there is more than one alternative left (there may be one or zero left), compare the written costs and benefits of each to decide which you prefer.

From the vacation example, we determined that the cost was the same for each, but we preferred Hawaii to Florida, so the choice was easy since we didn’t let the irrelevant detail of the deposit get in the way.

Conquering the sunk cost fallacy is a powerful tool for choosing a direction in life with confidence. It’s also a heck of a way to hone your financial and business decisions.

Did this article help clarify a decision you made recently? Could I have explained something better? Let me know!

The Bomb and the Bystander

I read an article by Erin Pavlina about taking command and cultivating leadership, in which we recounts an event in which she took control of a situation despite her misgivings about taking point.

I was reminded of a Mexican restaurant my wife and I ate at some years back, just a little while after September 11th. It had a full wall of windows facing a fairly busy road — think Mexican lunch diner, with the neon paint on the windows that says “2-4-1 Margaritas!” So, we’re sitting there in a booth next to a window when a bomb went off.

The Bomb

One moment calm, the next an enormous sound shook the building, making the plates and light fixtures shutter; a flash of bright light, all the electric lights popped and went dark, and everyone in that restaurant jumped from their seats to run or perhaps just to see where the blast had come from. It occurred to me that our sleepy Florida city wasn’t a likely target, but it was on the east coast and probably easier to hit than a major center like New York.

The building seemed in tact, and soon the attention of the dozens of patrons was focused out the window, at an SUV which the driver had accordioned against a concrete power pole. At the top of the pole, which was big enough to be a hub in that commercial corridor, was an over sized power transformer.

It wasn’t a bomb at all. A man had become distracted, glanced down at his cell phone for a moment while speeding down this major road, and ended up swerving into the pole at 40 miles per hour. The crash had triggered the huge transformer at the top to blow, causing a second major blast and a very bright flash, not unlike a bomb.

Pete the bystander

bystanders

So there I was, surrounded by dozens of onlookers, gawking at a smashed SUV. I froze. After an interminable moment, a man closer to the door unfroze and rushed outside and across the street. He arrived near the truck in time to help another passer by help the driver, uninjured out of the driver’s side window.

The moment that man moved, I knew it. In a psychology class I learned about the bystander effect. People in a group, when faced with an unusual or stressful situation, will look to each other for a signal of how to act. The problem is that in that unusual situation, no one knows how to act, so everyone freezes, while men in smashed SUVs suffer alone in the cab of their mangled vehicle.

I remembered from class, judging all those hypothetical people who stood around doing nothing when people were in trouble and needed help. I would never be such a sheep.

It turns out that after your restaurant has been hit by a bomb, and a man is in trouble, it’s not so easy to judge, and I, in fact, did act like a sheep. I was the “bystander” of the “bystander effect.”

As soon as that man opened the door to run across the street, I knew it, and I was ashamed for being so damn human.

Pete the Decisive

Right then and there, I steeled myself. I told myself and my wife: next time something happens, I’m going to be that man, first out the door to help. I won’t look to other people in an emergency, I will do what needs to be done, and I’ll break the spell of the bystander by directing those around me.

Sure enough, some time later I was sitting in a speech class, listening to a lecture with about 25 other college students. From the back of the room comes a crack, then a thud. I look back from the front, and I see the quiet guy from the back of the room, Don, on the ground having a seizure with blood gushing from his head.

I didn’t hesitate.

Before I knew what was happening, I rushed back past the other students, who were gawking. I cleared the area around him of desks and debris he could hurt himself on, and found the strap of his backpack to shove in his mouth so he didn’t bite his tongue off. Then, I looked at the first person to my right, a brunette girl, perhaps 19 years old, pointed at her, and in a clear, commanding tone of voice asked if she had a phone. I had to ask twice because she was mesmerized, but she did have a phone. You call 911, right now. I did the same thing to the surfer guy standing next to her. I knew that asking “the crowd” to call 911 would not work because of the bystander effect, so I told a specific person what to do, and I knew that person was dazed, so I told two people instead of just one.

By the time I’d gotten people making calls, Don had come to. I told him in a calm voice that he’d just had a seizure, and not to move too much. I hadn’t moved him in case the fall had injured his neck, so I asked him if he could roll over on his back. He could, so it looked like he was going to be alright. I told him he was bleeding, but not too much, so not to worry, and that paramedics were on their way. Since he was lucid, we talked for a couple minutes about his history of seizures (he had none), and about the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything that day.

The campus paramedics arrived in short order, and I moved out of the way, my role complete

Ice Sculptures

ice sculpture

While all of this was going on, the other 24 people in the class, including the professor, stood frozen like deer in the headlights of that man’s SUV; like I had stood frozen, just a few months before.

It wasn’t their fault. Normally, looking to others is a great way to figure out how to act–at a house party, for example–but in these circumstances, that heuristic fails. So steel your mind: in an emergency no one has any idea what to do, so you need to show them by acting. If you want to organize those lookers on to help, then you need to give them clear instructions individually, otherwise the same effect that froze them in place to begin with, will hamper your efforts.

I don’t judge people for falling victim to themselves anymore, I just learned to short circuit the problem.