Warming Our Hands on a Dumpster Fire


The Sunk Cost Trap is another of those cognitive heuristics that can catch us all out. It describes how the more we have invested in something, the less willing we are to let that investment go. So instead of ‘cutting our losses’, we often find ourselves ‘doubling down’.

We literally do this with financial investments but it is also present in other positions we hold. In other words, when we are faced with negative outcomes from a decision we have made, we are likely to escalate our commitment to that decision. This is totally irrational, but then so is much of what really happens in our heads.

If you have any interest in global politics then you’re probably already thinking that the notions of sunk costs and escalation of commitments are useful in understanding why support for Trump remains strong among his admirers. How strong, you ask? According to a poll published recently by Reuters, 85 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2016 said they would do so again.

These cognitive traps also explain why fact checking Trump’s most fanciful claims makes no difference to  those supporters. Or, as Vox put it, “Trump supporters know Trump lies – they just don’t care”.

In this regard Trump’s presidency is a remarkable gift to social science, using the largest stage in the world to demonstrate off one cognitive bias after another.

But the uncomfortable truth is that we are all Donald Trump to some extent. Like him and his supporters, facts that contradict our own treasured assumptions are unlikely to change our minds too. Just like him, we’re all confident idiots at heart.

It’s just that some of us are more confident (and more idiotic) than others.

Warming Our Hands on a Dumpster Fire

Wouldn’t You Rather Be Fishing?


How many hours do you spend at work each week?

Data from the OECD suggests that New Zealanders are a hard working bunch, with an ‘average’ full time work week of 43.3 hours. But at the same time, StatsNZ data show that the proportion of people working 50 hours or more a week has reduced over the last 15 years. Indeed, the data show that New Zealanders tend to be working less than they were in 2001.

Of course, what we do and how we feel about it are often very different. Social scientists have spent quite a bit of time working out why so many us feel like we are working harder when we don’t seem to be. We’ve talked about that research elsewhere but the short version is that the number of choices we have about how we use our time influences how we feel about that time.

The international research shows that reducing working hours will probably increase your productivity

But here’s where tracking working hours gets interesting: the international research shows that reducing working hours will probably increase your productivity. The economies that are held up as powerhouses of productivity, such as Germany’s, demonstrably work fewer hours than their competitors. Similarly, many of history’s most famously productive people did so working  very few hours.

The argument for working four hours a day makes sense from a psychological point of view. As does one for having three day weekends.

The argument for working four hours day makes sense from a psychological point of view. As does one for having three day weekends. This is because you only have so much ‘cognitive bandwidth’ available to work with, and  when you focus on one thing you have much less left over to focus on something else.

Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan call this problem ‘tunneling’, and highlight how we tend to do more of it when we are stressed or time-poor. The irony here is that we try to work our way through periods of stress by working longer hours. But, as with gambling, that means chasing losses we’re never going to win back.

In contrast, working smarter seems to be both about working fewer hours (so we can both spend more time recovering and leave more room for serendipity) and to get smarter about how we structure those hours. The research here is also clear: multitasking is a myth (and one that is exploiting you), and we have found ourselves in a world where office designs are perfectly suited to enable the kind of interruptions that ravage our productivity.

We’d love to talk more about it but we’re off to go fishing …



Wouldn’t You Rather Be Fishing?

Caveat Lector!


You probably know that advertisements are carefully crafted to influence how you think, feel, or act. But the subtlety of the deception used in ads is often easy to overlook.

For instance, ads for therapeutic products that claim their product ‘may’ prevent, reduce, or slow the signs of a condition are really signalling that they can’t prove any effect (because products that claim healing properties are obliged to
demonstrate those effects scientifically).

But you also need to be on your guard whenever you hear an ad that makes reference to a product being ‘recommended’ by professionals. The problem for consumers here is that ‘recommend’ and ‘prefer’ sound like synonyms, while for advertisers they remain distinct (and, presumably, their assumption is that most people will not notice the difference).

Colgate ran into trouble in the UK for using precisely this technique. They ran ads claiming that “80 per cent of dentists recommend” their toothpaste, but failed to mention that dentists recommended more than one brand of toothpaste. So while it was true that ’80 percent of dentists recommend Colgate’ it was certainly not the case that they prefer Colgate. In fact, it turned out that those dentists were just as likely to recommend a competitor’s product.

In cases like this, it is as important to think about what the ad is not saying as what it does. Jeffrey Schrank’s The Language of Advertising Claims remains one of the best things written about this topic, and is particularly good at identifying the ‘weasel words’ advertisers often use. These include “helps,” “virtually,” “acts,” “can be,” “up to,” “refreshes,” “comforts,” “fights,” “the feel of,” “the look of,” “fortified,” “enriched,” and “strengthened.” The whole point of these is to modify the claim that follows (and, indeed, to empty that claim of any real meaning) but to be subtle enough that most consumers won’t notice them.

Interestingly, we are all familiar with the caution ‘caveat emptor’ (‘let the ‘buyer beware’) but the work of Schrank and others reminds us that we also need ‘caveat lector’ (‘let the reader beware’). Because as H G Wells warned us long before colour television, advertising is a form of legalised lying.

Caveat Lector!

The Secret to Changing Behaviour


A great deal of our work at Research First is about changing behaviour. But as anyone who works in this field will tell you, getting people to change their behaviour is hard.

For some sense of just how hard it is, think about the last time you tried to change one of your own habits. How are those New Year’s resolutions working out for you? According to one measure, for two-thirds of us those resolutions don’t even make it to February intact. If we struggle to change our own behaviour, how do we hope to encourage others to change theirs?

The answer seems to be ‘by planning what we’ll do when the initial motivation runs out’. Another way to put this is that the secret to effecting lasting change is with what are called implementation intention plans.

As the name suggests, these outline how you plan to implement your intended change. As this article points out, they are if-then plans that spell out in advance how you will strive for a set goal.

These plans are particularly useful for changing health behaviours, and where local councils want to get more people using public transport. The Travel Smart behaviour change approach is built on implementation intention planning. It involves working with households to help them plan their weekly transport use to reduce reliance on private cars. The weekly plans outline clear implementation intentions, as well as what the participants will do if those plans cannot be realised.

Implicit in the success of implementation intention plans is the notion that ‘motivation is over-rated‘. Or, as Chuck Close put it, “inspiration is for amateurs”.

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work” – Chuck Close

Along with planning what to  do once the motivation has run out, implementation intention plans help track progress towards the desired goal. By breaking down larger goals into smaller achievements, and enabling you to measure each one, the plans provide a clear roadmap towards your goal.

In this regard, the plans provide the process. As Deming said in a different context:

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing – W. Edwards Deming

And the best thing about having a process? It means that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still know what to do next.

The Secret to Changing Behaviour

Build Your Own Time Machine!

Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine

Okay, not a real time machine. Not in the sense of one that will take you from 1985 to 2015 once you hit 88 mph. That kind of time machine is probably impossible. If you’re holding out for wormholes to do it then you’ll be disappointed to hear that the physicists at Caltech, using a partial unification of general relativity with quantum physics, think that:

Any wormhole that allows time travel would collapse as soon as it formed.

But it is possible for you to create a personal time machine in your head. Think of it as a psychological time machine. You can do this because we can all alter how we experience time by the degree of novelty we allow into our lives.

When you experience new things, the experiences seem to take longer. Or as Joshua Foer put it:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.

This explains why time seems to speed up as you age (and seemed to stretch on forever when you were young). Or, as Scientific American put it:

When the passage of time is measured by “firsts” (first kiss, first day of school, first family vacation), the lack of new experiences in adulthood, James morosely argues, causes “the days and weeks [to] smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

This ‘monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it’ rule also contributes to the Return Trip Effect, where journeys home from new places seem to be shorter than the ride out.

All of which has important implications for how we live our lives.

  • To make your weekends last longer, build more novelty into them (new places, new activities).
  • If time seems to be rushing by you, find ways to add novelty to your daily routine.
  • And to make meetings somewhat less miserable, introduce an element of surprise.

As others have noted, the real lesson here is that you get to choose how you want to experience time. And there is a wonderful irony here – if you want to slow down the passage of time, start doing more with it!


Build Your Own Time Machine!

Where Is My Jetpack?


The recent visit of SingularityU to New Zealand and TV1’s What’s Next? show have both sparked debate about what the future holds and what it will mean for all of us. While we at Research First are excited about the opportunities it may bring, we feel honour-bound to re-iterate that no-one really knows what the future will hold.

Not the slick presenters at SingularityU, and certainly not the presenters on TV1 (a point made well here). As always, Bob Hoffman captures this better than most.

“I go to a lot of conferences (hey, it’s a living) and I have to listen to a lot of speakers. It’s pretty easy to know pretty quickly who the bullshit artists are. They’re the ones who are telling us what the future is going to be like and warning us that we’d better be ready for it or we’ll be left behind… If you’re a buffoon with a Powerpoint and a bag full of clichés stay away from the present. Nothing to see here. Head for the future – it’s your happy place”

But Umberto Eco could have been describing all these futurologists when he said:

“while they seem to act as a thermometer, reporting a rise in temperature, they are actually part of the fuel that keeps the furnace going”.

We’ve talked in the past about the work of Philip Tetlock, and we wish the producers at TV1 or SingularityU spent less time watching TED talks and more time reading Tetlock.

But even a better understanding of the past would help temper these debates about the future. People have been making predictions about what the future will hold (and getting them mostly spectacularly wrong) for hundreds of years. Similarly, every age thinks theirs is an age of disruption.

We like the way Scientific American put it when it noted

“futurology has always bounced around between common sense, nonsense and a healthy dose of wishful thinking”.

But we prefer the point John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge made in a different context, when they said

“even if it’s not all bullshit, enough of it is to disqualify the rest”.

Keep that in mind the next time someone drops the word ‘disruption’ into a presentation

Where Is My Jetpack?

Facts Are Stubborn Things


There really is no polite way to say this: the world is awash with bullshit. We can dress this up in all the ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ packaging we want, but it’s much more useful not to mince our words. After all, one of the golden rules of psychology is that ‘to name it is to tame it’. Working in the world of research and policy, we confront this problem every day. We see it in ‘voodoo polls’ that take on the appearance of science without any of the substance. And we see it in ‘experts’ who clearly have no idea about how little they really know.

Facts may be stubborn things but assertions are clearly more of a push-over. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr put it, “certitude is not the test of certainty”. The key is not to dismiss all research and evidence but to be clear about when you can trust it.

Back in the mid nineties Carl Sagan compiled a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ that remains a great resource for anyone dealing with claims made from evidence. It also outlines a number of the common rhetorical tricks that get rolled out to shift your attention away from the quality of the research. There is a version of that article on Research First’s website (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/The%20Fine%20Art%20of%20Baloney%20Detection.pdf), and we have a shorter, easier to use, checklist version you can use too (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/files/users/30375/RF_Research_Ninja.pdf).

But fact-checking is only part of the way to hold back the tide of bullshit. As well as being able to check the quality of the evidence used to support an argument, we need to be able to interrogate the quality of thinking that sits behind it. This is the notion of ‘critical thinking’, which is the art of thinking about thinking. What critical thinking often shows us is that the weakest part of an argument is not the facts it ends up with but the assumptions it starts with. There is nothing hard about critical thinking, but it is a skill that needs instruction and practice. Given how often we see the need for this in the organisations we work with, we now offer a range of seminars in how to improve your critical thinking (see a list here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/index.php?page=seminars).

It may be unfashionable to say this but I can’t help thinking that the best way to beat back the wave of bullshit washing over the world is by encouraging more students to study the liberal arts and the humanities. These subjects let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, while training graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.

If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ (or, in 2017, think they are about to) then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need more Arts graduates.

  • Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First
Facts Are Stubborn Things