Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sticky Stats

While the year and the decade is ending, it seems that we have to validate or negate those new ideas we rolled out over the course of the year. Number crunching may be no fun, but reading the results doesn't have to be.

The Heath brothers, authors of Made to Stick, write,
A good statistic is one that aids a decision or shapes an opinion. For a stat to do either of those, it must be dragged within the everyday. That's your job -- to do the dragging. In our world of billions and trillions, that can be a lot of manual labor. But it's worth it: A number people can grasp is a number that can make a difference.
See what they mean below.


Monday, December 21, 2009

We're Only Human: Savoring the passage of time (12/17/09)

Time flies when we're having fun, but it drags on when we're not. What gives? Since time doesn't pass any faster or slower irregularly, Dr. Aaron Sackett, a professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, sought an answer.
In one experiment, for example, Sackett and his colleagues put a group of men and women in two rooms, each without any clocks or watches or cell phones. They had them do a timed test, in which they had to read a text and underline certain words—so not particularly fun-filled, but not particularly aversive either. The scientists told the volunteers the test would take exactly ten minutes, and made a big show of starting a stopwatch as they left the room.
But the test didn’t take exactly ten minutes. For some, the scientists reentered after just five minutes, but acted as if the full ten minutes had passed; they even left the stopwatch conspicuously in view. For others, they didn’t reenter the room until 20 minutes had passed, but again they left the volunteers with the idea that ten minutes had passed. In other words, for some ten minutes seemed surprisingly long, while for others it seemed short—the lab equivalent of making time fly.
Then all the volunteers rated the experience for enjoyment, challenge, fun, engagement, and so forth. And the results were clear: If the ten minutes passed surprisingly quickly, volunteers found the word search task more pleasurable than if time seemed to drag. This doesn’t mean they found it exhilarating, or that the others found it crushingly boring—but their subjective experiences were definitely different on the pleasure scale.
But what if they had to tolerate something irritating or annoying?
In a second study, the scientists forced the volunteers to listen to a tape recording of a dot matrix printer for 30 seconds. Thirty seconds is not a long time, but apparently this was a really irritating noise. While they listened, they watched the elapsed time tick off on a screen-- except that, unbeknownst to the volunteers, the elapsing time was either too slow or too fast. So again, for some time flew, while for others time dragged.
And again, time perceptions shaped emotions. When time flew, the tedious listening experience seemed less tedious, more bearable. When it dragged, it was worse; these listeners said they would rather listen to an electric drill if given the option. They also ran the experiment with a pleasant audiotape—of a favorite song—and once again time distortions determined the pleasure of the listening experience. That is, a pleasant experience became more pleasant.
Basically, our perception of time controlled our emotions. If we thought time flew, the activity became enjoyable, but if we thought time dragged by slowly, the activity suddenly became atrocious.

Talk about food for thought the next time we sit in katha or a boring sabha!

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Psyblog: Ads For Unhealthy Foods Increase Children’s Consumption 45% (11/24/09)

So snack food advertising makes most people eat more. After viewing them children eat almost twice as much, adults (if they're women on a diet or men) eat around a third more and this effect carries over to foods other than those being advertised and after the adverts have finished. Simply avoiding snacking while watching TV isn't going to cut it.
Curious? Read onwards. The first experiment involved kids.
In their first experiment 118 kids, 7 to 11 years old, were sat down to watch a cartoon with advert breaks at the usual intervals. Each child was randomly assigned either to be shown four adverts for snack foods or four adverts for other non-food products aimed at children. The commercials used were taken from actual children's programming and the snack food adverts were all for unhealthy foods like sugary breakfast cereals and potato chips.
While they watched the cartoon, children had a bowl of cheddar cheese "goldfish" crackers in front of them which they were told they could snack on if they wished.
The experimenters were very thorough and collected all kinds of other information about the children like how hungry they were, how much television they normally watched, whether they happened to particularly like the snack that was used to measure eating behaviour, whether they were overweight, whether they had a TV in their room at home and a host of other variables.
Afterwards the experimenters measured how much of the snack the children had eaten and compared the two groups. Children who had watched the cartoon which included adverts for snack foods ate 45% more of the "goldfish" crackers than those who saw non-food adverts.
None of the other variables measured had a significant effect on how much the children ate, except their like (or dislike) of cheese crackers. It didn't matter if they watched more or less TV at home, were over- or under- weight, or how big their appetite was usually. Over and above anything else it was clear that the snack food advert caused children to eat much more of an unhealthy snack.
The second experiment involved adults, specifically college students aged 18 to 24 years old, some of which were also on diets. As one would figure, the dieters would be more likely to eat more.
For this experiment a more sophisticated set-up was required in which participants didn't have snacks in front of them while they watched TV, but snacks were presented to them afterwards in what was apparently an unrelated experiment.
This time instead of cartoons the participants were shown 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?', an improvisational comedy show. They were told the adverts had been left in because the psychologists were interested in the effects of TV on mood and they were in the 'comedy condition'. Actually, of course, everyone saw the same comedy show, it was just the intervening adverts that were different.
All the participants were randomised into one of three groups. In the first they saw adverts for snack foods, in the second they saw adverts for nutritional foods and in the third they saw adverts for non-food products. After watching the show they were taken to another room for what they were told was a different study involving tasting and rating some snack foods. The snack foods offered varied in healthiness: there were vegetables, multi-grain chips, cookies, trail mix and snack mix. Participants were told to taste each one but left to eat as much or as little as they liked. Afterwards the experimenters measured exactly how much each person had eaten.
Once again the snack-food ads had weaved their magic as those who had seen the snack ads ate significantly more than those who had seen either the nutrition ads or the non-food ads. But when the experimenters looked more closely at who had eaten more they found two particular groups were responsible: the restrained eaters and men (but not unrestrained women). Both had eaten, on average, about one-third more snack food if they had seen the snack ads compared with those who had seen either the nutrition ads or non-food ads.
Perhaps surprisingly the ads for unhealthy snack foods didn't only boost how much of the unhealthy snacks people ate, they boosted how much people ate across all the options available, healthy vegetables and semi-healthy trail mix included. The only exception was women who weren't on a diet who ate no more after being shown the snack food ads than other non-food ads.
Here's the kicker.
The vast majority of adults in the second study, when asked later, had no idea that watching snack food ads would make them eat more, despite the relationship being unremarkable in retrospect. And this is exactly what Harris and colleagues suggest is the key to defending oneself against adverts: understanding the powerful influence they can have on our behaviour, even without our knowledge.
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Wired Science: Dark Liquor Makes for Worse Hangovers (12/18/09)

How does liquor affect sleep? A study conducted by Damaris Rohsenow of Brown University may hold the answer.
The researchers recruited 95 healthy young adults, ages 21 to 33, and gave them caffeine-free cola mixed with bourbon, vodka or tonic water. The drinking ended when participants’ breath-alcohol concentrations hit an average of 0.11, well over the legal intoxication limit. Participants were then hooked up to sleep monitors, which record brain activity, and allowed to sleep it off. At 7 a.m. the next day, the researchers roused the subjects from bed (a wake-up that did not include coffee or aspirin) and asked them to rate the severity of their hangovers.
Both the bourbon drinkers and vodka drinkers slept poorly compared to the nondrinkers, the team found. The next morning, when the participants performed cognitive tests that required attention and quick reaction times, the drinkers performed worse than the nondrinkers, but the type of alcohol had no effect on performance. Both groups of drinkers were impaired equally.
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Frontal Cortex: The Tiger Woods Effect (11/17/09)

We know what happens when we get psyched out by the competition. Well, it's quantifiable as shown by Dr. Jennifer Brown, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Brown demonstrated this psychological flaw by analyzing data from every player in every PGA tournament from 1999 to 2006. The reason she chose golf is that Tiger Woods is an undisputed superstar, the most intimidating competitor in modern sports. (In 2007, Golf Digest noted that Woods finished with 19.62 points in the World Golf Ranking, more than twice as many as his closest rival. This meant that "he had enough points to be both No. 1 and No. 2.") Brown also notes that "golf is an excellent setting in which to examine tournament theory and superstars in rank-order events, since effort relates relatively directly to scores and performance measures are not confounded by team dynamics." In other words, every golfer golfs alone.
Despite the individualistic nature of the sport, the presence of Woods in the tournament had a powerful effect. Interestingly, Brown found that playing against Woods resulted in significantly decreased performance. When the superstar entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even more pronounced when Woods was playing well. Based on this data, Brown calculated that the superstar effect boosted Woods' PGA earnings by nearly five million dollars.
Why might that be the case? Increased self-consciousness, perhaps.
Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has helped illuminate the anatomy of choking. She uses golf as her experimental paradigm. When people are learning how to putt, it can seem daunting. There are just so many things to think about. Golfers need to assess the lay of the green, calculate the line of the ball, and get a feel for the grain of the turf. Then they have to monitor their putting motion and make sure that they hit the ball with a smooth, straight stroke. For an inexperienced player, a golf putt can seem unbearably hard, like a life-sized trigonometry problem.
But the mental exertion pays off, at least at first. Beilock has shown that novices hit better putts when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to hole the ball. By concentrating on their game, by paying attention to the mechanics of their stroke, they can avoid beginner's mistakes.
A little experience, however, changes everything. After golfers have learned how to putt - once they have memorised the necessary movements - analysing the stroke is a waste of time. The brain already knows what to do. It automatically computes the slope of the green, settles on the best putting angle, and decides how hard to hit the ball. Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Maryland, has monitored the brain wave activity of expert athletes during performance. (Because the subjects have to wear a bulky plastic cap full of electrodes, Hatfield can only study golfers, archers and Olympic rifle shooters.) While the brain waves of beginners show lots of erratic spikes and haphazard rhythms - this is the neural signature of a mind that is humming with conscious thoughts - the minds of expert athletes look strangely serene. When they are performing, they exhibit a rare mental tranquility, as their brain deliberately ignores interruptions from the outside world. This is neurological evidence, Hatfield says, of "the zone", that trance-like mindset which allows experts to perform at peak levels. (As the corporate motto says, the best athletes don't think: they just do it.)
Beilock's data further demonstrate the benefits of relying on the automatic brain when playing a familiar sport. She found that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. All those conscious thoughts erase their years of practice. "We bring expert golfers into our lab, we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up," Beilock says. "When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don't need to pay attention to every step in what you're doing."
This is what happens when people "choke". The part of their brain that monitors their behaviour starts to interfere with actions that are normally made without thinking. Performers begin second guessing skills that they have honed through years of practice. The worst part about choking is that it tends to spiral. The failures build upon each other, so a stressful situation is made more stressful.
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The Frontal Cortex: Fourth Down (11/17/09)

On November 15th, 2009, the Patriots faced off against the Colts, and Coach Bill Belichick made a final call that cost his team the game though his call made sense statistically.
On 4th down, with 2 yards or fewer to go, New England has gained a first down on approximately 66% of its attempts with Tom Brady as quarterback. The Colts had one timeout. If the Patriots gain a first down, the game ends; they can slowly walk to burn a few seconds, then take a knee on each down to end the game. If they don't gain a first down, the Colts would still need to score a touchdown to win the game. Let's give the Colts a probability P of getting the six if the ball starts at the 28 yard line. So if the Patriots try for the first, their chance of losing is
(Probability of 4th down failure) x
(Probability of Colts scoring a TD from the 28 Yard line) = 0.33P
The average New England punt nets about 40 yards. Let's give the Colts a probability Q of scoring a TD on a driving starting at the Indianapolis 32. Then, the chance of the Patriots losing is simply Q. For Belichick's decision to make sense, we just have to believe that he gave his team a lower chance of losing. In math terms, that would mean 0.33P < Q. Doing some algebra leaves you with P < 3Q. In other words, for the Patriots to have made the right decision, we only have to believe the Colts odds of scoring a TD on a drive starting 28 yards from the end zone are less than three times the odds of the same outcome starting from 68 yards out. The win probability graph for the game suggests that, given 1st-and-10 from New England's 29, the Colts had roughly a 51% chance of winning in the actual situation. We have to believe that their chances under the punt scenario were above 17% for Belichick to have made a bad good decision. Considering the Colts' have scored touchdowns on 30% of their offensive possessions, my guess is that this was a good one.
However, it felt wrong in the emotional/gut-instinct sense. Many times, we want to follow the rules, but when they conflict with our biases or convictions, we make an exception and hope to follow the rules next time.

Maya anyone?

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Situationist: The Situation of Violence (12/2/09)

In 1961, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to show how the right context can override an individual's values and morals. Watch below.

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SciAm 60-Second Science: Drink Now, Pay Later (9/23/09)

People who abuse alcohol when they’re young don’t always make good choices as adults. But it’s been unclear whether the drink gives them the stupids, or whether folks prone to poor choices are predisposed to drink.
One way to tackle the question is by studying alcohol intake in animals, like rats. But rats don’t like to drink. So to make the alcohol more palatable, scientists infused it into a tasty “gel matrix”. Yes, the researchers gave teenage rats Jello shots. And the animals’ decision-making ability stayed impaired well into adulthood…as measured by their tendency to chase after rewards with associated high risk rather than taking a sure thing. So, young party animals, remember the words of Faber’s Dean Wormer: “Drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Don't Talk To Cops

The following video may seem contrarian to many of the power point tips we have had so far. On closer look though we find some common themes:

1. Stories, stories, stories
2. Unexpected
3. Concrete and Credible examples

It also seems that the bulleted text is more for his own notes and not for the audience to read.

FYI this is long, but interesting. Something for the lawyers out there.

Can also be used in sabha, think creatively and it can tie into many presentation topics.