Monthly Archives: September 2011

What’s Your Identity?

Why is it that lots of people don’t vote in their best interest?

I think it’s because people vote their identity. Here’s what I mean. People often think along this line “Someone I think is like me said to vote for a certain candidate (or buy a certain product, or believe something). So I voted that way because I identify with that person.” The messenger can be as important as the message.

Providing evidence isn’t the most effective campaign or marketing tactic. What seems to influence people more than evidence, are eager testimonials from other members of their tribe. People want to hear a story that resonates with them; it might not always be a true story. But if they can identify with the story-teller and the story that’s probably enough.

Before civilization took hold, going along and fitting in was bred into us generation after generation. You needed the tribe for protection; you wouldn’t last long on your own when there (really) were predators lurking nearby. If you were shunned by your tribe, you’d likely not last on your own.

But now there aren’t many life threatening events being a tribe member saves you from. But our built-in need to belong to a group is still with us and can lead us to vote against our best interest just to go along with someone we identify with as a tribe member.

Tribe members change their minds from time to time. When people who are respected in political, social or professional circles clearly and loudly proclaim that they’ve changed their minds, a ripple effect can start. First, peer pressure tries to repress these flip-flopping outliers. But if they’re charismatic and persistent, soon the majority flips. It’s not necessarily easy or fast, but it happens.

Now it’s hard to find people who still believe the earth is flat or that the sun is going away during an eclipse. Most people believed in those ideas until people they respected started insisting otherwise.

That’s why political parties change fundamental points in their platform now and then. It wasn’t that the majority reviewed the facts and made a shift. It’s because people they respected sold them on a new idea, a new opinion.



What Do Men and Women Really Want?

If you’re looking for a really interesting, sexy book; I have one for you. It’s “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. The subtitle is “What the world’s largest experiment reveals about human desire.”

The authors, both PhDs, used their background in computational neuroscience to get their conclusions by analyzing a billion web searches and millions of sites, videos, story sites, and personal ads.

The online and anonymous sexual behavior of more than 100 million men and women around the world provided revealing data showing patterns of sexual interests.

For people using the web, there were no outside promptings, or perceived agendas of a researcher looking over their shoulders, or inhibitions because they might be judged in some way. In past “face to face” research projects about what turns us on, many people haven’t been honest for any number of reasons.

Unguarded, online, behavioral data allows this book to provide some answers to: what truly turns us on?



Bookshelves and Wristwatches

If I point to my wrist and look at you questioningly you might tell me what time it is. If you’re under a certain age, you might give me a confused look or check your wrist for a bug or a mustard stain. Wristwatches are fashionable and functional for some people and mainly just fashionable for the other people below that certain age. If you’ve always used a multifunctional device like a cell phone or smart phone then a wristwatch is sort of quaint.

Soon we might be able to say the same for bookshelves too. More and more people use e-readers, phones and computers for reading and keeping up. And when was the last time you heard of someone buying a set of encyclopedias, or even using one in book form? Amazon now sells more ebooks than printed books.

Don’t even mention newspapers, who wants to read today about what happened yesterday? Why would you pay to put a classified ad in a paper when it’s free and easier to do on Craigslist or something similar?

It’s all really interesting. I’m sure a couple of hundred years ago when clock towers were popular,  people looked up questioningly toward towers for the time, and then folks who grew up around pocket watches wondered what was up on the roof that was so interesting to the upward gazers. Next, pocket watch  users probably started miming pulling out a pocket watch to ask for the time and so early wristwatch adopters thought lots of guys had nervous tics. Change happens.

Hey, you can put your wristwatch over there on my bookshelf.

Rise of the Planet

I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” yesterday and thought it was really good. Both the acting and the story are engaging, I think it’s worth seeing. The movie is a prequel to the existing movies in which the apes are running the show and the humans are gone.

Humans are the smartest of the great apes. In the this new movie the other apes get smart through a botched experiment and  then proceed to initiate the “rise of the planet of the apes.”

It’s a good story but the possible futures for either group of smart apes is likely similar. Once the apes are dominant and the humans are out of the picture, life on earth continues on in normal fashion.

But what if certain other creatures disappeared?

What would the earth look like in 50 years if either insects or humans disappeared from the earth?

If the insects vanished, life on earth would probably be over for most of the other creatures too or radically diminished within 50 years.

In fifty years, if the humans (and the other great apes too) vanished, the world would likely be thriving and look more robust.

Poison is in the dose. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people but there’re just too many of us for the earth to handle now and hopefully we’ll sort it out soon.

What’s The Story?

Lately a big topic of conversation with my friends is about the big changes happening to the work world for Westerners. One of the ideas is about the growing importance of “story.” It’s always been important; but stories and narratives are gaining more importance due to some big shifts in our world.

For many, many generations we told stories to each other within our tribes of extended family. During all that time that we were in small groups, we worked using our feet mostly for hunting, scavenging and wandering about. Then we started working with our backs during the agricultural age and again in the industrial age. Then along came the information age and we switched to working mainly with the left side of our brain – crunching numbers and setting up systems.

But now, most manufacturing is cheaper to have done somewhere in Asia. Plus if you can break a task down into a series of steps, now either a computer can tirelessly crunch through it or a well-educated person (lawyer, doctor, computer programmer…) in  Asia will do it remotely and much cheaper than you will.

What’s a Westerner to do? Well, it’s time to shift again. Now Westerners need to focus on the things that your brain’s right side excels in, making connections and creating narratives. In other words, the stuff that can’t be done by a computer or a clever off-shore worker. Basically it’s storytelling. We’re moving more and more toward working by using the right side of the brain.

If you pull back far enough, the progression of work for Westerners looks like this: with our feet, with our backs, with the left brain, and now with the right brain. The good news is that humans have always told stories. Stories and narratives just didn’t seem as important during the heyday of the information age as they had before. But I think stories are back and they’re important. What’s your story?

How Important Is Body Language?

Here’s a picture of me from a recent photo shoot for my site. I liked it and started to use it. But I decided not to, because nowadays lots of people misinterpret folded arms as defensive or not being open, even though I was just comfortably leaning on a wall for the photo.

An internet search about body language led to this interesting post by communication consultant Max Atkinson. I’ve boiled it down to save you some time; and because it’s chopped and changed I didn’t put it in quotes. Here’s my version of his post:

When I see people with folded arms sitting in my audience, I have, on many occasions, asked them if they are on the defensive. Usually, they say they’re feeling comfortable or that there’re no armrests on the chairs, or they’re feeling cool. Never has anyone said they are feeling defensive.

Also, sometimes several people will be sitting with their arms folded – what researchers call ‘postural echo’, referring to our tendency to reflect, subconsciously, postures similar to those around us.

On the other hand, folding our arms when confronted with an awkward question or threat, is a sign of going on the defensive. So, just like words in a language, elements of body language can have different meanings in different contexts.

The trouble is, many trainers propagate a more rigid doctrine, in which folded arms are assigned a single unvarying meaning in all situations. It’s so widely held, I recommend people not fold their arms when speaking and would like to make a good impression. There’s a high probability that someone in the audience believes it’s a sign of defensiveness.

Over the last few decades myths have arisen about the importance of body language and other non-verbal factors in human communication mostly fueled by books aimed at distilling the research by social psychologists and others. The trouble is that the popularization process almost inevitably results in diluting and oversimplifying research findings. What started out as preliminary observations or hypotheses become hard fact, and few of the original author’s words of caution about the limitations of a particular experiment find their way into the popularized versions.

One spectacular example of this is the claim that the words we use are by far the least important part of the communication process because upwards of 93% of communication is non-verbal body language and facial expressions. When I’ve asked lecturers or trainers who’ve presented claims unquestioningly as “fact”, none have ever been able to cite the source or to provide any further details or sources about the original study.

This claim flies in the face of common-sense experience. For example, it would mean that anyone unable to see a speaker’s facial expressions, whether because they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio, or talking on the phone, would only be able to understand a much smaller amount of what was said to them than they do understand.

And, if only 7% is verbally communicated, there would be no need for anyone to learn foreign languages, as we would already be able to understand 93% of any particular one of them.

One researcher, Dr. Albert Meharbian, a social psychologist, said “I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning, I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately, the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.”

This also increases the normal anxieties of speech-making with a catalog of extra things to worry about, like stance, gesture, movement and even what colour clothes to wear.

Taking The Bad With The Good

In  an interview with super star designer Phillppe Starck in Wired magazine, Starck said we (humans) were the best piece of design ever. He did have one reservation though:

“Of all the animal species, we are the only ones who said, “Why don’t we rise up and better ourselves?” …Ironically, we are also responsible for the world’s worst idea — something that continues to set back scientific exploration. I’m talking about religion. Millions of people today suffer and die because some people use religion to control other people… Believing is the negation of our intelligence… “Oof, it’s not me, it’s God.” This removes any self-responsibility.”

If you’ve ever been to a malaria plagued country you might’ve wondered where god was hiding. Malaria is like a plague. It kills almost one million people each year, and most of those are kids. In 2008, the World Health Organization said 247 million people got sick from malaria. It’s a preventable disease that actually lowers a country’s gross domestic product.

That’s the bad; here’s some good. Wednesday, September 7th, was “End Malaria Day.” A book went on sale that day with all the money generated going to buy treated mosquito nets for African families.

Hang on. Don’t worry, the book isn’t about malaria and no hand wringing or pictures of small children with big bellies. The book is a compilation of  short pieces by 62 top thinkers in business today sharing their cool ideas. A day later, it’s the number one selling business title on Amazon.

I bought a copy and so far I love it. The title is “End Malaria.” All of the $20 for the Kindle edition and $20 from the $25 paperback edition goes to supply treated mosquito nets.

This is good design. It’s a win-win situation. You get both a good read and to help to potentially put a big dent in the malaria problem.


New Words

Who commonly used words like “google,” “blogging,” or “facebook” five or ten years ago? I think it’s interesting to see words come in and go out of favor.

What about “WHAAA?” I’ve been hearing people say this more and more lately. It’s a stretched out “what” usually without much of the “t” at the end. People say it to express their shock or disbelief in something they’ve just heard, like a shorthand version of “What the ____?”

English is morhping all the time; so I’m sure “Whaaa?” has been growing in use for a while. I first remember noticing it last year in a funny mock interview  between Zach Galifianakis and Sean Penn. It’s one of the “Between Two Ferns” fake interviews on YouTube in which Zach’s character asks a celebrity guest outlandish questions while the guest remains in character.

Afterwards, I started saying “Whaaa?” sometimes for effect to my girlfriend, sort of an inside joke. But then I noticed other people saying it in normal conversation. At first I thought they were kidding, but they weren’t.

Maybe it’s always been used this way and I never noticed it until I heard it really camped up in the mock interview. I feel like it’s something that’s somewhat new and catching on.

I guess there’s usually a kernel of truth in most jokes. And I’ve noticed that I say it now too. Whaaa?

Why I Buy the Small-Sized Popcorn Sometimes

For thousands of generations people told and listened to stories for entertainment and to share information. Movies are just modern storytelling, and like a lot of people, I really like going to the movies.

Here’s the thing though, not everyone will like the same movie. I noticed that when I went to a movie with someone who wasn’t enjoying the movie as much as I was it took some of the enjoyment of the movie away from me. When I wanted to see a movie I might like a lot more than my friends, I’d go by myself so I wouldn’t be influenced by their dissatisfaction.It turns out that it wasn’t my imagination.

Brain researchers have discovered that we have mirror neurons in our brains whose job is empathizing with other people. Mirror neurons get their name because they become active in your brain when you’re observing someone else experiencing something. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing what they are. Can’t you remember seeing someone get (just) a paper cut and it making you feel queasy for a moment?

All of us are soft wired to experience someone else’s plight as if we were in their situation; we call it empathy. One of our primary drives is to belong. And these mirror neurons light up, bonding us to others through empathy. We can feel another’s fear, anger, frustration, etc. Solidarity through compassion.

Okay. Back to the movies. Sometimes, that’s why I buy the small-sized popcorn sometimes.