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Privacy, Persuasion and Fundamental Rights

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Perhaps, not surprisingly, it started with a lie. In 1957, James Vicary, on a hot summer day, in a Fort Lee, NJ movie theater, claimed to have run an experiment where he said he inserted frames into a movie and flashed on the screen the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola”. He claimed this subliminal (meaning literally below threshold) advertising resulted in huge increases in the sales of popcorn (up 58%) and Coca Cola (up 18%).  Vicary stated that subliminal communication was so powerful and had such potentially dangerous uses that he suggested warning the public when subliminal techniques were in use, and even seemed to think that some sort of governmental regulation might be needed.

Congress held hearings, legislation was proposed, but not passed. The public felt they were being manipulated. Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review, warned his readers about subliminal communications. Among the uses his article warned about was the potential to manipulate voting patterns for political candidates and influence the outcome of an election.

On the fifth anniversary of his “experiment”, Vicary admitted that it was a hoax, a ruse and that his goal was to revive his failing consulting practice (Advertising Age, Sept 17, 1962). Apparently, his thinking was it did not matter if his findings were real or not, just that his potential clients believed that they were real. By this time, he was the director of survey research for Dun & Bradstreet as he attempted to resurrect his career as a psychologist.  Some question whether the insertion of the words ever took place.

So, is subliminal perception and its ability to influence people pure bunk? Thijs Verwijmeren, et.al.  (Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2011) came to a conclusion that subliminal advertising can have some limited effect, but it is not all that powerful. Subliminal ads, for instance, can’t make you do something you don’t want to do. Others question the very concept. If something can’t be perceived, because it is subliminal, how can it possibly affect behavior? The notion is that you can affect the subconscious mind without the conscious mind being aware of the affect. Regardless of the efficacy of this particular technique, the temptation to influence people, to change their behaviors continues, through various other avenues and methods.

Classical economic theory states that humans are rational thinkers and make decisions that are in their best economic interest after considering all the facts. Much economic policy over the years has been based on this concept and of course it is wrong, for humans are anything but cool, rational thinkers as they work through their decisions. We all take short-cuts in our decision-making using bias, heuristics or rules-of-thumb to get through the day (these are decisions or judgements we make without necessarily being conscious we are making them). Without them the number of decisions you would be required to make would simply paralyze you. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists, drove those points home with a substantial body of research that gave rise to the field of Behavioral Economics. One cornerstone of their work was their definition and description of System 1 and System 2 type of thinking that humans use to make decisions.

System 1 thinking is automatic decision-making. It is quick and easy, requiring little to no effort when making a decision or passing judgement. System 1 thinking speeds decision-making and allows you to make thousands of unthinking decisions each and every day. The path you will drive to work, what you are likely to order in your morning coffee, do you put butter or cream cheese on your English muffin are all quick, ponderless, System 1 decisions you make. System 2 is when you use deliberative thought in order to make a decision. For instance, if you are ordering a new PC or Mac, if you are like most people, you methodically work through your options and the associated costs, prior to making a decision on what equipment to buy and how to configure it. You may check with friends and read reviews, part of your decision may be based on brand loyalty or a “coolness” factor that you perhaps can’t quite articulate, or one of our many human biases, such as WYSIATI, which stands for “What you see is all there is”, may come into play. Meaning you choose from the options before you and tend not to look for less obvious or unseen options. And you can be assured that the manufacturers of these devices are doing their best to influence your decision.

The speed limit sign says “30 MPH”, the sign on the escalator says “Stand Right, Walk Left”, in the parking garage there are signs that say “small cars only”, the express checkout line at the grocery store says “8 items or less”. We are informed that in order to enroll our kindergarten-aged child into school that we have to show proof of vaccination. All around us, every day there are attempts to influence our behavior, to modify what we are doing or to inform us what is allowable and what is not. While not perfectly so, these rules tend to be imposed when your behavior has the potential to negatively impact others around you, either directly or indirectly. The reason you are not trained to drive with a “use your best judgement on what your speed should be”, is 1. You may not be familiar with the road you are on, 2. If left to their own devices, some people’s judgement (especially younger or inexperienced drivers) might not be that good, 3. There is a tremendous potential for harm occurring to others if you make a poor decision. So, a sign is posted that informs you what is an appropriate speed for that road (and there are consequences to violating that sign’s speed limit). Your child’s ability to spread disease and contribute to epidemics (not in a good way) is the reason for the vaccination (and it does not matter if what you personally believe about vaccinations and autism goes against all the known science – no vaccination, no school – another penalty).

Writing in Scientific American (March 30, 2018), Marcello Lenca and Effy Vayena, describe Cognitive Liberty as “the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses.” This was written in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal where, in an attempt to influence the last presidential election, at least 87 million Facebook users, unbeknown to them, were targeted for customized digital ads and other manipulative information in a manner that “circumvents user’s awareness of such influence”. And that is the key difference between a speed limit sign, a vaccination requirement and subliminally trying to get you to drink more Coca Cola.  One approach is direct and in-your-face, it is transparent, while the other tries to influence you without you realizing you are being influenced. They continue, “most of the current online ecosystem, is an arm’s race to the unconscious mind: notifications, microtargeted ads, autoplay plugins, are all strategies to induce addictive behavior, hence to manipulate”.

The Cambridge Analytica CEO in an undercover interview with Channel 4 News in the UK stated, that it did not matter whether something was real and factual, just that people believed that it was. People, of course, are more inclined to believe information that supports their existing viewpoint, whether it is real or not. Remember Pizzagate – the falsehood spread by certain websites that specialize in spreading falsehoods and the alt-right during the election, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a Pizza Parlor, except she wasn’t and the accused Pizza Parlor did not even have a basement. But never-the-less, a true believer went to that Pizza Parlor with his gun and started firing in a System 1 thinking pattern. He never paused to consider the information he was receiving in a rational manner. The shooter viewed himself as a “good guy with a gun” going to stop bad people, except it was all a delusion meant to influence behavior. A delusion that was crafted by the inappropriate use of big data to find people’s fears, to manipulate them and to capitalize on them. So here you have potentially deadly consequences to falsehoods spread on social media, for which there is no penalty.

It wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last time that occurs.  And to underscore that this wasn’t some accident, during the last presidential election you also had Republican operatives making statements on TV interviews such as “we are not going to let facts determine the outcome of this election”, or we are presenting “alternative facts”, in other words just like James Vicary’s “Drink Coca Cola” ruse, it did not matter whether it was real or not, just that a population critical to your success, potential customers or in the case of an election, potential voters, believed that it was real.  And because of that orientation and the lack of regulation or penalties around it, the spread of disinformation, enabled by social media and Russia attacking our democracy, reached unprecedented levels.

Our technology, once again, is much more advanced than the social structures we surround it with, at least at first.  Partly that is due to pace of innovation being quite a bit faster than the pace of social structure change. But this is nothing new. For instance, when we, as a species, starting writing down our stories, our gurus at that time were those who could read. They assumed a special elevated status within society and because of their skill set they were the bearers of the “word” and able to manipulate and persuade the masses, for who could argue with someone about a text that you could not read? The priests of today are those who can create and harness the technology that can influence the masses and those who can build smart systems to enable that to happen more effectively.  In a special section on AI appearing in The Economist (March 31st-April 6th, 2018), it was estimated that for each capable AI tech person in a company today, the value of that company increases by 5 to 10 million dollars, so it is no wonder that sophisticated AI talent today draw 6- and 7- figure salaries.

Sander van der Linden in Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion, (Scientific American, April 10th 2018), quotes a study covering 3.5 million people which “found that psychologically tailored advertising, i.e. matching the content of a persuasive message to an individual’s broad psychographic profile, resulted in 40% more clicks and 50% more online purchases than mismatched or unpersonalized messages”.  We have come a long way, with the help of our technology, from flashing “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola” on a screen. And more importantly he states that these messages when carried over into a political environment can have the ability to either suppress voting for the candidate these messages are targeted against or can swing some potential voters to switch candidates. When elections are often decided by a percentage point or two, that small effect can have a large impact. In addition to the USA presidential election, it now appears that Britain’s EU exit vote was influenced using the same techniques.

So yes, we are at risk, in an unregulated, wild-west of a technology world, elections can be affected, Cognitive Liberty, our very democracy can be undermined, autocrats/dictators or would-be tin-pot dictators with effective social media disinformation and targeted voting campaigns can be voted in. What can we do?

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, stated in a recent townhall meeting in Chicago that “privacy is a human right”.  That aligns him with his predecessor, Steve Jobs, who in 2010 stated, “”Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly.” “I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”

The European Union has just enacted GDPR or General Data Protection Regulations, which does align with the sentiments of both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. In a nutshell, among the GDPR requirements are that individuals give permission for their data to be collected, be informed regarding what data is being collected, how it will be used, how and for how long it will be stored, and at any time they can see what data you have on them and they can demand that they be erased from your systems. There are many other requirements as well and violations result in large fines. In an editorial, The Economist recently called for the USA to adopt the EU data protection regulations.

But in addition to protecting the data we can work towards making people savvier about what they see on social media and how to determine reality from delusion or disinformation. For instance, some possibilities include (and I am sure if a group put their minds to it, many more possibilities would emerge):

  • Transparency can be increased, for instance, just like restaurants in NYC get cleanliness ratings, social media sites can get ratings regarding the veracity of the information they carry. Is the information verified in any fashion or is it just put out there?
  • Sites that label themselves as news, or TV stations that label themselves as news should adhere to certain news worthy standards in order to keep that designation. Each program should be clearly labeled as meeting “news standards” or should be clearly labeled “opinion” not just at the start of the show, but the whole time the show is on.
  • News organizations used to adhere to a separation of church and state. Meaning the news side of the business should not be influenced by the business side of the business. To achieve a certain news rating this standard would have to be met.
  • One method towards getting people to become better consumers of information is to educate them on how humans consume information and make decisions. It is a first step towards taking them out of System 1 thinking when appropriate and having them activate System 2 thinking.
  • Penalties can be implemented for knowingly spreading false information.

Social media now has the power to cause great harm to others and to our society. As the saying goes with great power comes great responsibility, but so far social media has not proven itself capably of operating in that responsible fashion. We are in a variation of the “Tragedy of the Commons” moment when it comes to social media. The tragedy of the commons describes a situation where individuals acting independently put their own self-interest above a common interest in a shared resource. Because each is only concerned about their own interest, they each use the resource until it is despoiled and of no use to anyone. Collective action is needed to save the resource so it can be used by all to mutual benefit. While originally the concept of the commons was based on shared unregulated grazing ground over the years it has morphed to mean “any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator”. While social media is an unlimited resource, it too will be despoiled if it is only used by individuals for their own self-interest without regard to the harm it is causing others and to society.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 15, 2018 at 4:28 pm

Outrage Fatigue

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These statements are my personal views and not necessarily the views of any other person at my company.

With another mass murder of children, this time at the Parkland, Florida high school and the response of this administration and many of those in Congress, I have reach the limits of my ability to be polite and to regard other points of view as legitimate. Weapons, designed for warfare and our military, capable of inflicting mass murder within a few seconds simply have no place in society. This should not be a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, this is simply a common-sense and decency issue. The removal of these weapons from our society should have happened a long time ago. The evidence is incontrovertible. Societies with more guns have more gun crime. Period. Households with guns have higher incidences of death, injuries or suicides then households without guns. The idea that you are an exception to that finding is a fantasy. The idea that it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun is a fantasy. It is a fantasy, based on a mythology that has been perpetrated upon the American people, by people who have a financial stake in the perpetuation of that hero myth and by those who wish to see our society fall apart. It is more than time to take the gloves off and to stand up for what is right, for the hopes and aspirations of America, for the dreams that America once represented to the world, for what America is supposed to stand for.

Every day in the news we see continue evidence of a Trump administration whose malevolence is moderated only by its complete and sheer incompetence. If the administration had more competent bureaucrats, the speed at which they are damaging people, damaging our institutions, damaging our democracy, damaging our world standing and damaging our planet would be greatly magnified. Luckily the most competent people want nothing to do with this administration and are staying away. I am not the first one to make that statement.

The sheer volume, day-after-day of horrendous news, and the absolute stupidity of the decisions being made, the self-dealing, the self-enrichment, the refusal to deal with Russia that has all but declared open warfare on us, the attempt to decimate the free press and our legal and judicial institutions, the wanton elimination of regulation, the repudiation of science, the refusal to recognize climate change and global warming as a threat (and to work towards mitigating the threat), the repudiation of diplomacy, the repudiation of morality and justice, the embrace of neo-Nazi’s and the extreme right-wing, the kowtowing to the NRA, it simply boggles the imagination, and day after day those of us who care deeply about our country and this planet are feeling more and more outrage fatigue. How much longer can it go on before permanent damage is done? Trump and his ilk have become more than tiresome.

Those who work in this administration seemingly fall into one of four buckets. 1. they are drawn to power and are willing to do anything to be within the inner ring of power, to advance their own agendas, and/or enrich themselves, even if it means abandoning all their previously held principles; 2. some are simply racist, xenophobic/anti-immigrant, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ rights, or anti-Semitic and this administration’s views align with their own; 3. a few seem to see themselves as guardians, hoping to moderate this abomination of an administration and safeguard our democracy. The short-lived CEO panels, which were disbanded, seemingly fell into this latter category; or 4. they are career people who were in place well before this administration and see themselves as being there well after they are gone.

I am not bound by the Goldwater Rule (which prohibits psychiatric diagnosis without personally seeing a patient) for I am not a clinician. (The American Psychoanalytic Association has lifted the Goldwater Rule, the American Psychiatric Association has left it in place and I am a member of neither). I see no patients, but in addition to being the CEO of an organizational consulting company, I teach leadership in an MBA program, and let me be very clear Donald Trump would fail my class. In fact, in addition to his actions being a clear and present danger to the United States, he is a very clear example of how not to lead (and also how not to negotiate) and any of my students would be able to point-by-point describe why this is so.  Now I don’t think the fault is all under his control for I am quite convinced that his mental state has quite a bit to do with it.

Some psychiatrists and psychologists call Trump’s pattern of behavior Malevolent Narcissism, that is narcissism taken to a level that includes psychopathic tendencies and malevolent means that it causes harm to others. Others would use the term the Dark Triad which are a series of illnesses that are often co-morbid, meaning they tend to occur together. The Dark Triad consists of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Why do I think he is a clear and present danger to the United States? Let me take just one of those illnesses, the psychopathy as an example. Psychopaths have been shown to have a weaker or non-existent connection between the emotional center of the brain (the amygdala) and the centers of higher thought processes (the pre-frontal cortex).  Now not all psychopaths fall into a life of crime, but an unusually high percentage of those in prison would be diagnosed as psychopaths (utilizing the Hare checklist). What characteristics of a psychopath lead them to prison? Here are some common characteristics that psychopaths exhibit.

(WARNING: Just because you know someone who has some of these characteristics does not make them a psychopath. A clinician would say that these traits must rise to a level where they interfere with day-to-day functioning to be pathological).

  • Exploitive, opportunistic, can be successful in life, but often that success is short-lived
  • Take credit for others successes, but blame others for failures
  • They can be charismatic and persuasive
  • Pay a lot of attention to their appearance, with a desire to look attractive
  • Aggression, racism, bullying is often evident
  • Assertiveness, dominance, self-importance, self-aggrandizement
  • Limited self-control, higher risk taking, short-duration marriages and multiple spouses or multiple affairs
  • Low scores on honesty and humility with high scores on greediness
  • Psychopaths are notorious for a lack of emotion and empathy, the ability to understand right from wrong or to understand the emotions that someone else is feeling
  • And, those with these traits generally lack self-awareness – the ability to see how their behavior is perceived by others.

With no ability to determine right from wrong, no inherent morality, throw in a lack of self-control and a good dose of greediness and it becomes easy to see how this illness can lead to a life of crime.  It is sometimes difficult for a non-clinical person to really understand a phrase like “no ability to determine right from wrong”. It is not that they choose not to, it is that the psychopath literally can’t. If faced with a clearly moral choice and a clearly immoral choice (and no external clues, or intellectual experience with a similar choice) the psychopath would simply be unable to pick the morally correct thing to do. It just does not compute to them. Psychopaths can be quite smart, or not, but those who are smart can be even more of a danger. As Warren Buffet states when he picks people to work for him (paraphrased), “they have to have integrity and intelligence, and if the don’t have the first the second one will kill you”.

Now, I know quite a few people (clinicians and other psychologists) who feel that we should not label our current president as mentally ill. Some of them feel that mental illness has enough stigma already and to use that as a reason to remove the president would be to simply increase that stigma. Their feeling is that he should be removed for the actions he takes and not his mental state. Those of you who are old enough to remember, just before Nixon resigned, his mental state and his drinking was such that the defense secretary told the military not to carry out any orders for a military or nuclear strike without the approval of the defense secretary, which was unconstitutional, but may have saved us from a nuclear holocaust. Nothing like a good war to take the nation’s mind off of impeachment, in a Wag-the-Dog fashion.

A good portion of people have at some point in their lives short-term mental illness from which they recover. For instance, it is quite normal to be depressed at the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or from some other traumatic event. It can be like having the flu, it can knock you down for a period of time. And at any point in time 6% of the population is suffering from some level of depression. Depression becomes problematic when there is no recovery after a period of time and it interferes ongoing with day-to-day life.  Today most people can recover from depression or anxiety (also 6% incidence), with proper treatment.

The question though, should someone, the most powerful person on this planet, someone who can, at the push of a button, destroy this planet, (as much as I throw-up into my mouth when I think about that), be held to the same standard as anybody on the street? Are the risks simply too high?  To me the answer is “yes” the risks are too high. This current president represents a danger to us all, a danger to our children, a danger to our grandchildren, a danger to life on earth. I am not being dramatic. Clearly a full mental evaluation is in order for a mentally healthy person would simply not act in the manner of this current president.

With incident after incident, with each news cycle bringing more absurdity and each absurdity generating outrage, outrage fatigue sets in easily. My father, though he usually did not want to talk about it, at times told me stories about how during WWII in France and in Germany the level of fatigue he felt was unbearable. But he persevered, because the alternative was even more unbearable.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 18, 2018 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

Define Yourself, Define the Organization, Define the World

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Having a mission, a sense of purpose about one’s activities has almost always proven to be a path towards generating higher levels of personal pride. Whether that pride is about your activities, your beliefs, an organization you work for, or some other facet of your day-to-day life.

Having a higher purpose mission is one way in which we define ourselves.  A nurse or doctor is helping the sick and maintaining health, a teaching is preparing the next generation, while students are preparing to take their places in our societies, a police officer is bringing safety and security to our neighborhoods, a firefighter is saving lives and property, a sanitation worker is keeping our cities and towns clean and livable, a craftsperson revels in the quality of their work. The list is potentially endless and each person, no matter their role in our society strives to define their place, their sense of purpose. Those who achieve a positive sense of purpose, I would argue, end up not only scoring higher on pride scales, but also in general life happiness.

Those who struggle with a sense of purpose to their lives, struggle on many other fronts as well. The good news is that people can change how they define themselves, their sense of purpose, over time. Someone who is struggling with that sense of purpose, either on their own or with assistance, can achieve a renewed sense of purpose and live a more fulfilling life.

A body of research has now shown that if you can encourage people to think along the lines of how they define themselves, it is more likely to lead to them taking action congruent with that definition, than if they think about just the action specifically. Christopher Bryan, a psychologist at Stanford University, has conducted a series of experiments on a variety of topics that makes this point. For instance, getting someone into the mindset that they are a voter, a participant in our democracy, increases the likelihood that they will vote over simply getting a commitment from a similar person to vote in next week’s election. Likewise getting someone to define themselves as a person who recycles, increases that behavior over simply asking people to engage in and getting them to commit to recycling activities.

Now we know that “nudging” a voter or recycler to engage in those activities also increases the likelihood of action being taken. An example of a voting nudge would be to as specifically as possible get someone to plan out how they will actually cast that ballot. So for instance, planning out how will they get to the polling station, which if any identification is required and locating that identification, or obtaining it ahead of time, determining what time of day they will vote, putting it on their calendar, arranging for childcare if necessary, etc. In other words helping the person visualize and plan out each step necessary to successfully carry out the behavior is more likely to result in the behavior being carried out. As it turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, getting them to define themselves as a voter in the first place has additional benefit, increasing the likelihood of a vote taking place.

In the organizational world, if you want to change the trajectory that an organization is on, it can be very important to change the actual behaviors that people engage in. In other words, for example, if you are trying to improve quality, and all you do is try to change attitudes towards quality, hoping that the old behaviors that led to quality problems will resolve themselves, what tends to happen is that the old behaviors override the attitudinal changes you are working upon and the old behaviors reinforce the old attitudes. That approach is like pushing a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down time after time. Rather, it is more effective to begin with some of the behaviors that are causing the poor quality to emerge, change them by showing, teaching, modifying, measuring etc. the specific behaviors, while at the same time working to modify the attitudes around what is acceptable quality.

And now a new additional potential step that can help insure success, work at the very beginning to have people join your quality journey and sign onto defining their mission their sense of purpose to create high quality.  So:

 

  1. Change the mindset, the definition of purpose/mission
    • Think of these as nouns – I am a voter, I am a recycler, I am a quality fiend
  2. Change the behaviors
    • Think of these as verbs – I vote, I recycle
  3. Change the attitudes
    • Think of these as outcomes, as mindsets and behaviors change attitudes will often follow.

Now how can we scale this up? Say our existence on this planet was faced with a challenge. The planet is warming and this will have all sorts of negative consequences. There is climate change and increased instability in the atmosphere (due to increases in atmospheric energy), there are changes coming in ocean salinity which can change ocean current patterns with which we are familiar as well as change the ocean’s habitability to current life forms, the artic permafrost is melting which has the potential to place unimaginable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, as well as allowing long dormant bacteria and viruses to reemerge. Rising sea levels threaten coastal locations as well as numerous islands. The list of other really negative consequences to global warming is long, including threatening humanity’s very existence.

Our ability to take action on a global scale up to this point has been limited. Even though the United States is currently the only nation on the planet – think about it,  the only nation on the planet, that has walked away from a treaty that is a first attempt to wrestle this problem to the ground. Previous attempts in the USA have focused on changing behaviors and while that is extremely important, it is not perhaps where we should have started.

Ever wonder why school kids are so concerned, so impassioned about climate change, even when their parents may take on a less concerned, or less action oriented stance? They may feel, “after all, what can one person do” or they may not believe the science. But the kids have a different mindset. They think about themselves as stewards of the planet and the creatures that live upon it. Changing to this steward mindset among the majority of adults can be a beneficial first step to getting people and organizations to change behaviors. The only question is it too late?

The potential of applying mindset/mission/purpose definitions to all kinds of problems is there and the potential benefits are great. The motivation and/or resources to do so may be lacking.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 25, 2018 at 8:10 pm

The Forecaster’s Dilemma

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Most of us spend a good deal of time making forecasts or predictions along the lines of “if I do X, the outcome will be Y”. What activities or set of behaviors will make me lose weight, get my child accepted into college, will set me up for a comfortable retirement, will keep the dog from barking in the middle of the night, will get me that promotion or raise…and on and on. Whole industries have sprung up to help people, to guide them (or fleece them) as they struggle with these decisions.

Organizational leaders continually search for insight into which decisions, or even more challenging which set of decisions will lead to organizational success. What products do we bring to market, do we grow organically or through acquisition, do we hire or reorganize, what will be most effective in generating sales or increased profit, what goals are in fact the right goals to be chasing…and on and on. Whole industries have sprung up to help organizations, to guide them, (or fleece them) as they struggle with these decisions.

When the National Weather Service (NWS) sees a set of conditions, they issue various kinds of warnings. For instance, a Heat Advisory is issued when temperatures are significantly above normal and the humidity is high. Along with a Heat Advisory often comes a suggestion, that older people should stay indoors, as the prediction is that older people are more susceptible to ill effects from high heat and humidity and are more at risk. Invariably the emergency rooms fill with older people who fall ill during a heat wave. In 2006, professors at Kent State University looked into this and found that while 90% of the older people knew the dangers associated with high heat and humidity, the older people who ignored the advice did so either because they 1. did not consider themselves old, or 2. thought that they belonged to a special class, were an exception, whereby the general rule did not apply in their particular circumstance.

So, the obvious solution for the NWS is to get more specific, right? Tell people that if you are older than 65 you should stay in the air conditioning during the weather event. So, what do the forecastors say when lots of 64-year old’s get ill or 66-year old’s do not? The more specific the prediction, if X is done, Y will be the outcome, the less accurate the prediction will be, but the more general the prediction the more likely it will be subject to various interpretations by different people.

Most people want perfect knowledge, with absolute answers, if you do X, Y will happen. But scientists know the dilemma they are facing, and the scientific method is to talk about tendencies and confidence limits, building error into the answers and knowing that as specificity gets higher the likelihood of being accurate in all circumstances gets lower. Science is about the preponderance of evidence, not any one study. Giving undue credence to specificity is a natural human bias and specificity itself is very attractive. Scott Highhouse, at Bowling Green University, ran a series of experiments looking at what kind of descriptions people give more credence to. Those with more specificity, more detail, were inherently thought to be more accurate. For instance, which outcome do you feel is more likely? 1. New York City will flood again. Or 2.  New York City will flood again, due to global warming and the more frequent occurrence of severe weather, such as super storm Sandy.  You are invariably drawn to number two, even though a simple Venn diagram will show that number two is a subset of number one and hence mathematically is less likely to happen. (And you are drawn to number two even though I told you the answer prior to showing you the statements. It is a very powerful effect.)

Smoking causes lung cancer, except I can find the individual who smoked their whole life and did not get cancer, or I can find someone who never smoked and got it. People, even while knowing the overall likelihood of getting lung cancer is much higher in smokers than non-smokers, will hang onto the notion that they are an exception to the rule, for that is how they deal with the cognitive dissonance that their smoking causes (attitudes usually follow behaviors). Smokers who have trouble quitting will tend to assume that they belong to that exceptional group, the lifelong smokers who don’t get lung cancer. Do they really feel that way, or deep down inside do they recognize that they are likely not exceptional and the odds are against them? If people did not have that built in bias, that somehow, they would beat the odds, lotteries and gambling would not be as successful as they are.

The older people who ignored the National Weather Service advice also had a definitional problem. Defining old. Definitional problems are very common. In 2008, Jeff Jolton and I looked at how various groups defined ethics within an organization. What we found is that the definition of what is ethical behavior or unethical behavior varied by occupation and level. Blue collar workers tended to define ethics as personal treatment and was relationship driven. Benefit cuts, layoffs, schedule changes, who got promotions or training opportunities would fall into that definition of ethics. As you moved into professional occupations within the organization ethics was defined more by walking the talk, the organization doing what they said they were going to do. In managerial occupations ethics tended to be defined by contractual obligations, either being fulfilled or not, and at the higher levels the definition zeroed in on violations of the law. So, when an organization in their values statement says, “We will do our work with the highest degree of ethics and integrity”, (and many of them say something like that), what does it mean to a typical employee?

In American today there is a great divide, and a corresponding need for people of differing political points of view to talk to each other to get past the profound challenges we are currently facing (many of them of our own making). The challenges defined above, the Forecaster’s Dilemma, about how differently people can view the same circumstance makes getting past our challenges more difficult.

For instance, would a racist (or other assorted bigoted types) know they are racist (or homophobic, or misogynist, or xenophobic etc.)? The short answer is likely to be somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps, perhaps not. Those today, who march under Nazi banners, or along with white supremacist flags or a confederate flag certainly know what they are doing, for it is not an unconscious act. But all of the issues above can come into play. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia etc. are not binary conditions, they exist along a continuum. What is racist to one person is not racist to another, so there is a definitional problem. Remember Archie Bunker? He would sit there in his lounge chair blithely unawares that he was racist, misogynist (even though occasionally, Edith put him in his place), and xenophobic. There are a lot of Archie Bunkers out there.  And there is the exceptionalism problem, that somehow the definition of racism or other characteristic simply doesn’t apply because of special circumstance.

Can we forecast which set of behaviors we can undertake to make us a more cohesive, less divided society? A society which respects and values each of us regardless of our individually unique backgrounds? I do know one thing. If we don’t try, we are guaranteed to fail.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

September 25, 2017 at 10:30 am

Posted in Human Behavior

Reality

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There is a question that floats around out there, it goes something like this: “If everything in the universe can be described by physical laws and mathematical equations, how is the universe any different than a computer program or a simulation/computer game?”  The answer is that it is not. But there are subtleties and nuances in there and reactions are varied.

One reaction that I have heard from physicists is “why is that an interesting question?” The physicist is trying to understand the laws and equations, and those goals are independent of discovering whose computer our universe is running upon, a more philosophical and perhaps unanswerable question, for you would have to look outside of our universe for that answer. You immediately bump right up into religious notions. For instance, what would be the difference if we were a simulation, simply an advanced program (maybe not so advanced), running on some alien teenager’s bedroom computer and god? From our perspective, there would not be any, for that alien teenager would have all of the capabilities of a god. (Alt-Ctrl-Delete).

Another reaction is that what we are doing when we humans are programming is trying to mimic (not necessarily intentionally and of course in a very limited fashion so far), rules that govern our universe, or at least our corner of the universe. And in that we have no choice, since those are the laws. So, it is not that we are a simulation, but rather that we (and our math, our physical limitations and by extension our programs/simulations), are governed by the same laws that govern all things in the universe. 1+1 must always equal 2. The initial question then is in essence somewhat backwards. It is not that we are the same as a program, a simulation, it is that our programs need to abide by the laws and properties that govern all things.

There are a number of physical constants (e.g. the speed of light) with somewhat arbitrary values that define how our universe operates, and if some of them were different we would not be here to have this discussion, for it would have been impossible for stars to coalesce, for life to emerge. This state of affairs gives rise to what is called the Anthropic Principle, which says that the fact of our existence, beings that can measure these physical constants, requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist. In other words, we perceive reality, because we are here to measure it. There could have been or there could be right now an infinite number of universes, with different physical constants, and life would emerge only in certain universes and only under certain conditions. We drew the lucky straw. So, a third reaction is to respond with a “why does this matter”? A variation on the first reaction above. We have to live in our world, our universe as defined, so let’s get on with it. It’s properties, rules and laws are what they are. We are not capable of looking outside the box, so live with it, and get on with it. Reality is reality.

Reality is reality. Simple phrase but our human perception of reality is subject to constant manipulation by others, to innate biases, driven by evolution and by learned response, to limited sensors, like our eyes, ears, our sense of touch, smell and proprioception and of course to our very limited and flawed processing center, our brain. Human perceptions of reality are very different than the measured physical realities that shape our universe. Maybe that is pointing out a flaw in the English language, with the word reality itself. Maybe it is too simplistic of a concept, given the challenges of determining the reality that humans have. Your perception of reality, my perception of reality is very often different from another’s perceptions of reality, and all three are very likely different from actual reality. And each of us, of course, assumes that our perception of reality is the correct one. The first step towards perceiving reality more accurately is to be aware of our shared human short-comings and foibles.

I assume that at least some of you have seen the monkey business illusion. If not, you can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY. It nicely illustrates how easy it is for each of us to miss what is right there staring at us, to misinterpret reality.

In order to make good decisions and come to correct conclusions, humans must be able to overcome their inherent processing deficits, not giving into innate or shaped biases, and not being persuaded by the latest PT Barnum that comes onto the scene, simply saying what you want to hear rather than what is real. Decisions need to be based on data, on scientifically derived facts and on sound judgments.

When it comes to intuition’s role, or gut instinct on sound judgments, Herb Simon, the economist, studied and defined intuition as coming from the repetition associated with practice. Meaning that intuition is actually recognition of a situation that the decision-maker has experienced before. There is no such thing as simply having good instincts. Good instincts are borne out of training and experience.

Meanwhile, Phil Tetlock and his Good Judgement project have developed techniques that have been repeatedly shown to lead to more accurate predictions and better decision-making. Among the techniques is the ability and willingness to continuous take in new information and to use that new information to modify your predictions and decisions.

Other research has repeatedly shown what is all too obvious today. People tend to seek out and absorb only information that supports their existing points of view and to reject as “false” any information that does not support their preconceived notions. Simply put, this tendency flies in the face of everything we know about how to make good decisions and has people believing realities that are based on missing or skewed information.

Bottom-line? People can improve their ability to perceive what is real and what is false and by extension their decision-making. Among the techniques that can help are basing decisions on data and science, practicing decision-making techniques, being open to new concepts and ideas, and a willingness to recognize human’s inherent short-comings when it comes to perceiving reality.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 28, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Beyond the Pale

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If I used my life savings and opened a pizza parlor, and I wanted it to be successful, who would I hire to run that pizza parlor for me? Would I hire someone who really knew how to make great pizza or would I hire someone who had never made a pizza before? Maybe someone who thought that ketchup was the same thing as tomato sauce (or gravy)? Would the person I hire need to know how to treat my customers, how to hire and motivate a staff, how to run a cash register and all the other things required to run a successful small business?  Or could they just learn it over time? Could they learn it before they ran my pizza parlor into the ground, forcing me into bankruptcy? Am I willing to take that risk?

But here we are. We have a president and his appointees who are learning how to ruin, sorry I meant run, run a country with on-the-job training being done every day. The person in charge of tackling global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, doesn’t believe it is real, the person in charge of the improving our public schools doesn’t believe in public education, the person in HHS in charge of contraception doesn’t believe contraception works, the person in charge of providing public housing to the poor believes that public housing coddles them, the person in charge of the DOE did not realize that one of its tasks was to protect the nation’s nuclear arsenal (oops), the person who regulates what can go into kids school lunches rolled back regulations which attempted to ensure that kids had healthier lunches, the first person who was National Security Advisor had to resign because of ties to Russia, the latest pick to run the Army had to withdraw because of discriminatory comments made about LGBTQ folks, the person in charge of regulatory reform is an activist investor who buys interests in companies and then squeezes the life out of them to turn a profit, the list of misfits to positions goes on and on. These are not the kind of people you would appoint to run your pizza parlor if you wanted it to be successful, maybe turn it into a chain. These are the kind of people you would appoint if you were purposefully looking to shut down your pizza parlor because you did not want it to work, to be successful. (Why would someone do that after investing their life savings to open the pizza parlor in the first place? Our founding fathers invested a hell of a lot more than their life saving to create this country.)  These are the kind of people you would put into place to “starve the beast” which is a Republican tactic for shrinking government.

There is a mistake that many managers in business make. They create rules and regulations for the 5%. Most people, the vast majority of people, want to come to work, want to do a good job, want the organization to succeed and want to have success along with the organization. The evidence for that is abundant and abundantly clear. Yet many managers in companies simply can’t bring themselves to believe that or don’t know it, and so they create rules to manage the population as though they were all looking to “get away” with things. They put into place onerous rules on the 95% rather the managing the misbehavior or issues of the 5%. The result of that can be stifling to the 95% who are really interested in doing good work.  In my company, yes, it is small, our vacation policy is “Take some, make sure your work is covered”. Our HR Policy is summed us as “Use your common sense, violators will be persecuted”.  We are open 24/7/365. You pick your holidays and manage your schedule. In other words, we try to manage for the 95%. The 5% who are not able to work that way? We deal with them individually. People new to the organization often take some time to adjust to being treated this way. Some have a harder time than others adjusting to the freedom after a lifetime of rules being imposed.

I recently marched in a demonstration to support my immigrant neighbors, yes in some sense that is all of us, because unless you are a Native American, you too are an immigrant. But this march was to support more recent immigrants who feel threatened by this administration. The rules being imposed today do not treat the immigrants as the 95% who contribute, pay taxes and are real contributors to our society. The rules are written for the 5% or less, just like many businesspeople do as they write rules for their organizations. Yes, within the 5% there could be criminals or worse, but you treat them as individual criminals and you do not blanket a whole population because of the actions of a few. (Under the Geneva convention, if you punish an entire population for the actions of a few, and you did that during a war, you would be committing a war crime).  By stifling the 95% because we are trying to control the 5% we are losing all sorts of potential as a country. The data shows that immigrants, regardless of what the administration says, commit fewer crimes than native born Americans, are more likely to become scientists, doctors, engineers etc. Are you over 40 and still alive? You likely have science and an immigrant to thank. Immigrants start businesses, pay taxes, participate in community events and become leaders. They came here for the same reason our grandparents came, to find a better life for themselves and their children. You should not be surprised by this statement.

My grandparents came to this country to escape the Pale of Settlement. It was an area within Russia which was the only area in which Jews could live. There were some few exceptions made. Conditions within the Pale for the Jews were extremely harsh. The word Pale is a derivative of the Latin word for stake – meaning stakes in the ground, a figurative wall in this case, beyond which Jews could not live. The term “Beyond the Pale”, came from the notion that living outside of the Pale was unacceptable for Jews. Today, if something is “Beyond the Pale” it means it is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. The actions of this administration towards science, environmental regulations, healthcare, housing, women, minorities, immigrants, other vulnerable populations, as well as on a host of other issues is Beyond the Pale.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 7, 2017 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

No Fear

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Humans are fearful creatures. We can’t help it, we evolved that way to help us survive. When a pre-technological human was kneeling by a stream to get a drink of water and there was rustling in the nearby trees, the human assumed that the unexpected noise was a potential threat and immediately took up a series of defensive moves. The assumption of threat is called the intentional stance, and is the idea that until proven otherwise, the human assumes that the noise was not the mere rustling of the wind, but rather that the noise was created by some creature or agent, potentially a creature or agent with intent, perhaps with the intent to eat you or cause harm. Even today, we very often assume intelligent or purposeful intent to what are random or statistically meaningless events. The assumption of intelligent intent means that a random or statistically meaningless event is assumed to be done with some deliberate or intelligent purpose, by some kind of agent. The makers of horror movies know this reflex very well and use it over and over to achieve their desired reactions among the audience. They will often substitute ominous sounding music for the rustling of the wind in the climatic build-up to a fear-inducing scene. You just know something awful will happen when you hear that music.

The intentional stance and intelligent intent plays out over and over in organizational life. Here is one example. When an organization reorganizes itself, merges with another, or goes through some other kind of significant change, one assumption often made by the troops in the trenches is that the future of each and every person is known by those in charge. And what is on the mind of the staff? They want to know how the changes going on will affect them personally. For the intelligent intent instinct that we all have means that someone must surely know. And by-and-large, if communications around the changes are less than complete or misleading, people will instinctively fill-in the picture for themselves. Most of the time with a version of reality that is much worse than the actual reality.

The origins of superstitious behavior lie here as well. And none of us are immune. For instance, over the last few months I have coincidentally worn the same suit during a number of successful sales visits to potential clients. The pull to wear that same suit on the next sales visit I do is very strong, even though intellectually, (assuming I look equally decrepit in each of my suits), I am aware that which particular suit I am wearing has no impact. I am willing to somehow give the suit agency in being able to have an impact on the sales visit outcome rather than looking at it as simply pieces of cloth. But of course, if I get over the need to wear this particular suit I always have my lucky socks to fall back upon.

In terms of people’s reactions to a perceived threat the standard flight or fight response that we all grew up learning is actually a little more nuanced. Recent research has shown that there are at least four separate reactionary stages that occur when animals, including humans, are threatened. The freeze response comes first which is characterized as a state of hypervigilance. Research has shown that the initial freeze response is “stop, look and listen”, the immediate response associated with a fearful situation. Once this first phase has run its course the next one is an attempt to flee the situation, to remove oneself from the threat. The third phase is then to fight, to resist the threat. Once the fighting is over or is deemed as not immediately advantageous, a type of paralysis can set in called tonic immobility or more commonly, fright, which can result in extreme passivity, possibly in the hope that the attacker or threat may loosen some vigilance, relaxing its guard and allowing the victim to escape. So, the more accurate and updated description of flight or fight is freeze, flight, fight, and then fright.

There is a great debate going on among scientists today. Generally, an apolitical bunch, who prefer to let their research and publications do the talking for them, assuming that others will act rationally in the face of evidence and facts, they are debating how forcefully to speak out as science comes under increasing threat by current political powers and scientific nay-sayers in a manner (forgive the hyperbole) not seen since Copernicus’s time, when he proposed that the earth was not actually at the center of the universe. This notion of a heliocentric model, with the sun at the center of things, caused a great deal of fear among the powers that be at the time as it threatened their belief system and their hold on power over the masses. (For a really good description of this read Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charges Seife.) And in case you forget that time period in Europe when Copernicus lived is now called the DARK AGES. The arguments against facts and scientific notions which led Europe into the dark ages is eerily similar to some arguments against science being made today.

Attacks on science and facts in the face of fear did not start with the dark ages, it seems to be somewhat cyclical. Remember Pythagoras? The Greek who knew all the angles? His worldview of math and hence his worldview of the world was based on rational numbers. In fact, the whole Greek understanding of mathematics was geometrically based and restricted to rational numbers. When a student of Pythagoras violated their vow of secrecy (power structures often depend on secrecy rather than transparency to solidify their hold on power and disseminate only their approved worldview), and told the world about irrational numbers, that student (gets a little murky here) was either murdered or exiled by Pythagoras and his other students.  Pythagoras may have been willing to commit murder to prevent truth from reaching the world. But over the long-term truth and science won out.

The American Psychological Association (APA), a group to which I belong, has taken a position that political advocacy is important and has come out in support of an upcoming scientist march on April 22, in support of facts and science.  SIOP, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, to which I also belong, has joined in with its support as well.

Immigrants have always been a cornerstone in the formula of what has made the USA successful. And despite all that evidence that exist to that effect, there has been much discussion, based on fear, about limiting immigration or deporting undocumented immigrants. I was at a recent scientific event and there were many immigrants or first-generation Americans in the crowd. And this was a crowd that has made tremendous contributions to America, our innovativeness, our businesses, and our culture. Should we limit which immigrants can come to America we run a substantial risk of losing our leading position in many fields including medicine, technology, computer science, finance as well as many others. What is my point of view? Well, since you asked…

We are a nation the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, there are things that we have done and things that we continue to do that we should not be proud of, but we are a nation that follows the long arc of justice towards the right policies over the long-term as Martin Luther King would say, or as in Winston Churchill’s sentiments, we are a nation that eventually does the right thing, after we have tried everything else.  We are a nation where people should know no fear. No fear of going to bed hungry at night. No fear of being forced to live in the streets. No fear of not being able to see a doctor and get treatment when sick. No fear of being relegated to a status somehow “less” than others because of the color or your skin, your religion, your sexual orientation, your age, your occupation or your income level. We as a nation should be investing in education, in infrastructure, in innovation, so that we live in no fear of losing our technological leadership and competitive status. We should live in no fear of change, knowing that we bring our citizens along, helping them to adapt, rather than leaving them as carcasses in the road. We should have no fear of bullies, either in the school yard or at the state actor level. And no fear of those who attracted by the light of the torch shining in the New York harbor, come to our shores to continue to help us fulfill the promise of this great nation. Our current political situation relies heavily on our natural human tendencies and peddles in fear to achieve their objectives. A great nation does not wall itself off from the rest of the world, in fear, if it hopes to maintain its position of greatness. A great nation embraces the world and becomes a shining example of morality and justice for all, and for all to follow. I have no interest in giving in to ancestral fear and making decisions based on primal instinct. I will make my decisions based on my hopes and dreams for my nation, and upon science and facts. And I will know no fear.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 16, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Human Behavior

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