Thursday, 31 July 2014

No time like the present

We are biased to getting our pleasures in life in the here and now. This is known as the ‘Present Bias’. Unlike the kids who could resist the marshmallow in Walter Mischels experiment, most of us are unwilling to put off getting what we want. Economists have noted this and describe the effect as Hyperbolic Discounting.

Essentially it means we are suckers for a discount now or a low ball entry price, even if the long term price is pretty high.

A 1998 study by Read and van Leeuwen investigated this by asking participants to make food choices for today and for next week. When it came to next week, 74% of participants decided on fruit. But when thinking about today, 70% chose chocolate. Putting off the treat was not on the menu.

Getting back to the economists, their modelling of this has influenced how many services and goods are presented to us. You can get a new iPhone for a really low price but must sign an 18 month contract with a minimum monthly package. Getting the iPhone now is very attractive, though the long term cost over 18 months can be quite expensive. Similarly you will hear advertisements for new cars which only cost €100 per week. Again, that sounds very attractive, though the long term part of the deal is often based on Hire Purchase or relatively high interest rates.

The take away here is that we fall for the ‘get it now, pay later’ deals. Like the participants in Read and van Leeuwen’s study, we are more concerned about today than next week. We are willing to spoil our present selves at the expense of our future selves.

If you are selling, then tap into this Present Bias or Hyperbolic Discounting, if you are buying, be wary of the discount offers and try to think a little more long term.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Will that promotion or new job make you feel happier?

Are you working hard to get that promotion or new job in the hope that it will make you happier? Do you drive home from work thinking that if only you got that lotto win and could quit your job, you would be happy? Maybe it’s time to think again.

Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University has done a lot of research on “Affective Forecasting” of what we think will make us happy in the future. In other words, how good are we at predicting our future happiness or other emotional states.

In his 2007 book ‘Stumbling on Happiness', he goes into this in some detail. It turns out that we are really bad at predicting what will make us happy in life. His research consistently found that the things we do in search of happiness like moving house, changing job, winning the lotto don’t make us feel happier, though we expect that they will.

Gilbert links this to the strength of human resilience. We are not the delicate beings which self-help books or day time TV would have us believe. When we suffer real tragedy or disaster, we often recover more quickly than we would expect to. We can rediscover happiness. This is a good thing. As a species it makes us more adaptive and helps us cope with the woes of life.

The downside is that good things which happen to us are also less effective in the long term than we might think. Winning the lotto, getting the new job or house, doesn't feel as good or last as long as we expect it will. Resilience works both ways. We rebound from distress but we also rebound from joy, back to how we normally feel about life. 

According to Gilbert, if you want to know how happy you will be in the future, look at how happy you are now and that will probably answer your question.

This is not to say that we can’t aim to feel happier, we can. It’s just that we overestimate how much happier a specific item or event like a new car, job or house will make us feel. It is not that simple. Moving house or job to spend more time with loved ones or earning more money to do more of the things we enjoy, can make us happier, as long as these things are important to us.

These events or changes are more like an opportunity for happiness, but it is an opportunity that we routinely waste because the things we think will make us happy often don't. If that extra salary from a new job is spent on a bigger mortgage and the rewards and stressors in our life have increased in equal measure then don’t expect to feel any different.

If you are wondering if the promotion, job or some other windfall will make you happier, look at what is important in life. Ask yourself if the resulting change will allow you to do more of these important things. If it does then great, if not, then maybe focus on a change that will.

Monday, 21 July 2014

It's OK to check your smartphone

So do you take a sneaky look at your smart phone in work every now and again? Would you do it if the boss was watching? How would you view a colleague you saw checking their phone regularly during the working day? It turns out that maybe we need to take a relaxed approach to this. Sooyeol Kim at Kansas State University got 72 employees to put an app on their phone that tracked their usage throughout the working day.

While it might sound a little big brother like, the findings were interesting. The employees averaged 22 minutes on their phones during a standard 8 hour day, or just about 5% of their work time. In case you think 5% is a bit of a waste, it’s less than the time we spend at water coolers or bathroom breaks (which we rarely take a dim view of). Considering a lot of people eat ‘al desko’ and only take minimal meal breaks, the 22 minutes per day seems fair enough.

Sooyeol Kim also looked at how people felt once their day was done. The workers who took smartphone breaks were happier after their days work. The researchers suggest that the smartphone breaks, even if they are just for a few minutes, allow us to feel connected with family or loved ones. The odd little game or reading the sports news can be a welcome distraction from the stress of the job. This can help us get back into work a little more refreshed.

There are other studies out there which suggest all distractions are bad for productivity and that it takes us a while to pick up where we left off. From a pure productivity point of view this may well be true. However the Kansas State study is more concerned with our well being. While productivity may be a little down, the employees might feel better, be less prone to burn out or other stress related conditions.

This could lead to a more sustainable way of working, beyond smartphone breaks. It could well apply to any similar micro breaks that we take. So the next time you see someone taking the scenic route to the water cooler or checking their phone, don’t judge them. Try it yourself, you will probably feel better at the end of the day. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

You Can Do It

Ever tried talking to your self when the going gets tough? Maybe you should. This technique known as ‘self talk’ has been shown to improve self control and boost morale. However when your back is to the wall, a deadline is hurdling towards you and the pressure is on, are you better off telling yourself ‘You can do it!’ or ‘I can do it!’?

The BPS reports on some worked done by Sanda Dolcos from the University of Illinois which seems to favour the ‘You’ approach. She got 95 psychology undergrads to imagine they were a character in a short story. The characters were presented with a number of choices and decisions to make. The students were asked to write out the advice they would give to themselves if they were in a similar situation. Half the participants were instructed to use the first-person "I" in their self-advice, the others to use the second-person "You". Once they had given their advice, the participants completed a series of anagrams. Those who'd given their fictional selves advice using "You" completed more anagrams than those who'd used the first person "I" (17.53 average completion rate vs. 15.96).

In a similar study, 135 students were asked to write down self-advice to encourage exercising more over the next two weeks. Those who referred to themselves as "You" in that advice subsequently stated that they planned to do more exercise over the next two weeks, and they also went on to report more positive attitudes towards exercising, than those students who referred to themselves as "I".

Referring to yourself as ‘You’ seems to be the way to go. One possible reason for this could be that it reminds us of receiving support and encouragement from others, especially in childhood. It may also be a little more assertive, as if you are ordering yourself to behave in a certain way.

Either way, when an awkward software bug lands on your desk or the boss drops a ridiculous presentation on you at short notice or your budget gets slashed, tell yourself ‘You can do it’. Maybe you can or maybe you can’t but however hard is, your chances may be improved.