Happiness, Busy-ness and Laziness
Have you ever been sat in a queue somewhere and felt irritated as some person
or process steals minutes from your productive life? Maybe online, waiting for a
service agent, or at the airport, waiting for your luggage. Our lives are filled
with little queues (and sometimes not so little ones), which frustrate us as
they drain our happiness. Yet we seldom do anything about it. We could, for
example read a book, but instead we huff and puff as we stand in line, looking
at the time just to get even more annoyed. As someone once said, we could all be
happier, but most people are not unhappy enough to do anything about it. Perhaps
also we like a good moan as we play the victim, unable to do anything about our
Researcher Christopher Hsee and his colleagues gave subjects a choice between
a 'busy' option, of delivering a package to a location that was a 15 minute
round trip, or a 'lazy' option of delivering it just outside the room and then
standing there for 15 minutes. He also varied the reward for this task, offering
the same or a different chocolate bar. When the same confection was offered, 68%
chose the lazy option, even though those who took the walk reported greater
happiness. However if a different (but very similar) chocolate bar was offered
for each delivery option, then 59% now chose to walk for 15 minutes. This was
explained by the researchers that when they went for a walk, they were naturally
happier as their time was filled productively and greater meaning was created
for them. Yet we also have a tendency to laziness and having the same reward
left many with the easiest option.
The bottom line is:
- When given equal action choices, many will choose the path of least
- It only takes a small reward to nudge people into taking wiser, more
- You should hence be able to persuade people to do things rather than be
lazy by offering them a a small reward such as interest, meaning and
Hsee C.K., Yang A.X. and Wang L (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for
justifiable busyness. Psychological science : a journal of the American
Psychological Society / APS, 21, 7, 926-30
The simple complexity of avoidant instructions
A lot of persuasion is about how to get people to do things you want them to
do--but what if you want them to not do something? One of the big
problems with this is that when you say 'Don't do X', you are talking about X,
which means the other person has to think about X. In other words, you are
implanting a suggestion to do the very thing you don't want them to do.
of handling this is to reword the instruction to avoid the 'don't'. For example,
rather than tell a child carrying a fragile plate 'Don't drop it', it can be
more effective to say 'Hold it tight' or 'Be careful with the plate'. This can
still cause problems, for example that the child pays so much attention to the
plate that they do not see a toy on the floor and consequently trip over it,
breaking the plate. A typical adult example where things go wrong is in giving
instruction for sports, such as golf, where whatever you say can cause
distraction, over-compensation and other unwanted effects.
Christopher Russell and his colleagues got subjects to repeatedly use a computer
mouse to trace an imaginary straight line between two on-screen dots. Some
subjects were told 'do not move to the left'. The result for many was
over-compensation, as they moved more to the right, and consequently making more mistakes in this
direction. Others followed the suggestive effect and moved more to the left.
This second group scored higher in anxiety in personality and current-state
tests. This implies that anxious people are more suggestible and that others are
more likely to over-compensate in the opposite direction.
A curious effect happened when the researchers provided a cognitive
distraction by asking the subjects to keep a seven digit number in mind while
repeating the experiment. Now, the effects were reversed! The anxious people now
over-compensated to the right while the other people drifted to the left. A
conclusion may be drawn from this that suggestion seems more effective either when
the person is anxious or when they are distracted (and that perhaps anxiety
itself is a distraction that makes suggestion more effective). But what of
the reversal for the anxious people? Perhaps the task to remember the number
served as a secondary distraction that pulled their attention away from the
What perhaps this research shows is that the basic wisdom of positive
language is not as straightforward as may seem, and for subconscious influence
to be more effective, then distraction of conscious attention is important. And
the corollary of this is that to reduce subconscious effects, distractions
should be removed.
Russell, C. and Grealy, M. (2010). Avoidant instructions induce ironic and
over-compensatory movement errors differently between and within individuals. The
Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63 (9), 1671-1682
Asking for the Truth
How do you get teenagers to tell the truth? Threatening them is usually a
good way to banish truth altogether as teenagers are struggling to find their
independence and are likely to react against any attempts to impose coercive
control, especially if all it takes is blank denial.
Curiously, all you need to do, it seems, is to ask them to tell the truth.
Evans and Lee gave over 100 eight to sixteen year olds a trivia test, including
some impossible questions. They also asked them not to peek at the answers which
were just beneath a flap. And guess what, 54% peeked. This actually seems pretty
good considering there was a $10 reward for getting everything right. Yet it is
still not good news for the truth.
The plot thickened when the researchers asked the teenagers if they had
peeked. No surprise here: 84% of the peekers continued the deception and denied
having looked at the answers. Then came the real trial: the researchers asked
them to tell the truth in the next question, which was a repeat of whether they
had peeked. Now the number was 65%. Still big, yet a significant drop. Remember
that they had just lied twice so this was a big deal to admit.
Perhaps the most useful point from this is that all you have to do is
explicitly ask for the truth and you are immediately more likely to get it. If
the researchers had started with this request, I suspect the final lying would
have been at a distinctly lower level again.
Evans AD, and Lee K (2010). Promising to tell the truth makes 8- to
16-year-olds more honest. Behavioral sciences and the law, Brain Cognition,
74, 3, 210-24
Blue Lights Behind
Have you ever been driving along and suddenly noticed blue flashing lights
behind you? Most of us have. The first response is usually to assume that it
could well be a police car and so we check our speed. We next will want to get
out of the way, to let the vehicle past, as it may also be an ambulance or a
In any case, we feel a sudden pang of panic and would far prefer the
blue-flashing vehicle to be in front of us.
Now take the case of vehicle decoration. As well as paint jobs, some drivers
like to decorate their vehicles with lights, under the body, in the grille, and
so on. I experienced this recently when a lorry turned up behind us with a whole
bunch of blue LEDs shining through its radiator grille. And guess what? I had a
sudden urge to pull over and let it pass.
It seems the blue light effect still works even when the lights are not
flashing. Cognitively, I knew it wasn't an emergency vehicle, so I knew there
was no problem. I could see the pattern of LEDs and the shape of the truck. But
my unconscious system had been triggered and somehow I just seemed to slow down
and I then let the truck overtake me. Just in case, of course.
So how can I use this effect, I wondered?
I could try this on my car, but I'm not really the car decoration type. I
also suspect I might find everyone in front of me dutifully slowing down.
However, don't let this stop you. If your country allows blue lights on cars
(and your police use blue lights), you could try it out. Do let me know what
What is winning?
As I write this, there's an article on TV about how Formula 1's Sebastian
Vettel ignored team orders to not try to overtake team mate Mark Weber. He got
past, nearly causing both cars to crash out, and won the race. It has caused a
lot of angst and highlights a big dilemma when team and individual goals differ.
A similar thing happens in business when people are rewarded more for
individual performance than business success, and as a result they will clamber
over their colleagues, stealing credit and knocking others in order to look
better. And this highlights the problem: if individual wins are rewarded more
than team wins, then the team will lose.
This all is based on a wider culture of individual success, where people are
judged by their personal wins. Winners are lauded and given high status, while
team players who help teams to win are lost in the background. When winning is
everything, everyone wants to win.
This s all based on the assumption that people do their best when they have
their own interests at heart rather than a more altruistic, social interest. Yet
soldiers sacrifice their lives for greater goal or just to save their
colleagues. I spent many years working for HP when the key value of
'contribution' make helping the company more important than helping yourself.
It's possible, yet continues to be uncommon. I suspect this is connected with
human nature, where selfishness is more basic and altruism is a higher
motivation that requires conscious and moral choice.
While I don't approve of Vettel's actions I can't blame him either. He is a
product of his culture and his genes.
The three Ls of a good marriage
A recent article on
the BBC website
offers a simple formula for a happy and lasting marriage: lust, laughter and
loyalty. It's simple and, by my chalk, a fair stab at a difficult topic. I've been married to the same
woman for 37 years and I don't think I could have found a better partner.
Lust, of course, is about eros, the passionate desire for consummation with a
partner. A ready partner makes for convenient sex which ay lack the fire of a
new relationship but yet still must be enough.
While the need for sex varies with the person and time, it is important that
both partners each get enough for their personal gratification. A similar sexual
appetite is hence important (lest one partner seek satisfaction elsewhere) and
that the one who needs it less is willing and able to make up the difference. As
men are less able to fake it, this commonly falls to the woman.
Without going into details of my own sex life, I can report that I am happy
with it, and that I still find my wife to be gorgeous. It has always baffled me
why she agreed to my college-boy stumbling proposal and I believe myself very
lucky, which may be another sign of a good relationship.
Personally, I would replace lust with
love, which includes
affection and companionship as well as carnal desire.
A good marriage is a happy marriage and laughter is a good sign of happiness.
A shared sense of humour allows for much pleasure together. Laughter is a form
of closure that relaxes and lets people safely come together and form bonds of
Humour in heterosexual relationships tends to be asymmetrical. Men laugh less
but provide more fun for their women to enjoy. There is evolutionary sense in
this. Power is the classic aphrodisiac as it promises status and protection, yet
this is a two-edged sword as strong man can also harm the woman as well as
competitors. Humour offers an alternative way to happiness that is harmless and
This is certainly true for me. I enjoy creating language-based wit, and my
wife, an English teacher, is very good at decoding my obscure observations. I
delight in amusing her and love the sound of her laughter.
Loyalty means sticking together through thick and thin. It means helping one
another through sickness, depression and hard times. It means defending them
when others attack. It means not straying, avoiding sexual relationships with
Loyalty engenders trust, and trust is the essential dimension of human
bonding. Trust means exposing vulnerabilities and knowing the other will not
take advantage. It means knowing the will help when you are in need.
How a person speaks to and about their partner is a good indicator of how
they think about the other person. In particular speaking with respect and
affection indicates a strong relationship while speaking with contempt is a good
predictor of divorce.
I believe my wife and I have a strong, shared trust. While I still find other
women attractive, I resist the urge to pursue opportunities. This is a clear
choice as men have a polygamous tendency to spread their seed. I have always
trusted her, too. As an attractive woman she would have no problem finding
alternative company, but I know jealousy is a destructive and self-fulfilling
route. I have also scared myself by wading in on the few occasions when my wife
was threatened by another man, although she knows I would never harm her.
Is that it? Are the three Ls all you need? While these are a sound base, good
relationships can have confounding complexity that defy definitive
decomposition. There is also something about balance.
My wife and I are not personality clones, though we have much in common. We
have similar intelligence levels. We are both practical. We have a similar
cultural background. Yet I am at root an engineer while she is an artist. I am
analytic while she is expressive. I like studying new subjects while she
remained an English teacher. I will talk business and psychology all day while
she has an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and movies.
Similarity and difference work well together. Similarity gives a base for
common interest and shared activity, while difference gives space for
exploration and sustaining your own identity within the relationship.
It's not magic. There are distinct things you can think and do to sustain a
relationship. Yet there is also magic, an undefinable spark that keeps it going.
All I can say is that it has worked for me and I'm grateful.
Extremism and Anger
In life there is a spectrum of views we can take on a range of matters. There
are some topics, however, which seem to attract extreme views, from football to
climate change. And of course religion, politics and race.
Not everyone has extreme views and not everyone who has extreme views is an
extremist. To be what may be called 'extremist' is to be consumed by a narrow
topic to the point that it becomes an obsession. Thoughts about the topic crowd
out much other thinking and become more of a compulsion than a point of
Extreme views are characterized by an unwillingness to see other viewpoints.
If I an totally convinced that I am right, then it is obvious that others are
wrong. The extremist amplifies this, making themselves always right and others
always wrong. And the reason others are wrong is because they are either stupid
or bad. Stupid people are inferior and may be ignored or used to help the
extremist feel clever. Bad people must be opposed and punished, and this cause
is central to the extremists life.
One of the defining characteristics of the extremist is
anger. They seldom
argue their views in a calm, reasoned way. They do not seek to understand other
viewpoints or forgive mistakes. Arguing with anger has the basic message of 'Do
as I say or I will hurt you.' Angry people attack rather than listen. They
impose rather than accept. Even when they appear cool, anger is always simmering
beneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment. Trying to reason with an
extremist is unlikely to be successful. They typically have a 'reason radar' and
flip into anger as an escape. When extremists do use reason it is in attempts to
persuade others to their cause, though they seldom have much patience and easily
fall into using
fallacies. To an extremist, their views are clear, reasonable and correct,
while others are bad, wrong or deluded.
Extremists may not even seek to argue or convert. They just want to hurt their targets.
In this way, they act as bullies or worse. When meeting others they draw them
into discussion and then escalate and attack. Otherwise they attack from a safe
distance, even hiding their true identity away from any response. If you find
yourself at the sharp end of an extremist's tongue, the best thing is simply to
say little and leave as soon as possible.
Extremists need opposing extremists. They see the world in black and white
and take a 'with me or against me' position that creates a useful stream of
opponents. While many may be unwilling victims of this manipulation, others
revel in it as they take extreme opposite positions. Both sides then derive
meaning and perverse pleasure in sustaining a never-ending battle where each
dehumanizes the other as evil and so justifies harsh words (and perhaps even
actions). Feuds operate like this.
So what does the extremist position do for the extremist? When we are angry,
we feel powerful, which helps satisfy a deep need for a sense of
Extremism is a refuge for those who are uncomfortable with difference and
uncertainty. Anger is a way of
fear, and fear is a deep and
corrosive cause. Inside, extremists are broken.
As with many things, extremism is a spectrum, a continuum from having strong
views about something to spending every waking moment pursuing those views. It
is hence difficult to identify just when a person becomes 'an extremist', just
as it is difficult to diagnose exactly when a person's actions makes them a
psychopath. Perhaps the decision is academic and perhaps subjective. The key
thing we can know is that arguing with extremists, or even those with extreme
views, is likely to be fruitless.
The Cult of the Average
If you were asked to set the curriculum for school education in a country,
what would you do? How would you decide what should be understood? Or how about
if you were working on job descriptions in a company. How do you decide what is
'good work'? What should you look for when recruiting people? Or how about if
you are designing and selling products? How do you decide what users and
customers will understand? These can be difficult questions and much research is
put into answering them.
Psychological and social research suffer from a problem that the natural sciences
(physics, chemistry, etc.) tend not to experience: people. People are variable.
If you ask a person a question on two successive days, they will give you two
different answers. Likewise, the same provocation will get a different response.
This makes the development of social and psychological science a difficult
problem. The laws of science are nice and exact, and often fall neatly into
simple equations. Not so people.
Rather worryingly, most social research is determinedly average. Our
statistics, in order to report significant results, are designed to eliminate
variation and focus on people who do the same sort of thing. Outliers are a
nuisance so we use statistics to drown them in the mass (which is what averaging
does). Psychological research looks for patterns that can be generalized so we
can say 'everyone acts like this'. And this research, because it is about how
people behave, then feeds into work from instructional design to company
The capabilities and performance of people varies across a spectrum with a
few at the low end, a few higher up and most people in the middle. So if you
were working on the questions above, it makes sense to pitch to the majority in
the middle. In
fact dealing with the minorities is relatively expensive, so if you are
interested in efficiency and reducing costs, then it is easier if you can ignore
them. And this is what often happens. Schools, for example, pitch mostly at
average kids, who of course get average results. Companies look for employees
who will conform to strict rules and not think too differently. And society in
general is set up to reward average people who do not rock the boat.
And so we end up with what Shaun Achor, in 'The Happiness Advantage' called
'The cult of the average', where outstanding performance and different thinking
is rejected in preference for neat similarity to others and conformance to
social and company rules.
Yet there is hope. We do also study differences, and companies try to find
and develop talented people. Achor works in the field of positive psychology,
where there is more focus on those who seem to found the secrets of good living,
and figuring out how the rest of us can have a piece of this splendid pie. We
can also each of us be vigilant about external and internal forces that lead us
to the average.
Being average is accepting one's lot and not finding out just how far we can
go and what we can really achieve. Somehow, the latter seems a better, more
Heh, I'm not sure if you've seen it before and it's a
slightly different concept from what you've been talking about but apparently
"beauty" is also "average". When you measure a person's features beautiful
people actually have "average" dimensions.
-- Richard Perfect
Yes, Richard, your right in that beauty is a kind of 'average' and there's a
norm for the dimensions and attributes of what is considered attractive (that
seems fairly global). What is called 'ugly' is then just a matter of deviation
So how do we cope when the beautiful people make off
with other beautiful people (as then tend to do)? It appears that our skill in
means we change our definition of beauty, for example finding that wonky nose
characterfully attractive or that we really prefer inner beauty over the
Yesterday, after years of shouting at the TV, I went to my first rugby
international. And what a fixture! In the European Six Nations tournament, Wales
had lost only one game and England had won everything. But then it was set in
Wales, in the massive Millennium Stadium, where countless thousands of Welsh
voices would rise in song and joy, vigorously exhorting their red-clad champions
to greater heights of Spartan prowess.
It was a proxy for an old, old battle. The English, led by the rampant
Normans, annexed Wales in 1282, and we're still a bit unhappy about it. They
declared Wales a principality, a mere plaything for a young Prince and continue
the tradition to this day.
They have managed to annoy many other countries, but our beef is the oldest.
It is something the English don't really understand, an attitude typified by
their bafflement over the Welsh language and why anyone would want to speak it.
Everyone speaks English, don't they? In fact an English person in Wales, hearing
Welsh spoken may well feel rather alienated and perhaps affronted by a 'foreign
language' being used in their own country. For in truth, the 'United Kingdom' is
This typifies a major aspect of what it is to be Welsh. The English these
days are not unpleasant or unkind. They just know themselves to be naturally
superior and so unconsciously look down on the Welsh as a handy foil to prove
this. The Welsh are seldom militant about this, even though it rankles. But
living in the shadow of a dominant neighbour is an important part of being
Being Welsh also means loving the hills, beaches and open countryside. Life
is a bit slower here though we know well the meaning of hard work (and working
for English managers). We have a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour and have
a deep love of music and poetry that goes back way before the Normans. We are
social and passionate and enjoy a good argument, though we don't hold a grudge.
This is important with respect to the English as it lets us live together
without bitterness. While their unconscious arrogance could erode our
confidence, it does not. Mostly, we don't mind them and get along fine. We just
like to beat them in competition whenever possible, so we can feel a bit like
David smiting Goliath.
So the rugby was loud and glorious. We bawled and sang as our champions
tilted at the English favourites. And glory of glories, we not only beat the old
enemy, we annihilated them. 30-3. I'll say it again, because it's hard to
believe: 30-3. I expected a close match and feared defeat. And in the words of
the BBC headline, to 'trounce' the invaders was indeed a truly historic victory.
I yelled and cried and came out hoarse and deaf. Cardiff was teeming with
revellers and the English, good for them, were magnanimous in defeat.
A chap next to me said 'It was better than the 70s', a time when Wales were
hugely dominant. There's an old Max Boyce piece about Wales beating the almighty
All Blacks back then. Now, in Max's words, I can say it.
I was there.
The Purpose of Art
What is the purpose of art? Why do we like it? What does it do for us? It
does not keep us alive or safe. It does not find us a mate or help us succeed.
So why do we seem so enamoured by it? (Art in the question here may include a
range of artistic productions including paintings, sculptures, plays, novels,
A simple response is that the purpose of art is to give pleasure, and this is
partly right. Indeed we can stand in front of a grand master's painting or
listen to Mozart and be delighted. Yet we may also weep at paintings of death or
sorrowful dirges which are also, surely, art.
A better definition, perhaps, is that art should move us, stimulating
emotions. Of course not everything that makes us happy or sad is art, but art
and emotion are causally connected. Good art is reliable in this, while weaker art is not. If nobody
likes a sculpture, is it art? What if most people consider it bland and boring?
In creating art, the artist is an important part of the equation and their
intent seems important if they are to move us. Some artists just produce what
they feel without further thought, and many manage to communicate well enough.
Others use arcane symbolism that are codes for the initiated. Yet many also use
standard techniques and devices that are known to have reliable effect.
We might also question some contemporary exhibits that seem to have been
thrown together in a few minutes, so is effort by the artist important? Maybe,
yet a wonderful photograph takes the click of a shutter. Sometimes luck is
involved, though mostly it is the skill of the photographer in seeing the
composition and capturing the right moment, just as the contemporary artist is
also skilled in their own field.
If it does not cheer us, contemporary art may succeed in challenging us,
making us wonder what it represents. Other forms of art may also stimulate
thinking and even change minds, rather than just provoke transient emotion.
Perhaps a broader definition again is needed. We have a basic need for
arousal (which may be
emotional, intellectual or even physical) that art seeks to satisfy. So is
It can certainly be intentional and skilful. True, there is no physical trace as
with painting, but the same can be said in performing arts such as acting and
Art suggests some degree of creativity. Copying another painting may require
the skill of the artist, but surely is lesser art. Stimulation is far greater
when there is novelty. A joke is not as funny the second time around and even
the pleasure of good paintings fades. A characteristic of novelty is that it
breaks rules, yet also follows enough other rules to be recognizable (which is
perhaps why 'art for artists' is not appreciated by others).
Does art exist without the viewer? If arousal is required the answer must be
no, not in the sense of the artwork's success. And if the viewer's opinion is a
part of the process, then the art should create some kind of appreciation,
mostly positive in tone but possibly also a grudging acknowledgement that the
art made the person stop and think.
The purpose of art, then, is to stimulate arousal that is appreciated. Good
art does this reliably, often in a novel way, and usually requiring deep skill.
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Click below to view & comment on any blog
19-May-13: Happiness, Busy-ness
12-May-13: The simple
complexity of avoidant instructions
05-May-13: Asking for the
21-Apr-13: Blue Lights
14-Apr-13: What is winning?
07-Apr-13: The three Ls of
a good marriage
31-Mar-13: Extremism and
24-Mar-13: The Cult of the
17-Mar-13: Being Welsh
10-Mar-13: The Purpose of
03-Mar-13: Selling to
24-Feb-13: The flattering
17-Feb-13: Does money make
'Keep Calm and Carry On'
03-Feb-13: More Good
27-Jan-13: Hey, your
computer booted up 102% quicker!
20-Jan-13: Air fresheners
13-Jan-13: Famous for
06-Jan-13: Doggy game
30-Nov-12: Luck, numbers
and wishful thinking
21-Nov-12: The End of the
09-Nov-12: Getting good
02-Nov-12: Our helpful
18-Nov-12: Moving house,
walking and multitasking
26-Oct-12: The Bond Blitz
19-Oct-12: Photos and
12-Oct-12: Men, women,
crisis and leadership
28-Sep-12: Divided by a
07-Sep-12: Don't name the
24-Aug-12: Face learning
17-Aug-12: Listening to
10-Aug-12: Oooh, hello!
03-Aug-12: How to reduce
27-Jul-12: A teacher's end
criminalizing and confession
intelligent signage and traffic calming
06-Jul-12: Getting kids to
eat their food
22-Jun-12: A public revenge
08-Jun-12: Hot desking and
01-Jun-12: Here and there
25-May-12: Connecting with
18-May-12: Truth, lies and
11-May-12: Selling raffle
05-May-12: Attentional bias
27-Apr-12: The limits of
20-Apr-12: Selling the
13-Apr-12: Assertion or
Persuasion in Politics
06-Apr-12: Customer service
30-Mar-12: Managing and
23-Mar-12: How to sell more
shampoo (or use less)
16-Mar-12: How you look
changes what they say
09-Mar-12: Freedom, abuse
02-Mar-12: Housing pains
24-Feb-12: Store designs
17-Feb-12: Painting the
10-Feb-12: The extrinsic
end of education
03-Feb-12: Real intimacy