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Friday, November 25, 2011

Carrying out proper conversations

I have consistently been told that I ask too many questions when I am having a conversation.  Until recently, I was mentally beating myself up over this. However, this issue frustrated me enough that I started taking mental notes during all my conversations.  I realized that I ask questions to keep the conversation MOVING.  I was blaming myself for the inadequacies of the person I was speaking to.

From my personal experiences, there are two main ways to keep a conversation flowing.  First method is to ask questions.  For instance, person A asks "How was your day?"  Person B replies "Oh.. pretty good, just the usual."  Now, at this point, person B hasn't done HIS part and asked the question "What about yours?"  Sure, one can argue that person B isn't in a talkative mood and wants to be left alone and this is why he didn't ask anything in return.  One can also assume that person A might be an awkward creeper and person B wants nothing to do with him.  All of these issue aside, when someone is making the effort to get you to talk and he is interested in the conversation, you should return the favor and ask him questions in return so he has something to work off of as well.  Once again, this is assuming the person you are talking to isn't someone you actively avoid.  This is perhaps a big assumption.

The second method to keep a conversation moving is to comment on something the other person has said.  For example, person A says "I am really pissed off at my colleagues, they are always trying to use me to get ahead."  Person B replies "I've had similar experiences with my coworkers, they don't seem to care about friendship, just career advancement."  At this point, person A can comment on what person B has said or person B can finish his statement with a question and person A can continue from there.

Given these two methods, I observed my own conversations.  I noticed that I seem to ask a lot of questions when the person I am speaking to is NOT asking me anything and is also not responding specifically to something I have said.  As a result, I am forced to keep asking questions to keep him/her talking and it becomes an unpleasant experience because I get the feeling I am interrogating the person instead of having a healthy conversation.

So please, if someone is asking about you, RETURN THE FAVOR!  However, you have to first make sure that the person you are speaking to is actually giving you a chance to ask questions instead of cutting you off with more and more questions without giving you the opportunity to ask anything.

(image link:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A few thoughts on the Occupiers

I would like to point out before I write anything that I have not personally attended any of the Occupy protests.  I have simply been following the issue through the news, interviews of protesters, and through friends that know more about the subject than myself.

I have one main criticism of the movement itself, the lack of CLEAR goal(s).  The excuse for not having set goals is that it would splinter the movement and decrease the numbers.  I think a smaller group with clear goals is MUCH better than a bigger one with no goals at all.  The protesters are currently ruining their image and coming off as pot-smoking pissed off people that don't even know what they want.  The public will lose more and more respect for them in the long run and the movement will turn into an annoying whimper.

Don't get me wrong, I have respect for an individual who is angry about something AND is willing to ACT on his feelings in some way such as protesting.  Most individuals just complain and fail to do anything about it.  Individually, each protester at the Occupy protests has a specific issue they are protesting for and I can respect them for this.  But, once you pull all the protesters together, all the voices get merged together into an incomprehensible and jumbled mess.  In this case, I don't believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Furthermore, I don't actually believe setting clear goals will greatly damage the movement.  For instance, given the types of people attracted to these protests, would a large number of them be against a goal such as "Create more stringent laws to limit the amount of money corporations can donate to campaigns"? Or what about "Create greater transparency measures in Congress"?  These examples are still rather generic and they can be modified and made more specific. However, these goals are a start and they could start a discussion among the protesters to see how many of them would actually support goals such as these.  

Ultimately, the protesters  are wasting their potential and destroying their public image.  Part of the reason why protests in Egypt were successful was that the protesters had a clear and central goal that the majority of the supporters could get behind.  Who they were protesting against also CLEARLY understood what the protesters wanted.  Such clarity, which seems to be so essential for effectiveness, is missing in the OWS movement.  If you ask people what they think the OWS is about, they will either shrug at you or give you an answer that is some variant of "they are a bunch of angry people that can't decide on what they actually want."

Monday, November 21, 2011

The power of reminders

I am fascinated by human behavior and how we make decisions. I am interested in studies that look at how humans make choices under different circumstances.  In behavioral economics, and economics in general, the view that humans are "rational" and "calculating" decision-makers is slowly being tossed out the window.  We are guided as much by emotion, irrationality, and poorly thought-out decision making as we are by logic and proper weighing of the costs and benefits of a particular decision.

As a result, there are researchers out there that are trying to figure out ways to gently "nudge" people towards making better decisions.  "Better" in this context would mean things such as healthier eating habits, conserving energy, reducing waste, exercising more, saving more money, and making better-informed investment decisions.  The list of "beneficial" behaviors is vast and that was just a small sample.  One of the many ways to nudge people towards these goals is through the use of reminders and feedback on their past behavior.  This is the focus of this post and I will be referencing a research journal article called "Nudging With Information: a Randomized Field Experiment on Reminders and Feedback" by Giacomo Calzolar and Mattia Nardott.  For additional reading on the topic of Nudging in general, I recommend reading a great book called "Nudge."  Refer here for more info:


The premise of this paper is whether people can  "be helped with sticking to their plans with a little help from information."  The authors test whether students can be motivated to attend the gym more without the use of monetary incentives and they show that "by means of a randomized field experiment, simple weekly reminders induce users of a gym to substantially increase their levels of physical exercise."  The students that received the "treatment" (weekly reminders about exercising) were more likely to attend the gym than the "control" group of students that did not receive such reminders.  The treatment students increased their gym attendance rate by up to 25%.  Before the treatment, both groups of students exhibited "very similar behaviors in terms of monthly attendance."  As soon as the reminders stopped being sent, both groups started to become similar again.  I won't bore or confuse people with the mathematical details but the authors ran a regression analysis and used statistical models and formulas to show that the results were statistically significant (i.e. legit) and not just random variations due to measurement error.

The main takeaway point here is that desirable behavior in people can be induced by using an inexpensive but effective method such as informative reminders.  We like to think that people know they should be going to the gym or doing other activities they want to be involved in and that sending reminders won't do anything since they are rational and are already aware of what they need to be doing.  But, as is usually the case, actual data, analysis, and observations from experiments show otherwise.

However, even though these results look promising and robust, we should be careful when assuming similar successes can be achieved in other contexts.  This study took place in a specific area, using a particular sub-set of individuals, and it only looked at gym membership rates at one gym.  As always, great care should be taken when extending the results to other situations, activities, and people.

But, it is certainly nice imagining the possibilities of such policies in contexts such as energy and water conservation.  For instance, what if water and power utility companies sent text and email reminders to their customers about turning off unused lights, appliances, and only watering their lawns at specific times?  We certainly know that we should be doing all of these things regardless of reminders.  But then again, the students in this particular study certainly knew they should be going to the gym and staying healthy as well, even without the aid of reminders.

Of course, we can always claim that such methods of affecting people's behavior is "manipulative" and can be used for questionable and controversial goals.  We don't need "big brother" pulling the strings from behind the scenes and affecting our behavior without our conscious knowledge.  This is true and I am sure corporations and large companies use such tactics in their advertising to manipulate customers and reap even more profits.  But, this certainly should not stop us from using such behavioral-nudging methods for beneficial goals such as promoting environmentally conscious behavior and getting people to exercise more.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Respect for the introspective

The thoughts in this post were inspired by a recent article I read in the Huffington Post:

The article is written by a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal.  She talks about her experiences and how the Peace Corps taught her the true meaning of failure and learning to accept it as a normal part of life.  Here are some thoughtful quotes from the article itself:

"One benefit of the program that is never trumpeted (and likely never will be) is that it produces a group of young Americans who understand failure."

"Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that's why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it" 

"Our hyped-up expectations of success are often quashed--we learn quickly that smaller is better." 

"I survived two years in the Peace Corps. My proudest accomplishment during my time in Senegal, one that can't be expressed on a résumé, is how much I grew up."

The focus of this post is NOT to comment further on the author's ideas and provide my own thoughts on the meaning of failure (perhaps this is a post for another time).  My focus is on the author herself and my respect for individuals that are able to live through an experience and be an ACTIVE and analytic participant. What I mean by this is that in addition to going through an experience, such individuals attempt to take a step back and analyze what actually happened.  They ask questions such as "Why did I act in such a way?", "Why am feeling so ashamed or sad or satisfied with myself right now?", "Why did this person react the way they did towards me? Was their reaction justified or irrational and out of my control?" and "What could I do differently the next time I find myself in a similar situation?"  These are just examples and there are numerous other questions and thoughts that can go through this individual's head.  The overall theme here is that this individual is being introspective and attempting to analyze and think about what occurred. He is not being a passive participant of what is happening to him.

For instance, in the posted article, this particular volunteer could have simply made a laundry list of her failures and described her experiences at a superficial level. She could have made no attempts to draw out lessons learned or the potential effects of her experiences on her personal growth and ideas. From personal experience, A LOT of people are satisfied with such low-level descriptions that lack analysis or introspection.  I don't think there is anything wrong with such an approach but an individual is not reaching his full potential if he stays passive like this his whole life.  Sooner or later he has to realize that he needs to challenge himself and actually THINK.

Ultimately, this is why I respect introspective story-tellers.  They go above and beyond simply reporting the facts.  They analyze.  They think.  They provide hypotheses. They dig deeper.  They actively attempt to learn from what they go through.  

I learn immensely from such individuals and I truly am lucky to have such people in my life.  I hope I continue to meet such thoughtful and analytic folks and grow as a person in the process. 

Why I'm doing this

Over time, I have come to realize that as much as I like to bash my own ideas and not think much of myself from an intellectual standpoint, I DO have thoughts that are worth putting down and dwelling upon.  I don't read as much as many people out there but I enjoy following current events, blogs, and articles from pretty much any field ranging from finance, human behavioral research, to astronomy and space exploration.  A lot of times, I am intrigued or moved by a certain idea that I see in an article, or video talk, or a book and I have the urge to write something about it.  However, I have stopped myself and not pursued this desire for no legitimate reason that I can think of.  Starting today (and hopefully for a long time to come), I am going to change that and actually force myself to more intimately explore my thoughts.

If anything, doing this will help me fulfill my introspective desires and improve as a writer in the process.

I would like to note that if a thought or idea is inspired by someone I know, I will not be listing their names or revealing anyone's identity.  Unless they specifically request me to that is.

Let's see where this little experiment takes us.

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