The way to make people happy in two simple steps: Underpromise, overdeliver.

Here’s Louis CK on Conan talking about how everything in our world today is so AWESOME that when the slightest thing goes wrong we feel DESPAIR.


One of my friends, Dan, worked at a discount retailer when on hiatus from his PhD program. I still remember his rant about how cheap a box of Ralph Lauren shirts were, and how stupidly marked up the prices were. A $20 dress shirt is made in Bangladesh for 20 cents. A $200 dress shirt is also made in Bangladesh for 50 cents, and then they mark the price down by 50% and you think you’re getting a fantastic deal.

Fashion is bullshit, and everyone in the fashion industry knows it.

What seems inevitable is that the pain will worsen as the price reductions provoke questions among consumers of how stratospheric profits must have been when the economy was riding high. How great, really, was the surcharge to consumers for participating in fashion fantasy?

“I was in Saks last week, and there were these staggering discounts and it’s not even Jan. 1,” Tim Gunn, the “Project Runway” host and chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne, said Tuesday, before a discussion on “Redefining the Rules of Fashion in Today’s Economy,” sponsored by the textile manufacturer Dow XLA. “I was told by easily half a dozen sales associates that if I opened a Saks credit card, I’d get another 15 percent off. What I wonder is, “What are the real margins?’

All right, it’s been a while since I last posted. The reason is that our class was supposed to work on a blog for class. Once that assignment was finished, we moved on to a new assignment. I don’t think the others are even updating, since they work us like dogs in this course and it has finally let up a bit.

However, the more you suffer to get into something, the more valuable you find the experience or the group. This is why aboriginal peoples have rites of passage to adulthood, and why fraternities haze new recruits.

The new assignment Hein gave us is to reinterpret Edward Bernays’ 1928 book, Propaganda, as a website. Bernays was the father of Spin and PR, and he was the first to translate the psychological theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, into advertising and propaganda. Bernays helped companies adapt the tools of mass communication to benefit mass production, and gave them the tools to turn needs into wants, turning America into a nation of consumers. Bernays is responsible for the success of IHOP and Denny’s, because he cast ‘bacon and eggs’ as the quintessential American meal and sold it to the public.

On November 20th, my colleague Melissa and I went to the Creativity World Forum in Antwerp, Belgium. It was a good set of speakers, particularly with David Heath and Chris Anderson.

I also discussed my ideas and background with Arjen Mulder in Amsterdam last week, in preparation for the December presentation of our thesis topics.

In short: I am interested in why people make choices. Logical self-interest, it turns out, is not the determining factor in decision-making.

For that, we go to James March’s Decision-making tree:

  1. What kind of person am I?
  2. What sort of situation is this?
  3. What does a person like me do in a situation like this?

Identity is the most important factor. So if you change the person or the situation, you can change the effects.

Body-Swapping as Psychotherapy

The evidence that inhabiting another’s perspective can change behavior comes in part from virtual-reality experiments. In these studies, researchers create avatars that mimic a person’s every movement. After watching their “reflection” in a virtual mirror, people mentally inhabit this avatar at some level, regardless of its sex, race or appearance. In several studies, for instance, researchers have shown that white people who spend time interacting virtually as black avatars become less anxious about racial differences.

VIDEO: Apollo Robbins at The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness convention

I’ve recently become a bit obsessed with Apollo Robbins. 

Robbins is a pickpocket and Las Vegas magician turned security consultant; he’s featured on the US version of the TV show The Real Hustle on TruTV (formerly CourtTV). His magic is distraction and manipulating human behaviour.

Here are two articles from the New York Times: one a recent link describing the Science of the Five Senses convention; the other article a year old, written by the science writer Robbins steals blind in the video up top.

Also included: link to “Attention and Awareness in Stage Magic” in Nature Neuroscience. Authors include Stephen L. Macknik, Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson & Susana Martinez-Conde. Watch the others — Teller talks!

Let’s go back to pickpocketing and the science of cognition. Robbins explains that pickpockets have an advantage over stage magicians in that thieves prey on the unsuspecting; magicians do tricks with everyone watching. 

Magic is about playing with basic human nature: attention/inattention, de/sensitivity, attraction/distraction.

Creative Commons image, Nate Steiner

Creative Commons image, Nate Steiner

John McCain’s Robo-calls (automated home phone calls) don’t work. Barack Obama’s text messages do.

Why is this?

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo answers the question: robo-calls are cheap and easy, but have no effect (other than annoying a ton of people); text messages are cheap, easy and effective, because they’re both personal and impersonal at the same time.

How does the text message have this sort of contradictory impulse? Because it’s on a cell phone, which is close to you every day, and because for the average user, text messages are like rare jewels, or limited editions–something you look forward to getting. Or a friendly reminder. For the Obama campaign, cell phones are like micro-targeting: if they have a cell phone they know where the person lives and whether they’re a likely voter.

And they’re currently unspammed. If you have a txt from Barack either you signed up for it…or one of your friends forwarded it on to you.

courtesy of Jessica Shannon and flickr

courtesy of Jessica Shannon and flickr

If you look at images of money or play with fake money, or do puzzles involving words associated with money, you get the flip side of the priming effect from the hot coffee experiment.

Basically, people who were encouraged to think about money subconsciously become more independent, self-reliant, and less generous than people who were not primed. The ones with money on their minds  refused help from others, did not provide help when asked, and were more likely to keep the reward for participating in the study for themselves rather than give it to charity.

courtesy of Ahmed Rabea and Flickr

courtesy of Ahmed Rabea and Flickr

John Tierney of TierneyLab in the NY Times mentions a Science article on priming research by Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh.

We’ve seen this before: give test subjects either a cup of hot coffee or a cup of iced coffee to hold for ten seconds a few minutes before you ask them to rate a hypothetical person, and the ones who held the hot cup rate the people as friendlier.

It works with heating pads, too. Tell the subjects you’re having them try out heating pads and cooling pads, and then give them the choice of rewarding themselves or giving a gift to a friend. The ones who held the hot pad were more likely to give their friend a gift.

So with the stimulus of warmth, we see other people as friendlier and more open, and we become friendlier ourselves.