Insights #3: August 2018

Key insights from the ten most interesting articles of July

1 – Better Ways to Learn
Tara Parker-pope’s 2014 review of ‘How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens (written by Benedict Carey) , in the New York Times outlines a number of tips on learning. Informed by neuroscience and numerous studies into learning and memory, these include:

  • Long study sessions may be ineffective as a large portion of brainpower will need to be utilised to maintain concentration instead of learning.
  • Alternating the environment within which study occurs can help to generate new associations and improve information recall.
  • Retrieving information through review, talking about it, self-testing, writing it down or trying to ‘teach’ it to others can reinforce learning by forcing the brain to retrieve information and therefore flag it as important.
  • Distributed study time, comprising several relatively short study periods, ideally separated by a couple of days, is likely to be more effective than a single long session. This also potentially increases the number of contextual cues available to learners, given that the shorter study sessions may occur in different environments.
  • Sleep plays an important role in learning, while different parts of the sleep cycle are potentially more important for different types of learning.


2 – Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment

An interesting study led by Harvard academics and published in Science posits that some social problems appear to be ‘intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.’

The authors write: ‘In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it.’

Writing on the BBC’s website, lead researcher David Levari explains:

‘Research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggests that this kind of behaviour is a consequence of the basic way that our brains process information – we are constantly comparing what is in front of us to its recent context.

It turns out that for your brain, relative comparisons often use less energy than absolute measurements.

My research group is currently doing follow-up research in the lab to develop more effective interventions to help counter the strange consequences of relative judgement. One potential strategy: when you’re making decisions where consistency is important, define your categories as clearly as you can.’


3 – How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

Maria Popova, via her ever-thoughtful BrainPickings blog, highlights advice from British philosopher Bertrand Russell, published in ‘Portraits from Memory and other essays’, on how to approach life. Russell writes:

‘Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.’


4 – The mission to create a searchable database of Earth’s surface

Will Marshall, CEO and co-founder of satellite imagery company Planet, provides a brief introduction (via TED) to the company’s project to harness AI in order to index frequently-updated images of the entire Earth’s surface. The platform has numerous potential applications including monitoring illegal fishing. Fascinating.


5 – If national service is so good, everyone should do it

An article in the Economist looked at the potential merits of compulsory national service, which is making a comeback in several countries, some of which allow work in civil / social rather than military services. Benefits may include:

  • Enhanced social cohesion, creating a ‘shared experience in otherwise fragmented societies, breaking down barriers of class, race and gender’
  • Instilling values in participants
  • Increased respect for military
  • ‘A bracing dose of spartan clean living, away from iPads and alcopops’

Given the benefits, the article suggests that the scope of national service should be broadened to include older participants, some of which stand to benefit most from the above.


6 – How Many Versions of a Product Do Consumers Really Want?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, academics and marketing specialists Sarah C Whitley, Remi Trudel and Didem Kurt discuss some of the considerations that retailers should make when designing product range.

While the ‘paradox of choice’ (the idea that too many options can make consumers unhappy, as it creates a feeling of missing out) has gained much attention in recent years, it seems that the optimal number of options may depend on the nature of the product in question. They write:

‘Consumers motivated by pleasure believe that what pleases them differs greatly from what pleases most other people. They will therefore prefer a large assortment. But when seeking to meet a utilitarian need with the same product, they are less inclined to see their preferences as being greatly different from those of other people. They will then be satisfied by a smaller assortment from which to choose.’

This results as the degree to which consumers believe they have unique preferences alters their anticipation of difficulty in finding a satisfactory product and therefore the number of products they wish to review, and has a number of implications:

  • Advertising campaigns and product lines should take into account whether a product is associated with pleasure of function. Retailers should also think about whether customer motivations are based on pleasure or function – for instance, customers of stores based in business districts and holiday resorts are likely to have different motivations and layout / product range should be varied according.
  • Where customers are pleasure-motivated, emphasising affiliation with a group (e.g. ‘college students’), or tailoring offerings through recommendation algorithms can reduce uncertainty about whether unique needs / tastes are being met and enable retailers to reduce product range.
  • Removing low-selling items can reduce sales of other products where there is a pleasure motivation (Walmart quickly reversed a decision in 2008 to reduce SKUs by 15%).
  • For retailers, ‘focusing on product uniqueness first, instead of whether consumers feel they have unique product preferences, puts the cart before the horse.’


7 – The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

This study, undertaken by researchers at Harvard and published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, found that a shift to an open plan office, which is often driven by a desire to boost collaboration and transparency among employees, actually decreases face-to-face interaction while increasing use of electronic communication. Authors Ethan S Bernstein and Stephen Turban write: ‘In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM. ‘


8 – The science behind expectations: how much do they shape what we get?

In an article on awario, Alina Gorbatch looks at how marketing and branding can be used to shape customer expectations, which in turn influences their experience of using a product or service. This works by emphasising specific qualities, shifting the focus of attention to these when a customer experiences the product or service. Branding alone has been shown to significantly influence consumer perception of product efficacy.

She offers three key takeaways:

  • Product strengths should be highlights before and weaknesses after customer interaction, so that the latter do not influence actual experience.
  • Unknown brands should make lots of effort to raise consumer expectations, for instance through using appealing descriptions of their products.
  • Branding is extremely important, and so should be pursued even where budget is limited, for instance through social media or influencer marketing.


9 – To be resilient, face tragedy with humour and flexibility

An excerpt from ‘Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges’, by Steven M Southwick and Dennis S Charney, published in Aeon, discusses some of the latest thinking on what makes people ‘resilient’.

The authors write: ‘Recent research on coping has shown that successful adaptation depends less on which specific strategies people adopt than on whether they are applying coping strategies flexibly depending on the nature of the stressor. Sometimes it is wise to accept and tolerate a situation, while at other times it is best to change it. Similarly, emotion theorists argue that expression of emotion is not necessarily better than suppression. What helps people to cope is having the ability to express or suppress emotions in accordance with the demands of a given situation.’

  • While avoidance and denial can be used as coping mechanisms in the short-term, accepting the reality of a situation is seen as a key factor of tolerating highly stressful situations through facilitating engagement in the development of effective responses.
  • Also important is the ability to reappraise a situation to find ‘alternative positive meaning for neutral or negative events, situations and/or beliefs’, in doing so changing emotional reactions to these and enabling a more adaptive and resilient response. Other people can provide guidance on doing this.
  • Humour can be a useful tool, in providing distance / perspective without denying the realities of the situation.

The authors cite the 2008 book ‘I Will Not Be Broken’, in which co-founder of the International Landmine Survivors Network Jerry White outlines five steps to deal effectively with adversity:

  • 1 – face facts: accept what has happened
  • 2 – choose life: live for the future, not in the past
  • 3 – reach out: connect with other survivors
  • 4 – get moving: set goals and take action
  • 5 – give back: service and acts of kindness empower the survivor to be an asset rather than a victim.


10 – Love your frenemy

Writing in Aeon, Sara Protasi, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Puget Sound, explores the nature of envy.

The article makes a number of interesting points, including:

  • Envy arises where there is a degree of equality between two people, but a perception of slight inferiority in something that the envier cares about. As Aristotle pointed out in Rhetoric:

‘we feel [envy] towards our equals … in birth, relationship, age, disposition, distinction, or wealth’…‘we also envy those whose possession of or success in a thing is a reproach to us: these are our neighbours and equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question.’

  • Envy and love / friendship often arise for the same reasons and ‘thrive in the same conditions of similarity and equality’.
  • While envy can be toxic, there are different forms. Some is destructive, motived by a desire to deprive the envied person of something, while some is constructive, focused more on attaining that same thing. A 2011 study conducted by researchers at Tilburg University (Netherlands) demonstrated that constructive envy is more effective than emotions such as admiration in motivating self-improvement. Comparing human beings to trees growing in a forest in his 1784 essay ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim’, philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that:

‘precisely because each of them seeks to take air and sun from the other [they] are constrained to look for them above themselves, and thereby achieve a beautiful straight growth; whereas those in freedom and separated from one another, that put forth their branches as they like, grow stunted, crooked and awry’.


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