Tag Archives: Carl Davidson

Social Science Saves Your Life

8 Mar

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

Do you remember back in 2013 when Nigella Lawson was assaulted by her (then) husband, Charles Saatchi? One of the reasons the story shocked people around the world is because no-one stepped in to assist. Given the assault happened in the middle of the day, outside a busy restaurant in Mayfair, any number of people could have stepped in. So why didn’t they?

If you’re wondering that, then you probably also believe that you would have behaved differently. When we read of events like the assault on Nigella, it’s always tempting to think that we would have been the ones to intervene. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

The tendency not to act is known as ‘bystander apathy’ and cases like Nigella’s are all too common.

Bystander apathy happens because, when people get together in groups, it is common to think that someone else will be the first to act (what psychologists call ‘diffusion of responsibility’). We are also reluctant to act because situations are often ambiguous, and most of us do not want to appear foolish (by acting inappropriately) in front of others.

Both of these effects are magnified with the size of the crowd, which means we are less likely to act when there are more people around. This is because groups of people behave differently from the individuals within them. A major reason for this is in what social scientists call ‘deindividuation’. This describes the reduction in a sense of individual identity within groups and crowds. It isn’t always negative (as anyone dancing with abandon at a concert knows) but it is most frequently used to explain why people behave worse in crowds than they would on their own.

Deindividuation leads to ‘bystander apathy’ because people in crowds tend to think that someone else will act (that is, the responsibility to act diffuses through the crowd). And the larger the crowd, the less likely to act we all become. There also seems to be no difference in this kind of apathy by gender, age, or ethnicity. We’re all as likely as each other to stand by and do nothing.

The good news is that, while deindividuation (in all its guises) is common, it is remarkably easy to overcome. To do that, we simply need to re-engage with people in the crowd as individuals.  If you’re ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in a situation like Nigella, the way to get help is to focus on someone particular in the crowd and ask them, specifically, for help. Try something like ‘you in the green jacket, please help me’. Be specific and direct. This will cut through the diffusion of responsibility and any lingering sense among bystanders about the ambiguity of the situation.

Make sure to share this tip with your family and friends. One day it could make all the difference in the world.


Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

How Did the Polls get the US Elections so Badly Wrong?

14 Dec

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

USA Map Vote and Elections USA Patriotic Icon Pattern

The day after Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election, The Dominion Post ran a headline saying ‘WTF’. It left off the question mark so not to cause offence (and asked us to believe that they really meant ‘Why Trump Flourished’). But the question lingers regardless.

For those of us in the research business, WTF? was quickly followed by ‘how did the polls get it so wrong?’.

It’s a good question. And coming hot on the heels of the polls’ failure to predict Brexit, an important one.

People have attempted to answer this question in a number of ways, and each of them tells us something a little different about the nature of polling, the research industry, and voters in general.

The first response might be called the ‘divide and conquer’ argument. This is the one that says not all the polls got the election result wrong. The USC/LA Times poll, for instance, tracked a wave of support for Trump building and predicted Trump’s victory a week out. Similarly, the team at Columbia University and Microsoft Research also predicted Trump’s victory. But this seems to me to be a disingenuous argument because most polls clearly got the result wrong. And with enough polls running, some of them have to give the contrary view. Another way to think about this is that even a broken watch is right twice a day.

There is a variation on this argument that we might call ‘divide and conquer 2.0’. This is the argument that says people outside of the industry misunderstood what the polls actually meant. The best example here might be Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com. Before the election 538 gave Trump about a thirty percent chance of winning. To most people, that sounds like statistical short hand for ‘no chance’. But to statisticians, it means that if we ran the election ten times, Trump would win three of them. In other words, Silver was saying all along that Trump could win. Just it was more likely that Hilary would. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb might put it, the problem here is that non-specialists were ‘fooled by randomness’. There is merit in this argument but it seems too much of ‘a bob each way’ position (and note how it shifts the fault from the pollsters to the pundits).

The next argument might be called ‘duck and run’. This is the argument that says the fault lies with the voters themselves because they probably misrepresented their intentions. Pollsters typically first ask people if they intend to vote, and only then who they’re going to vote for. But, of course, there’s no guarantee the answer to either is accurate. This seems to be the explanation that David Farrar (who is one of New Zealand’s most thoughtful and conscientious pollsters) reached for when approached by Stuff. Given how many Americans didn’t vote in the election, expect to hear this argument often. But surely all this really means is that the pollsters asked the wrong questions, or asked them of the wrong people?

A variation on this ‘duck and run’ argument is that polls are at their least effective where a tight race is being run. On election night nearly 120 million votes were cast but the difference between the two candidates was only about 200,000 (or less than one third of one percent). It could be that no polling method is sufficiently precise to work under these conditions. If you want to try this line of argument in the office, award yourself a bonus point for referring to the ‘bias-variance dilemma’.

But I think all of these arguments are a kind of special pleading. Worse than that, much of what the industry is now saying looks like classic hindsight bias to me. This is also known as the ‘I-Knew-It-All-Along Effect’, which describes the tendency, after something has happened, to see the event as having been inevitable (despite not actually predicting it). While it’s easy to be wise after the fact, the point of polling is to provide foresight, not hindsight.

And no matter how well intentioned any of these arguments might be, it’s hard not to think we’ve seen them all before. Philip Tetlock’s masterful Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? reports a 20 year research project tracking predictions made by a collection of experts. These predictions were spectacularly wrong but even more dazzling was the experts’ ability to explain away their failures. They did this by some combination of arguing that their predictions, while wrong, were such a ‘near miss’ they shouldn’t count as failure; that they made ‘the right mistake’; or that something ‘exceptional’ happened to spoil their lovely models (think ‘black swans’ or ‘unknown unknowns’). In other words, the same arguments that we’re now seeing the polling industry rolling out to explain what happened with this election.

For me, all of these arguments miss the point and distract us from the real answer. The pollsters (mostly) got the election wrong because the future – despite all our clever models and data analytics – is fundamentally uncertain. Our society loves polls because we crave certainty. It’s the same reason we fall for the Cardinal Bias, the tendency to place more weight on what can be counted than on what can’t be. But certainty will always remain out of reach. What Trump’s victory really teaches us is that all of us should spend less time reading polls and more time reading Pliny the Elder. It was Pliny, after all, who told us ‘the only certainty is that nothing is certain’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

You’ve Got to Know When to Fold ’em

9 Nov

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

Businessman standing on stack of books with a magnifying glass. Business vision

If you have read The Luminaries then you will know that it’s a substantial book. Indeed, one of the reviewers on National Radio joked that it’s a book that ‘gets better after page 400’. Regardless of what this says about the merits of The Luminaries, it raises an interesting general question about when it is okay to abandon a book you have started reading. After all, if you give up too soon then you might miss an amazing plot twist that transforms your experience. But if you plough on regardless, you’ll lose those precious hours you could have used doing (or reading) something better.

Clearly this is not a recent problem. Mark Twain once famously said that a ‘classic’ book is one that ‘everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read’. A quick search of the internet demonstrates that little has changed since Twain’s day, with any number of sites listing books that people pretend they have read. Amazon will even sell you a book to help with the pretense (Anne Taute’s Bluff Your Way in Literature).

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that social scientists have something to say about our reading behaviour, but you may be surprised about what that is. In short, the view from the social sciences is that we should all learn to ditch unsatisfying books sooner.

The first part of this argument arises from what is known as ‘the sunk cost trap’. This describes the tendency to stay with an activity simply because of the time (or money) we have already spent on it. It’s also known as ‘throwing good money after bad’. But we all fall for it to a lesser or greater extent because overcoming sunk costs first means accepting that we have made a bad choice. Our reluctance to make this admission explains why people finish movies or meals they aren’t enjoying; hold on to investments that are underperforming; and keep clothes in their closet that they’ve rarely worn.

The second part of the argument focuses on what is known as ‘loss aversion’. This shows that we feel the pain of losing much more acutely than we do the pleasure from winning. The fear of losing may be what motivates the All Blacks to their great heights of performance but it often inhibits the rest of us. This is because when it comes to making a decision, we are always confronted with the possibility that we’ll make the wrong one. Given this possibility, sticking with the status quo can often seem safer. And I don’t mean a little bit safer – the evidence from the psychology lab suggests that losses are felt about twice as powerfully as similar gains.

Finally, social scientists point to what is known as ‘the Zeigarnik Effect’. This describes how we remember incomplete tasks much more readily (and vividly) than we do complete ones. This Effect has been shown in a number of studies but it began when Zeigarnik’s professor noted how a waiter in a local restaurant could recall unpaid orders but not those that had been paid. The subsequent research demonstrated that the things we start and don’t finish weight much more heavily on our minds than tasks we finish.

Taken together, ‘the sunk cost trap’, ‘loss aversion’, and ‘the Zeigarnik Effect’ mean we are predisposed to staying with tasks long after we should have given up on them; are intrinsically biased towards the status quo; and much more likely to remember our failures than successes.

But while the psychologists have much to say about why it’s so hard to give up on a book you have started to read, they provide little guidance about when we should stop. For this, we need the no-nonsense wisdom of aviation. Mark Vanhoenacker is a 747 pilot and the author of Skyfaring. In his book, he notes that on the final approach to an airport there is a point where the pilot in command has to make a ‘decide call’. To make sure this happens, when the plane reaches the decision-altitude, the flight computer says ‘DECIDE’ out loud and unmistakably. Vanhoenacker talks about how this has become a tool that he uses in his own life when he finds himself procrastinating.

I like the idea of readers creating their own ‘decide’ calls for books. This decision point might occur after you have read the first 60 pages, the first three chapters, or after spending one whole morning reading. But an idea I like even better is to deduct your age from 100 and reading that many pages before giving up. After all, the older we get the less time we have to spend on bad books. And we really do need to know when to walk away and when to run.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

The Multitasking Myth

14 Sep

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

Busy business people working hard on his desk in office with a lot of paper work, Business conceptual on hard working.

Can women multitask better than men? Before you read any further, stop for a moment and consider that question: What do you really think?
It probably won’t surprise you that this is a question social scientists have given plenty of attention. Nor may it surprise you that their answers point both ways.
The argument against is perhaps the most interesting. This tells us that women are not better at multitasking than men because no-one really multitasks. The research evidence here is very clear, we can only ever give our full attention to one task at once.

When we think we’re multitasking, what we are really doing is rapidly shifting our attention from one task to another. This shuffling of tasks often makes us think that we are simultaneously attending to them but that is just an illusion. When we shuffle between tasks our performance on all of them decreases, and the likelihood of making mistakes goes up. This is why driving and talking on your phone (with or without a hands-free kit) is a bad idea.

What this shows is that we have our metaphors about attention all wrong. It’s common to hear attention referred to as a kind of internet ‘bandwidth’ but in reality attention is much more like a phone line. If you want to take an incoming call, you first have to put the current caller on hold. Attention is both finite and sequential.

The reason why some people think women are able to multitask successfully is that there is some evidence that women can switch between tasks faster than men. This comes from a series of experiments that showed mixing up a number of tasks slowed down men’s performance more than women’s. Some people believe this demonstrates that women are better at what is known as ‘thin slicing’ than men. That is, the ability to make very quick decisions drawn from small amounts of information.

So the view from the social scientists seems to be that while women can’t really multitask better than men, they are better at the tricks our brains play to provide the illusion that we can.
Yet if we shift our attention from psychology to sociology, the social science here gets even more interesting. Sociologists are less interested in what the experiments tell us about men and women and multitasking and more interested in what those things say about the world we live in. This perspective raises important questions like ‘why have we made a fetish of multitasking?’ and ‘why do we care if women or men are better at it?’

The first of those is about the general appeal of multitasking and the answer seems obvious. In a world where there are increasingly blurred lines between work and home, and where technology provides the ability to combine tasks in new ways, multitasking seems a virtuous way to be more productive. In this view, multitasking is seen as a way to respond to an increasingly time-poor world.

At the same time, we now know that our brains crave novelty. They have evolved to seek it out, and they reward us when we find it. Novelty is correlated with the activation of the dopamine system in the brain. This provides a powerful reward mechanism for doing the things evolution has wired us all to do. So while the multitasking myth explains why you shouldn’t mix driving and talking on your phone, your brain’s craving for novelty explains why you want to.

The marriage of technology and the reconfiguring of work explains why we have made multitasking a virtue. But it also explains why it’s convenient to believe that women can do it better than men. Over the last 50 years or so we have seen a radical change in the working lives of women. Their participation in paid work has increased significantly, and with it a ‘double burden’ of juggling work and home-life. Women who were raised to believe they could do anything, found themselves in a world where they were asked to do everything. In this world, is it any surprise that we came to believe that women are natural multitaskers and much better at it than men?

As any social scientist will tell you, social norms are cultural products. What we see as ‘common sense’ reveals a great deal about the world we live in. In this regard, our belief in multitasking tells us much more about who we are than we might like to admit. But is this ability to get behind those taken-for-granted assumptions that makes the social sciences so valuable to all of us. Because, as George Orwell noted, to see what’s in front of our noses needs a constant struggle.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Why Do People Speed Up in Passing Lanes?

10 Aug

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight at Research First


It seems like such an annoying problem: You find yourself stuck behind a car that is crawling along as the road twists and turns its way through the countryside, only to have them speed up once you reach the passing lanes. Why does this happen?

One way to explain this phenomenon is to assume that the driver in the slower car is acting deliberately; that he or she is somehow trying to stop you overtaking them by accelerating ahead. And, in the process, that the other driver is consciously attempting to prevent you from reaching your destination in a timely manner. This view of other drivers sees the road as a place of contest and malice. A Darwinian struggle, red in tooth and claw, just to get to your destination. Explained like this, is it any wonder that people experience road rage?

Fortunately, there are better explanations we can draw on. As any good social scientist will point out, Hanlon’s Law tells us that we should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by human frailty. The ‘frailty’ in this case is one of perception, and in particular how our brains perceive speed. Simply put, narrower roads increase the perception of speed, and wider roads decrease that perception.

Which may seem obvious, but how does it explain why people actually speed up when the road widens? To do that, we need to refer to what is known as ‘risk homeostasis’. This is the idea that all of us have a certain amount of perceived risk that we think is acceptable. When the perceived risk is below that particular level (or goes above it), we change our behaviour to adjust how much risk we feel. When a narrow road becomes wider (such as with the addition of a passing lane), the risk sensation decreases and our behaviour changes to reflect that.

Homeostatsis works just like the thermostat in your heat pump at home, turning up the heat or cooling down the room to keep the desired temperature. You can see it in action in passing lanes as people speed up as the road widens and slow down as the passing lane ends and the road narrows. It may look like they are playing cat-and-mouse with you, but they’re not (at least not most of the time).

Research from Europe demonstrates just how much impact road width can have on driving behaviour. Increasing the width of a road lane from 6m to 8m sees average speeds increase from 80kmh to between 90 and 100kmh. Moreover, adding to the number of lanes on a road (such as with passing lanes) produces faster speeds even where the width of individual lanes remains constant.

What is interesting about the link between road width and the perception of speed is that road designers clearly know this. They often use what are called ‘gateway treatments’ to make roads appear narrower as they enter populated areas. These ‘gateways’ can be physical or they can simply be visual (such as different road markings).

Yet this understanding of how width affects the perception of speed seems strangely out of synch with the posters and signs that often get erected to remind drivers to be considerate, to pull over, and let others pass. That is, the built environment sends drivers one set of signals while the signs and posters attempt to send the opposite signal. In many ways that is like sitting down to the all-you-can-eat buffet at your favourite restaurant while surrounded by posters warning about the dangers of obesity.

Researchers also know that perceptions of speed are strongly influenced by peripheral vision and noise. The evidence is clear that peripheral vision deteriorates with age (with the size of our visual field decreasing by about three degree per decade). Researchers from the University of Chicago have argued that this leads to older drivers having lower risk thresholds (and hence driving slower) to compensate for this lack of vision.

Similarly, we all use noise to help estimate our speed. This means that better sealed roads (such as in passing lanes) will also lead to lower perceived speeds. Equally, it means that people in older cars may well think they are travelling faster than they are.

So why do people speed up in passing lanes? Because we have created the perfect environment to encourage them to do so. With the best will in the world, we have created a passing infrastructure that makes it difficult to pass.

This may seem like a cosmic joke but it is an example of what social scientists call ‘the law of unintended consequences’. This warns us that interventions in complex systems tend to have unanticipated and often perverse outcomes. Which might point to the real insight contained in Hanlon’s Law: that in the absence of proper understanding, human frailty often appears indistinguishable from malice.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Why is everyone so busy?

13 Jul

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

To do list with so many things note on paper with paper balls and pen

If you’re like most people, you probably get to the end of the day wondering where the hours went. Equally, you probably struggle to remember the last time you had a conversation that didn’t involve someone talking about how busy they were.

The expression ‘time-poor’ emerged towards the end of the twentieth-century and it seems to undeniably describe modern living. For those who like to supersize their maladies, there is the notion of ‘hurry sickness’. According to Psychology Today, this describes a pattern of behaviour characterised by “continual rushing and anxiousness; an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency [where] a person feels chronically short of time”. If you easily get frustrated with delays, you probably have it. And if a slow internet connection enrages you, then you definitely do. But it could be worse, in Japan there is a condition known as ‘karoshi’, which translates roughly as ‘death from overwork’.

A quick search of Google reveals that there are two broad responses to this escalation of busyness in our lives. The first response is all about finding ways to use our time more effectively and efficiently. It’s hard to escape the impression that this is billion dollar industry, with a seemingly endless selection of tools, apps, books, and training course to make us all more productive.
The second response involves some measure of unplugging from modern life. In this corner we have an equally impressive array of people and products promising to help us downshift, declutter, and disengage.

Not for the first time (and with apologies to Anthony Giddens), social science suggests there is a third way. This response starts from the counterintuitive point that our lives aren’t really any busier than they were in the past.

Despite how it might seem, the evidence is clear that New Zealanders in paid employment work fewer hours, on average, than they did in 2001. Equally, the data we have about leisure time (or what social scientists call ‘time spent free of obligation and necessity’) shows no decrease over the last 20 years.

How we spend our leisure time has definitely changed (more time in front of screens and less time in organised sport), as have the parts week that get counted as ‘leisure’, but it’s not getting any scarcer.

It’s true that these are general patterns drawn from averages and your mileage may vary. But the argument is stronger if we reverse it: there is no evidence that we are more ‘time-poor’ than in the past. This in itself is a remarkable insight.

It is also the kind of paradox that social scientists love. Clearly being ‘time-poor’ or having a dose of ‘hurry-sickness’ is real for many people (and it’s particularly hard to fake karoshi). Yet the cause must lie in something other than an objective intensification of everyday life.

The answer seems to be in how perceive our time in the context of the number of ways we have of spending it. What the world we live in clearly does is magnify the conflict between the parts of our brains that crave novelty and fear loss. This is then further magnified by the rapid diffusion of digital technology. No matter what you are doing, there is a world of distraction just a click away.

In this context, choosing to do just one thing, no matter how worthy, means not doing any number of others. Even where you like the choice you have made, the act of discounting the alternatives creates stress. As does second-guessing your choices by thinking about the more productive ways you could have used your time. In this regard we are all like Proust, in search of lost time.

But life is too short and Proust is too long to live this way. The view from the social sciences is that the key to overcoming hurry sickness is to place more value on our time. Doing so will help arrest the tendency many of us have to be easily distracted. Here what matters is not so much how to save time but how to spend our attention.

Because, to paraphrase Annie Dillard – ‘how we spend our hours is, of course, how we spend our lives’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

We Have To Talk About Donald Trump

8 Jun

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

Judgment road sign

It seems too easy here in New Zealand to watch the American Republican Party primary election unfold in disbelief. Only in America, you might think, could Donald Trump’s inanity and witlessness be the qualities that determine their party’s presidential candidate. If you’re old enough to remember Hunter S Thompson before the Johnny Depp caricature, you may even think that it’s time to revive the ‘fear and loathing on the campaign trail’ theme.

But, as one of my old psychology professors used to warn me, ‘everything looks simple from the distance of ignorance’. Rather than representing something unique about the Republican Party (or even about the state of the USA in 2016), the popularity of Trump could illustrate two useful social science insights (and in the process reveal a great deal about us and the world we live in).

The first insight is that we are just not very good at judging other people.

The second is that political campaigns provide very poor information to shape those judgements.

The first insight comes from psychology, and shows that we form judgements about people from how they look and behave long before we hear what they have to say. No matter how unfair it seems, better-looking people tend to be judged more favourably than the rest of us; make more money; and are treated more leniently by others when they get into trouble. It starts early too, with teachers favouring their more attractive students and judging them as smarter.

As if this ‘beauty bias’ wasn’t bad enough, there is also a ‘height premium’. This describes how taller people, on average, earn more money than shorter people; are more likely to be considered intelligent; and are more likely to be picked as leaders. John Adams was probably only half-joking when he said that George Washington became president because he was ‘always the tallest man in the room’.

Finally, the research into how we judge others is clear that we see those who speak-up first, or loudest, or most often, as being more charismatic than those that don’t. This is a key part of what we mean when we say someone ‘makes a great leader’. And here is the really important part, they are considered better leaders regardless of what they actually have to say.

Google ‘how to be more charismatic’ and what you will find are endless lists about how to talk, dress, and impress but very little about the quality of your message. If you get the impression that ‘being charismatic’ is largely an act, you’re close to understanding the appeal of Donald Trump.

And this is where the second insight helps us. Playing into these psychological biases is the changing sociology of political campaigns. As hard as it is to believe today, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas took part in a series of debates that involved one candidate opening with a 60 minute speech, followed by a 90 minute response from the other. They did this seven times, with no moderator present.

By 1968 the average length of a soundbite from a US presidential candidate was down to 42 seconds; then 10 seconds in 1988; and around seven seconds today. For some context, if you talk faster than normal, you might get through 25 words in seven seconds.

Even before we consider how carefully scripted those soundbites are, there is very little real meaning you can convey in so little time. Add in the fact that those soundbites are designed to compress the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought (as Churchill once said about something else), and what hope do any of us have? The cult of celebrity really does trivialise everything it touches.

To be clear, none of this should be taken as a vindication of Donald Trump. If anything, it should help explain why there is less to his candidacy than meets the eye.

But it is one thing to notice that the sideshow has somehow taken over the main tent, and quite another to resist the draw of a skilled carnival barker.

Research First is the research partner for PRINZ. Visit them at www.researchfirst.co.nz.

Image credit: iStock

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