Archive for the ‘some things i learned from …’ Category

Some things I learned from THE POWER OF HABIT

July 8, 2014

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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business by Charles Duhigg was a fun behavioral econ read about how our brains turn one-time decisions into repeated behaviors, and how that can be manipulated or optimized—for ourselves, organizations, and society. 40% of our actions are the result of habits, and not conscious decisions—so it’s wise to think about what we spend a lot of doing and not thinking about.

I have some minor gripes with the book. Duhigg goes off the rails in applying the habit framework. Instead of interpreting clearly identifiable habits, he applies it to behaviors and trends that strain the definition (like the civil rights movement). The book suffers from that condition of a hammer, to whom everything looks like a nail. To this guy writing about habits, everything looks like a habit.

Nonetheless, it’s written with an enjoyably brisk journalistic style and I learned a bunch, including…

  • Habits have a 3-part structure: Our brains form habits as a means to conserving effort. I once exerted precious brain-energy to actively seek out some sweet fresh morning bakery. Now I just automatically make a bakery stop on the way back from my Crossfit workout. (The brain is good at habit formation, not so good at mitigating cognitive dissonance.) The habit structure is as follows: 1. the cue (I’ve finished my sweaty morning workout); 2. the routine (I eat a sugary baked treat); 3. the reward (I exalt in the sugar-endorphin haze).


  • It’s more effective to tweak an existing bad habit than it is to eliminate it: When it comes to the self-help portion of the book, there’s no new age (and grammatically incoherent) talk of being “more present” in our actions. Duhigg accepts habit formation as inevitable. Such brain-energy-saving strategies are how our brains are able to function.  I could try to just stop wolfing down pain au chocolats in my sweaty gym cloths, but that’s unlikely to work. Once a habit is formed, it’s difficult to eliminate altogether. It’s more effective to tweak the unwanted routine part of the “habit loop.” This is how Alcoholics Anonymous can be effective. For many alcoholics, it’s not the drunkenness that’s their reward, but the bar-room social interactions that accompanies it. So AA responds to the loneliness cue that might compel one to a bar by replacing the evening drinking routine with an evening meeting routine, while generating the same social reward. However, this takes an acute awareness of the cues and rewards that drive a habit, which isn’t immediately evident. For my post-workout bakery routine, is my cue the workout? Should I really stop blasting my quads? Is my reward really the sugar-endorphin buzz? Some helpful suggestions are posed on how I might go about figuring this out.
  • The strength of weak ties: This insight came out of the problematic portion of the book regarding the habits of societies, and how the civil rights movement was mobilized from out of a society habit formation pattern. I’m skeptical of how much habit formation plays into this, but I thought his description of the role of social networks in motivating action was insightful. Rosa Parks was not the only African American to be arrested for sitting in the wrong part of the bus in Montgomery in 1955. But she was extremely well connected, as an active member of many organizations. As a result, she had many “weak ties,” many acquaintances from these social groups.  Weak-tie acquaintances can be more important than close friends because weak ties “give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong,” introducing us to new ideas or opportunities or issues we would not be familiar with. In this way, our weak ties can be more influential than our strong-tie relationships. Parks’ many weak ties help to encourage the Montgomery masses to get involved after her incarceration, and not the many racist bus incidents that preceded it. (So if this bug-eating movement is to take off, I need more shallow pals…)

Some Things I Learned from Chris Anderson’s FREE: THE FUTURE OF A RADICAL PRICE

August 24, 2009

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The latest from Chris Anderson, of The Long Tail fame. And like The Long Tail, it’s pretty upbeat about the trend it takes on: the increasing prevalence of free as a price. But, unlike The Long Tail, I’m left feeling unconvinced.

This could have a lot to do with having read Malcolm Gladwell’s critical assessment before picking up the book.

Anderson spreads himself really thin in a short book (short at least for the topic). And the bare parts show in many cases. For example, musicians facing the loss of CDs as a revenue stream, can only hope to be compensated by incessant touring or becoming Madonna-famous and sign a 360-deal. Journalists, where media institutions are undermined by opinionated crackpots freely blogging in bathrobes, can only hope to excel with their craft so as not to be compensated for practicing it, but by becoming a teacher and teaching it… and be compensated by teaching the crackpots how to write. How you get crackpots out of their bathrobes to register for a journalism class is beyond Anderson’s willy-nilly scope.

But because it is a short read, it’s still worthwhile to pick up. Anderson writes well enough, and he’s in touch with many of the examples of “free” pricing strategies and their effects that this book still still qualifies as a good start. Here are a few things I learned:

  • We are drawn to free because of our fear of loss. Drawing from Dan Ariely’s awesome behavioral economics book, Predictably Irrational, he references Ariely’s study with the chocolates and insights on why people seem to overvalue that which is freely offered. He spends on day selling 2 kinds of chocolates: cheapy Hershey Kisses for 1 cent and fine Lindt chocolate for 15 cents (way below market cost). People are kind of split and go for both. The next day, gives away the Hershey’s and sells the Lindt for 14 cents. Even though there is rationally no difference between the comparable values (14 cents), people pretty go for the free Hershey’s… not considering the value they get for the Lindt at 14 cents. I tend to think it’s just that people don’t want to bother trying to find the 14 pennies. But Ariely feels it’s that people fear loss. In our minds, by not paying, we risk nothing, so nothing will be lost.
  • Each new abundance creates a new scarcity. When you have free video games or music, you end up with scarce free time and attention. The excessive corn production has given us a lot of cheap crappy food, but not a lot of affordable and diverse produce or healthy people.
  • Information wants to be free and expensive. That famous annoyingly ridiculous cliche that information “wants” to be free is only a part taken from a paradox observed by Stewart Brand (counterculture dude behind the Whole Earth Catalog … which established the theory which created the WWW). He was discussing the ways in which information exists in this free-expensive paradox, it wants to spread meme-like, but it also creates/produces value. Anderson interviews him and asks why he gives information agency in the quote. Stew anthropomorphizes information because “it’s more poetic that way.” I can’t for the next programmer dude to tell me what information wants to do.

Anderson also references Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which I’ll say again that this book will blow your mind and should be read immediately.

Some Things I Learned from Martin Lindstrom’s BUYOLOGY

July 20, 2009


This book is rad. Clearly written with great and compelling counter-intuitive ideas, and neat and new research to support them.

A lot of reviews of this book have challenged the legitimacy of the research presented in Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. However, the key benefit of the book is not exactly about the legitimacy of the research. The data from new fMRI brain scan technology is so cutting-edge no one’s really too sure how to interpret or apply it with great effectiveness. I’m not sure the point of the book is to prove the veracity of the data.

Rather, this great book explains how the insights from this (however dubious) research is actively employed in advertisements and marketing strategies everywhere. Whether it’s about manipulating our mirror neurons, or taking advantage of our secondary brand associations, this book does a great job of calling our attention to the more subtle selling strategies that constitute the majority of the most exciting (and disturbing) marketing these days.

In addition to improving marketing practice, becoming aware of how the less conscious parts of your brain are actively targeted (I think) will be increasingly essential to what it means to be a self-aware person. It won’t just be about scrutinizing your belief system, but how the world is shaping your tastes and instinct.

For example, the sound your straw makes when it punctures the cup lid at McDonald’s is completely engineered for you to associate it with the restaurant. That sound becomes linked to thirst and the fast food meal in the sucker of a brain we all seem to have.

There are some many great ideas in this book. Here’s a few that will stick with me.

  • The Vampire Effect: Sex sells, but it only really sells itself. Or so Martin and crew discovered with a study analyzing people’s retention of sexually explicit ads vs. non-sexual ads. The sexually explicit ads certainly got more attention from our brain, but they didn’t do anything to effectively sell the product they were used in the service of. People had a much harder time recalling what the sexy ad was about than the not-sexy ad. Sex in advertising is said to have a “vampire effect,” effectively sucking our attention away from the content of the advertising message. Hot chix may be great, but don’t expect them to move vacuum cleaners.
  • Mirror Neurons: Martin describes contagious yawning as a function of mirror neurons, the neurons that fire for someone when they observe the actions of someone else. In the brain, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the observed’s action, as though the observer were his/herself acting. Thus, contagious yawning, as well as the thrill from watching action movies, and hunger when we see others eating. It is this neurological phenomena that marketers and advertisers manipulate repeatedly and with increasing sophistication. Beware of your reaction to ads portraying people doing stuff…you’re getting played.
  • Product Placements Don’t Work: Product placements, for the most part, do not work. Whether we see Brad Pitt nonchalantly take a bite of a Pizza Hut pizza, or Zooey Deschanel sneeze outside a FedEx Office, it does nothing to induce us to pursue (or even remember) that product or service. Only in the instance where the product is used as a key part of the plot (Reese’s in E.T.) does the placement have any resonance with the audience. Get ready movies where Joan Allen freaks out when her Cinnabon doesn’t have enough frosting…My screenplay, Joan Allen Spazzes at Cinnabon, has been optioned.

Some Thing I Learned From PUNK MARKETING

July 12, 2009

Picture 30To be sure, punk is marketing. However many cool bands and bad fashions it drove, the idea of punk was meant to sell by appropriating antagonistic feeling toward the suffocating traditional.  

To label marketing as “punk”  is kind of silly, borderline repetitive. Richard Laermer and Mark Simmons are on to this (or they eventually figured it out). They go to great effort and many pages to define what punk marketing is (unhelpful clue: it’s Southwest and it’s not SanDisk).

As a result, Rick and Mark end up kind of chasing their own collective tail. The definition has something to do with not selling the way a traditional marketer would. Ultimately, punk marketing is what they say punk marketing is, and that seems to be whatever successfully sells in a nontradtional way.

It’s a real weak premise. Nonetheless it gives 2 insiders the excuse to write about recent surprising marketing campaigns. Most of these campaigns have already been covered to a great extent already, but they write with a clear and irreverent tone. If you want a refresher on what you’re exposed to everyday, check it out. 

But don’t expect much depth. Although it touches on a lot successful campaigns, it doesn’t to any insightful depth. They seem to eschew marketing research and don’t really do a lot of work connecting the disparate stories they tell, or give reason why these campaigns were successful. It’s only advice is something like, “don’t be afraid be creative.”

Not a lot of insight here (I think I learned that I could probably write a marketing book if this is what passes for one). It does provide a lot of manifesto-ish rah rah, so it’s like a more readable Cluetrain. And there are a lot of pictures. This would be a fine coffee and/or bathroom book.


June 20, 2009

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I’m not sure I learned that much from this one. It’s 10 years old and it very much reads like a manifesto, occasioned by the buzz surrounding Thomas Petzinger Jr.’s 95 Theses. (Self-aggrandizing or ironic reference to Martin Luther?…I think it’s a little bit of both, however intended.)

Petzinger’s theses pertain to how business should be done, given the fallen barriers and hyper-networking of the Internet. They include “Markets are conversations”;  “Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.”; ” Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.”  After the theses, the book seems a little padded out by what read like a series of really long blog posts about the direction business, marketing and PR are heading. Ideas here aren’t really supported or described with any depth.

I don’t think that is the point of this book, though. Instead, it simply tells us that how we do business has changed, and we better accept the change. And tells us with breathless fervor. In place of depth, there is a lot of energy. In a way, it’s an inspirational book, one of the more complicated ones to be sure.

Here’s the story: To Petzinger et al, the Web functions like our collective “return of the repressed.” What was repressed: our voice and our sense of work as craft. We’ve been repressed by the industrial age the resulting corporate culture that seeks to remain branding compliant, impersonal, and risk-mitigating.  The language of doing business acquired a very distinctive banal and slippery impersonality. (“It’s not language, it’s camouflage.”) Our work is no longer an expression of ourselves, but simply adhering to guidelines. (There’s no specific reference to that other manifesto writer, Marx. Nonetheless, his spirit pervades. For example, he made the same observations on alienation in the workplace.) 

The Web happened the way it did in part because we’ve been silenced or mediated by that impersonality, and we wanted the means of our self-expression back. It’s the quasi-Marxist online revolution. We wanted to express ourselves in voice and in craft, and we want to experience the authentic voice and craft of others.  This is what people want (supposedly) since this is how markets were first created, with people talking in open air markets about who has the best camel our how awesome their clay pots are. We got away from that because we wanted more control. But that control was stultifying. The Web returns us to the early days of the open-air market. (There is a really nice pithy summation of this historical account, but oddly it doesn’t come until the end of the book.) 

Those companies who refuse to allow its business (its people) to speak authentically and use work as an expression of themselves, they are doomed. Corporations (who are by nature incapable of personality) are already on their way out, according to the Cluetrain folk.

Will the Internet return voice and craft to individuals? It’s nice to think so. So you end the book feeling pretty inspired and hopeful. Which is nice. But like any manifesto, it tends not to hold up to real scrutiny. There’s another book that needs to be written.

Some Things I Learned From Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational”

June 16, 2009

Picture 25I just finished Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, which is in the recent tradition of popular behavioral economics-type books (which includes Freakonomics, Buyology, Logic of Life, Nudge…all which are pretty worthwhile). Ariely focuses on the predictable ways in which we are ridiculous.

Here are a few insights/ideas that struck me:

  • Decoy Effect: Ariely describes how we don’t choose on the basis of absolutes (“How good is this thing?”) but instead focus on the relative advantages of one thing over another (“Is this thing better than that thing?”). As a result, our preference to make comparisons between things that are similar can influence when we’re confronted between two options that aren’t similar (and furthermore how pricing strategists take advantage of this preference). For example, it’s difficult to compare(and thus choose between) similarly priced vacations to Paris that’ll include free breakfast and one to Rome that will also include free breakfast.  However, if you introduce a third option, a trip to Rome without free breakfast (the decoy), people will tend to choose the trip to Rome with free breakfast over the similarly priced and breakfasted trip to Paris. He uses the alarming example of a kitchen equipment store that couldn’t sell the one bread machine model they had. The solution: add another bread machine, but one that’s 50% more expensive. As a result, the original model start selling. He also notes how you can use this decoy effect for evil in singles situations by hanging out with a friend slightly less attractive or witty. By comparison, you come out far more appealing than you would otherwise. The way to overcome this effect is to think more broadly.  Sure the cheaper bread machine is more appealling, but do you really need a bread machine period.
  • Endowment Effect: This effect describes how we tend to value what we own more than others would. Areily proves this phenomenon with a few of his own experiments (BTW … If I were a student of M.I.T., I’d be really weary about becoming duped by one of this guy’s “experiments,” most which occur on campus and involve some degree of manipulation … but they’re still fun to read about.) Ariely connects this over-valuation to our fear of change and of loss. It’s a psychological myopia that it would be best to be detached from. Perhaps with yoga? 
  • Imprinting/Arbitrary Coherence: Apparently, when it comes to pricing we’re like goslings. Just like when a gosling hatches and unquestioningly assumes the first moving thing it sees is Mom (called imprinting), just so do we uncritically accept the price of a new product we’ve never seen before. After which, they assume an “arbitrary coherence,” meaning however arbitrary the initial price was, once established and “imprinted,” it will shape the present and future price (thus its coherence). Phenomena like this debunk the traditional notion that the market forces of supply and demand determines optimal price. Since free markets won’t maximize our utility, government regulation becomes really attractive.

These was also a chapter on how we split the world into 2 parts, one where market norms rule, and the other where social norms. For a really neat take on the latter, I strongly suggest The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde, which talks about the gift economy and how it functions in creative production.

Some Things I Learned From Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”

June 11, 2009

Picture 26I finished up Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More and a few of its insights have stuck with me. It’s one of those cultural trends-analysis books that actually makes me feel good about the direction the world is heading. 

It’s all about the rise of niche markets. With the lessening of the barriers of distribution and to information, basically a company can sell anything and the customers will find it. As customers, we don’t have to subsist on “blockbusters” (the short tail), but can pursue our more arcane interests. And companies can survive (and even thrive) on providing for these interests.

Picture 29Short tail on the left, long on the right…and it goes right forever.

Anderson was approached by the CEO of an audio jukebox company. These jukeboxes are loaded with 10,000 songs. The CEO asked Anderson what percent of those songs sold at least once per quarter.  Anderson thinks of the 80/20 rule (where 20% of the products offered accounts for 80% of the sales) and says 50% because he knows he’s dealing with the different digital world. The answer: 98%. 98% is the new 80/20.

Which really surprised me. Are people really going for the deep cuts on Like a Prayer? “Promise to Try,” anyone?

As a result, this is changing the types of business starting up, and the goals they’re setting for themselves. The music industry, despite what its more bloated and luddite CEOs say, does not need to rely on putting out bland “hits.”

For example, the Rock*A*Teens were this band from Atlanta in the early 90’s that I heard about, but never listened to. (I think I confused them with Atari Teenage Riot, which I knew I didn’t like.) I now have a membership to eMusic, a great online music subscription service that specializes in indie rock.  The Rock*A*Teens kept getting recommended to me for my taste in jangly, ecstatic, lo-fi, sweeping garage rock. I gave it a listened, and now I’m obsessed. Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall is A*mazing and I’m on my way to getting their entire discography.

Picture 27One of the many treasures in the long tail.

Would I ever find this album in a record store?  An album from an obscure and defunct 90’s indie band? Highly unlikely. Anderson notes how a record store needs to sell at lease 4 copies of a CD a year just to make it worthwhile to carry. Otherwise, it’s far more lucrative to give that space over to Lady GaGa remixes or yet another repackaging of a Beatles album.

And much less, would I ever think to pick it up? Even more unlikely, given the weird association I made between them and that Atari band, and since I ‘d probably be drawn to the new releases in the store, anyways. 

However, with eMusic, where it’s online and the tracks are digital, it’s not much for them to offer it while making it extremely accessible to me. They can offer such obscure albums because they aren’t challenged by space or distance. And they can even draw attention to it with recommendations.

(Bonus, I just checked their Wikipedia entry while writing this and discovered that the R*A*T’s frontman Chris Lopez is currently in the band Tenement Halls, also on eMusic and it sounds just as promising as his previous band … I just downloaded their 2005 album and count me a fan of these guys, too. Oh, the discoveries and bounties in the long tail!)

Long live the long tail.

Some Things I Learned From Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”

June 11, 2009

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I just finish Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, which I think ranks between his Tipping Point and Blink. It’s really short, so it feels a little light on content. But it’s still a Malcolm Gladwell piece, meaning it has really interesting ideas conveyed with surprising and compelling examples. 

Here are the few ideas that struck me, that I can’t wait to drop at my next cocktail party:

  • Mitigated Speech: The chapter “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” describes the central role mitigated speech (the ways in which we soften the meaning of what we’re saying…for example, when your boss says, “We should probably rewrite this report,” it’s mitigated speech meaning, “Rewrite this report, now”) plays in cockpit conversations just before a plane crashes. Gladwell reviews transcripts from black box recordings to show how mitigated speech gets in the way of the clear and direct communication that needs to happen in desperate situations.
  • Power Distance Index (PDI): The same chapter continues to describe how mitigated speech can be a function of one’s culturally-inherited notions of authority. Gladwell brings in a study that measured a country’s deference to authority, and then ranked those countries. It turns out, those countries with a high deference to authority, or PDI, (Korea and Colombia) correlate with the amount of plane crashes its pilots have.
  • Transmitter vs. Receiver Orientation: The more deferent you are to an authority figure, more that communication between an authority and an underling has a receiver orientation (meaning the onus is on the listener-underling to figure out what the speaker-transmitter is trying to say…which to me explains the impenetrability of French and German philosophy, both countries with high PDI’s). Countries with low PDIs (U.S.), communication has a transmitter orientation, meaning the onus is on the speaker to make himself understood (which explains my own mania about being understood). 

The overall story the book tells is about how context and contingency play the determining factors in one’s success. Bill Gates is a success not because his personality guaranteed he would be successful, but because he had certain material advantages and got lucky.

However, in our culture, we personalize success in such a way that we fail to recognize the role context plays. Thus, we have debilitating notions that one’s success has everything to do with the kind of person they are. If one is not destined to be successful, they’re doomed. However, if we give someone the same advantages and surroundings of a successful person, their chances of achieving increases significantly.

This is very much a nurture argument, but not without tipping its hat to nature.