Moon-Walking Bear

Awesome U.K. ad promoting bicycle awareness:

Sad truth: No amount of psych tricks will raise driver awareness. Not when those drivers are on cell phones. Bluetooth won’t help.

Closing a Few Doors

Humans like to keep all options open. Even when we know some of the options aren’t frutitful. Even when it costs money to keep unfruitful options open (i.e. even when keeping options open is irrational). Interesting summary at of tests conducted on M.I.T. students designed to see just how far we’re willing to go to prevent a door from closing. “Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says.

Life lesson: Let options go. Simplify. Declutter. Know what’s worth your while, go for it, and don’t sweat the decisions that have already been made. Don’t kid yourself that you can follow every path, investigate every avenue. Know small potatoes when you see them. Keep your eyes on the prize. Obvious stuff maybe, but interesting to see it documented in this way.

Since conducting the door experiments, Dr. Ariely says, he has made a conscious effort to cancel projects and give away his ideas to colleagues. He urges the rest of us to resign from committees, prune holiday card lists, rethink hobbies…

Music: Billy Harper :: Credence

Real Good for Free

This week at Stuck Between Stations:

Me, on violinist Joshua Bell’s recent experiment playing in a D.C. subway:

Violinist Joshua Bell’s virtuosity is so renowned that Interview magazine once said that his playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” A few months ago, Bell walked into a D.C. subway station, flipped open his violin case, and played his heart out for spare change — on a $3.5 million 1713 Stradivarius.

… Of course almost no one paid any attention. Context is everything, and we only hear what we’re prepared to hear. More on context, presentation, perception in the piece.

Music: Billy Bragg & Wilco :: The Unwelcome Guest


Flow I’ve been enjoying listening to archival episodes of Sonny and Sandy’s congenial Podcacher podcast, packed with helpful geocaching tips and adventure stories. I find the geocaching community’s obsession with FTFs (first-to-finds) and high-number finders annoying, but enjoy the deep-woods or out-to-sea live recordings and occasional semi-philosophical musings. In a show from last March, Sonny talks about something near and dear to my heart – the concept of “Flow.”

OK, the topic is a little fluffy-fuzzy, but there’s something important to human happiness here. The bit focuses on the ideas of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, “who has devoted his life’s work to the study of what makes people truly happy, satisfied and fulfilled.” Csikszentmihalyi’s idea is that “flow” is achieved in the balance between challenge and skill. A pro snowboarder on the bunny slopes is bored because skill is high and challenge is low; an amateur on a black diamond run is anxious, because skill is low and challenge is high. But an amateur on a bunny hill and a pro on a black diamond both experience the same balance between challenge and skill, and thus both experience the same state of “flow,” where time and cares slip away, and the activity becomes total, consuming.

The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

The conversation is focused on geocaching of course – a game where skill and difficulty levels vary hugely from cache to cache – but any activity, properly balanced, can lead to a sense of flow. Even walking through the city, if attention is focused, can deliver this sense of timelessness and involvement. I often have similar thoughts when biking, or navigating through crowds on foot.

This is exactly why I get so annoyed (experience anxiety) when people stand on the left side of the escalator, or try to get on the train before others have gotten off. These things feel to me like cultural apathy toward any sense of collective flow. I want to feel like we’re all psychically coordinated, a school of fish thinking as one, rather than a bunch of atoms bouncing off each other in chaotic Brownian motion.

Loose thoughts for a Saturday morning.

Money and the Brain

The July 5 issue of Newsweek has an interesting piece (not online) about the weird interaction between money, the brain, and social psychology. Try this experiment: Take any two people. Give one of them (A) $10 and tell them they have to offer some of the money to the other person (B), who is free to accept or reject the offer. Game over. The goal is for both parties to walk away with as much money as possible.

As predicted by John (“A Beautiful Mind”) Nash, A should offer $1 to B, and B should accept the offer. But what in fact happens in the vast majority of cases where the experiment is tried is that low offers of $1 or $2 are almost universally rejected by B, even though it serves B’s best interests to accept the offer. This is where funny motivators like pride and dignity interlope, overriding pure reason. B is insulted that A would keep most of the money for themselves, and so rejects the offer altogether. And for similar reasons (sensitivity to the prospect of insulting another), most people playing A don’t offer $1 or $2, but something closer to a 50/50 split, e.g. $4.

It makes no mathematical sense for B to reject any offer, and it makes no mathematical sense for A to offer more than $1, but that’s how humans interact. Interestingly, people will offer or accept just $1 when playing the same game against a computer. But the part that I found really fascinating is that there is one group of people who play the game “rationally” (I put rational in quotes, because I do think that treating humans fairly is a rational thing to do, even if not mathematically sensible) — autistics will generally offer or accept $1, since they lack the sense of social fabric that most people experience.

Music: Yello :: Homer Hossa

Inner Space

BBC News looks at the psychology of portable music players, the significance of the aura or bubble that surrounds one the moment the music starts, and why it’s so appealing. A key point is that headphones in part allow one to regain control of the senses – the world represents a bombardment of visual and sonic messages, and by replacing the sonic shell, you in part get to choose your sensual world, rather than moving through the one the world chooses for you.

I didn’t start wearing a music player until my late 30s, and remember the experience being very different than expected at first – it wasn’t just fun to listen to music – the iPod literally changed the way I felt in the environment. It was almost too much. The experience feels much more normal to me now.


Some women use earphones to deflect unwanted attention, finding it easier to avoid responding because they look already occupied. In the same way, removing earphones when talking to someone sends a strong message about how interested one is in what is being said. It pays the speaker a compliment.

Music: Gong :: Master Builder