Archive for September, 2012

At the beginning of a busy day, you’re called to the boss’s office. As you walk down the corridor to reach the corner office, you feel like a high school student being summoned to visit the principal. The manager is sitting at his desk in the strangely dark room, waiting for you to explain why you were late this week. As you stumble through your response, it occurs to you that the man across from you has control over your position in the company, your career, and by association, a significant portion of your life. Fueled by indignation, thoughts about the injustice of the workplace well up inside of you. You’ve read the Psychopath Test; you know that people that lack compassion reach the upper echelons of society. This fat cat probably cheated his way into his position, propelled up the ladder by cutthroat blindsides and merciless takedowns of anyone who got in his way. That’s how you get to the top, right?

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His plans for improving the fourth quarter include eliminating lunch breaks and non-work-related conversations.

Well, not exactly. Joanthan Lehrer with the Wall Street Journal points to research that suggests that unlike the stereotype of the unfeeling misanthrope that rules the office with an iron first, most of the time leadership is given to people who behave nicely. Leaders in social hierarchies tend to rate highly on scales measuring extraversion and agreeableness–the traits that you would want in a friend. In fact, psychologists have found that the members who spread gossip and engage in other negative behaviors are isolated from the group before they can inflict more damage, not given more power to wield.

So why do we think of people in power as compassionless dictators who no longer care about the little guy?

Although the stereotype of the dictator drunk on authority may go to the extreme, the concept of a leader losing touch with his employees isn’t without merit. As the old saying goes, success changes people. People in positions of authority become less sympathetic to the needs of others, often relying on stereotypes and generalizations to get them through the day. One researcher compared people in power to patients suffering from brain damage to the orbito-frontal lobe, the portion of the brain vital to empathy. Consistently, power makes it easier for us to avoid viewing the world through the eyes of others.

In one experiment Lehrer mentions, researchers at Northwestern University asked participants to focus on a time that they felt powerless or a time that they felt powerful. They then asked them to draw the letter “E” on their foreheads. The participants who were asked to describe a time that they felt powerful were more likely to draw the letter backward from the perspective of the person looking at them, suggesting that just focusing on a time of power encouraged some participants to stop considering the viewpoint of others.

Have you ever noticed yourself becoming less sympathetic when you were placed in charge of something?

Post Coming Thursday

Posted: September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

Hello, everyone!

From now on, posts will come out on Thursday. As always, thanks for reading!

It’s been a long day, and you’ve stopped by the grocery store to buy some pick-me-up mint chocolate chip ice cream. You navigate efficiently through the store, find your target, and analyze the lines for the quickest exit. Picking the line with the fewest people, you patiently wait to check out. The line is moving slowly. You peruse the tabloids while you wait; there’s apparently been some sort of tussle between the cast members of The Jersey Shore. Your eyes begin to wander. You notice that there are now several types of Twix bars, one with, mmm, peanut butter. You look longingly at the ice cream, melting on the conveyor belt. How much time does the person in front of you need to buy 23 items? The lines around you are moving at a brisk pace, the customers leaving happily with their groceries. It isn’t fair; you’ve been waiting here for–oh. Four minutes.

To many people, waiting in line can seem interminable. Researchers have come up with some theories as to why waiting in lines is source of common frustration, including our inability to handle uncertainty and the need to occupy our time.

The uncertainty of how long we will be waiting begins the frustration of the grocery queue. One of the reasons waiting in line can seem longer than it should be is because it’s impossible to predict how much time you’ll be standing there; people are more patient if they are told a specific wait time than if they are left to guess how long a wait will take. Unfortunately, deciding how fast the line will move depends on a few unpredictable factors. There’s the number of people, sure, but you also need to calculate how many items are on the conveyor belt and how many items are hidden in carts, how fast the cashier is at scanning items, how many coupons the customer in front of you will want to use, and how much small talk the people in front of you will make before checking out. And that’s assuming all the prices are accurately marked.

Another reason waiting in line can feel like  a struggle is because people have a natural tendency to occupy their time. While you’re waiting in line, there is only a finite number of ways you can entertain yourself; reading the headlines on the tabloid magazines and finding a new recipe for cooking ribs will only occupy you for so long. Grocery stores take advantage of this phenomenon by putting impulse buys by the register; they know that you’ll be tempted to add new items to your cart if it feels like you’re doing something with your time.

Finally, the process of checking out at the grocery store often violates our perception of fairness. Grocery stores usually have multiple queues, with some moving faster than others. Since each line will operate at a different pace than the others, it almost feels that the lines moving faster than the one you chose are cheating. You know in your mind that the cashier had to call the manager to find out how to process an item, but a part of you still feels that the people who joined another line after you started in yours shouldn’t get to leave before your shopping is finished.

Maybe this means we should be more like the person laughing at the tabloid headphones while griping into their cellphone about how slow the line is moving; apparently, they’ve got it all figured out. Do you ever feel frustrated when you’re waiting in line?

Buying a nice, warm latte is part of many people’s morning routines. In the United States alone, there are over 11,000 Starbucks. Over half the people in the U.S. drink coffee every day. A tall latte costs $3.25, a number that doesn’t seem too threatening until you do the math. $3.25 per coffee means $22.75 per week. $22.75 per week means $91 per month. $91 per month means $1092 per year spent at Starbucks. And that’s without any syrup.

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I’ve probably given this woman the down payment on a car.

Why doesn’t 3.25 per cup seem like that much money when we’re standing in line in the morning? There are a few tricks managers can pull out of their green aprons to make that number seem like small change. Some stores, including Starbucks, drop the dollar sign from their list of costs. Customers tend to “follow the path of least resistance” when it comes to their purchasing choices; subtle changes like leaving the dollar sign out and marking the price in a smaller font encourage buyers to focus on the product and not the price. It also helps to have prices that end in “9” or “5,” because people usually read prices from left to right, processing a $3.95 order as $3 instead of $4.

But, let’s face it, spending too much money on coffee is not an obscure problem. Even if they’ve never done the exact calculations of the amount leaving their bank account, most people realize that their coffee habit is costing a significant amount of money over time, and still don’t change their ways. The reason can’t be convenience–it takes more time to wait in line at a coffee shop than it does to wait for a pot to brew at home.

It comes down to our ability to weigh immediate gratification against future reward. The choice between immediate and delayed gratification is a war between emotion and logic. The emotional part of the brain, the ventral striatum, thinks about how tasty a vanilla latte would be, while the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, remembers how much the electric bill is this month. Deciding to delay gratification and pay the electric bill comes from the ability to project ourselves into the future–a skill that comes more easily to some people than others.

In the famous “marshmallow experiment,” researchers at Stanford University offered children a single marshmallow, a good hour in any child’s life. However, if they waited for just a few minutes, the researchers told them that they would receive two marshmallows. They left the marshmallow on the table in front of the children while they left the room. After the experiment, they followed the children throughout their school years, and found that the children who were able to resist eating the first marshmallow had better academic success and were less likely to become addicted to drugs than those who chose the immediate reward.

Although that information may be discouraging to people who spend $5 on coffee every day, there is hope. Our ability to delay gratification isn’t set in stone; many of the kids who ate the first marshmallow had learned to focus on future rewards by the time they were adults. With some practice and willpower, we can break our coffee habits and save money for our future needs.

I won’t count the trip I took to Starbucks this morning in the battle to break the latte habit–that was for research. Do you have any immediate gratification habits that you want to break?