Tag Archives: psychology

Congestion Tolling at the Supermarket

To help explain why toll lanes might not be the great solu­tion to traffic con­ges­tion many believe them to be, Timothy Lee goes to an unex­pec­ted place to draw par­al­lels: your loc­al super­mar­ket.

Super­mar­kets are a good ana­logy, sug­gests Lee, because they oper­ate in a free mar­ket, are ruth­lessly effi­cient, intensely com­pet­it­ive, and employ ‘lanes’ (check­out queues)… but they don’t use con­ges­tion pri­cing. The reas­ons why they don’t, he says, can also be applied to traffic con­ges­tion:

First, we have strong and soph­ist­ic­ated social norms, cul­tiv­ated since we were young chil­dren, for wait­ing in lines. This bit of self-organ­iz­a­tion is extremely import­ant for the smooth func­tion­ing of civil soci­ety. We see wait­ing your turn as an oblig­a­tion we have to one anoth­er, and there­fore not as an oblig­a­tion that a super­mar­ket or trans­port­a­tion agency can waive in exchange for a cash pay­ment. I sus­pect cus­tom­ers would see people using a tolled check­out lane as break­ing an impli­cit social con­tract.

More import­antly, cus­tom­ers would be sus­pi­cious that the super­mar­ket was delib­er­ately under-staff­ing the free lanes to gin up demand for the express ones. […] In the low-mar­gin gro­cery busi­ness, it would be a pretty effect­ive way for a man­ager to pump up his short-term profits, while the long-term harm to the store’s repu­ta­tion would be hard […] to quanti­fy.

This lat­ter con­cern seems par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to the case of toll roads. The rev­en­ue-max­im­iz­ing pri­cing sched­ule is not the same as the con­ges­tion-min­im­iz­ing sched­ule. An effect­ive con­ges­tion-pri­cing scheme might gen­er­ate rel­at­ively little rev­en­ue if people shift their driv­ing to off-peak times (which is the whole point). The oper­at­or of a mono­pol­ist­ic toll road will face a con­stant tempta­tion to boost rev­en­ues by lim­it­ing through­put on free lanes and jack­ing up the off-peak toll rates. The wide­spread voter per­cep­tion that they’ve “already paid for” many tolled roads through oth­er taxes isn’t exactly right as a mat­ter of fisc­al policy, but I think it’s based on a sound intu­ition: there’s no reas­on to think the polit­ic­al pro­cess will set tolls in a way that’s either fair or eco­nom­ic­ally effi­cient.

Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion and the Importance of Recognising “Enforced Compliance”

Influ­ence: The Psy­cho­logy of Per­sua­sion is Robert Cialdin­i’s 1984 book dis­cuss­ing what he calls the six fun­da­ment­al psy­cho­lo­gic­al prin­ciples of com­pli­ance: con­sist­ency, recip­roc­a­tion, social proof, author­ity, lik­ing and scarcity.

The con­clu­sion to Cialdin­i’s book points out why, in this increas­ingly com­plex world, res­ist­ing attempts at “enforced com­pli­ance” (decep­tion) through these key prin­ciples is as import­ant as recog­nising and respond­ing to truth­ful instances of their imple­ment­a­tion:

Because tech­no­logy can evolve much faster than we can, our nat­ur­al capa­city to pro­cess inform­a­tion is likely to be increas­ingly inad­equate to handle the sur­feit of change, choice, and chal­lenge that is char­ac­ter­ist­ic of mod­ern life. More and more fre­quently, we will find ourselves in the pos­i­tion of the lower animals—with a men­tal appar­at­us that is unequipped to deal thor­oughly with the intric­acy and rich­ness of the out­side envir­on­ment. Unlike the anim­als, whose cog­nit­ive powers have always been rel­at­ively defi­cient, we have cre­ated our own defi­ciency by con­struct­ing a rad­ic­ally more com­plex world. But the con­sequence of our new defi­ciency is the same as that of the anim­als’ long-stand­ing one. When mak­ing a decision, we will less fre­quently enjoy the lux­ury of a fully con­sidered ana­lys­is of the total situ­ation but will revert increas­ingly to a focus on a single, usu­ally reli­able fea­ture of it.

When those single fea­tures are truly reli­able, there is noth­ing inher­ently wrong with the short­cut approach of nar­rowed atten­tion and auto­mat­ic response to a par­tic­u­lar piece of inform­a­tion. The prob­lem comes when some­thing causes the nor­mally trust­worthy cues to coun­sel us poorly, to lead us to erro­neous actions and wrong­headed decisions.

The Licensing Effect and the Unhealthy Habit of Vitamin Supplements

The licens­ing effect is the phe­nomen­on whereby pos­it­ive actions or decisions taken now increase neg­at­ive or uneth­ic­al decisions taken later. I’ve writ­ten about this pre­vi­ously, before I was aware of a gen­er­al effect:

A Taiwanese study has provided us with a new instance of the licens­ing effect in action, this time with vit­am­in sup­ple­ments. The study found that tak­ing vit­am­in pills or diet­ary sup­ple­ments for health pro­tec­tion increases unhealthy and risky beha­viour.

After­wards, com­pared with placebo par­ti­cipants, the par­ti­cipants who thought they’d taken a vit­am­in pill rated indul­gent but harm­ful activ­it­ies like cas­u­al sex and excess­ive drink­ing as more desir­able; healthy activ­it­ies like yoga as less desir­able; and they were more likely to choose a free coupon for a buf­fet meal, as opposed to a free coupon for a healthy organ­ic meal (these asso­ci­ations held even after con­trolling for par­ti­cipants’ usu­al intake of vit­am­in pills). […]

The vit­am­in-takers also felt more invul­ner­able than the placebo par­ti­cipants, as revealed by their agree­ment with state­ments like “Noth­ing can harm me”. Fur­ther ana­lys­is sug­ges­ted that it was these feel­ings of invul­ner­ab­il­ity that medi­ated the asso­ci­ation between tak­ing a pos­tu­lated vit­am­in pill and the unhealthy atti­tudes and decisions.

Busi­nes­s­Week also points out that this loop of bene­vol­ent and self-indul­gent beha­viour is plainly evid­ent in the shop­ping habits of con­sumers… some­thing that mar­keters know all about.

via @vaughanbell

Long Reads and the Stockholm Syndrome

Since read­ing one of the longest nov­els I have shied away from oth­er lengthy tomes des­pite thor­oughly enjoy­ing my 1000-page adven­ture. When con­sid­er­ing this choice, I frame my decision as defend­ing against a type of lit­er­ary post-pur­chase ration­al­isa­tion: after invest­ing such an enorm­ous amount of time in read­ing a book, will I be able to object­ively con­sider both its mer­its and imper­fec­tions? After 900 pages, are the quotes I’m high­light­ing really as pro­found as I think? I’m doubt­ful.

Appar­ently I’m not alone in this, as Mark O’Con­nell makes clear in a light-hearted essay ask­ing how much of the enjoy­ment we get from read­ing long nov­els can be attrib­uted to a lit­er­ary Stock­holm syn­drome?

You fin­ish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rain­bow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewil­der­ment or frus­tra­tion or irritation—you think to your­self, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monu­ment­al­ity, this grat­i­fied speech­less­ness that we tend to feel at such moments of clos­ure and vale­dic­tion, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achieve­ment in hav­ing read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achieve­ment in hav­ing writ­ten it. When you read the kind of nov­el that prom­ises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow […] there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more prob­lem­at­ic­ally, is often dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate from an awe at the fact of your own sur­mount­ing of it. […]

And there is, con­nec­ted with this phe­nomen­on, what I think of as Long Nov­el Stock­holm syn­drome.

via The Browser

Apple’s Implementation of the Duration-of-Exposure Effect: Screens at 70Ëš

Hours after writ­ing about the dur­a­tion-of-expos­ure effect (whereby merely touch­ing an unowned object increases our attach­ment to it and how much we value it), a post came into my feed read­er point­ing out how Apple Inc. take advant­age of this effect in their “painstak­ingly cal­ib­rated” stores.

Car­mine Gallo, provid­ing a glimpse into his upcom­ing book, The Apple Exper­i­ence, explain­s how every aspect of an Apple Store is designed to foster “multi­s­ens­ory own­er­ship exper­i­ences”. This on the (very spe­cif­ic) tilt of laptop screens (from anoth­er great art­icle on the top­ic):

The note­book com­puters dis­played on the store’s tab­letops and coun­ters are set out, each day, to exactly the same angle. That angle being, pre­cisely, 70 degrees: not as rigid as a table-per­pen­dic­u­lar 90 degrees, but open enough – and, also, closed enough – for screens’ con­tent to remain vis­ible and invit­ing to would-be typers and tinker­ers.

The point […] is to get people to touch the devices. “The main reas­on note­book com­puters screens are slightly angled is to encour­age cus­tom­ers to adjust the screen to their ideal view­ing angle,” [Gallo] says – “in oth­er words, to touch the com­puter.”

A tact­ile exper­i­ence with an Apple product begets loy­alty to Apple products, the think­ing goes – which means that the store exists to imprint a brand impres­sion on vis­it­ors even more than it exists to extract money from them. “The own­er­ship exper­i­ence is more import­ant than a sale,” Gallo notes. Which means that the store – and every single detail cre­at­ing the exper­i­ence of it – are optim­ized for cus­tom­ers’ per­son­al indul­gence. Apple wants you to touch stuff, to play with it, to make it your own. Its note­book com­puters are tilted at just the right angle to beck­on you to their screens – and, more import­antly, to their key­boards.

When Apple do it right, they do it per­fectly.

via Kot­tke