Jul 24, 2014

Cognitive Fuel is a Myth, or an Alternative Explanation for Corporate Greed

There is a classic psychology experiment that theorizes that humans have 'cognitive' resources and that these resources can be consumed: either by doing mental work or self-restraint.  This blog post by Serious Pony sums up the research that has been done in this area very well, but here's my attempt to rehash the idea behind cognitive fuel.

The basic experiment goes as follows: two people come in for a psychology problem.  One person is asked to memorize 2 digits.  The other person is asked to memorize 7 digits.  At the end of the 'task', each subject is offered a treat: either a bowl of fruit, or a piece of chocolate cake.  More often than not, the test subject that memorized 2 digits will reach for the fruit.  The test subject that memorized 7 digits will reach for the chocolate cake.  With this as evidence, the researchers concluded that mental energy is limited, and that doing a more grueling cognitive task eats away at the amount of 'mental energy' you have available to resist temptation.

This conclusion is flawed.  There is another explanation.

My objections to this conclusion are rooted in a long running experiment I've been doing on myself.  It involves giving up sugar.  I've gone off and on of no-sugar diets for almost 3 years now.  I always go back to it, and I always go back to it for the same reason.**  That reason, I believe, is the same reason that the students tend to pick the sweet treat when they've done more cognitive work.[1]

In the United States[2] (and perhaps other countries), we are taught what is work and we are taught what is reward.  As students in school, we learn that memorization is work.  We also learn that math is hard.  We are taught, culturally by our parents and the implicit attitudes of most of our teachers, that numbers are not easy.  Given that these are true, then it follows that memorization of numbers is non-trivial work.

Further, as children, we are taught that sweets are a reward.  They are rewards for birthdays, for holidays, for finishing your supper.  For being good at the store.  For cleaning up your room.  We, in the United States, train our children to expect and to look for a reward after they have completed work.  It is a cultural norm that any amount of work or hardship will be rewarded.  That reward is usually (but not universally) something sweet.

Now to bring this back to the experiment. For the first subject, the task of memorizing two numbers is trivial.  This task is so simplistic that the task doesn't qualify as work.  Memorizing seven digits, on the other hand, is hard work.  In the experiment then, one subject did hard work, the other did not do much work (if any).

After completing the task, the subjects were then promptly presented with a choice of reward.  Perhaps it wasn't phrased that way, but that is how the situation is most likely to be interpreted.  The subjects were asked to complete a task, and then walk up to a box (which they cannot see into until they have reached it), and are asked to choose one of the snacks.  I can practically hear the subconscious of the 7 digit memorizers yelling "I've done work, here is my reward".  It's a simple pattern match for your brain: work, reward.  The experiment made me do work, here is my reward.

Seeing the experiment from the lens of work equals reward, the interpretation of the results changes.  Cognitive load is not a limited resource that gets spent.  Rather, our rationalization of what work deserves what reward is piqued.  The study participants, most of them, recognized 7 digits as work and the cake as their reward.  Even if they were on a diet, it's easy for them to rationalize that they had earned the chocolate cake - brains take energy, you know!

Under this re-interpretation, if you want people to buy your product, make them feel like they've earned it.  Or at least, deserve to be rewarded.  Give them some trivial task that we culturally have defined to be difficult or at least 'work', and they'll choose the best reward presented.

If we want people to lose weight, we need to either decouple sweets as a reward mechanism or stop telling ourselves that work deserves reward.  We need to declassify what work is, and what it means to be rewarded.


As a further corollary: Why is corporate greed in America so bad?  Because we all deserve it.


[1] Or a task that, at least culturally, is labeled as being a larger cognitive work load.
[2] Relevant because both of the researchers live and work in the United States*, and that all of the students (or at least a high percentage of them) are US undergrads.

* Baba Shiv [was] an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242-1000, and Alexander Fedorikhin [was] an assistant professor at Washington State University, Richland, WA 99352.

** I go back to sweets because without sweets, I never get 'rewarded'.  Not eating sugar is hard, not just because it is addictive, but also because it feels like punishment for doing something wrong.

Jul 23, 2014

Why Hiring Women Is Hard

A lot of arguments around hiring and promoting women are based on their inherent value to the company, as an entity.  This website, hiremorewomenintech.com, strongly makes that case.  As the site points out, women are smart workers, they're competent managers, they are good for the bottom line.  I'll go one for further: they're also cheaper than men.  You can pay them less, in fact, if you're a company reading this, chances are good that you probably do pay them less. Women will bring much hard, paper and books success to your company, at a fraction of the cost of a man.  Why wouldn't you hire them?

This is a hard thing to write about, but it's the truth.

Here's another, harder truth.  It's hard to hear because it cuts at everything our neo-capitalist society tells itself about the point of a business or why we go to work every day -- that it's to make more money for our shareholders.  The hard honest truth about most day to day business workings (especially start up workings), is that we care about making money, and being profitable, but not if it means hiring a woman to do it.  Put in other terms, being profitable and successful in the monetary and business sense is not as important to us as hiring people that we want to be profitable and successful with.  Or rather, people that will by extension make us feel also profitable and successful, by the things that they do and just, maybe who they are.  Hiring and working with women will cheapen our success.  Think about it.  They're worth less. If you need proof of this, just look at our pay rolls.  We pay them less.  We employ them in portions of our company that are not as critical to our success.  That's because, as men, if we hire and promote women into positions that are critical to our success, and we are successful, our own success won't be worth as much, because we had to hire women to help us do it.

Men are worth more.  So if we hire and pay and promote more men, when we are successful, as a business, it will be because we are company of successful and worthful men. What's the point of making money if you can't belong to this club of worthful, successful men who make successful companies?

Jul 6, 2014

Tweak, Run, Repeat

One of the most frustrating things about Android development has to be the opacity around API interactions.  I'm having a lot of trouble at the moment getting a SearchView in the ActionBar to behave the way that I want it to.

Desired experience: The search bar appears as a search icon when you first open the app.  When you click the icon, it expands into a search text box which covers the entire ActionBar.  As you enter a search term, the list view contents update, magically.  If you rotate the phone, the state should be saved (search text box open with text in it, list view has the same results).

Keeping the search query around is rather trivial, but maintaining the open state of the search view has been frustrating.  And it's frustrating that it's frustrating.  There are 2 different methods I can call to show/hide the search view, one of which is called the unhelpful "setIconified".  Then there's the action modes for the ActionBar menu item, which all behave differently.  I'm not sure what's going on yet, but I'm just ... frustrated!  I can't be the first person to try to do this.  It'd be one thing if there was clear documentation around the different interactions between the different states and settings, or if the official documentation wasn't wrong or if it just worked as expected.

If you consider the time to develop a phone app as being a function of the number of times that you change the code, compile and then run the app -- debugging a problem in the Android source is developmentally expensive.  When it's my own code that I'm attempting to debug, or even not something so closely tied to the Activity creation loop, I can hit break points and spend a little more time thinking through the problem.  This bug has turned into a tweak and run time suck.

Things would be different if a re-run didn't take so long or if the API was better documented or had better control handles for manipulating the state of a collapsible action view.


*This post was written in between compile time loops*

sound reflecions: observations from SF MOMA's Soundtracks exhibit

karthik and i went to the SF MOMA today to check out the last few bits of the soundtracks exhibit. we saw this great video work that i can&...